Preamble

After exploring the field of home automation solutions for a while, and after a brief detour with OpenHAB, in mid-2016 I finally settled on Home Assistant as my central home automation hub and haven’t regretted my decision since.

Home Automation Hub

My short episode with OpenHAB unfortunately fell into a bit of a vacuum where version 1 was getting a bit dated and was not developed further, while the development team was clearly focusing on version 2 based on a different underlying framework with a new UI and plenty of new features. I appreciate a system based on a good foundation/framework and being well designed, and I gave some pre-releases a go. But while looking very promising, a final version 2 looked still far away at the time (and indeed it turned out to be ~1 year between the first beta and the final release).

Home Assistant gained a lot of momentum and took a slightly different approach by releasing a new version every 2 weeks with new features and bugfixes. There are integration points into almost anything you can imagine, and the list keeps growing. There is a lot of activity on GitHub and in the support forum with a very active and helpful community.

Peripherals

In terms of actual physical devices required to automate my home, I follow a best-of-breed approach, and since I am fitting out an existing home (as opposed to building a new house where you could get everything in place right from the outset) I am slowly growing my infrastructure as time and budget allows.

Z-Wave

For standard problems I prefer standard solutions. So, for door sensors, motion sensors and light switches I decided to go with Z-Wave devices. The selection is small and the prices are relatively high – at least here in Australia – but setup is easy and the mesh network works quite reliably. Also, the motion sensors I chose can be flush-mounted into the wall, the battery-operated door sensors are neatly mounted into door and frame, and the light switches are small enough to fit into walls.

Philips Hue

For floor lamps, table lamps and similar use-cases where you would normally have to walk through the room to find the switch on the lamp or cable, I decided to go with Philips Hue. Similar to the above, it’s not cheap but it just works, and the selection of colour and white lights and light-strips combined with dimmer switches and the battery-less tap switches is good enough for now.

Since IKEA announced their own Tr√•dfri smart bulbs – which are based on the same Zigbee technology, but not quite yet compatible with Hue -, I am hopeful that their devices can become a cheaper supplement in the future.

Custom Home-made Devices

Now, for all cases where a standard solution is simply not available or too expensive I decided to build my own sensors and actuators.

Originally I started playing around with the MySensors framework and even built a gateway and some sensors. Their website is great, plenty of examples provided, a wide variety of sensors and use-cases covered. However, it turned out that I am good at assembling the devices but not so good at trouble-shooting the electrical bits and in particular the RF components.

Soon after that experiment I discovered ESP8266 boards which appeared to solve the communication bit by simply using a Wifi connection. Admitted, these devices can’t form a mesh network and are less suitable to be battery powered. But I decided to improve my Wifi coverage and find nearby power sources for the devices. The hardware I am using now are WeMos D1 mini Pro combined with sensors and actuators on breakout boards. This combination just requires a few more cables, resistors and connectors to get a device up and running.

When looking for a framework to run these home-made devices, I quickly stumbled upon Homie. It defines a communication protocol based on MQTT messages and the sketches basically look like Arduino sketches salted with a few calls to the Homie framework. I quickly adopted Homie and tried to standardise on how certain sensors are set up and report their values. However, I then quickly realised that I was almost on the way to build myself a framework on top of Homie that allowed me to quickly commission new devices, just without the flexibility and UI provided by another framework that I then discovered: ESPEasy. Since I originally assembled devices based on fairly popular sensors, I could just flash ESPEasy onto my existing devices and use them without further modifications. The integration of the devices into Home Assistant via MQTT is fairly smooth so far.

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