The Mi Casa Verde experience is built around Vera, an unassuming linux-based WiFi router built upon OpenWRT
with some custom and commercially licensed third-party software. In other words, it's a dream platform for home automation enthusiasts and tinkerers possessed with enough coding knowledge to exploit the platform's open APIs. The second generation Vera is also great for first time home automators. It features a built-in Sigma Designs Z-Wave
module which does away with the sometimes flakey USB Z-Wave dongle required by the first generation Vera. Fortunately, Mi Casa Verde bundles an external battery pack in the box so that you can move Vera into range of fixed Z-Wave devices like built-in wall switches wired into your home's circuitry to create the required association (like pairing, for Bluetooth). The Broadcom BCM5354-based box features a few USB ports for expansion and plugs into your home network via a single Ethernet port. It can be also used in a standalone mode to a manage all your devices.
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
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
By now you might be wondering what Z-Wave is, exactly. Simply put, Z-Wave is a low-power RF mesh networking protocol designed for the purposes of home automation. As such, it communicates between nodes wirelessly (not over the power lines like your father's X-10 home automation gear) with each Z-Wave device capable of acting as a repeater to carry commands beyond the 100 foot maximum line-of-site transmission range. Z-Wave is optimized for low-bandwidth commands like on / off and raise / lower as well as light duty environmental monitoring for temperature, light, and motion, for example. All these attributes combined make it ideal for embedding inside of household devices like light switches, blind controllers, power sockets, thermostats, alarm systems, door locks and even some home theater remote controls and entertainment systems.
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.