How is this possible given all the advances we've seen? Wireless and sensor technology has advanced far beyond what's required to automate a home. Just look at smartphones, for example, that now ship standard with 3G (and even 4G) data, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS radios in addition to sensors for motion, temperature, moisture, proximity, and even direction. We don't have the answer to home automation's dilemma -- to dig into that topic we'd require a few thousand more words, at least. All we know for sure is that the biggie consumer electronics companies are reluctant to sort it out. As such, dozens of small companies are left to deal with a mess created by an industry incapable of coalescing around a set of interoperable home automation standards.
One such company is Mi Casa Verde. A tiny startup that launched its linux-based Vera home automation server back in 2008 with a renewed promise to make home automation setup and control as easy for novices as it is robust for techies and enthusiasts. We've been using a recently launched second generation Vera 2 for a few weeks now. Sure, we haven't quite reached one-button nirvana, but as home automation newbies we're proud to say that we've automated a few helpful in-home lighting situations while skirting the clutches of the Dark Angel sequestered within our fuse box. Better yet, we can control it all from an iPhone -- including the Christmas tree. Click through to see how we did it.
- Works for newbie or advanced automators
- Wide support for industry standards
- Enthusiastic support community
- Native iPhone apps are expensive
- Reading the manual is not optional
- Support wiki feels like a GeoCities design
Of course, Z-Wave isn't the only home automation "standard." Far from it. X-10 has been around forever while relatively new options like ZigBee and Insteon prove yet again that the best part about standards is that there are so many to choose from. Vera really shines in its ability to handle a wide swath of home automation protocols. So in addition to Z-Wave, Vera supports Insteon and X10 devices. Vera also works with TED, AEON, and RCS energy meters giving you a real-time view of your energy consumption. As if that wasn't enough, Vera supports control of any UPnP device and many serial devices like infrared controllers. As first time home automators, we wanted to keep things simple so we only tested Vera with a handful of Z-Wave devices including two light dimmers that wire into the home wiring like conventional wall switches, a battery-powered three-in-one sensor (motion, temperature, and illumination), and two plug-in socket switches allowing you to automate the power delivery to any household device with a plug.
How It Works
The Z-Wave Alliance, established in 2005, claims more than 160 manufacturing partners -- most of whom you've never heard of -- creating a variety of "interoperable" devices built around Zensys (owned by Sigma Designs) chipsets. Unfortunately, Z-Wave devices operate on different frequencies depending upon the region sold. So for example, European Z-Wave devices operate at 868.42MHz making them incompatible with their US equivalents operating at 908.42MHz -- a very real pitfall that can easily trip you up when shopping for the best deal on Z-Wave devices on-line. Even then, it's best to choose tried and true combinations of Z-Wave devices to ensure interoperability. It's also worth noting that you won't find any powerhouse consumer names selling iSwitches or Nexus Sensors at your local big box retail centers. Home automation is still in the hands of specialty manufacturers and on-line shops unless you're willing to throw around some serious cash for a propriety, professionally installed solution.
Each device has to be "paired" or "included" in the Z-Wave network before it can be controlled. Adding devices to Mi Casa Verde's Vera 2 is pretty straight forward. A browser-based wizard can be used to add portable Z-Wave devices like battery-powered remote controls, sensors, and switches -- devices that you can hold within three feet of the Vera 2 for low-power inclusion. Things get a bit more complicated when adding fixed Z-Wave modules like built-in wall dimmers and switches wired into your home's circuitry. Fortunately, Mi Casa Verde includes a small rechargeable battery pack that allows you to power the Vera 2 long enough to add modules in different rooms of the house. In this mode, you must tap the Z-Wave button on the back of the Vera to put it into "include" mode causing the Z-Wave light to flash slowly on the front panel. You can then add each Z-Wave module by triple-tapping (usually, this can vary by device) the appropriate button on the device. Tap Vera's Z-Wave button again when done to save the devices added. You can then reconnect Vera's power and Ethernet cables and begin configuring the newly discovered devices.
- 2x Interact wall dimmer inserts (€61 each)
- 2x Interact Plugin Switches (€49.50 each)
- 1x EZMotion 3-in-1 multisensor (€100)
One thing that makes Vera so compelling to home automators is the free web service that gives you full, "secure" access to Vera from any internet connected device with a browser. It'll even send you email notifications when something happens, like, say, a door is unlocked or a motion sensor is tripped -- it just depends how you configure it. iPhone and iPod touch owners can download a free version of the iVera app to control two lights and two scenes. A whopping $29.99 update gives you full control over all of your devices. There's also the more comprehensive (and complex) SQ Remote app that expands control beyond Vera to any MiOS device (we're told that more are coming from OEMs) and to home entertainment systems via an IR blaster (sold separately). Again, it starts with a limited free version that can be expanded and highly customized for a $29.99 in app purchase. Otherwise, you can always access the Flash-free Vera dashboard from most any smartphone browser or install the custom-built WAP or Smartphone Web Interface Vera plugins from the integrated MiOS Marketplace -- a small app store of sorts. There you'll find interfaces for both generic and Panasonic IP surveillance cameras and Somfy blind controllers and alarm panels. There's even a Squeezebox plugin that gives you the ability to control and monitor your music as long as you're willing to live with the beta classification. But we digress. After testing all of the iPhone access methods we decided to bite the bullet and purchase the $29.99 iVera option as it was the easiest option to setup and use.
Finally, after automating only a very small portion of our home it's clear that an IT background is only half the battle when it comes to automating it. It also helps to have some plumbing, HVAC, and electrical wiring skills in order to stay safe and not destroy the house or the humanity contained within. We've all but given up on attempting to replace a pair of switches wired into a three-way and we're not about to tackle a soldering job just to fit a modern Danfoss RA plus Z-Wave thermostat to an old bathroom radiator. Some jobs are best left to the pros, assuming you can even find one locally experienced with these niche home automation devices.
We also think that Mi Casa Verde's small, yet enthusiastic user community deserves recognition for the value it adds to the Vera experience. The forums are full of active users that include Mi Casa Verde's own employees and affiliates who are more than happy to offer advice or even lend a hand with some advanced scripting for those who are ready for it. And it won't be too long before you shed those tentative ways with Vera 2. True, those first steps will be frustrating and retrofitting the entire house with Z-Wave devices will be costly. So pick a few small projects and build over time. Just don't give up. Seeing the delight in your child's eyes the first time you switch on the christmas tree lights from your cellphone will make it all worthwhile. And safely switching them off again while out of the house will go a long way towards justifying the cost to a reticent spouse. Besides, this hobby is way cheaper than a jetpack.
Special thanks to zwave4u.com for the Z-Wave test gear.