Choose Wisely.

Kerry Clendinning, one of the co-founders of the Smarter Home club, is back to explain how your choice of product and brand can significantly impact the cost and versatility of your home automation project!

“Choose wisely.” Always a wise admonition.

In a previous blog post we discussed the need for a vision when you are starting your venture into home automation. There will be many decisions that will impact the features, usability, expandability, reliability and cost of your system. Knowing what you want or at least the direction you want to head will be a major help in guiding those decisions. Maybe a better term than “venture” would be “investment”. You’re about to invest some amount of time and money into a project that has a definite starting place, but regardless of what your vision comprises today, there’s no definite end. (Just ask anyone who’s gotten into home automation whether they ended where they expected to go when they started.)

Given you’ve pondered the questions we asked in we’ll assume you have an idea what you want to control in your home and whether voice control, connectivity from your phone or independence from the “cloud” matter to you. So let’s move on to a bigger question in terms of the investment you’re about to make. What platform(s) will you choose?

Outside of home automation products and perhaps computers and peripherals, there are few other consumer-level products where the brand choice you make for one product might impact a whole bunch of other choices. You are free to have a Maytag washer and a Kenmore dryer (aside from aesthetics, of course). The casserole dish that goes in your Kitchenaid oven fits quite nicely in that Whirlpool dishwasher.

This level of compatibility may not extend to your home automation system if you choose certain paths. Manufacturers are trying to make your life easy by making everything “plug-and-play” but this often equates to locking you in to one “ecosystem”. Think (with no judgement or bias intended here, one way or the other) the Apple computer + iPod + ITunes + iPhone approach. Things (should) just work. But you don’t get a lot of choices, and… you pay a premium for the products.

In the home automation market, there are vendors that have taken that approach. Buy all of their stuff and it should all just “work”. And just like the decision to use all Apple products, this is, in all sincerity, the “right” thing for some classes of consumers. And I don’t mean this to categorize them as more or less intelligent, more or less hip, or more or less wise with their money. Some people might value their time more highly than the want to wade through the decisions and compatibility questions that come when you don’t “drink the cool-aid” and adopt a uniform ecosystem. This author might fall into that category for one sort of product but not for another… just sayin’.

So brand decisions will affect the cost, the ease of configuration, and the degree to which things (are supposed to) just work. If those factors all line up well for you and the system reaches whatever goals you had in mind plus whatever that vision expands into when you get the home automation “bug,” you’re doing alright. If you miss the mark, you will join the many home automation devotees who reach a point where they find they really want something different and you’ll try to resell all of what you’ve got and change horses, or maybe not… We’ll discuss other options later.

We’ve used “brand” to describe the choice you’ll make between manufacturers’ products, but in a broader sense, there are manufacturers that inter-operate so it’s not really as simple as GE vs. Philips vs. Samsung. You’ll need to understand a bit about “protocols” as well. A protocol is like a language that a device can speak. If you’ve ever purchased a cellphone outside of the ones your cellphone carrier tries to sell you, you’ve dealt with terms like CDMA, GSM, 3G, 4G, LTE, etc. Buy the wrong phone and it won’t work on your network. But the right Samsung will play well with both AT&T and T-Mobile. It’s the same kind of thing with home automation, but the protocols are things like Zigbee, Z-wave and Insteon, plus WiFi, bluetooth, RF and IR. Learn which manufacturers support which protocols and you can choose among a wider set of products that should all play well together.

… And there are players in the home automation market that feel your pain in trying to find the right product for the job without choosing just one ecosystem, so they try to bridge the gap and support multiple brands and protocols. I’d love to tell you that there was one manufacturer that solved the whole problem and everyone loves them for it. Unfortunately, at least in the commercial world of home automation, the closest thing we’d have to that is a few near misses. Without going into any detail that could be fuel for a flame war, I’ll just toss out the names Wink, Samsung SmartThings and Hubitat. Look them up. All three will sell you a “hub”. Read about their wonderful capabilities with a healthy dose of skepticism, and consider that one might actually be just the answer to your desires (if you didn’t already fall in line with the one-brand-one-protocol-one-ecosystem discussion we’ve already had).

If you had a good idea about your vision from the beginning and you don’t find there’s one more thing that you’ve just gotta have, like voice control of you garage door, or a camera that recognizes your cat and opens the pet door on just days when the moon is full, you’re probably good with one of the two approaches we’ve offered so far: drink-the-koolaid-single-ecosystem or be-all-end-all-multi-product-hub. And you fall into the fortunate category of a happy consumer-level user. (Again, I mean to imply no judgement here. It’s a good thing to find a right fit!)

But let’s say, for sake of argument, that you do want to control your pet door based on the phase of the moon, and you did purchase a bunch of brand-X products only to find that the voice controlled garage door opener you reallllly want doesn’t play well. …and you find the world of Wink, SmartThings, and Habitat are a little too slow-moving.

So this brings us to a discussion about open source software—the non-commercial world. “Free” software. The place where you might find all of your multi-brand multi-protocol problems can be solved. This might sound a bit Utopian. There’s got to be a catch? Well, yes. The open source solutions in the home automation arena are programs that are free to use and are programmed by groups of people that contribute their time to create a tool that solves problems that the commercial world won’t address—like cross-brand cross-protocol compatibility. But–there’s likely to be a bit of a learning curve for you to make use of this software.

If you invested in a particular brand and found a shortcoming that makes you want to try something different, it might be time to explore open source software instead of selling everything you have and “changing horses”. Developers of open source software aren’t bound to one brand or tied to one protocol and, like you and me, have sought after the ability to choose the right tool for the job… the GE branded light switch alongside the Philips bulb and the Ryobi garage door opener. And for some inexplicable reason, it seems that people who contribute to open source software projects with no financial interest often produce better, more powerful programs than what you can buy. Go figure.

So if you have arrived at a point in your home automation venture where you want it all—the best of brand for lights, A/C, cameras, A/V devices and whatever else, so you’re not going to settle for one brand or one protocol, you should really check out Home Assistant, Domoticz or a number of other open source offerings. You’ll find that, with a little work, you can manage to make just about any home automation product bend to your desires. It won’t be as easy as the single-ecosystem plug-and-play world that some vendors offer, but in the long run you’ll be happier with the results. And the flexibility to choose the products that fit your needs as well as your budget will probably save you a few bucks is the website for our Facebook community, The Smarter Home Club – which is an umbrella for all kinds of smart home technologies – home automation, security, custom electronics, weather stations, alternative energy, you name it. DIY focused.

If you’re interested in joining the Smarter Home Club’s Facebook group, please follow this link:

The Smarter Home Club on Facebook