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Vera Lite, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Automation

  • 24 January 2015
  • Author: Dan Santee
  • Number of views: 2388
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Vera Lite, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Automation

Two years ago, I made a purchase which I assumed would be a fun project for a couple of weeks.  I now have over 125 home automation related devices which monitor and regulate many of the systems here at Casa Santee.

My original purchase was for one Mi Casa Verde VeraLite Home Controller, two GE/Jasco Z-Wave switches and one GE/Jasco Z-Wave outdoor plug-in receptacle.  The original idea of this system was to automate my outdoor lights in two groups - the porch/garage lights which would turn on at dusk and off at 1:00, and my flag/path lights which would stay on until dawn.  The switches replace the in-wall switches for the exterior lights, and the plug-in receptacle is what the low-voltage landscape light controller plugs into.

The system is pretty simple to get set up.  If you're comfortable replacing a switch or an outlet in your home, this is no more difficult - but there are some minor differences.  You'll need to make sure that you have a neutral wire in the box where the switch lives.  This is standard in most modern homes (my house built in the 1980s has them, my previous house build in the 1960s had them, but my house from the 1940s did not), but codes and electricians vary, so be sure to check first.  If you don't have a neutral, there are other options available to you - you can run an additional neutral wire all the way back to your electrical panel, or you can use a switch which does not require a neutral line, such as the GE/Jasco Z-Wave Dimmable Wall Switch.  The reason for the neutral is because the switch itself requires electricity to run, which must be drawn from your home's wiring.  In the case of the neutral, it can simply use that to bleed off the power it requires, but in the case of the dimmer, it will run it though the lights themselves - which means it won't work with non-dimmable LED or CFL bulbs.  The switches use very little energy (measured less than 1 watt), and can generally control about 500 watts.

I chose Z-Wave because of it's reliability.  Z-Wave devices which are not battery powered (switches and outlets, mostly) act as repeater-bridges and create a mesh network - this means that if a device is too far from the hub to communicate reliably, it can simply use another device to help carry the information back and forth.  This is accomplished by pairing the devices with the hub (not unlike the way you pair a Bluetooth headset to a phone) and then allowing the network to "heal" itself.  This is a very cool process where devices go out and find each other, then report back to the hub to create a fast and reliable communications system.  If you add or remove a device, the network with pick it up and add it to the mesh.

Z-Wave is also bidirectional.  I used to have some X10 devices for lighting, but found it frustrating that if anything goes wrong, you'll never know about it.  The controller sends a command ("Turn the porch light on") and you basically have to hope that it worked.  If not, the porch light just doesn't turn on, and you have no way to find that out without going and looking at the light.  Z-Wave, on the other hand, sends an acknowledgement back to the hub to report the new status, so you'll know if devices are on or off.  In some cases, light switches can also be used to control unrelated devices.  For example, I have two back doors, each with a light.  If one is turned on, the controller sees that I turned the light on, and turns the other one on, as well.  It's very handy.

There are many home automation controllers (the brains of the system) on the market, such as the SmartThings Hub, which can create scenes (such as my porch light example above) and turn things on and off at preset times.  Most also allow you to use a remote or a cell phone to control your lights.  If you're looking for a way to control a few lights, that's probably the way to go.  The Vera is a different  beast - there are many ways to interact with and program the hub, and there are many (many, many) plugins available to talk to non-automation devices.  This allows for a whole host of possibilities in automation - one of my earliest successes was the ability to query my home theater AV receiver for status and change the lights accordingly.  So, when I turn it to Xbox, the lights are set in a certain way, but when I switch the AVR to Movie, they turn down much more for a more theater-like experience.  The Vera forums are quite active, and one of the best things I read there was "It's not Home Remote Control, it's Home Automation".  To me, this means that I want my home automation experience to be as hands-off as possible, using sensors and devices I already interact with to make intelligent choices about what I'll need, and turn devices I'm not using off to save energy.

I'll touch on my home automation design as I go along, as it's a bit of a hobby of mine to continually increase the "smartness" of my home.  If you're interested in doing something like this, I have one piece of advice:  Start small and build gradually - it will allow you to learn how you use your setup and tailor it to your needs and wants - plus spread out the cost a bit.

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