Saturday, September 24, 2016

Home Automation

We’ve been living at our place now for about 5 years. In all this time, we’ve never had to worry about home security. Not that we live in a totally remote suburb area with no crime. It is just that we’ve never felt we needed it. Until the end of August. One night, I was sitting in the upstairs bedroom reading, when around 1am, there was a knock on the door. It was weird to hear a knocking, because we usually know when our friends are coming. I got up and then I heard a doorbell. Li asked what was it as she’s a light sleeper and generally know when I get up. I told her that I heard something. Of course, she gets up right away and followed me to the top of the stairs.

We heard more knocking and tried to look outside through our door’s peephole, but it was too dark. Couldn’t tell if there was someone there or if they were trying to hide from being seen. We have a large window that looks out to the porch with thick blinds behind it. We didn’t dare try to peek through that as people from the outside could see movement. So we ultimately called 911. They said they would send a patrol car over. Later we would find out that they didn’t think we were in any danger, but we certainly thought so. It would be a good 4 hours after we called that they would come by. Fortunately, nothing did happen and we suspect that it was probably some drunk guy either forgetting where home was or had the wrong directions from someone. In either case, we were not in any real danger, just a scary experience especially condering that we have two young kids and two elders in the house.

This incident certainly brings heightened awareness to our security. We know that we cannot rely on the police as they come when they can. If they have more urgent matters, then we’re going to be lower on the priority list. That’s reality in many places and with more people in the area, the more likely there will be higher priority items.

So we started looking into home security. I really liked some of the services offered by vendors. But ultimately, decided to look into home automation products. Our requirements are pretty simple:

  • Cloud based storage, preferably free
  • Easy to use and manage
  • Easy to setup
  • Easy to take apart
  • Provide full compatibility with as many devices as possible

We first looked at Apple HomeKit as we have a lot of Apple tech around the house. We purchased the August Lock Bluetooth Edition, but one thing that always bothered me for a “smart” lock is that I have to be within Bluetooth range for the app to work. In order to get longer range, I have to buy another device? And it doesn’t work with HomeKit. I also purchased two iDevice switches. These worked okay for a couple of weeks, but then it was always a hit and miss with Siri. Even the native app seems to lose the devices. Then I tried Insteon, which claims to have the most number of compatible devices. It may be true, but it didn’t play well with any of the other home stuff I got, including my MyQ Chamberlain garage door opener. Although it did work with my Hue lights.

After some more research, I discovered IFTTT. If you don’t know what it is, go there now. It’s one of the most amazing Internet of Things site ever. There are so many recipes for automating things. This became one of the requirements for me buying any new gear. If it doesn’t work with IFTTT, then I’m not that interested.

Ultimately, I found SmartThings. I was hesitant about getting SmartThings because it was made by Samsung who wasn’t exactly on great terms with Apple. There are lots of things to like as there’s great support for a wide variety of devices, IFTTT, and their forums for both consumer and developer alike. The main disadvantage is that it didn’t work with any of my existing products. I finally decided to make the switch.

I got the SmartThings hub along with Go Control Premium Z-Wave Home Security Suite. I got the SkyBell HD Silver WiFi Video Doorbell. And I also wanted two of the NetGear Arlo. I chose the doorbell and Arlo because they have free cloud-based storage for the video. You can pay for more storage, but for what I need, it is more than enough. I don’t need to see what happened to my house more than a week ago.

Installation of everything was pretty simple. A couple of firmware updates and basically, like Apple stuff, it just worked. It also found my WeMo switch that I had lying around from long time ago. The Hue lights worked. Installation of the phone application was smooth too and it is the gem of the whole thing. The phone app makes it easy to start the process of finding devices and organizing them. You can create automated routines similar to IFTTT, but with an added advantage of multiple conditions such as “when there is motion on any motion sensor and it is nighttime, then sound the alarm.” You wouldn’t want to set off the alarm if there’s motion around the house during the day.

Like most modern services, the phone app is really just a pretty wrapper around a web service. The web service allows you to log into your account from anywhere and you can see the state of your devices along with performing actions on them. For example, you can turn on and off a light from anywhere. One really neat bonus feature is that you can customize each device with a handler. The handler exposes additional features of that device. For example, while a Hue light is a light, it is a bit more than a light because you can also change its color. Only after you tell SmartThings that your Hue lights is a Hue lights, you can change its color. You can also create custom routines in Groovy to better automate your home. For example, you can create a routine that says, if the garage door has been opened for more than 5 minutes, close it.

After seeing all of this working so smoothly, it sort of becomes addicting to add devices for more automation. For example, I removed our August Lock as it was essentially useless and replaced it with two Schlage Connect™ Touchscreen Deadbolt with alarm with Camelot Trim. As Li wanted to have the porch light on during the night, I got a white Hue bulb. Since we have two garage doors with two different garage door openers, with MyQ it is able to only open one of them. So I got a z-wave GoControl garage door opener.

With all devices, we now get notifications whenever a door/window opens and close. I’ve also set it up to get notifications whenever the locks lock and unlock and I can see who did it. Same for the garage doors. At night, the porch light along with a Hue strip turn on and they turn off at 7am. If there’s motion at night when we’re sleeping, videos are captured and the alaram sounds. If the batteries run low on any of those devices, I get notified. When there’s motion outside our door, we get notified and video is captured. When we go to sleep, all the locks are locked and the lights get turned off.

All in all, I am very happy with the set up. I wish I had done it sooner.

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