Home Automation Revisited

Back in January, I wrote about putting my toe into the waters of Home Automation. As I said at the time, there’s a bewildering array of products and standards out there. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been taking a look at some of the HA solutions out there, and I think I’ve landed on one that seems to fulfil my requirements pretty well.

I had decided back in January that my solution would be one that used Z-Wave, and that’s still the case. I’ve been able to purchase Z-Wave HA devices from several different manufacturers, and they interoperate as promised. I’m satisfied that the choice of Z-Wave is a good one for me.

As I said in January, there is a wide range of possibilities in the choice of the controller for a HA system. 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.

In the end, I decided not to purchase an off-the-shelf unit. Fibaro still seem to be struggling to deliver a stable version of their latest software for the Home Center 2, and not being able to trial the other hardware products meant that purchasing one would be a gamble. It seemed to me that a better approach would be to trial a software solution, using an existing computer.

I ended up taking a look at the following software solutions:

The first two are commercial products, the rest are open source projects, funded by donations.

For my testing, I purchased a variety of devices:

With the devices installed, and included in the ZWave network (registered in the ZStick controller), I connected the ZStick to a variety of software controllers in turn…

HomeSeer has been around for a while. That means it’s comprehensive (it can control a wide range of devices using a variety of standards), and it has a wide range of third-party add-ons. However, it still strikes me as being expensive: $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. I installed the trial software of HomeSeer version 3, and used it for a week or two. It worked, and the diagnostic information was copious. However, the interface struck me simultaneously as being rather basic, and yet somewhat complex in places. I decided not to proceed further with HomeSeer.

I admit I only took a cursory look at both Charmed Quark and OpenHAB. I found both difficult to set up, and got the impression that I would spend more time fiddling with them than using them. OpenHAB, in particular, seemed aimed at programmers and developers, rather than end-users at this stage. As a result, I moved on.

HomeGenie is also something that will delight programmers and developers at the moment. Nonetheless, I was able to get it up and running very easily on Windows, and it works well. Here’s the “dashboard” that I see for the devices I currently have in my HA network:

HomeGenie 06

It’s primarily the result of the efforts of one developer, and he’s done a very good job. It’s still at a fairly early stage, so, for example, if you want to develop automated control of your devices, you will find yourself very rapidly at the limit of what the built-in “Wizards” are capable of, and have to turn to grown-up programming to get the job done. That’s all very well, if that’s your thing, but it’s really not what I want to do any more. I made a donation to the project, because I appreciate what has been achieved, and I hope it continues to develop. There’s a small (around 350 members) community forum where ideas are exchanged and bugs highlighted for solving. I could certainly make use of HomeGenie, if there were not other, and for my purposes, better solutions available.

Domoticz is another open-source project, and while it is primarily led by one developer, there are others actively involved, and the community forum is large (around 3,270 members) and active. Domoticz and HomeGenie are similar in many ways, but there are a few differences, which can be both strengths and weaknesses, depending on where you stand. Here’s the Domoticz dashboard:

Domoticz 18

The strength of Domoticz is its maturity; it already has solutions and support for a lot of hardware. In particular, it supports the reading and display of data supplied by our “Smart Meter” for our gas and electricity consumption. With the simple purchase of a cable, I was able to connect our smart meter to the Domoticz system and get real-time graphs of our energy consumption. Here’s what I see for our electricity usage:

Domoticz 16

It not only records our consumption (blue), but also the electricity generated by our solar panels (green) that is returned to the electricity grid. Gas consumption can also be tracked:

Domoticz 17

HomeGenie, at the moment, does not have this connection to Smart Meters built-in. The programmatic interfaces are there, and such an interface could be built, but I’m not the one to do it.

For me, the strength of HomeGenie is that it is a complete solution, in that the developer has written software to control Z-Wave devices directly. Domoticz, on the other hand, hands off the control of Z-Wave devices to another piece of software, developed by a separate open source project: Open-ZWave. That means that there is the chance of issues arising out of effects caused by the fact that there are two different software components developed by two different groups. I’ve already come across an issue with my Z-Wave sensors, which may be caused by a bug in Domoticz, a bug in Open-ZWave, or some combination of the two.

Nonetheless, I can live with that issue, and the quirk that the Fibaro wall plugs don’t always show the correct status in Domoticz. There are two reasons for this:

  • The fact that I can track our energy consumption directly in Domoticz (as shown above), and
  • the fact that Domoticz supports Blockly for building automation programs.

Think of Blockly as Lego for programming. It’s wonderfully easy to use, and I’ve already programmed the motion sensors on the driveway and by the front door to turn on the outside lights if someone comes along during the hours of darkness (which have been defined, using Blockly and a “virtual device” in Domoticz that I defined: IsDark):

Domoticz 19

Domoticz 20

So for the moment, I’m going to stick with Domoticz for our Home Automation system, with HomeGenie held in reserve as my fallback position.

And while I tested both on Windows, both Domoticz and HomeGenie are available for the Raspberry Pi. I’ve also stuck my toe into the waters of using a Raspberry Pi, and Domoticz is currently running very happily on it. But that’s the subject of another post, I think…

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.
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19 Responses to Home Automation Revisited

  1. Interesting; back in the 1980s I was an electrical control systems engineer with Siemens. At that time, industrial controls were mostly mechanical: relays, contactors, timers, etc. Programmable controllers were very new and expensive. At that time, just as now, there were competing standards for hooking stuff up to the controllers; customers pushed vendors into defining some standards. Now I suppose the same process will happen with home automation. I won’t buy until it is clear which vendor-independent standard will win because I dislike being locked into one vendor.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Agreed, that’s why I went with ZWave. There are over 250 manufacturers producing devices and components that implement this wireless communication standard for HA.

  2. Matt Healy says:

    Do you know how well Z-Wave deals with an environment with lots of RF noise? My residence is a condominium in a large building of them; from where I sit I can see about a dozen WiFi access points including moline. Some gadgets work OK here; some don’t

    .WiFi is pretty good at handling the interference, though I recall reading once the late Steve Jobs had to ask everbody in the room at some demo to please turn off their WiFi hotspots because with over 200 of them in the room they were jamming his demo!

    Of course, I’ve got WPA2 encryption turned on; does Z-Wave have encryption? Wouldn’t want anybody driving by to access my devices…

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Matt, from the Wikipedia article: “Z-Wave operates in the sub-gigahertz frequency range, around 900 MHz. This band competes with some cordless telephones and other consumer electronics devices, but avoids interference with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other systems that operate on the crowded 2.4 GHz band”. What would happen if you live in an environment that is saturated with Z-Wave devices, I don’t know. I’ve not heard of issues, but then I haven’t actively looked for them – I don’t need to, since I live in the middle of nowhere.

      As for security, yes Z-Wave has it. This is an interesting article on attack vectors:
      http://blog.opensecurityresearch.com/2013/07/potential-attack-vectors-against-z-wave.html
      The conclusion seems to be that it is theoretically possible, but no-one seems to have done it as yet.

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  4. Matt Healy says:

    Was your power affected by Friday’s blackout?

  5. Marcel says:

    I’m working on a HomeGenie Smart meter widget and have a working prototype if you want to try it out.

  6. Christophe says:

    Any reason for not considering Jeedom ?

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      a) I wasn’t aware of it when I was looking at various products.
      b) My French is practically non-existent, and large swathes of the documentation is in French as far as I can see.
      c) The English forum is not very active – by contrast, even though Domoticz was started by a Dutch developer, the English-speaking forum is very active.

      If I were French, then I expect I would have reached a different decision, but I’m still happy with Domoticz, and thanks for asking.

  7. Jack says:

    Hi Geoff,

    I found you via the domoticz site.
    I am struggling with my windows pfone and the domoticz app. do you have it running allready?
    There is connection but then I can not do annything.
    The midlle button for settings stay gray.
    Further compliments for nyour website..looks great.

    Greatszzz,

    Jack

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hi Jack, I’m having the same problem with the Windows Phone app. I can’t get it working. Instead, I’m just using the mobile web site of Domoticz via my Windows Phone. Cheers.

  8. Jack says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I think we will get an update very soon.
    After a post in the domoticz forum there was a reaction from the developer.
    He changed some things and is testing now.

    Greetszzzz

  9. Jack says:

    For me it works now

  10. Roland says:

    Hello Geoff,

    I’m currently starting my home automation project. I have some colleagues that are using a Fibaro HC2 and are very happy with it. I also planned to buy a HC2. But I already gave a basic try to Domoticz, without any real z-wave hardware, and it was working easy (installed on FreeNas). So I have some doubts, going further and start for real with Domoticz and buy a USB z-wave device or start with a Fibaro HC2.

    My doubts:
    + Fibaro
    – The Fibaro has an easy accept at home factor with easy iPhone/iPad app;
    – The Fibaro has a good support for all Fibaro (and other) hardware;
    – The Fibaro looks to be easier to configure.

    + Domoticz
    – The Fibaro is very expensive, it’s nice when I’m able to invest more in z-wave devices and less in the controller;
    – With the usb z-wave device and Domoticz i’m able to get a z-wave plus solution.

    Any suggestions? What about the iOS apps for Domoticz, what is comparable with Fibaro and easy to use for all home users? And what about the hardware and firmware updates, is it just as easy to update the firmware from a Fibaro device, like the smoke detector, from Domoticz as from a HC2?

    Thanks,
    Roland

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Roland, your decision probably boils down to whether you feel more comfortable buying an off-the-shelf solution (the HC2), or building your own, using open source software produced by a community of enthusiasts (Domoticz).

      I went for the latter, because at the time when I was looking, the Fibaro support forums were full of angry customers complaining about the quality of the software running in the HC2, and this had been going on for some time. I had also come across reviews which mentioned that the HC2 runs hot, which raised a warning flag for me. I don’t know whether Fibaro has managed to get a grip on the quality of their software development, perhaps you could take a look at the forums to see for yourself, and come to your own conclusion.

      There are always pros and cons in the comparison of functionality between the two systems as well. For example, you can easily upgrade the firmware of Fibaro devices using the HC2 – that function is not in Domoticz (though it’s been asked for). So far I’ve not felt the need to update any of my devices’ firmware, but it would be nice to be able to do this if necessary. On the other hand, the Domoticz software is more flexible than that of the HC2. It’s easy enough to get started and build event triggers using Blockly, but there is also full scripting available if required.

      I don’t use iOS or Android, so I can’t comment on the apps available.

      I’m still very happy with my choice for Domoticz, but as I say, it’s down to you to decide…

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