Home Automation: A Modern Tower of Babel

A little while back, I blogged about the fact that broadband internet in our neck of the Netherlands is like a piece of wet string. In trying to drum up local support for improving the situation, I’ve been looking into scenarios where real broadband internet (that is, speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and preferably 20+ Mbps) are going to be required.

From a purely selfish perspective, I’m uncomfortably aware that given my age, there’s going to come a time when I may need to depend on healthcare services delivered through broadband internet direct to our home. One of the aspects of such services is support for home automation (or Domotica, as it’s often called here in the Netherlands). While HA is usually thought about in terms of ease, security and energy efficiency, there’s also a healthcare aspect to it as well. For example, remote monitoring can allow patients with dementia to continue to live at home in the environment that they are comfortable with.

So I thought that I should start exploring the possibilities of HA for our home. I’d start simple, for example, have certain lights come on at around sunset, and turn off at midnight, or install a motion sensor in our driveway to get early warning when we have visitors; and at night the sensor could also turn on lights for the driveway. That would in turn be a convenience for visitors and a deterrent for intruders.

Of course, these simple scenarios could be realised with a few timers and lights controlled by motion sensors, but the real advantages start to come when individual items are linked together into a system. An individual neuron doesn’t do much – intelligence is the emergent property that arises out of the interconnection between billions of them. While I’m not looking to build a brain, a flexible method of controlling the environment and security of our house would be nice.

However, when I started researching the technologies available for Home Automation, I soon realised that there’s a dog’s breakfast of competing products and standards out there. Some have been around for years. The X10 standard for example was developed in 1975, and while popular and used by an installed base of millions of devices, is beginning to show its age and limitations. Other newer products, while technically impressive, rely on proprietary technology unique to the vendor. Examples are the Insteon or the Loxone systems. Navigating through the shoals of reefs and whirlpools of Home Automation was not going to be an easy matter. As the Automated Home site says:

There are a multitude of Home Automation systems available, from budget plugin modules that are easily retro-fitted into existing properties, to professionally designed bespoke installations that require a CI (customer installer or integrator) and structured wiring at time of build.

I think I can forget about the professionally designed bespoke installations with their structured wiring – I’m going to be looking at something that can be retro-fitted easily into our farmhouse. That means that I’ll be looking at wireless systems as much as possible. I’d also prefer to go for products that share a modern de facto standard, rather than rely on a single vendor. As a result, I’ve decided that devices that implement the Z-Wave wireless communications protocol are probably my best bet, given that Z-Wave is supported by over 250 manufacturers worldwide.

I’ve started small, and invested in one switchable power plug (the Fibaro Wall Plug) and a motion sensor (the Everspring SP103) – both Z-Wave devices.

The next step is to make a choice about the controller for the HA system. Once again, there is a wide range of possibilities here. I could buy an off-the-shelf unit such as the Fibaro Home Center 2, the Zipato ZipaBox, a VeraEdge controller, or a HomeSeer controller. Or I could buy just the controller software, such as HomeSeer, and install it on a PC or a Rasberry Pi box. There are also open source projects for Home Automation software, such as HomeGenie and Domoticz.

I’m still exploring the possibilities here. I’ve come across a few issues so far. For example, while the Fibaro Home Center 2 looks good on paper, judging from the user support forum, Fibaro are struggling to deliver a stable version of the controller software. The ZipaBox relies on a Cloud service to provide much of the controller functionality, and that’s a design choice that I personally would be less comfortable with. The HomeSeer software has been around for a while, and is now in its third generation. That does mean that it is very comprehensive; it can control a wide range of Home Automation hardware – far more than I would ever need or use. It also has a wide range of third-party plugins. However, its user interface can best be described as old-school utilitarian. There is an additional software product that can be used to design custom user interfaces for smartphones and tablets. And the HomeSeer software strikes me as being pricey: $249.95 for the basic version of the controller software and $199.95 for the UI designer software. If I were to go with HomeSeer, it would probably make more sense for me to buy the basic (linux-based) HomeTroller Zee controller at $199.95.

So I’ll probably spend the next month or two trying out some of the controller software that’s available for Z-Wave networks, and hanging out in the user support forums to read about the experiences of others who are using controllers, both packaged and software-only solutions. Watch this space.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
This entry was posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Home Automation: A Modern Tower of Babel

  1. ottomate says:

    Looking forward to hearing how you get on with Z-Wave Geoff. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Home Automation Revisited | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  3. Pingback: Bumps in the Road to the Internet of Things | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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