Home Automation Basics

I’ve been interested in home automation for ages but have only just started to get into it with the launch of products like the Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot.  I’ve got one of each in the house at the moment but I’ll definitely be adding more.

To start with, you have the novelty value of being able to say “Alexa. Tell me a joke”.  This wears off very quickly.  Asking what the weather will be follows quite quickly in terms of usefulness.  After that, you’re left with a pretty box in the corner of the room and thinking of what else you could have spent your money on.

Then you add a plug and it allows you to say “Alexa. Switch lamp on”.  Now the penny drops and your bank empties very quickly.  I’ve now got:

  • Amazon Echo in the lounge
  • Amazon Dot in the bedroom
  • Amazon Dot in the car
  • Hive for the central heating
  • LightwaveRF wall sockets in various rooms
  • LightwaveRF plugin sockets in various rooms
  • Hive light bulbs
  • Hive motion sensor

We rarely use the main lights in any room, preferring lamps.  In the lounge, we’ve got 5 lamps, 2 in the kitchen plus LED strips under the cabinets and 2 in the bedroom.  We’ve also got Hive bulbs in the hall, on the stairs and in a main ceiling light in the bedroom.

What this means is that once it starts getting dark I can say “Alexa. Downstairs on” all the downstairs lamps switch on.  The stairs is set on a timer and connected to a motion sensor.  So between dusk and dawn, if the motion sensor triggers, the light switches on at 5% for one minute.  If it’s cold, I say “Alexa. Blanket on” and it switches the electric blanket on.

When we go to bed, I say “Alexa. Night night”.  It then switches all the lamps in the house and the electric blanket off”.

If everything works as planned, it’s hugely convenient.

But it doesn’t.  It’s fraught with niggles.  Sometimes one lamp in the kitchen will stay on.  Don’t get me wrong, it works 9 times out of 10.  It’s just a pain the one time.

There is a reason for this and that’s the technology these things use.

The LightwaveRF kit uses 433mhz which, in theory, has a really good range.  That is until you start to add walls and stuff into the equation.

I also had some Wemo sockets.  These use WiFi which also has range problems when you’re going from the router to a device which is 45 feet away and the signal needs to get through 2 walls and up one floor.

Hive is different.  Hive uses a protocol called Zigbee which has actually been around for years.  It uses the 2.4Ghz frequency which actually has a comparatively short range but it has one BIG advantage as long as your planning to have a few devices.  It’s not just Hive that uses Zigbee, it’s a very popular standard with lots of manufacturers.  Some will talk to each other, some won’t.  I don’t think Hive talks to anything other than Hive, for example, but lots of the others will play together nicely.

Where’s this heading?

Well, I’ve got a mix and it’s just about ok.  If I was starting from scratch, I’d make sure that everything I bought used the Zigbee standard for one important reason.

With all the other protocols, reliability is only as good as the range.  You have a hub that takes all your commands and sends them out to the devices.  The limitation is the distance from your hub to the furthest device unless you use a repeater.

Zigbee is different.  Zigbee uses a ‘mesh’ network.  This means that each device is effectively a repeater.  But more than that, each device connects to all other devices within the network.  So if one thing fails, the signal just takes a different route.  It’s self healing and every device you add actually contributes to the stability of all the other devices.

So, my advice to you, before you start spending money on devices that will possibly end up in a box, in a cupboard, would be to have a good look around and think about how you’ll end up using all this.  Personally, like I say, I’d go for something like Zigbee given my time again.  Different things will suit different people but it seems to me like this is the most scalable.