It’s not science fiction anymore. Home automation is here already, if not complete home automation. For that you would need to go to Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains. But automation enough for your immediate needs is available.
Here’s what is available: Home automation can give your home a lived in appearance even when you are away. It can do that by turning lights on and off on a computer-controlled schedule so that from the outside it does not appear you just have your lights on a timer. It can respond to various sources of stimulus, such as motion detectors and temperature sensors and activate lights and other appliances as appropriate. A home automation system can also incorporate a compatible thermostat and a security video camera.
Various home automation technologies are available, including X-10 and Z Wave. X-10 has been around for maybe 30 years, and its components communicate with each other through the house’s electrical wiring. Z Wave technology is newer and uses a low-power radio network. I have previously used some X-10 components, but I’m only going to discuss Z Wave. In particular, this discussion will involve a low-end controller called VeraLite.
VeraLite is a product of Micasaverde (my green home). As expected, it’s the light implementation of Micasaverde’s offering. The VeraLite controller is a computer that internally runs a version of the Linux operating system. The unit is about the size of a Big Mac sandwich and has only three connections: a power connector, a USB port and an Ethernet port. The unit communicates with the controlled devices through its built-in radio transceiver, and the Ethernet is only used to connect it to your computer to allow you to perform management operations. Once set up, the VeraLite will perform all its management functions independently of your computer. See the photo.
VeraLite in the armoire
I stuck my VeraLite on a shelf in an armoire, right below the beach towels. The power cord runs out the back of the armoire to the outlet on the wall. See the photo.
Here the power supply is plugged into the top outlet, and a Zyxel power line-Ethernet adapter is plugged into the other outlet. The Ethernet adapter allows me to connect to the VeraLite for management without bringing my computer over. Power consumption is quite minimal. The VeraLite will operate off four AA batteries (shown in the photo), so there is no heat build up inside the closed cabinet.
The important thing about Z Wave and other industry-standard automation systems is that products from all manufacturers are compatible. The various units communicate not only with the controller but also with each other. One feature allows a switch near the controller to relay communications to another switch that is too far away to communicate directly with the controller. I have the VeraLite controller from Micasaverde, and I have purchased switches and electrical receptacles by GE-Jasco. The photo below shows a typical power receptacle installation.
This unit goes for about $42 (prices vary from week to week) from Amazon and replaces your existing duplex receptacle. You need to go to Home Depot or Lowes and get the wall plate with the rectangular cutout if your existing wall plate is the two-hole type. A wall plate does not come with the unit, since you will not know what kind of wall plate you need until you figure out where you’re going to install the unit.
The upper outlet is not automated. It’s a standard outlet, always powered on. You plug a lamp in there if you don’t want it to be turned on and off automatically. The bottom outlet is controlled through the Z Wave radio network. Immediately above the electrical plug in the photo is a blue indicator light. When the bottom outlet is energized, the light is off. When power is cut to the bottom outlet the blue light comes on. The unit will handle most kinds of loads that are plugged into living area walls. Don’t run a power saw or a vacuum cleaner off the automated outlet.
The Z Wave light switches replace existing switches on your wall. Z Wave switches are offered only in the paddle rocker style as shown in the following photo.
These paddle rocker switches work by pressing either the top section or the bottom section of the rocker. These are single switches as opposed to the three-way switches for controlling a single load from two different switches. Pressing the rocker is a momentary action that activates either the on function (top) or the off function (bottom). The Z Wave signal only sends the on and off commands and does not cause the rockers to move. When the switch is on, the indicator light is off. When the switch is off, the blue light is on.
Besides that, the VeraLite controller will detect when the switch is off and when it is on. So, your home automation can turn a light off, but then you can override that by manually turning the light back on, and the VeraLite will get the signal that the switch is now on. There is a similar feature with the power outlets. Next to the blue light there is a push button. Pushing the button toggles the state of the controlled outlet. Pushing the button turns an off outlet back on or an on outlet back off. The blue light indicates the status of the outlet, and the VeraLite is informed of the status of the outlet.
You need to connect your computer to the VeraLite controller through your home network. Your computer will need to be connected to a router or an Ethernet hub that is also connected to the VeraLite. My experience is that my router wanted to assign the VeraLite only to network address 192.168.1.100.
I can also connect to cp.mios.com and set a VeraLite account. When I do that and log in to my account my computer connects to the VeraLite control panel. Here is what the VeraLite control panel looks like in my browser.
This shows my system with the first device I added to my home automation. It’s a duplex power receptacle, and the default name (see the figure at the bottom of the photo) is _Appliance Module. You can and should change that name by clicking on and editing the name. Give your device a name that will remind you where the device is and what it does. You’re going to wind up with a bunch of devices, and you need to keep them straight.
Here’s my control panel after I added and named a few more devices and also added some scenes:
Control panel with scenes
What’s shown here is the Web page presented by the VeraLite. The VeraLite incorporates a Web server and interacts with the management computer through an HTTP session. If I had my choice the control console page would not be pastel blue on white. The low contrast makes viewing difficult in a bright room on my computer. To create this image I converted the Web page to a JPEG and used Photoshop to jazz up the colors.
This page displays an assortment of devices and scenes. A device in this case is represented by a small lamp icon in the left side of the device icon. A scene is represented by a movie clapper board icon in the left side of the scene icon. All the devices I have are lights or electrical outlets, and the page shows the status of each device, Off or On.
Note the above image shows the DASHBOARD tab. To get started with automation click on the AUTOMATION tab.
This image is the AUTOMATION tab showing only existing scenes. Here is a short explanation of the scene concept:
- A scene represents a configuration of a collection of devices. Only devices you select are included in a scene. For example, my Front Security On scene designates both outside front lights On. My Front Security Off scene designates both outside front lights Off.
- Nothing happens until a scene is activated. No lights or receptacles are turned on or off until the scene controlling them is activated. In the above page you can activate the Front Security On scene by clicking the scene icon’s Run button. That will turn the two outside front lights on, whether they were on or off previously.
- To manage a scene you need to bring up the management page for the scene. See the image below.
- Bring the cursor over the scene icon and the three control icons will appear. The thumbtack icon is used to pin (always show) or unpin (only show when relevant) the scene icon on different pages. The trashcan icon means delete this scene. The wrench icon means open a window to manage this scene. See the next image. I put the cursor over the scene icon to show its control icons, but the cursor doesn’t show, because it disappears when I print the Web page.
Activating scene edit
Click on the wrench icon to open the scene control panel.
Setting devices for a scene
The page shows the Front Security On scene and the devices available for use. In this view all device buttons are grayed out, because no devices are selected. If you want a device state (on/off) included in this scene you need to click on the device On or Off button and confirm the changes. Now whenever this scene is activated (run scene) for any reason those devices will be set to the designated states. To remove a device from a scene click on the x in the device icon. Click the Confirm changes button to save the changes. In the following image the switch states have been selected.
There are three principal ways to activate a scene:
- Run the scene from the control panel on your computer or by using a hand-held controller (purchased separately).
- Set up a schedule for the scene. See the SCHEDULES tab in the image above.
- Set up a trigger for the scene. See the TRIGGERS tab in the image above.
Also, a scene can be activated after a delay. You run the scene directly, from a schedule or from a trigger, and the scene does not activate until after the specified delay. Notice the Immediate drop-down in the image above. By default this shows Immediate, but another selection is from any number of delays you have already defined for the scene. To define a delay, select the drop-down and from the menu select the bottom option, Manage Delays. Delays can be defined in combinations of hours, minutes and seconds. Once again, multiple delay settings can be defined for a scene, and they are added to the drop-down list as they are created, but only one at a time can be selected from the drop-down menu.
Schedule definitions are fairly flexible with VeraLite.
- While editing the scene select the SCHEDULES tab and either Add Schedule or edit an existing schedule.
- Give the schedule a name so you can identify it when later on you want to invoke it.
- Select from the following:
- Interval based. Every so many hours, minutes and seconds.
- Day of week based. Every combination of Monday through Sunday.
- At a certain time of day.
- At sunrise (VeraLite will calculate when sunrise occurs for that day).
- Before sunrise (hours, minutes, seconds).
- After sunrise.
- At sunset.
- Before sunset
- After sunset
- Day of month based.
- At a specified day and time.
Use the TRIGGERS tab to define triggers to activate the selected scene. While editing the scene, select the TRIGGERS tab. You can create a new trigger or edit an existing trigger (one that has previously been defined for this scene). A typical trigger will be the transition of one of the devices in the Z Wave network. When the rear porch light comes on, for example, for any reason, either because somebody turned it on at the switch or another scene activated the light, then turn off the upstairs bedroom light.
Experimenting with your VeraLite system will give you some experience and also give you some ideas to try out. Additional VeraLite plug-ins are available to provide capability above what comes with the unit.
Getting into VeraLite is fairly painless. I have seen the control units as low as $169 plus tax (free shipping) from Amazon. Basic switch units start around $36, and duplex outlets are around $42. Prices on Amazon seem to vary from week to week, so shop around for the right price and make the buy. Each device exceeds Amazons threshold for free shipping, so order what is cheapest and wait for the more expensive units to go on sale.
What I have not experimented with are 3-way switches and dimmers, both about the same price as a basic switch.
Here are some of the scenes I have implemented to my complete satisfaction:
- Front security. The outside front lights go on several minutes after sunset, and they go off several minutes before sunup.
- Rear security. One of the back porch lights (there are three) goes on about an hour after sunset, then goes off a few minutes later. Then it goes on a few hours later and then goes off before sunrise.
- Various interior lights go on and off during the night.
Schedules 1 and 2 above I run every day. In particular I don’t have to remember to turn the outside front lights off in the morning. Schedule 3 I run when I am out of town overnight. I will purchase additional components to activate interior lights later on. This will give the house an even more lived in appearance at night.