Our first “Smart Home” …
31 August 2020
We found a place in Lakeville MN just south of the cities and near where the Vikings would build their new practice facility. It was a “Rambler” style home, set on a rise with a finished basement that was exposed to the backyard. It was a beautiful home but as it was built in 2002 it was lacking in any kind of real technology plan.
A former owner had run some Cat5e cabling but it was a hack job by my standards so I re-ran most of it. I ran more wherever I could get through walls and it made sense — like behind smart TVs and drops in bedrooms. I also punched them down on a 12-port patch panel and terminated to outlets as the existing cabling was installed with terminated endpoints.
I took the approach of developing my smart home plan from head-end to end-user. Having the cabling infrastructure was a good start but I understood wifi would also support a lot of the functionality. Let’s step through the components …
As the cabling in the house all terminated in the basement along with the internet and cable TV I had 2 levels to cover. And to complicate it further the location was not centrally located. So I needed a a robust router to get wifi throughout the entire place. After some research I went with the Netgear Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band Wifi Router. With a 1GHz dual core processor it was one of the fastest on the market at the time. The 6 high performance antennas with amplifiers to maximize range and tri-band gave me the ability to segment my devices attaching to the router by need. And the beam-forming made connecting via mobile device more efficient. I also liked the ability to USB connect an external hard drive to the router to give me network file storage.
As smart home was the goal and having the network foundation laid it was time to really dig into the smart home. As I evaluated the voice assistant options it became clear, based on my plans, that the Amazon Alexa platform would be the way to go. I know there are a lot of diehard Google Home and Apple HomeKit users out there but in 2016 it looked like Amazon was way ahead of these guys regarding integrations with other smart home technologies. As I had a plan but the industry was changing every day, having the future flexibility of different vendor ecosystems available was the best route to take.
I set up our Echo in the kitchen as it would get the most use and it had the best speaker. Dots ended up in my office, the bedrooms and the game room. Now that we could talk to our home and we had the ability to control aspects of it, it was time to add the smart stuff.
I’ve found it as no coincidence with the current work I do around smart venue and smart city that lighting is usually the starting point as it’s fairly easy to implement and generate an easy ROI. So as we were just getting our feet wet with smart home it seemed logical to start with lighting. As all I had in place to support lighting was wifi and the Alexa platform I looked for smart bulbs that didn’t require a hub as I wanted to apply smart tech as openly as possible to avoid dead ends with particular vendors that would only operate within their own ecosystem.
I ran across TP-Link Kasa bulbs I liked so I bought a few Smart Wifi LED bulbs — bother Color Changing and Dimmable Soft White Light. This was an easy upgrade to our home as it only required enabling the TP-Link Kasa skill in the Alexa app and registering the bulbs and giving them unique names so we could individually control them. We could then set up routines for lights to come on and off at certain times (especially helpful when Debbie and I would travel), dim lights or change colors depending on occasion.
It became obvious pretty quickly that changing out all of the old incandescent and LED dumb bulbs in a 3,600 sq/ft house could get expensive real fast. So I started looking for ways to value engineer the project. Back to the internet I went to find cheaper smart bulbs and found the Sengled Element Classic. As we also found the color changing need in smart bulbs was also limited inside the house and to the front porch (holidays), we were able to focus strictly on utilitarian lighting indoors. There are a wide variety of smart bulbs available now but some require hubs so keep that in mind for integrating into your environment.
In 2016 smart thermostats were fairly new to the market so picking the Ecobee then was fairly easy as it integrated with Alexa, had voice control and remote sensors. I was particularly interested in the remote sensors as the thermostat was located upstairs. With the back of the basement open to the outdoors and Minnesota winters exactly as you’d imagine my concern would be a cozy upstairs and a cool downstairs. The other options available now like Google Nest, Emerson Sensi, Lux Geo and Honeywell Home offer similar capabilities but in a wide variety of prices. The Ecobee4 is the only one with a voice assistant, Alexa, onboard.
Admittedly, smart thermostats are not the sexiest element of a smart home but being able to balance the temperature throughout the house with sensors as well as the ability to set up routines based on schedule and heat/cool based on your departure or arrival to reduce costs is pretty cool.
Now that we were starting to get the hang of controlling elements of our home with voice commands and had enabled some automation — lighting, thermostat — we were ready for more. There were a number of smart sensor options available but most seemed a little obscure or were very new to the market. And as I was beginning to pay a lot more attention to smart technology security due to breaches and privacy, I was finding many of the startups racing to get product to market were either cutting corners on incorporating security into their platforms or ignoring it entirely. And with integrations required I didn’t want to compromise the other solutions currently in place.
I already had quite an investment in Samsung smart TVs, Blu-Ray players and sound bars because I liked their smart technology integration. So I looked into SmartThings as they are a subsidiary of Samsung. I figured they’d be around a while due to Samsung’s stability and would have a well-planned development path to build out an entire ecosystem of integrated products for the home besides just audio/video, like refrigerators, ranges/ovens, dishwashers, microwave ovens and washers/dryers.
SmartThings was our first step into the smart hub world and I must admit I was not disappointed. By enabling the SmartThings skill in Alexa we were able to do more things with voice commands but we also discovered real-time automations. We now had the ability to receive mobile alerts and lights turning on if our back patio door was opened between 10pm and 6am. This would have been a great feature when our kids were teenagers but those stories are for a different blog. We also had motion sensing that could turn lights on and off based on occupancy in different locations in the house. These all came in very handy when we sold that house as we could remotely track in real-time via mobile the movement of potential buyers at showings throughout our home. It was easy to gauge their interest by their activities and how long they stayed. As a side note, we found out from the eventual buyers that they particularly liked the infrastructure and smart home technology in our home and it was major selling point.
I became an evangelist and started giving smart home tech as gifts to family and friends so I could help them install it as a way to test new products. My parents home became the biggest laboratory, unbeknownst to them, as we installed an Ecobee there along with a Ring Doorbell Pro and Arlo Pro HD Smart Security Cameras on the exterior of their home. The cameras use rechargeable batteries but we also installed solar panels so they would have to bother with charging them. The Ring Doorbell is particularly useful in announcing visitors are at the door or that UPS has dropped off a package.
So we were off and running with smart home technology. The story doesn’t end here though as we make another stop that opens new opportunities to introduce other smart technologies. Stay tuned …