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State of my smart home (early 2020)

Home Assistant Screenshot

I haven’t done one of these in quite awhile, mostly because the pace at which I’ve been changing my smart home setup has slowed significantly. But there have been some important updates since the last post a bit over two years ago. And, after evolving for the better part of a decade, this will all be getting completely ripped apart soon since we’re moving to a new house later this year. I figured one last look at the current setup was worthwhile.

Hardware and architecture

Home Assistant is still at the core of my setup, although some important changes have been made.

What’s new?

The biggest changes in the past couple years include:

  1. I’m no longer using a Raspberry Pi as the server for all this. It was ok, and it was a great way to get started, but the SD card died a couple times (SD cards aren’t known for server-level reliability) and it was just a bit sluggish with the amount of add-ons for Home Assistant I was starting to run. Instead I bought a used mini-PC from eBay for about $200 that has an Intel Core i5, 12 GB of RAM, and an SSD. It’s about the size of a compact DVD player. This thing is blazing fast compared to the Pi, and restarts of Home Assistant take mere seconds instead of a minute or more.
  2. I’ve migrated a lot of my automations out of the Home Assistant core and into Node-RED (post coming up about automating with Node-RED soon). Instead of writing a bunch of YAML code, I can now build a lot of automations with a visual interface. Still not for the faint of heart though; more to come on that subject.
  3. I now use the SmartThings hub as the Z-Wave device manager, instead of having a USB Z-Wave stick on the Home Assistant server. I did this because the Z-Wave management software package with Home Assistant was truly awful back in 2018, and I had a lot of trouble with adding devices and having them stay on the network. It appears to have gotten a lot better, so when I build up the network in the home later this year I plan on ditching the SmartThings hub for Z-Wave and having them directly managed by Home Assistant again.
  4. The way Home Assistant interacts with Alexa has changed. Back in 2017, I used a plugin on HA that emulated Hue lights — it made all my Z-Wave switches look like Hue lights to Alexa, because at the time that was virtually the only kind of lights that Alexa could interface with. Now, there is an official and much easier to manage integration with Alexa through Nabu Casa, which is a cloud service spun up by the makers of Home Assistant that makes integration with other cloud services (like Alexa) much easier and more reliable. It’s $5/month but well worth it for this and other reasons.

Hardware highlights

  1. I still love our Z-Wave Leviton dimmers and switches. They’ve all been rock-solid reliable, and they work like a normal switch so they don’t confuse guests.
  2. Hue bulbs continue to be a solid choice for lamps. We pair them with remotes (that we stick to a side table or something) for convenient control.
  3. We rely on our Alexa devices more and more, especially an Echo Show in the kitchen. We use it constantly to control the lights, TV, add things to the grocery list, and set timers.

I will say that aside from a couple hiccups when Home Assistant stopped responding (it is still “beta” open-source software after all) and I had to restart the server, this whole setup has been remarkably stable for over a year.

Our favorite automations

  1. “Alexa, turn on basement lights” — the one my kids (6 and 4 years) use all the time. Our basement has a lot of lighting, around 10 switches total to bring all the different kinds of lights up, so it’s much easier for them to just use their voice.
  2. Path lighting to the beer fridge — a motion sensor on the basement stairs detects someone coming down, and turns on a subset of lights between the stairs and the beer fridge in the bar area. They turn off automatically after 3 minutes if no other lights in the basement are turned on.
  3. Smart bedroom motion lights — we have two Hue bulbs in our bedroom lamps that turn on automatically when a Z-Wave motion sensor detects motion in the evening. However, sometimes one of us goes to bed early. If the Hue remote on our bedside table is used to turn the lights off, we have another automation setup that will disable the motion-on rule for the rest of the evening. That way the early-to-bed person isn’t surprised by lights turning on when the night owl comes in. This rule resets every night.
  4. “Alexa, good night” — still a favorite. Runs an Alexa Routine which in turn calls a Home Assistant script that powers down lights when we’re ready to go to bed. It delays turning off certain lights for a couple minutes so if we give the command while we’re still downstairs, we can see on our way up to the bedroom.
  5. “Alexa, turn off the TV” — using the Harmony integration, this lets us shut off the TV in the family room at the end of the kids’ show, because they’ve inevitably misplaced the remote and we just want the Wild Kratts song to. please. end. already.

What’s next?

As I mentioned, we’re moving later this year. We’re currently building a house in an urban area that will be closer to our work and social activities (lots of stuff we can do without having to get in a car) and I am baking home automation into it from the get-go. Sensors on every window and door, built-in audio/video systems, powered shades, security cameras, and of course smart switches everywhere…the works. I will be writing up or making videos on the various aspects of it as we go.

Sneak peak of my wiring cheat sheet for the first floor:

Plans-in-progress for low voltage wiring in new house

If there are particular areas of our setup that you’re curious about, leave a comment below or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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