I've been interested in home automation since 2000, when I was a freshman in college. Anyone using the internet at that time remembers X10, a company that seemed to be the sole advertiser on the entire web and dominated banner and popup ads. Even worse, X10 focused their ads on pervs who wanted to set up small cameras to spy on women (it was a weird time for the internet). These ads rarely focused on the neat home automation tech they sold, which let you turn on your lights (and dim them) with a remote control. I bought a kit and soon enough I had my dorm room lights on remote, able to turn on my string lights, desk lamp, and lava lamp without leaving my seat (yup, it was a clichéd dorm room).
Fast forward to around 2012. I'd been using X10 technology in every place I'd lived for 12 years, and it was getting to the point where the tech was outdated and frustrating to use. X10 was invented, after all, in 1975, and [primarily] sends command signals through your home's power lines to the various modules you've installed. This method is flawed, as power lines can be noisy so sometimes signals don't get through. There's better alternatives to X10 out there today, and that's when I tried out ZWave.
ZWave is a licensed standard, with modules and devices manufactured by a number of companies. Some you've heard of (Leviton, Shlage), others you probably haven't (Linear, Evolve, Intermatic). ZWave has several significant advantages over X10, primarily that it uses a wireless mesh network to get signals to all the devices. Most ZWave devices act as repeaters for the command signals, and communication is verified to make sure that all the devices respond. ZWave is far faster and much more reliable than X10.
The biggest downside to ZWave when compared to X10 is the cost. There are ebay stores where you can get X10 lamp modules for $5 each, whereas a ZWave Leviton light switch might set you back $80 to $120. There are affordable ZWave devices, though, and I'll outline them here. The reliability of ZWave completely justifies the cost of the hardware.
If you're interested in a ZWave network, here's what you need to get started:
- Controller - this is the device that creates your network. You pair it to your devices, and configure everything using the controller. I use the Vera Lite controller from a company called Mi Casa Verde (MCV). I recommend that or the Vera 3, but the Lite version should be all you need.
Vera Lite: goo.gl/IAG1Xk
Vera 3: goo.gl/lvyQde
- Devices - the most common ZWave device categories are light switches, lamp modules, thermostats, and door locks. Here are some examples:
Linear light switch: goo.gl/M2W8cW (this one is the best value, IMO. It's the least expensive ZWave switch I've seen that has a neutral wire connection. This is for two way switches only, though, not 3-way).
GE lamp module: goo.gl/OnlgkD (I've been using these for years and they're great devices. This model can dim, and there's an on/off version you can use for fluorescent lights and appliances)
Thermostat: goo.gl/qnnyGe (I use this Trane model)
Kwikset door lock: goo.gl/BOlXdm (this is just a deadbolt model, but there are others with a lever)
All you really need in order to get started is the controller and a single device. Vera will ask you to create a free account that you can use to access your system remotely. Once that's done, all you do is take the Vera controller around to where you've installed your ZWave device(s) and pair them (usually by pressing one button on the device - that's it). This is done so the controller can get an idea of where all the devices are located and what the best routes are for the signals that get sent around your home. Once the device is paired with the controller, you're set to do whatever you like with it. Turn it on/off, set it to precise dim levels (0-100%), create scenes (to combine multiple devices), and create automation triggers for the lights and scenes (based on time, behavior of other devices, etc.).
From there you can do an incredible amount of things with any of the devices you add. Here are some examples of the types of things I do with my home automation setup:
- The following happens every day: My outside lights turn on at sunset, no matter what time of year it is. A little after sunset a few lamps (with LED bulbs to save energy) turn on as a security measure. When my wife and I go to sleep, I initiate a "Good Night" scene that turns out all the lights in my home, locks the front door, sets the thermostat to a comfortable level, and turns off the front porch light. Then at sunrise our garage light turns off.
- At 6 times during the day, my cat feeder dispenses food.
- I have 4 scenes I use most often. When I get home I tap the "Evening" scene, which turns on all the lights on our main floor for a nice, livable atmosphere. When we sit down for dinner at the TV or the table, I start a scene that lowers all the lights in our main living area to a pleasant dining atmosphere, and turns off lights in parts of the main floor where we aren't going to be for the rest of the evening (the front hallway, for example). I then have a scene for watching TV, which lowers the lights even further. Lastly, I have a "Movie" scene, which turns off most lights and lowers the others to minimum levels needed to get up and find the bathroom :)
- On a similar note, I have a scene set up for those 3am trips to the restroom. The "Sleepy" scene turns on the lights in the bathroom and the hallway to our bathroom to the 2-5% level, which is just enough to find your way but not enough to hurt your eyes. I also have a scene for early morning wakeup times that slowly ratchets up the brightness levels in our bathroom, giving our eyes time to adjust.
- A "Going Out" scene turns all the lights off, locks the front door, and sets the thermostat to heat at much lower temps and cool at much higher temps.
- When I put in the code for my front door, it unlocks and the lights in my front hallway turn on long enough for me to make my way into my house, then they turn off again.
- When we're out of town and I have someone coming to check on our pets, I give them a new, unique front door code that only works during the hours I set and sends me an email when they've come.
- I have NFC tags in various places around my house. I can tap my phone against these tags and initiate a scene command. I also have a tag in my car, so that when I'm headed home I can tap against it and let my house know that it should make the temperature comfortable again.
In the past, I've been negative towards products like Nest and Hue because they were proprietary devices that didn't interact with any other home automation products. As a user, I didn't want to go into separate apps to control my house, and I want all my devices to be able to talk to each other (without using 3rd party services like IFTTT). Fortunately, there's a fantastic community of people all figuring out ways to do cool things with their automation products, and several of them have found ways to control the Nest and Hue products from within Vera, which will give you that control I was missing. I'm still not a fan of Nest and Hue mostly due to their cost, but at least they will work with ZWave devices now. With some work, Vera can also work with X10 and Insteon devices.
Here are some other ZWave recommendations:
Outdoor module: goo.gl/NlGwYp (I use these to turn my Christmas lights on and off)
3-way dimmer switch: goo.gl/aNu8Zs (made by GE, you can also get these at Lowes. The only problem with this inexpensive model is that it doesn't use a neutral wire, so you can't put LED bulbs in the fixtures)
On/off switch: goo.gl/UW80Oj (use these for fluorescent lamps, appliances, bathroom fans, or switchable outlets. I use one of these to turn on/off a ceiling fan. Never use a dimmer switch for a switchable outlet)
On/off module: goo.gl/xI0SXJ (just for on/off and no dimming. I use this to turn my cat feeder on and off, or to control an air purifier).
Water/freeze sensor: goo.gl/ytQK1G (great if you have a basement that floods - like mine!)
Motion/temperature/humidity/light sensor: goo.gl/8XTxMy (this one is quirky to set up but does a lot!)
The Vera community has been invaluable to me as a resource. There are some really capable people there: forum.micasaverde.com/
- Android app:
My absolute favorite mobile app for Vera is called "Authomation HD." You can find it on the Play Store here: goo.gl/ZMNF9I
Sadly, the iOS apps are a little lacking, but I haven't played with some of the alternatives available. Vera has their own app on Android and iOS, but it's pretty basic.
- The difficulty of setup. The average consumer is not going to change their light switches, for example.
- The cost. The least expensive ZWave switch on the market sells on ebay for about $22 (I don't recommend it, but search ebay for Intermatic and you'll find some sales with six switches for around $130). My favorite switch is nearly $40, so just switching out ten switches in your home costs $400. The only reason I was able to start my system on a small budget was because Radio Shack ran a firesale on their ZWave stock in ~2012 and I could pick up a lamp module for $10.
If home automation is a hobby that you're willing to invest funds, time, and research into, you'll get a lot out of it. If you have questions about ZWave, please ask me or visit the forum I linked to here.