A smart home from scratch: If I had to do it all over again
I’ve been tinkering with smart home tech for over six years, so my house has undergone some…evolutions to get to its current state. Lately I’ve been helping some friends get their smart homes started from scratch, and that — plus a question a reader sent in — has gotten me thinking about what I would do if I were to do it all over again.
So this post will be a combination of product recommendations and tactics, as if I were to start my smart home from scratch today. And since I am helping a friend build up his smart home right now, this is pretty much exactly what we’re doing for him.
The brain: Home Assistant
Perhaps unsurprisingly if you ever read this blog, I would go with a Raspberry Pi running Home Assistant (specifically the Hass.io variant) to be the brains of the automation system. It offers ultimate control and customizability, and if a smart home product is possible to integrate with at all, Home Assistant can probably do it.
While it’s getting friendlier, Home Assistant is still very technical…a close runner up would be a SmartThings hub, which offers a lot of capability with less tinkering.
Primary device communication tech: Z-Wave Plus
As I alluded to in my Introduction to Home Assistant article, there are several competing communication technologies when it comes to smart home tech: Z-Wave (these days Z-Wave Plus), Zigbee, WiFi, and (to a lesser extent) Bluetooth.
I have devices using all of these technologies, and for our smart home that we’re assembling from scratch I’m going with Z-Wave Plus for “integrated” devices — things like switches, door sensors, motion sensors, plug modules, that sort of thing. It’s robust, reliable, and works without depending on your Internet connection (at least if you’re using a fully local controller like Home Assistant), and doesn’t interfere with your WiFi. To control them I’d select the Aeotec Gen5 Z-Stick (I’ve found it to have better range than the Nortek combo Zigbee/Z-Wave USB stick).
Z-Wave Plus devices are relatively new, so you have to be careful not to mix older non-plus Z-Wave devices in; if you do so, you’ll lose some of the advantages of the Z-Wave Plus mesh network, mainly the speed/responsiveness. I currently have a mix of older Z-Wave devices and some newer Z-Wave Plus, and I sometimes see a bit of lag when I send commands to the switches; in my friend’s home, since we’re starting from scratch, we’re going all Z-Wave Plus, and the responsiveness is blazing fast.
Of course not everything you’re going to tie in will be Z-Wave; some things will be WiFi as well, and that’s ok. But if you have a choice, like with light switches…I’d go with Z-Wave Plus.
Light switches: Leviton Decora Smart Z-Wave Plus
A large amount of my home automation involves lighting, so after the brain the next most important hardware consideration for me is light switches. This is also where the majority of the budget is spent (at nearly $50 a switch), so it’s critical to get this right…so of course I failed a few times!
After testing many different brands of switches (GE, Linear, HomeSeer, Lutron, and others), I believe I have finally found the ultimate smart home switch: the Leviton Decora Smart Z-Wave Plus line. I reviewed a WiFi version of these switches recently, and while I (mostly) loved the physical design and performance, I wasn’t wild about the fact that they depended on the Leviton cloud service to work, and had ugly branding on them to boot.
The Z-Wave version of these switches addresses both of my main concerns with the WiFi version, and makes this switch a clear winner. I have installed a number of these myself, and have recently helped a colleague outfit his entire house with them (a LOT of them), and they are fantastic performers. We’ve done 3- and 4-way circuits with them without issue, every one of them has paired to the controller on the first try, and they are highly configurable — ramp/dim rate, load type (incandescent, CFL, LED), status LED behavior are all things you can set to your liking.
Also, when buying smart switches, I would put dimmers on just about everything — essentially everything that’s dimmable. With the exception of things like under cabinet LED lights and some exterior lights, that’s virtually every light in my house. Why? Well, the cost difference between the smart dimmers and switches is negligible, and having dimming capability just gives you so much more flexibility when it comes to setting up lighting scenes. We take advantage of being able to set all sorts of lights to different levels all the time.
Lamps: GE Z-Wave Plus lamp module OR Phillips Hue (in certain situations)
For table/floor lamps, I’d go with a dimmable plug-in lamp module like this new GE Z-Wave Plus one. It’s on the pricey side compared to more basic WiFi smart plugs, but it has two plugs (so if you can centrally locate it behind a couch or something you could connect two lamps to it) and it’s dimmable, which is very rare with WiFi smart plugs for some reason.
Phillips Hue bulbs are also a decent option for lamps, especially if you already have a Hue hub or if you have a situation where you want to be able to control lights from a remote (see this article). But if you don’t already have a Hue hub, I’d stick with the dimmable plug modules.
I prefer a plug module approach for lamps as opposed to fully integrated smart outlets. Smart outlets just aren’t very easily portable if you decide to rearrange your furniture.
Plugs (non-lamp): TP-Link WiFi smart plugs
For anything that plugs into the wall that isn’t a lamp, you just need basic on/off control (no dimming). Here’s one area where I’m ok with WiFi devices, just because they’re cheaper than their Z-Wave counterparts and there’s no discernible performance advantage of the Z-Wave competitors. There are tons of cheap options out there, and you might be able to get away with the no-name “Four WiFi smart plugs for $30” deals, but I only have used the TP-Links. TP-Link makes the HS100 (I did a review of that one) and HS110, the latter being a more compact/newer version of the former. Both perform the same, and you can usually find these in the $20-$30 range.
Motion sensors: Monoprice Z-Wave Plus Multisensor
I have a mishmash of motion sensors, but if I were to do it all over again I’d get these Monoprice multisensors. These great little sensors not only detect motion, but can also provide your system with information about ambient light level, temperature, and humidity, giving you more data points to work with when creating automation rules. They’re also smaller than most other motion sensors, and they take normal AAA batteries — not some unusual (expensive) battery that I never have on hand, like some of my older sensors.
The only caveat with these is that by default, they have a really obnoxious set of red and blue LEDs that flash periodically, which can be really distracting in a dark environment like a bedroom. Fortunately, it’s easy to turn them off by setting a config parameter.
Door sensors: Monoprice Z-Wave Plus door sensor or Aeotec Recessed Z-Wave Plus door sensor
The Monoprice door sensor is a classic design with two pieces that you stick on the door and door frame. It works well, it’s inexpensive, and it’s relatively compact.
If you want something invisible and are willing to spend more/do more installation work, you can go with the Aeotec recessed sensor. I bought one of these to use on my front door, for example, because I don’t want a door sensor “wart” cluttering up the nice trim in our foyer.
TV/Entertainment control: Logitech Harmony Hub and Roku
While there are certainly more sophisticated ways to integrate your TV with your home automation system, I think this is the easiest/most user-friendly combo for most people. This setup lets you fire up your TV/control the Roku via automations from Home Assistant, but still gives you a relatively traditional fallback method (i.e. a normal remote) to control things too.
I like the Harmony Hub with Harmony Smart Remote — this is just about the simplest remote Logitech sells for any of their hub systems, but I prefer it to the crazier ones with touch screens and lighting controls. So while that remote gives you traditional TV remote capabilities, the Harmony Hub can also be integrated with Home Assistant, so you can start things via automations; for example, you could have your TV turn on and tune to a news channel when you detect motion in the kitchen in the morning. I can give a voice command to Alexa in my family room to fire up my Xbox in the basement (which all goes through Home Assistant), so that it’s fully booted up by the time I get down there.
The Roku is the weapon of choice here because it is the most universally compatible streaming device — it has more streaming apps than any other platform — and it manages to stay out of the spats between the big boys (for example, Google is mad at Amazon right now so currently there’s no YouTube app on Fire TVs). And as an added bonus, the Roku allows more sophisticated control/commands from external devices. Using the Logitech Alexa integration, I can specifically tell Alexa to start Netflix or PBS Kids for example, and you can have it setup to actually switch the Roku directly into that app when it fires up. I have pretty much all the streaming boxes — various generations of Apple TVs, FireTVs, Xboxes, and Chromecasts — and the Roku is the best bang for the buck when it comes to capability and integrations.
Yes, I know you can actually start specific shows via voice command if you use something like Google Chromecast combined with a Google Home. But what I don’t like about Chromecast is that it always has to be controlled via your phone or voice. There’s no traditional remote control fallback option, like in the setup I’m describing here. The Harmony remote is really nice, and there’s something about having a physical button for volume and mute that just can’t be replaced. It’s way more friendly for guests, too.
Voice control: Toss-up between Alexa and Google Home
These two ecosystems are innovating so fast it’s hard to pick a winner, because the other horse will probably pull ahead next month. I’m preparing a more in-depth article about choosing between these two, but for now my choice is Alexa — we have six Echos and one Google Home in our house. The short version is Alexa works well with the Harmony setup I described above, the Echo devices physically look nice, and frankly we prefer saying “Alexa” rather than begging Google to turn on our lights. However, Google Home has its own advantages, and this is a much more in-depth conversation than will fit into this post.
If I were truly starting from scratch — like with a new home build, or a complete renovation — I would pull a lot more ethernet cable than I have in my current home. While a lot of smart home devices are wireless, there are two main reasons I would pay careful attention to ethernet runs: cameras and optimal WiFi access point placement.
I’ve been wanting to put a couple of PoE (Power over Ethernet) cameras on the exterior of my home for awhile now — one by the garage and one on the front porch. But I don’t have ethernet runs anywhere near those locations. The backup solution would be to just get a WiFi camera and plug it into a power outlet, but there aren’t power outlets conveniently located where I want to mount the cameras either. Having the opportunity to pull new wiring, I would ensure there are ethernet runs near every exterior door at a minimum.
As for WiFi access point placement, I would want to run ethernet to the ceiling near the center of each level of the house, so I could place something like a Unifi access point discreetly on the ceiling at the best possible location to provide WiFi coverage. Our home has a very open first floor, and the only places I can stick WiFi access points are along the outer walls of the house — not ideal. It mostly works but it could be better with ceiling-mounted APs.
So if I were to start today, those are the products I would select to power my smart home. If you have questions or think I missed an important category, comment below!