How to enrage your housemates
Why do you want to pick the best home automation system? It’s three in the morning. You’ve had an excruciating day at work. You’ve finally fallen back asleep after your dog kicked you in his sleep again. SURPRISE! The lamps turn on at full brightness. Or better yet, the power flickers for a moment and all of the lights in your house come on.
There is a lot of benefit to doing your research and buying the right gear the first time. You’ll save time searching for a workaround to make it work the way you want. You’ll save money replacing products when you’ve decided it’s easier than workarounds for existing gear. Although that is just fun for the challenge sometimes! Maybe more importantly, you’ll get it right the first time and a low SAF (Spouse Acceptance Factor) won’t end your whole operation before it even gets started . To read more on that, check out this great article on philosophy regarding home automation.
Instead of reviewing specific products, this article will walk you through what to consider for your home. If you’re looking to skip straight to product recommendations, check out the buying guide.
Two schools of home automation
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about building the best home automation system for you. There are two schools of thought that you’ll see. One is to buy the best product in each class, regardless of how many apps you have to keep on your phone. This can work for those who are happy to do just a few basic things around the house. For the more serious contenders, the other option is to thoughtfully pick out the best hub for your use case, and find the best components that integrate well with that system. It’s pretty cool to be able to have one central point of control that can flip one switch and set the alarm, randomize the lights, turn the air conditioning down, and start the robot vacuum. You’re basically the Jetsons at that point.
Picking out a hub for your smart home system
For the love of all that is good in this crazy spaceship Earth, do your research on this one. You’ll save yourself so many headaches down the road if you know what you want. The main point to keep an eye out for is if the hub operates locally or on the cloud.
Local hubs will:
- Work locally in your house as long as Wi-Fi is up, even if internet is down
- Provide more privacy for your data
- Less latency since the packets won’t go physically as far
- Remain steady whenever you decide to stop upgrading and run as-is
- Stay free (with few exceptions) once you have it in place
- Require a much more technical setup
Cloud hubs will:
- Stop controlling your devices when the internet goes down
- Turn you into a product where they harvest your data
- Slow down the time from flipping a switch to the light actually changing
- Break as forced updates are implemented
- Potentially shift from free to paid models with or brick your setup
- Require fairly minimal setup
- Open you to weakness when the cyborgs rise up
So which way to go?
If you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty biased towards local hubs. A cloud hub might work for someone looking to dabble, but you’ll more than likely get addicted and have to switch to a local hub later.
Another point to consider is what protocols the hub works with. Z-Wave is one of the most popular and stable and works as a local mesh network outside of your Wi-Fi network. Zigbee is similar but with a somewhat less stable reputation. Wi-Fi is exactly what you think it is, but that has some quirks.
Most hubs will let you mix and match protocols as long as you have the antennae for each. It’s hard to go wrong with Z-Wave and usually just works. Once you go too far into Wi-Fi devices, you’ll have to start beefing up your network to provide coverage and processing power since most consumer grade routers will really only handle 20-30 devices well, and each lightswitch starts to add up quickly. Sometimes, the best or only solution is Wi-Fi though and it’s worth the effort.
What are my options for a home automation hub?
This wouldn’t be a good article about the best home automation system if it didn’t at least mention Home Assistant, open source hub software that works with many of the components out there. It’s very well documented and is used very widely. While it does require plenty of tinkering, it also provides so much control and flexibility.
Google Nest is a solid choice if their components cover everything you’re looking to automate and you’re looking for an easy setup that keeps you ingrained in the Google ecosystem. The same goes for Apple Homekit if you’re looking to keep all of your control through Siri. Keep in mind that both of these choices have limited compatibility with components compared to Home Assistant.
An in-between option for people who want to tinker less but have more compatibility and control is a platform called Hubitat.
Look Ma’ – No Hands!
So you’ve got your hub set up, but you don’t want to open your phone every time you want to flip a light switch or kick off a routine. Voice assistants are how you will trigger automation while your hands are full in the kitchen. Just be sure to say thank you after each command so the robots know that you were kind before the revolution.
Similar to choosing a hub, it might make sense to pick a particular voice assistant if you’re already heavily invested in a certain ecosystem. Google Assistant is an affordable option and if you’re already on Android, you’ll be familiar with the setup. Apple Siri via Homepods is an easy way to keep yourself in the Apple system if you already have a MacBook, iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch that you want to include. You will pay that Apple Premium though.
Another great all-around option is Amazon Alexa. You can usually find them pretty cheap and bundled with other products. Keep in mind that you will likely deal with bloatware and advertising to some degree. They are so cheap because they’ll try to upsell you occasionally.
These are all the devices that you’ll use to control parts of your home. Almost anything is possible these days. Sprinklers, air conditioning, water shutoff valves, lights, cameras, alarm systems, robot vacuums, garage doors, locks, curtains, and so much more. If it doesn’t exist yet, it’s probably coming soon.
This is where philosophy and protocol come into play. You’ll want to make sure it ties in well with the hub you picked, and that it will be extremely stable so your housemates don’t make you rip it out when they can’t even flip a light switch to control a lamp. You can’t really go wrong with Z-Wave, and Zigbee is an option to. Use Wi-Fi sparingly, but it does have its place depending on what your use case is. Just be prepared to upgrade your network if you go too far down that path.
How to keep your housemates happy
There are so many possibilities and points to consider as you build your home automation system. Spending time researching before you buy can save you some gray hair and make everyone in the house happier for the automation. Even if you only plan on implementing your system in pieces, have an idea of what you want to do down the road and you’ll be so much happier. If you’re looking for a head start on research, check out the buying guide. It will walk you through what’s out there and how each component stacks up against competitors based on your use case.