Fun with automation

Just over 6 months ago, I wrote that we started making our house a home. I haven’t blogged in awhile as I’ve been consumed with the remodel project. While our project is not yet complete, we have finally moved into our castle (OK, it isn’t a castle and isn’t all that large, but it is our home). One of the things that I’ve been planning for is automating many things in the house. I’ve always had a fascination with home automation, but retrofitting a house wasn’t all that attractive to me and I didn’t budget for it. I’ve budgeted for it and made sure all the pieces were in place while the house was being remodeled. My use of automation is 3 fold:

  • Security – turn on lights at night when motion is detected
  • Forgetfulness – turn off lights after leaving a room
  • Convenience or laziness – have 1 button to turn on the heat from any room in the house or 1 button to turn off all the lights in the house

There are several different systems on the market for doing automation and I chose a Z-Wave based system called VeraLite. I went with Z-Wave over Zigbee because there is more variety in types of devices and liked that there were more manufacturers of devices than with Insteon. VeraLite is kind of a hacker’s box for automation. It runs Linux, has an active community, and allows people to create plugins in Lua.

I selected Leviton Vizia RF+ components for my switches, controllers, and outlets. I liked the styling of them and they go with the rest of the normal switches in the house. I have a bunch of them and getting everything to work has been a bit of a challenge. The controllers are kind of wacky and I’m still working out the kinks; apparently Z-Wave allows proprietary extensions in the protocol and the Leviton devices do this; VeraLite doesn’t understand all of it. In addition, the mesh network that Z-Wave creates for everything to talk to each other seems to get confused a bit. I’ve gone through the “heal” process more times than I care to count and now everything seems stable. My house is just over 1600 square feet on 3 levels (it is a tri-level), so I’d expect the mesh network to work fine. Each level has a number of devices that act as repeaters and the main controller is located on the bottom level pretty much in the center of the house.

So now that I have it setup, what next? That’s a good question. I’ve setup a few “scenes” that are pretty simple. For instance, I have the front outside lights come on when motion is detected at night (the motion sensors are not Z-Wave sensors, but hooked into a security system as I thought it would be more reliable and didn’t require batteries for every sensor) and then they turn off after a few minutes. I have another scene setup that turns off the bathroom lights after 15 minutes if there is no motion; my wife has a bad habit of leaving the lights on which drives me crazy. I have a couple of other scenes for turning equipment off at night to reduce power consumption. I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but I think it will be worth it in the long run.

Since I’m not content to leave well enough alone, today I worked on a plugin for Vera (I based it on someone else’s work, but stripped a lot of it as my needs were different) that talks to my audio control units. So now, I can turn music on in any room of the house from Vera’s web interface without having to get up and push the button on the wall. Some may think I’m quite lazy (OK, maybe I am), but this is going to be useful when we want to turn on music outside as my (somewhat) poor planning put the audio controls in awkward places for the outside.

I know that many companies are trying to bring home automation to the masses. I’ll be watching to see how they do in the market. The concept is great, but it is really hard to make a one size fits all system that is extremely flexible. Without the flexibility, I think automation systems will be hampered. If I wasn’t a geek and a developer, I don’t think I’d touch automation at all; it just isn’t ready for the average consumer.

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