What is the best home automation system?
More than likely, if you are reading this page, you have a particular requirement, desire, need or problem that you are hoping home automation will be able to satisfy or solve.
Or perhaps you are just curious as to what a smart home has to offer.
That’s usually how it starts… At least that’s how it started for me many years ago when I first connected a “Clapper” to my bedside lamp. Clap your hands; lamp turns on. Clap them again; lamp turns off. Magic… I was hooked!
Home automation has come a long way since the humble days of the Clapper. There is a lot more choice of different home automation technologies and products, all claiming to be the best home automation system – but of course they can’t ALL be the best!
The truth is, each “smart” system has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you are just starting out in home automation, deciphering which smart home system is right for your needs can be a little daunting. We are here to help.
Which home automation technology is right for me?
When choosing products, we all find different features and functionality important. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t have over 80 different car models to choose from in Australia. Some of us are mainly concerned with safety or performance, for others, price is very important – perhaps you like all the “bells and whistles” or low maintenance and reliability may be your main priority. More than likely it is some sort of a combination of all of these things.
There are a number of competing “standards” in the wireless smart home space… Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and countless more. We have no vested interest in pushing one solution over another… we simply know what works (and what doesn’t) – from years of experience and customer feedback. In our (knowledgeable) opinion, Z-Wave currently stands head and shoulders above the other options if you are looking for a reliable, robust and “complete” smart home ecosystem. That’s not to say it’s for everyone… if you are looking for a very small and focused smart solution, then some of the other options may be more suitable.
Let’s dive in deeper to find the right solution for you and your needs…
Hub or Hub-less?
This is one of the biggest choices you will need to make. Is your smart home going to be driven by a little black (or white) box that lives in your home – or will you rely on Wi-Fi and a “cloud” setup? Lets’ take a look at both options…
Smart Home Hub
A smart home hub is essentially a small computer to which you connect your smart home devices. All processing of scenes, schedules, automations and triggering of devices is done locally – in your home. There are many advantages to this over a cloud (hub-less) solution – including security, responsiveness, reliability, scalability and more. Here are some of the most popular smart home hubs…
A special mention should be given to a DIY alternative to the hubs above… openHAB and Home Assistant. These are excellent open-source (free) software solutions that can run on a local PC (such as a Raspberry Pi). They are not for the faint of heart and require a degree of technical knowledge (unlike the hubs above which are plug-and-play and very easy to use). But if you are technically minded and don’t mind getting your hands dirty… you can read more about a Home Assistant setup here.
Smart Home Cloud (hub-less)
A “hub-less” smart home solution simply means your smart devices are connected to your Wi-Fi router and then to a “cloud” service that runs your smart home. Excellent examples of this are Shelly devices, Nanoleaf and Netatmo to name a few. If all you want to do is control a few lights and perhaps a couple of power-points, then hub-less is fine. Where you will run into trouble is if you “overload” your Wi-Fi router with more wireless devices – or if your internet goes down, guess what… so does your smart home system! Smart Wi-Fi devices are usually a cheap and easy way to setup a very focused (small) smart home system or solution. Just keep in mind, if you want to expand your system in the future, it may become “fragmented” – with 15 different apps to control your smart home and your smart devices not playing nicely together.
Tip: We have an excellent blog that delves into the pros and cons of "Smart Home - Local vs Cloud" - well worth a read for a more in-depth analysis and to possibly save you from starting off down the wrong path in your smart home journey.
Smart Lighting control
Lighting control is at the core of any smart home. In fact, from our experience, this is where the journey usually starts. There are so many advantages to making your lights smart… energy saving, security, comfort and convenience to name a few.
Let me give you just one example that I think demonstrates the advantages of smart lighting perfectly…
During the evening… the MultiSensor 6 detects motion and turns on the ensuite lights to full brightness – and tuns the lights off again when motion is no longer detected.
During the night… from say 10pm to 6am – the MultiSensor 6 detects motion and turns on the ensuite lights to 20% brightness so you don’t blind yourself if nature calls during the night – and again, tuns the lights off when motion is no longer detected.
During the day… the MultiSensor 6 has a built in lux (light level) sensor – when it detects the light in the ensuite is above a certain level (which you set), it doesn’t turn on the lights (as they are not needed).
Bonus… the MultiSensor 6 also includes a temperature and humidity sensor – so if we were to attach an Aeotec Nano Switch to the ensuite exhaust fan, we could automatically turn it on and off as the humidity in the room rises and lowers.
The above scenario is true home automation – we haven’t touched a phone app, or used a voice assistant, wall switch or remote control – everything intelligently happens automatically without us even needing to think about it. This is a true smart home.
There are 2 main types of smart lighting options…
Smart bulbs such as LIFX and Nanoleaf (or the countless other cheap Wi-Fi smart bulbs available) have ‘the smarts’ built in to them, and are designed to be the modern replacements for the conventional light bulb. Often used to create different moods and atmospheres with splashes of colour, smart bulbs require you to leave the physical switch on, meaning control is only possible from the app or voice-commands – if you turn off the light from the wall switch, the bulbs “drop dead” – they are no longer smart or controllable.
Smart bulbs have their place (lamps and supplemental lighting), they are easy to install yourself without the need for an electrician – but they are not ideal for main “over-head” lighting. For this, it is far better to use Smart Lighting Modules…
Smart Lighting Modules
Smart lighting modules such as the Aeotec Nano Dimmer are small, wireless devices that can be installed behind virtually any light switch to ‘add smarts’ to any type of connected lighting. These modules can be retrofit (no special or new wiring required) and enable you to use your traditional light switch to control the light as well as smart control. The wall switch and smart control always stay in sync. Smart lighting modules can often be a cheaper option than smart bulbs (even after factoring in installation by an electrician) as you only need one module to control multiple lights connected to a switch – rather than needing to replace each bulb individually.
Which is better? Smart Bulbs or Smart Modules?
Based on the above information, it becomes clear that only smart modules meet the criteria of true “smart” lighting, as they make ordinary wall-switches “smart” switches. Smart bulbs on the other hand do not retain manual switch control and are not truly ‘smart’ because they lose all functionality if the wall switch is turned off. But this does not mean that one system is ‘better’ than the other. In fact, they both perform an extraordinary job doing what they’re designed to do.
When used in conjunction with one another for their intended purposes in a well-designed smart home lighting solution, the different technologies complement each other – smart lighting modules add ‘smarts’ to your main lighting system while the smart bulbs are great for feature and mood lighting.
Home security and access control go hand-in-hand with a smart home. Or at least they should! It really doesn’t make sense to have smart motion sensors for lighting control and seperate sensors for security. However, this is often the case. Your security system is not smart, but of course it is performing a really important function… securing your home and family. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have your home security tightly integrated with your smart home system? One system, one app. With a bit of planning and knowledge, there is no reason why you can’t have the best of both worlds. Let’s take a look at how we can make this happen by creating a smart security system that is perfectly integrated with your smart home…
Following on from our discussion above regarding Hub or Hub-less. I want to point out from the get-go that it is really not practical to create a smart security system that is cloud based (hub-less) – what if your internet goes down? What if the cloud servers go offline? You get the point.
We need a Smart Hub to create a smart security system. No two ways about it. Luckily, all of the Z-Wave Hubs have security capabilities built right in. You can choose to receive push notifications if the alarm is triggered, to as many phones as you like – you can also turn on smart lights to scare off would-be-intruders and you can even zone your smart alarm so only certain sensors are armed when you are home (e.g. during the night when you are sleeping). It’s actually rather easy to create a robust and reliable security system using one of these hubs and some smart sensors and sirens…
Smart sensors can perform so many important functions in a smart home. Automatically turning lights on and off, climate control, occupancy detection, scene and automation triggering and… security.
For the sake of this discussion, we are going to talk about Z-Wave Sensors – for many reasons… not least of which is their reliability, product range (there is a Z-Wave sensor for nearly any application – and many ways to interface with 3rd party sensors using Z-Wave) and the fact that Z-Wave itself is a secure wireless protocol (with bank level encryption built-in). Z-Wave also creates its own wireless mesh network on the 921MHz wireless band – far removed from Wi-Fi and would be hackers. What good is a security system if the underlying technology is itself not secure!
Here are some of the more popular Z-Wave sensors that are perfect for creating a smart security system…
What good is an alarm system without a loud siren? Sirens not only draw unwanted attention to someone breaking into your home, they are also an excellent visual deterrent – which make a potential intruder think twice and move on to another easier target. Z-Wave has you covered here as well…
Smart Access Control
Keyless entry, smart locks and smart garage door control – I am not overstating things when I say these smart solutions will genuinely change your life. In “the olden days”, I cannot tell you the number of times I drove away from home and asked… “did I close the garage door?”… only to do a u-turn and inevitably find I did indeed close it (except one time, which of course just made me more paranoid).
Or what about the two times one of my children lost his keys (it’s always the same one) – 2 visits from the locksmith and many dollars later… I installed a smart lock and never looked back! Now my children just enter a PIN code to unlock the front door. I also receive a notification to my phone letting me know they have arrived home (huge peace of mind as all you parents would know).
And of course being able to answer my video doorbell from anywhere is a god send. I can see and talk to visitors and also let that dodgy guy who rang my doorbell during the day know that “no, there’s no Frank living here, you’ve got the wrong house”… naturally, he was just checking if anyone was home… but as far as he was concerned, I was answering the doorbell from inside the house – not 11km away at the SmartHome office!
If you were looking to dip your toes into a smart home solution, I can highly recommend this as an excellent place to start.
Smart Blinds and Curtains
The average Australian spends the equivalent of 3 full days per year opening and closing blinds and curtains. OK, I just made that up… but i’m sure it’s a lot! Automating your curtains and blinds is not only a time saver, it can also save you money (winter – heat in, heat out etc). Set a schedule, voice control them, use a smart remote or use a smart temperature sensor to trigger opening and closing.
We really only have one kind of solution for automating blinds – the Fibaro Z-Wave Roller Shutter 3 or the Shelly Wi-Fi 2.5 Motor Controller – however both of these options require you to have special “dumb” blind motors installed – which is fine if you want a truely integrated, permanently powered solution. But it’s certainly not cheap, requires an electrician and possibly re-doing your blinds. We have nothing for curtains. So, I am going to do something you will not see many companies do…
I am going to recommend you look elsewhere for these solutions! In particular, for a simple DIY option, it is hard to go past the Ikea motorised Zigbee blinds and for a professional solution that can still be DIY, the Rollease Acmeda Automate range is simply awesome (and I mean really awesome – good quality and not too expensive). Both of these solutions will work with the Aeotec SmartThings Hub and Homey controllers – so you can still keep your smart home under one cohesive system.
Smart Voice Control
Voice control from Amazon Alexa, Google and Apple have revolutionised the smart home industry. Not too long ago, what was science fiction, is now science fact. Voice controlling your smart home feels natural and is often far more convenient than unlocking your phone, opening an app and pressing an icon. Nothing beats laying in bed at night and having Siri turn off the bedroom lights, make sure the front door is locked and arm the alarm in home mode… just by saying, “Hey Siri, goodnight”.
However it is important to understand that this convenience comes at a price. You see, Amazon, Google and Apple don’t charge a subscription for this black magic service… so what does it cost you? Privacy. There’s a saying in the technology industry… if a company doesn’t charge you for its services, then you are the product! Honestly, I don’t think it’s a big deal… so Google wants to serve me more qualified ads… Amazon wants to sell me more toilet paper – I can live with that. But for some, this may be a step too far.
Also, these companies would like you to believe that they can be the centre of your smart home universe. This is simply not the case. Voice assistants, for the most part, are great at what they do – but they shouldn’t be the only way to control your smart home. Rather, they should simply be another option to control it (as long as you are comfortable with the privacy issues). As an example, you cannot really create great conditional automations with their devices and eco-systems – certainly not like you can with a dedicated smart home hub or software. Also, with a dedicated hub (which can all work with these voice assistants anyway), your data us stored locally – you own it. It is not being mined to better understand you as a consumer – and it is not being stored in the cloud. Worth thinking about.
Smart... you name it
We have seen it all over the years. You name it and someone has tried to automate it! From chicken coop doors, record players, the mailbox (to be alerted when mail arrives… seriously), pet door flaps to irrigation control (this one is actually really practical, we will do a blog post on this soon).
If it opens and closes, turns on or off, goes up or down or connects to power… there is a good chance it can be automated – sometimes with a little creative thinking. Contact us if you would like some free expert advice… we are always happy to help. If we can’t help you solve it, there’s a good chance it can’t be done!
One app to rule them all
One of the biggest issues holding back the smart home industry is what I like to call “fragmentation”… This device doesn’t talk to that device. It has gotten so bad to the point where you end up with 15 different apps to control your smart home. This is not very convenient, and certainly not smart. The holy grail of home automation is to have every thing under one system… not fragmented. Again, I am sorry to keep harping on this, but it is so important… for a complete, all-in-one system that is open, future proof and reliable – I strongly suggest taking a good look at Z-Wave or SmartThings (Z-Wave & Zigbee).
If there is only one piece of advice you take away from this article… Stay away from proprietary smart home systems and devices! Stick to open platforms (such as Z-Wave and Zigbee)… although technically Wi-Fi is an open standard, manufacturers often create proprietary communication systems that simply communicate via Wi-Fi. It may be a cheap option in the short term… but I have seen it too many times where these companies go broke or shut down their cloud servers… and all you are left with is cheap paper weights!
We have covered the basics in this article and I hope you have found it informative and useful. Remember, home automation is not a one size fits all… you can usually be guided by what you want to achieve and what is important to you. If you are looking for a very small and focused solution, then I suggest taking a look at Shelly devices (cheap, no hub required). If you are looking for a more complete solution, then usually, Z-Wave or SmartThings is the way to go.
The benefits of creating a smart home are immeasurable, but it can also be daunting and confusing… especially when starting out. No one wants to “make a mistake” and choose the wrong solution. Please remember we are always here to help… we are the smart home experts, so you don’t need to be. Contact us if you need free advice, assistance or guidance in any way.