When you want something more than a timer on a lamp to automate your home Zigbee, Z-wave and Insteon are the choices for the DIY smart home. X-10 is back again and does offer some very simple solutions which sometimes are the best. The toughest part is deciding which of the three (ok four) technologies to go with.
When It comes to DIY home automation, the choices are getting thinner. If you want to let some big company watch and listen to everything in your home, then you grab an Alexa Echo, Google Assistant or Apple Home and give up every last bit of privacy you had. Zigbee, Z-wave and Insteon all play nice with these three big brother like connected home systems. Yes I have an echo in my house. In fact we have a 15″ echo show in the kitchen with the camera blocking cover. More on that later.
It’s all about a Brain
If you want to make your home smarter as in a real “Smart Home“, you need to give it brains. There are a lot of ways to do that but they involve spending a lot of money, and paying some company to program and own your system.
That doesn’t sound that smart to us. Thankfully there are two very solid and very real DIY systemThe Universal Devices Eisy and Home Assistant are two very solid DIY options. I have both of them in my house, but only one is in charge. What these two systems do is give your house the brains to control everything. Like a brain though, they only know what they are told. You must teach them and like people you have to give them some type of input since they don’t have eyes and ears.
In my case I use an Elk M-1 Gold Alarm with a network adapter. This way the “Brain” of my home is aware anytime a door is open, or I set the alarm to away. Why turn the air conditioner on if I am gone for a week? Sure a Nest can do something like that but only if you let big brother keep an eye on you.
There are also several motion sensors in the house. When the alarm is set of course the motion sensors connect to the alarm. When the alarm is off, for example when I am home, the motion sensors are the “eyes” to the brain of my house. The sensors “see” me walking around and tell the system the house is occupied, and set the lights based on where I am in the house and what I am doing.
Lighting Like A Pro
For my main lighting system I wanted to go with one brand so all of the switches looked the same. 20 years ago when I gave up my Crestron system, I went to the bargain basement and started with X-10. There wasn’t really a brain yet, but I could do more than just turn light on an off at a certain time. The next CoolToy was the HAI Omni ProII which was acquired by Leviton and apparently discontinued due to lack of interest. That was replaced by the ELK M-1 and a Universal Devices ISY. My home now had a brain.
The last two houses have been 100% Insteon, and the new i3 line looks like a much higher quality product. Lutron is an option here, but they have three different control systems, all are expensive and not all play nice with home automation systems. Insteon also offers the “Hub” which requires a subscription and does a few nice things. The Insteon Hub is also very easy to set up and program with no skills. The truth is that the Hub isn’t much more than a fancy timer that understands sunset and sunrise instead of just a specific time. At least with a hub your porch light won’t come on at 3 pm in the summer.
Lighting Like a Pro
Picking one set of controls to light the house makes things much easier. We don’t always think about three way light switches but when you use automation the game changes. The switch has to not only turn on the light but tell the second and maybe even third or fourth switches that the light was on. X-10 wasn’t great for that.
Zigbee, Z-wave and Insteon all do a pretty good job here. The reason I chose Insteon was the 6 button controller. At the time they were the only control system to offer it. This allowed me to replace the switch for the light in my dining room and add four “scenes” in the same spot. These scenes let me set up the house for eating outside, having a party, dinner mood lighting or movie lighting. I get all of this in the same place as a regular light switch went.
All three are pretty good choices, and if you can somehow stick with just one for the entire house it makes things easier. Recently though I added automated roller blinds and they came with Zigbee controlled motors. The Insteon hub can’t do that.
Making in Easy or is that eisy?
For fun I bought a $59 Rasberry Pi kit on amazon. It was cool to build a micro computer that could out run my first IBM PS1 computer. I then bought the home assistant package and loaded it up. Then after dozens of hours of reading and tinkering the brains started to move the house along, albeit very slowly.
I still had my ISY 994 from my old house but there was a new version, the 994i Pro, so I bought one of those. Within an hour I had everything working and quite a bit faster than the home assistant. The ISY 994 is now discontinued and has been replaced by the eisy (pronounced easy).
My Home Has A Brain
Once the eisy was set up, I had to purchase some “node servers”. One was the ELK node server. With the ISY I had an ELK module. The node server does a lot more and makes the eisy way smarter than the old ISY. My house is learning new tricks.
One thing you learn quickly is that standards make your life as a consumer easier but the geeks hate them. The eisy is an ok balance. While my new blinds are “zigbee” ready, they zigbee standard isn’t 100% complete. Each vendor has a little freedom so while my Amazon Echo aka Alexa can control them, my eisy can not yet. Hopefully Graywind will share the code with Universal Devices and then my house brain can set the shades for me instead of Amazon selling me stuff becuase I opened my shades.