After living with the Samsung SmartThings Wi-Fi hub functionality for a few weeks, it’s time to move on. Well, sort of. I like how Samsung’s product is running my smart home currently, so I’m not abandoning it.
Instead, I’ll be looking at a more DIY approach on a limited basis because it’s been a long time since I’ve done that. And by “DIY”, I mean installing open source software on a Raspberry Pi, then configuring and maintaining it myself, which is very different from a retail solution such as SmartThings, Wink, or Hubitat and the like.
There are a few options in this space but I’ll be going with Home Assistant, which, if its forums are any indication, has a fairly robust community. And this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to implementing a very hands-on smart home system. In 2010, I installed a headless server (read: a server without a monitor that could only be accessed through a network connection) and set my smart home up with Insteon products. I remember the amount of effort and technical knowledge it took back then, so I’m curious about the more modern experience of Home Assistant.
But I’m also coming into this project with several questions because the landscape today is far different than it was back in 2010.
Today we see more products gravitating towards near-ubiquitous radio and protocol solutions such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Apple’s HomeKit platform has standardized on those two, for example. And some lighting products have moved away from using Zigbee, which requires a supporting hub or bridge device, turning instead to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Take the C by GE Wi-Fi bulbs and switches or Philips Hue choosing Bluetooth for its next-generation bulbs as two recent examples. These choices are likely due to the proliferating of voice assistants that can easily support devices built with these radios.
That’s very different from a decade ago when X10 and other proprietary protocols were used. So I’m wondering if a DIY smart home is really even worth it for most people when a simpler solution may just be to buy a retail hub, Google Home or Amazon Echo product and move on.
One could easily argue that Home Assistant or a similar open source product gives you more control over your smart home, keeps your data local and supports a wider range of products. And there’s merit to each of these advantages. But another question I have is: How much longer will that be the case?
Google, Amazon, and others are already working on local control for smart home devices, so I suspect in the not too distant future, that advantage begins to diminish in a DIY smart home.
Hubitat already keeps your data in house, for example; there’s no cloud component so your data stays with you and your smart home continues to function if there’s an internet outage.
In terms of supported products, when you have open source contributors that are passionate about the smart home, you often find some new code or script that will let your new smart bulb, switch or lock work.
But I haven’t been pondering the purchase of a new smart product that didn’t seem to have SmartThings support. And when I have in the past, I was able to find someone in the SmartThings community that built a script in the Groovy language used by SmartThings for custom device handler software. So, at least when it comes to Samsung, there’s a robust community there.
This test of Home Assistant over the coming weeks should be eye-opening. Not just for the actual installation, configuration, and use, but also for what key benefits it brings to my smart home. My hope is to get a better feel for the DIY approach in 2020, sharing my thoughts along the way.
So while I dust off my trusty old Raspberry Pi, I’m curious to hear from current DIY smart home folks. Is the experience still better for your smart home as compared to the retail, off-the-shelf products or have those plug-and-play solutions caught up in your opinion?
Mike Salerno says
I was a wink user for a long time then bounced around to Smartthings then hubitat only to find a he with Home Assistant. I have not had a better working smart home and could not be happier.
Home Assistant however is not for the common user. It takes a lot of time and research to get to a place where you are happy but there is something satisfying about it in the end.
You might find your rpi to lacking the horsepower if it’s an older one. Be aware of it’s constraints when considering that.
Kevin C Tofel says
Agreed, Gary. I noticed that when reviewing the Home Assistant site earlier in the week. I just hit my local MicroCenter for the newest Raspberry Pi with 4 GB of memory. Thanks!
Thomas Laurenson says
Welcome to the Home Assistant family!!!
You should find us a fairly welcoming and helpful bunch.
I am not an expert in all things Home Assistant, although I have been using it for a number of years now, but if there is anything at all that I can help you with I will be more than happy to do my best to point you in the right direction.
I have been using Home Assistant for a few years now (upgraded from Domotiga and my own python script prior to that).For me the key advantage of Home assistant versus other already made solutions is the wide list of supported integrations and the not being tied in a specific ecosystem.
For example it’s possible to have both Google Home and Amazon Echo in the same ecosystem. This would not be possible otherwise
I hope you have fun testing, I’m eagerly waiting to read comments on your findings / experience
Kevin C Tofel says
Good to hear, Laurent! I generally rely on Google Home for the most part but I’ll test having both digital assistant platforms in the mix. Cheers!
I have a Home Assistant setup at my apartment, working seamlessly together with my Google Homes, so I can have best of both worlds. To give an example of the more control you have with home Assistant. I setup a system that if it’s past 10pm and the dishwasher goes from using high amount of energy to a very low amount of energy for more than 5 minutes (means it’s done), Home Assistant turns off the TP Link smart plug I have, to turn off my dishwasher. This also works with the washing machine.
Kevin C Tofel says
Nice! Sounds like you can definitely get some complex automations together with Home Assistant. That’s a stumbling block currently with most store-bought platforms IMO.
Yes, I don’t see the Google home do that any time soon. The combination is great though, because you have the power of the Home Assistant scripts (and Python) and the expertise of Google for voice recognition
I only have a hive hub but also a wide mix of other providers. I’ve been using home assistant for a while now and it’s great. There’s a plugin for alexa/google integration which helps.
Adding automation is quite simple in HA, you can make lights flash when a 3d printer finishes printing or even have automatic bank savings via IFTTT based on solar panel generation!
I still think you will be amazed by the potential of Home-Assitant. I’ve been using it since past 6 months and journey so far is awesome.
Home Assistant is a ton of fun. The primary benefits for me are the custom GUI design options and the automations… mostly the automations. Moving from “remote controlled” home to “smart” home is, as you say, eye-opening. Be sure to check out the Node Red add-on and the new Almond integration. Looking forward to your conclusions.
John Cromer says
With home assistant, you don’t need to be worried about being trapped in the Google or Amazon ecosystem.
you don’t need to be worried about the lack of functionality but only about how to implement the functionality.
there’s a robust community and it doesn’t get better than using the discord group to get instantaneous crowdsourced technical support what you don’t get with Google or Amazon
Local services may very well be more expensive and less functional than cloud services. But inevitably those cloud services will uptake their subscription fees and end up costing more in the long run.
Lastly there are advanced functionalities that can save real money which proprietary hubs are not tuned in for and may never be. while there is still plenty of room in this market for generic functionalities to be rolled out across every home, at some point people want a more customized experience. Companies don’t use wix.com to build their websites, they build custom websites.
Google and Amazon are like the wix of home automation. Very good for getting people into it and rapid deployment but ultimately there’s a lot more customization needed.
It’s just that the industry is so immature at this point that only techies are able to do this stuff on their own.
but I would not compare home assistant to Google or Amazon and fact many home assistant installs will work with Google or Amazon for optimal network configuration such as voice commands. instead I would compare home assistant to control4, and incredibly expensive and high-end home automation platform which offers no more value than home assistant.
I do not really see contractors getting into installing Google home automation platforms or Amazon home automation platforms because they are relatively easy DIY products with relatively poor performance because of that. In short, battery-powered devices suck. But I can absolutely see I am home builders looking at a platform like home assistant and saying finally I can deliver home automation without control4 paywalls, with contractor services being we’re home assistant has plenty of room to grow compared to more entry level platforms.
For those still following along, I’ll end with an example. Levll is a thermostat + energy monitoring and controls system powered by home assistant. Whereas nest can save money by adjusting the thermostat when you leave, and since can supposedly save money by letting you see your energy consumption, Levll actively regulates your electrical consumption as a function of your utility electric rate structure regardless of if you’re at home or away, for substantially greater cost savings then Nestor sense by themselves… At about the same price. It is the more advanced functions that offer real value when it comes to home automation and I do not see an average consumer getting their on their own even with an easy to set up cloud platform like Amazon or Google.
So I don’t think it’s the consumer who will be choosing home assistant as far as widespread adoption goes. I think it will be the professional building services community instead, seeking something valuable enough that they can actually sell and install.
Plug and play solutions like smarthings, apple, Google, and Amazon have a very long way to go in terms of catching up with the likes of home assistant. I’ve been an avid home automation enthusiast since the days of x10. Since I’ve caught up with home assistant about 2 years ago I’ve watched as it has expanded to such a beautiful system. Recently I’ve been switching away from zigbee and zwave products which just seem so overpriced especially since it requires an added hub. Lately I’ve been switching over my devices to wifi. I recently purchased a bunch of Martin Jerry wifi switches and started replacing all the switches in my home at an affordable $16/switch. Before I was paying $35-$50/switch for zwave. Wifi seems instant so no regrets in terms of speed.
As for home assistant you have add-ons and plugins that can really make home assistant shine. I have an add-on called “adguard” that allows me to have a network wide adblocker. Custom layout cards that let me create interactive overviews of my home in 3d. Lovelace cards that let me create the frontend UI that I’ve always wanted. I get notifications on my phone when friends I play overwatch with come online along with my lights blinking special colors for each friend. Node red add-on makes creating automations a breeze compared to any other system I’ve dealt with in my past.
A recent automation I created takes my heart rate from Tasker then inputs it I to home assistant using my miiband fitness tracker. From there home assistant writes the bpm to a file which my PC is using as a network share to my nuc that houses home assistant. This let’s me use streamlabs OBS to display my heart rate to my viewers while I’m streaming my game sessions to twitch.
Soon I’ll be able to tap into wifi rtt built into my Google routers and pixel phone to show an avatar of each person in my house on my 3d overlay and enact automations on a user base spending on where they are at and using a hierarchy system to determine what happens when multiple people are in the same room.
There’s just so many endless possibilities that home assistant brings to the table I could never see going back to such systems like smarthings, etc.
Also don’t forget to check out the subreddit for home assistant and the discord as well where you can get super fast support by the members.
Nick C says
I’ve been using Home Assistant since 2016 and have loved the experience overall. I am however the type of person who enjoys tinkering and DIY projects and don’t mind spending a few hours here and there chasing down a configuration issue or implementing a new feature.
I think the barrier of entry for a DIY home automation system remains too high to recommend to the average user. Most people COULD learn enough to fully set up and customize a Home Assistant or openHAB install but they probably wouldn’t WANT to.
These systems come with an unmatched level of power and flexibility that you can’t achieve with most commercial solutions (full local control of devices, the ability to send custom Alexa notifications throughout your house among many others) however a lot of time will be spent setting all that functionality up and troubleshooting the issues that are bound to result. If someone doesn’t naturally enjoy that sort of work it’s going to be a chore and that defeats the spirit of the smart home.
I think that’s OK though… there will always be those who are willing to put in some sweat equity to achieve a smart home that is just a little bit smarter than what is available commercially and those that just want something that works and makes their life a little bit easier. Bother commercial and DIY solutions will continue to get better over time so I think everyone will win.
Ed Waller says
Bravo on your desire to explore this feature-rich HA tool. Be forewarned: The raspberry Pi is a great little machine and is attractive in its economy of size and energy. However, it’s Achilles heel is it’s storage. More accurately, it’s storage reliability. SD cards limited write-cycles can render your DIY hub a useless paperweight in surprisingly short order. The more complex your HA network, the more the Pi will use up those precious writes. If you insist on going this way, I suggest getting a robust small form factor PC, run Ubuntu on it, and run the HassOS in a virtual machine of your choice – Docker, VMWare, VirtualBox.
Home Assistant is awesome! I use it myself. Like anything of a mission-critical nature, It’s only as good as it’s weakest link.
Kevin C Tofel says
Thanks for the insight, Ed. I just bought a new Pi 4 that I’ll use for testing. If I decide to keep HA around for the long haul, I think I’ll take your suggestion and get a dedicated SFF device. Cheers!
Ed’s right. I started with a Pi too. If you want to keep Home Assistant around (that’s going to be a good choose btw), you should definitely take a more capable device. I moved to an old laptop with Ubuntu and docker after a month ?. Good luck Kevin
Hi Kevin, I’d say you’re starting your HA adventure at a good time. A lot of work has gone into the onboarding process for HA as well as rounding out the UI capabilities with the intent of disconnecting the UX from yaml authoring.
I would however suggest you view the Pi as a stop gap. While it can run HA and add-ons, the SD wear out issue can disrupt your domestic bliss. Most users are heading for VM or NUC hardware. I myself use a nice HP Elitedesk 800 G1 micro (total cost £60). A beefier system than the Pi is beneficial especially when you start “adding on”.
Short note…been a significant name change recently to the homeassistant product. What was Hassio is now Homeassistant…that’s what you should look for but some documentation will still refer to Hassio.
Homeassistant was renamed to Homeassistant Core, this is the bare product and is not recommended for your technical level…no disrespect intended.
Homeassistant (Hassio) is what you should look to install.
Good luck with HA, I look forward to hearing about your exploits.
Kevin C Tofel says
Good to know, Gary; thanks!
Agreed. While I don’t have much experience with anything other than Home Assistant I can say their UI has vastly improved over the last couple years. Most things can be accomplished without directly editing config files. I run a mixed bag of devices including Zwave, Zigbee, and wifi devices. Lights, switches and sensors both commercial and home built. You can even build automations and add new integrations straight from the GUI.
Edit to my comment above re: using Homeassistant(Hassio). I see someone above has mentioned HassOs. This is a much better suggestion, an option I had forgotten about. Homeassistant(was Hassio) is basically a collection of docker containers that facilitate running, managing and expanding Homeassistant Core. HassOs is a dist with everything you need to get started, already setup and configured. Just download, burn and run. You should be up and running in no time.
This is clearly the quickest and simplest route to getting start.
These names are still confusing. The rename was to implemented to reduce this confusion but while still in transition, I can see where people were put off.
Agreed. While I don’t have much experience with anything other than Home Assistant I can say their UI has vastly improved over the last couple years. Most things can be accomplished without directly editing config files. I run a mixed bag of devices including Zwave, Zigbee, and wifi devices. Lights, switches and sensors both commercial and home built. You can even build automations and add new integrations straight from the GUI. Currently I’m running a Raspberry pi3b booting from an SSD hat to avoid sdcard corruption.
Fantastic article! I look forward to finding the follow up.
I was Wink user for many years. Then in February I switched everything over to Hubitat. And I have been really happy with that choice.
I’ve connected the Hubitat to HomeBridge which has allowed me to use my devices with Apple’s HomeKit. The Hubitat also allows me to connect to Alexa’s ecosystem as well.
M bucken says
Stacey, Kevin, any updates on your experience here? Did you do a summary that I’ve missed. Thanks!