Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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The Evolution of the Smart Home

I have always been a smart home enthusiast, even before that was a thing. I remember being no more than 14 years old and my brother going to Radio Shack (RIP) and picking up some X10 switches and a controller. For those that don’t know, X10 is a type of home automation protocol that sends radio signals to each other using the electrical lines in your house. Back then if you wanted to do home automation you would choose between X10 and something that was ungodly expensive that required hard wiring to each switch. Impossible unless you were building a house from the ground up.

X10 Devices from Wikipedia

Anyway, back to my brother. So Radioshack, X10 devices, and his room. See my brother had a room that was the coolest teenager room you had ever seen. Not only did it have a full blown balcony overlooking the golf course and the pool, but it also had a spiral staircase down to the pool, which in our home had a diving board and a slide, so imagine your teenage bedroom having a direct line down to an oasis of fun. So since he had this balcony, he wanted the ability to turn off and on the balcony light without leaving the comfort of his bed. After all when you are 17 walking 3 steps is too much when you can do something while laying in bed. This is where my interest began. I thought “When I get my own house, its going to be the smartest home ever!”

To install these X10 switches, all you had to do was change the lighting switch and set the dials to a unique code. The top dial had letters and the bottom dials had numbers. So the first switch you would set to “A-1” and the next would be “A-2”. Just like that my brother had a smart home room. I never got to that level of smartness in my room. The most I Had was a modified car alarm that I had spliced and diced to function like my room alarm, so you would walk up to my door, press the key chain and hear the disarming sound of a car alarm. Comical but truly functional. It even had a little blinking red light outside the door frame. Because you know, gotta keep the room safe from the parentals and little sisters.

Fast forward years later (2006-ish) and my company (I am now an IT engineer) moves me to Houston, TX. Our house there was a brand new home. We didn’t spec it out so I didn’t get the chance to make it “smart”. So one of the first things I ordered was a ridiculous amounts of X10 devices from X10.com. It allowed me to make my home “smart” without running wires and on the cheap. I replaced as many light switches on the first floor as I could with X10 switches. All the exterior lights and living area lights, the landscape lights, etc.

Our Texas Home we purchased in 2006

I also wanted to control the lighting with the computer and have timers. The way this was done was placing an X10 Controller near my computer (it goes plugged into the wall) with a USB cable going to my desktop. This way each light had a different timer and would turn on at the set schedule (most of the time). The reason I saw most of the time is due to the fact that X10 sends off a radio signal to the light and it’s job is done. X10 was a one way signal so it would not wait to see if the light switch or device actually turned on. So there were times where the computer would say the lights were on, but they were not. Kinda frustrating sometimes but “good enough” most of the time.

X10 USB Controller

That X10 system lasted for many years. It always seemed to fail when I was out of town but 85/90% of the time, it worked. It did what I needed and it was my only option due to cost and the fact that I was not going to tear apart my walls to run wiring. I sold that house in 2010 and “survived” without home automation over the course of the next 6 years. This is because we were in between homes due to moving to different states. We finally settled in our new home in 2016 and guess what one of my first home improvement projects was? Home Automation! But not X10. Hell No.

Next Generation Home Automation

So once we get into our new home and convince my CFO (My wife) that after putting money down on a house, spending thousands on moving and painting and everything else that goes on, that I was going to spend over $1,000 to make lights turn on. She mumbled something and I took that as a YES! Off to Amazon I was without even wondering if my request was approved (which I am pretty sure it wasn’t) and began looking around, doing research and figuring out what I was going to buy.

At this point the home automation world wasn’t about X10. It was about Z-Wave or ZigBee. Security systems had started leveraging home automation as a way to stay relevant. Vivint was the best system on the market that was primarily a Security System but acted as a “Smart Home Hub” because it had Z-Wave and ZigBee radios built in. (My review on Vivint + Security Systems coming soon!). After reading the pros and cons of both, and what was being leveraged more widely, I decided to go with Z-Wave.

The beginning of my current smart home

I ordered 3 ZOOM! ZWave Switches from Amazon. Toggle type. I also ordered a Raspberry Pi and a Aeotec Z-Stick. Why these components? Let me explain. In the world of X10 there was the controller pictured above and the switches/modules you purchase. In the world of Z-Wave you also need a controller that is going to send the signals out to the switches. Today a popular controller is Samsung Smart Things or Hubitat. These are small little controllers you place in your house. They are linked to software in the cloud, like Samsung Smart Things and leverage their software to run everything. You open an app on your phone which connects to SmartThings Cloud which then sends signals to the device in your house which then controls your switches. This is the easy, out of the box way. But I’m too good for that easy stuff. So I decide to build my own. The Raspberry Pi is a small microcomputer that is very inexpensive. It can be used for a large number of things but in this case I needed to use it as a Z-Wave controller. To do that I used an open source software called Home Assistant.

Home.Assistant.omg

Home Assistant. Oh Home Assistant, what can I say? What a great platform that is truly incredible for an Open Source Platform that runs locally (Not in the cloud). However, the point of home automation is to make your life easier. Home Assistant made my life a whole lot more complicated for a while, then it got easier, until it wasn’t. See I used Home Assistant in the earlier days. So after the painful setup, because it is all text based configuration (Thanks to Bruh Home Automation) to create schedules for each line, I had to login to a command line and open a YAML file, which is a TXT file and write a bunch of lines for my patio light. Then the same for my foyer light. I have over 30 ZWave devices. So imagine my wife telling me a few of the lights are not turning on at the right time. Not ideal!

Sample YAML File from Home Assistant


I remain a fan of Home Assistant, if I was a single guy that had loads of time. It is incredible that this is an open source project and it continues to get better. For my life, I just need stuff that works and that the family can configure if something goes wrong. For that reason a year after I started using Home Assistant, I went to Home Depot and purchased a Samsung Smart Things.

Samsung (Not So) Smart Things

So after feeling like I took the easy way out by purchasing a Smart Things, I took it out of the box, plugged it in, enrolled it using the easy method described and I was up and running. I proceeded to add each switch in my home and guess what? I had automations, scenes, and routines created within minutes. I gave my wife the app and she was then able to make light schedules, modify as needed, and it didn’t involve me at all. Score! So why did I call it the Samsung (Not So) Smart Things. Well, as most of my posts, I am going to mention the shortcomings.

The Smart Things platform missed a few big integration points. For example, to integrate with a Nest Thermostat, I had to use someone’s custom device handler. This involved messing with code and a confusing installation process that I (a PHP coder, IT Professional and no stranger to the command line) found confusing. Additionally, the platform is hit or miss in alot of ways. There are times where my devices vanish or are unresponsive. There are times where there is a several second delay between the time you click ON in the app and the light turns on.

That being said, even though its far from perfect, Samsung Smart Things get’s the job done. It took my Smart Home from my little pet project to a tool we leverage for our daily life. With integration into Amazon Echo, the Smart Things skill allows us to control 50+ devices in my home, including our home shower.

I am tempted to try Hubitat, but if I do, you can read about it here.

Noel Lacayohttp://www.noellacayo.com
With an IT career spanning over 20 years, Noel Lacayo has a unique perspective on the technology field and has deep understanding of the complexities around enterprise technology. Starting as a Technology Support Group Associate (United Parcel Service) all the way to Regional IT Manager for a large multinational trading firm, he has had exposure to a diverse set of environments, managed multi-million dollar projects, and recruited and held top IT talent. The development side of his career took off during his tenure has Founder and President of classbyte.com, a course training software that he developed and later grew to be one of the largest CPR course management platforms in the world. Classbyte.com was acquired in 2014 by TrainingCenter911.com Today Noel is a Sr. Solutions Engineer, for VMWare (VMW), one of the most innovative companies in the technology sector today with nearly 10 billion dollars in revenue, where he uses his vast experience in IT as a way to assist customers on their digital transformation journeys on the VMware SDDC stack and it’s surrounding products.

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