A Brief History of My Smart Home

Posted home-automation

Over the last two-plus years, I've gone from being a skeptic about smart home technology, to dabbling at the edges of it, to building out basic smart home functionality, to finally, the fully-realized but ever-evolving setup I have now. Here's a brief history on how I've gotten to this point, and a little bit about where I plan to go next.

The Beginning

My journey really began when my wife and I moved into a new home in spring of 2017. Having a new place, with a blank slate, got the gears turning in my mind around all the possibilities that existed to really "make it our own." Smart home technology made an appearance on my list, but I was still struggling to really pinpoint good use cases for it. At the time, the Google Home and Amazon Alexa smart speakers were picking up steam among the average consumer. Along with smart speakers, smart lighting was the other main piece of technology receiving the most attention from consumers and the media. In my mind, though, I didn't see the current appeal with just those two devices. Yes, being able to talk to my home or change the color of my lighting sounded appealing, but nothing compelling enough to move forward with a purchase had stuck out just yet.

As 2017 progressed, I did some more of my own research and saw or heard about some other people's setups, and I started to become a bit more intrigued. In particular, I learned about Samsung SmartThings and how it connected devices together. Now, I was beginning to see the actual value a smart home could provide. Beyond just being able to do fun things with the lights, automation came into play and allowed for certain actions to happen at particular times of day, for example. I still had yet to fully grasp the full power of automation, but I was starting to see that there's more to a smart home than what the typical media headline portrays.

Fast forward to Black Friday 2017, where Home Depot's ad contained numerous SmartThings products. The discounts really lowered the barrier to entry, as the initial cost outlay was still dampening my enthusiasm a bit. I was close to jumping in and giving it a try, but I wanted to see the products in person. I took a trip over to Home Depot, and after initially being able to locate the items in the store, I asked an employee. They just repeated "Smart Things?" back to me and looked at me like I had three eyes. As it turned out, I later discovered this was an online-only offer, but in the end, I decided to pass on SmartThings for the time being.

Instead, I opted to take a more measured approach to my initial exploration of building out a smart home. At our previous house, we had replaced a regular light switch with one that was timer-enabled, so that we could program a light to turn on and off on a daily schedule. It was a nice feature, though the internal clock on the switch was quite flaky and the interface was not very user-friendly. I set off in search of a smarter light switch that would enable us to recreate that setup, and I found the TP-Link HS200 Smart Light Switch. It was a reasonably priced product, and it was Wi-Fi based, so it was a standalone product with no additional hub required to set it up. I wondered a little bit about the ability to integrate it into a larger setup later, but since I mainly wanted to use it for some pre-programmed time based lighting, I wasn't terribly concerned.

Starting with SmartThings

I was pretty happy with the TP-Link switch. It was easy to install and configure through the TP-Link mobile app. We left our setup at that for awhile, until my sister and her husband gave us a spare SmartThings hub and Philip Hue bridge in July 2018. Suddenly, the barrier of entry was about as low as it could go. I set both devices up and picked up a few Hue bulbs on Prime Day to get started. Quickly, I was hooked, as I really started to grasp the potential of the smart home with a hub in place to tie it all together. For example, I could make SmartThings aware of our presence, so that different lighting automations were used depending on who was at home. We quickly added a few more lights to our setup, were able to integrate our existing TP-Link switch, and added several Google Home Mini devices for voice control. I was frequently thinking of new ideas for automation, and very excited about the potential.

However, I soon ran across some challenges with SmartThings. For one, they have been in the process of migrating users to a new mobile app, but the new app doesn't yet have feature parity with the old app. This is not spelled out extremely well by SmartThings, so that was a little bit of a challenge initially. It also introduced some concerns in my mind around what the long-term roadmap is for the platform (how they intend to be profitable since the cloud service itself is free, whether all legacy features will be migrated to the new app, etc.). In addition, I quickly found that the interface in both mobile apps is not very elegant, and I ended up building my own alternative interface (more on that in a future post). Finally, the built-in platform for creating automations is quite limited, and I turned to a third-party tool called WebCoRE (Web Community's own Rule Engine) to create more advanced automations. WebCoRE was a great, free tool, but it could only do so much to overcome the limitations of SmartThings.

The biggest limitation of all was the SmartThings cloud platform. Early on, I didn't have many issues with it, but the last few months of 2018, it was prone to downtimes and delays. Several times, we couldn't control our lights, or there would be sporadic issues with commands being ignored or lights taking a long time to respond. These issues became more and more frustrating as they became more and more frequent. To me, the unreliability of the cloud is what's really holding back the smart home. I want lights to turn on or off as quickly as they do with a physical switch, and that just wasn't the case. Even when the cloud was performing at full capacity, there was still a small but noticeable delay in comparison to flipping a switch. Support tickets to SmartThings also took weeks to turn around, and with all these issues, I felt like the platform was not going to be the best long-term option for our home.

Home Assistant: Better, Faster, Stronger

Enter Home Assistant. I had heard about it for a few months and saw a few recommendations for it online, but I wasn't keen on trying to start over from scratch again. However, I received a Raspberry Pi for Christmas, with the original intention of using it to integrate our Chromecast devices with SmartThings. With the ongoing SmartThings issues, though, I took the plunge on Home Assistant (after also researching the competing OpenHAB and Domoticz). I set it up in late December, and it took surprisingly little time to move all of my main devices and automations over. Over the next few months, I finished moving all of my devices over, and have far surpassed what I ever had in SmartThings. I honestly regret not making the move sooner.

I'm now a year into serious home automation, with the first six months spent with SmartThings and the rest with Home Assistant. While SmartThings is marketed more to the typical consumer, and Home Assistant has a little bit of a steeper learning curve, I do think that Home Assistant can be setup and used by just about anyone. It's one of the most accessible open source projects I've worked with, with a very active and supportive community. Some open source communities I've seen in the past can be a bit stuck up, and pride themselves on being advanced for the average user, but Home Assistant is the opposite. They have the expressed goal of bringing home automation to the masses. They are technically still in beta, not having released version 1.0 yet, but generally releases are very stable and they've made great strides in making configuration very user friendly and straightforward. Version 1.0 is also coming very soon.

Once you have Home Assistant set up and you are comfortable with it, it is far, far more capable as a platform than what SmartThings can provide. First and foremost, everything is processed locally. Lights turn on and off almost instantly. It finally feels as fast as a physical switch. In addition, Home Assistant integrates with a tremendous number of platforms (1442 as of this writing), and since it's open-source, people are contributing new integrations with each release. Home Assistant also has a beautiful, highly customizable, and mobile-first front-end. Finally, there are multiple ways to create basic or advanced automations, all of which integrate extremely tightly with the underlying platform.

This post just scratches the surface on what I've done so far, but I'm very pleased with the smart home I've created to this point. Look for future posts to go into much greater deal on some of the things I've created, from lighting automations, to a white noise machine, to a universal remote control, and much more. And there's even more I have planned for the future, so check back soon!

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