This past weekend, we switched over to Daylight Savings Time and all of my smart devices followed suit. Well, one didn’t: My Samsung SmartThings Hub took an extra 24 hours to adjust, so routines for lights to turn on 15 minutes prior to sunset lit up an hour early. That spurred me to start the Home Assistant project I mentioned a few weeks back.
You need your own hardware for Home Assistant and after reading through several helpful comments on the site here, I opted for a complete Raspberry Pi 4 kit on sale for $113, which includes the latest Pi with 4 GB of memory, a case, all necessary cables, and 64 GB micro SD card. Some commenters noted that you need a fast memory card for long term use, but I decided the included one is fine for now. Eventually, the Pi 4 will be able to run from a speedy external SSD drive, and I happen to have a spare one.
So this week, armed with my hardware, I went through the setup process. And I can tell you that while the instructions are documented quite well, most mainstream consumers would shy away from following them. That’s not a knock on Home Assistant, it’s just an observation on who this product is, and isn’t for, at the moment.
Keep in mind also that you’ll need an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard for the setup; items that not everyone has readily available.
Having used a Raspberry Pi many times prior, I initially thought I’d have to set it up with the Raspian distribution of Linux, which is standard practice for this hardware. I even started to do that, before realizing you don’t need Raspian for Home Assistant.
Instead, you download the Home Assistant software image and flash it to an SD card. Per the Home Assistant instructions, I installed and used the balenaEtcher software for this procedure. I found it easy, but again, non-techies may be intimidated by terms such as “boot image” or “flashing”. It took me just a few minutes to do this, however, and trust me: If you follow the instructions, you can do it too.
With the Home Assistant software image on my SD card, I placed the card in the Pi and booted the hardware up. After several minutes of installation processes, I tried to remotely connect to the Pi using a web browser, which is one of the ways to use the app; there are also mobile apps for Home Assistant.
That didn’t work. But the fault was mine. The instructions do describe how to configure Home Assistant to Wi-Fi but I saw that labeled as an optional step, so I had skipped it. That was dumb on my part because I know that if the Home Assistant software doesn’t have my wireless network credentials, it can’t possibly connect to my Wi-Fi.
So it was back to pulling the SD card out of the Pi and into a laptop to configure Wi-Fi on the Boot partition. This actually wasn’t mounted for me by default, so you might have to know how to mount a partition. Luckily, I do because the instructions don’t explain how to do that.
Next, you have to create a few directories and a text file for this step; again, perhaps intimidating to mainstream consumers. You also have to generate a unique UUID and manually insert it, as well as your Wi-Fi name and password, into the text file.
I did that, saved the file on the SD card and replaced it into the Pi.
This time after bootup, I was able to connect to the Home Assistant server software from my laptop, although there was a hitch.
Trying to connect to http://homeassistant.local:8123 per the instructions didn’t work. The instructions say the alternative is to replace homeassistant.local with the IP address of your Pi. Using my mesh network software, I knew where to look for the Pi’s IP address; typical consumers could get stuck at this step.
Connecting to the IP address worked as advertised for me and I now have Home Assistant set up!
I took a quick look through the software but haven’t configured much other than some of the default information such as my location.
I did notice that Home Assistant automatically found a few of my smart home devices and I labeled them by their appropriate room.
I also tested one Wemo light switch and was able to turn it on and off using the web interface.
I’ll be configuring the rest of my smart home with Home Assistant over the next few days and will share that experience. Overall, I think the setup process is easy but I have a technical background. So does my wife to a lesser degree, and she told me she wouldn’t bother with this; she’d rather have an off the shelf, plug-and-play system.
I suspect many other mainstream people would too, which is a shame. Perhaps the Home Assistant group can create a plug-and-play retail solution with included Raspberry Pi that boots up with just a few prompts (such as Wi-Fi credentials), downloads updates and helps with device setup in a friendly out of the box experience. In any case, my Home Assistant journey has begun!