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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).

Aeotec Z-Wave Plus 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

Leviton Decora Smart Z-Wave Dimmer

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

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

Monoprice 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.

Aeotec recessed door sensor

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.

Wiring

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.

Wrap-up

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!

12 thoughts to “A smart home from scratch: If I had to do it all over again”

  1. Lucky me, Im one of the friends that the owner of this blog is referring too! Before I get long winded I wanted to ensure I could successfully post to this article…..

  2. I would like to start out by saying that I would have been much less aggressive in pursuing home automation with Matt’s help and guidance every step of the way. A little background, I just bought a 4,300 sq ft home in the Fishers area, originally this home was built in 1988. Although the home was older the good news was that the wiring throughout the home did include the “White” neutral wire. I note this because the neutral wire is a pre-req for anyone aspiring to install the Leviton Zwave Plus switches in their home.
    When it came to ordering all the correct Leviton Zwave Plus switches it is important to note how many 3 & 4 way switches exist, understanding that will help you determine how many “remote switches” you will need to order in addition to the primary Zwave Plus switches. I personally elected to swap out all of the switches in my entire home right away, some people think thats crazy but I think it was most efficient to do it all at once. Ordering this volume of switches at the same time proved somewhat challenging because HomeDepot did not carry much stock in-store and the online orders have taken 5-7 days in some cases…..and HomeDepot did NOT carry any of the 3 or 4 way “Remote Switches” in-store or online so I had to use Amazon for all of the Leviton “Remote Switches”. Im sure Matt will be happy to post a link in this blog for anyone who wants guidance. In addition to the switches, I also ordered a mixed bag of all the other items Matt has articulated above, all of which were very easy to setup.
    I cheated on this next step…..once I had all of the hardware installed I called my buddy Matt, he came over and setup my Rasberry Pi, Home Assistant, etc and we got all of my zwave switches and plugs “associated”. We covered alot of ground in just a Saturday afternoon, although my home is not yet fully automated, it is certainly now much smarter! I purchased a bunch of Amazon Alexa (Alexa Show for Kitchen, Alexa Echo for the offices, Alexa Spot for the Master Bedroom and 2 Alexa Dots for in the Living room and Basement entertainment areas). So, even though all of my home automation logic is still being built out, at least for the time being I can ask Alexa to turn on or off Groups of lights throughout the home! Just like a fine wine, good home automation takes time. Now that the heavy lifting is done, my wife & I have been making notes which I share with Matt about the automation rules we would like to have incorporated. I will post back once everything is complete but one thing is certain, Matt is an amazing smart home guru and everyone that follows this blog stands to benefit by his knowledge and advice.

  3. Awesome write up! Thanks for the detailed product information and discussing your thought process behind selecting your top pics.

  4. Hey Matt, I really liked the info! I just bought a new home and am starting from scratch. I would like to get into automation but I am going to start small. Right now, I’m just going to start with getting the house wired. From what I’m hearing you saying, I should get a small rack mount, a power over Ethernet switch, and run wire like crazy to every part of the house. I’m debating on where to put my rack, either in my office closet or a utility room in the basement.

    Where and how much cat5 or 6 would you recommend I run? I was thinking at least 2 runs per room, with several going to the entertainment center.

  5. Thanks for the great write-up! I just recently purchased a house and am starting from scratch. The house has no extra wiring to speak of, so I will be starting from the ground up.

    My budget is pretty small right now, so I am going to start with the basics, but want to get the infrastructure in place to start slowly upgrading to a smart home. To start off, I am going to try to get Spectrum to run cable internet in to the closet of my office, and install a small rack there. From there, I’ll run Cat 6 cabling to the rest of the house through the attic. Do you have any recommendations for what to get started with?

    From what I can tell from your article, I should run plenty of extra wire, and invest in a nice Power over Ethernet rack mount switch. I plan on running several runs to my entertainment center, 1 to the kitchen, 1 or 2 to each bedroom, 1 to the living room, and 2 to the basement. I will probably run extra cable and leave it in the attic for some security cameras/lights in the future as well. What do you think?

    1. Hey David, good to hear from you! Sounds like you’re starting on the right track. If you’re planning on doing any cameras and you have the ability to run Cat 6, then yes a PoE switch would be a good buy. And definitely a wise choice on Cat6 runs to any spot with a TV — wireless just can’t compete with hardwiring when it comes to streaming video.

      Is your office closet at least somewhat centrally located? If in the future you wind up wanting to do Z-Wave for light switches and the like, it’s important to try to get the Z-Wave stick as close to the center of your home as possible, especially if the house has a large footprint. Z-Wave will mesh and hop from device to device, but long hops can get problematic so it’s best to have the controller as centralized as possible.

  6. Thanks for the great write-up.

    A few questions I’ve been thinking about:

    1. You mention in another post that you use hue emulation for all your lights. What is the advantage of emulating hue vs using the Leviton Z Wave Plus switches directly with the hub(the box says Alexa voice control is supported).
    2. Do you see Apple Homekit gaining traction? Any advantages over Z Wave Plus? Regardless, you’ve convinced me Z Wave Plus is the way to go as an established standard.
    3. If you sold your house, do you think you would leave your in wall switches with the house, or revert back to normal switches? I wonder if Smart Switches are viewed as a significant plus to home buyers.

    1. Hi Ray–

      1. Alexa can’t talk directly to Z-Wave devices. The Leviton box you saw may have been for the WiFi version of their switch, which DOES support direct integration with Alexa. For z-wave, you always have to have some other controller/hub (in my case it’s Home Assistant with a Z-Wave stick) that can, in some way, interface with Alexa. My method of doing that is to use a Home Assistant plugin that fakes everything like it’s a Hue bulb. There are slightly more sophisticated methods now available that I need to check out.

      2. HomeKit is definitely doing better than it was…the removal of a hardware encryption requirement really jump started the platform, which was about to die because no one was adopting it. The thing about HomeKit is that (1) it’s the most limited platform out there, in terms of both device choice and level of control (programmability), so if you’re trying to use HomeKit as your main brain you’re going to run into some barriers pretty quickly, and (2) it runs on top of WiFi, and I still have concerns about dozens and dozens of devices on a WiFi network even with the better routers available today.

      3. Great question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a bit. So has my friend, who recently put $5k+ into smart-ifying his home, most of that being light switches. I suspect for many buyers, the switches by themselves (while a large investment when setting up our smart home) aren’t really doing to sway the purchase decision/price. Because without being integrated into a complete system, they’re not of any value to most people. However, you can’t exactly leave behind your whole system, because today’s smart home systems are too tied into our personal identities — the Echo devices (and thus the smart devices they’re paired with) are tied to my Amazon account. SmartThings hub is tied to a person’s account. So none of these things are easily “Transferrable” to a new home owner. They would almost have to start over and rebuild the “network” of smart devices you left behind. Ironically, the least consumer-friendly option I have (Home Assistant on my Raspberry Pi) would probably be the easiest thing to transfer, because it’s the least cloud-dependent, but it still has a lot of rules baked into it that are very personalized to my family, and our specific phones, for example. So would the switches be valuable to a prospective buyer? Probably not, by and large. Maybe only if, on some off chance, the person looking at buying your house was into/wanted to get into home automation and just happened to have/be considering a system that was compatible with your light switches.

  7. Thanks for the great write up!

    I’ve been using SmartThings with numerous Z-Wave devices for quite a while and their down times and the occasional lag is really starting to annoy me as I’ve noticed it’s happening more and more. I’ve recently attempted to use Home Assistant (using the RPi3 Hass.io image) and ran into a bit of a snag. Upon doing some research, I’m pretty sure my issue has something to do with either my switches or the OpenZWave package that it uses. I’ve been testing with two of my Z-Wave switches which are both Leviton DZS15-1LZ. Hass has no problem with inclusion of them and controlling them directly. In fact I’m amazed at how quick it turns on/off the switch when I click the option to do so.

    The problem is when I use the switch physically. When I press the switch, it doesn’t update on the Hass dashboard. So if the light is off, if I hit the switch physically, the light turns on but the dashboard still shows the light as being off. For now I’ve turned polling down to 30 seconds and enabled polling_intensity to 1 on those switches. But of course this is more of a band-aid as it takes up to 30 seconds to detect that the switch has been turned on. I have a slight problem with this because I will eventually be adding other switches, one which I would like to set an automation to trigger a lamp module to turn on/off with it. Obviously with this setup/configuration, it would take up to 30 seconds to turn on the lamp module.

    My question is, does the Leviton Decora Smart Z-Wave Plus that you mention have this issue with Hass? I’m guessing that it doesn’t considering you mentioned you’ve tried out many switches and came to the conclusion that these work best. I only have 4 switches and the lamp module as I’ve been slowly rolling out my home automation so thankfully it won’t be the end of the world if I decide to swap out the switches.

    1. Carl, I don’t have that issue with my new Z-Wave Plus Levitons. Sometimes there’s a *slight* delay in reporting (a few seconds), but it’s often instantaneous. I *do* have the problem you describe with my very old Linear z-wave switches, which are not Z-Wave Plus.

      The Leviton DZS15-1LZ you have is not a Plus device, so I’m guessing that’s why you’re having the issue. I would recommend going with all Z-Wave Plus devices if you can.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I would imagine the Plus devices are much better. Might wind up buying one to at least test it out.

        I kind of figured the Plus devices would be better, especially with signaling. Although I did some more testing. I removed the polling_intensity but left the polling frequency set to 30 seconds. After restarting I tested it out and it did EVENTUALLY update the dashboard, but it took up to 2 mins. At first I thought maybe it could be an issue with my SmartThings Z-wave network and HA Z-wave networking clashing, but wasn’t exactly keen on just migrating everything over and crossing my fingers hoping that was the case. Instead I decided to try out OpenHAB2. It’s able to detect the status change of the physical press of the switch within a second or two. So now I’m not really sure what the issue is. I prefer Home Assistant over OpenHAB, especially for dealing with building rules/automation. Not really sure where I’m going to go from here.

  8. Hi,
    Thank you for posting this in depth article. I too started several years ago on home automation and have tried various devices and platforms. I agree on most of your recommendations but wanted to highlight that cost is a big issue for some people when it comes to home automation. Considering the number of devices you may need for a large home, the cost can add up quickly. I would recommend for you to look into Xiaomi and Zooz devices. The price for sensors and smart plugs are 1/3 compared to the competition. I also try to keep everything off the cloud and incorporated mainly z wave and zigbee network. The zigbee is powered by Xiaomi hub and I found it work great considering how cost effective that platform is. Anyways, send me an email of you want to exchange some ideas as I also have HASSIO running on raspberry pi.

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