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  • Writer's pictureSimon Salvin

Refining a Smart Home

When we moved in to our apartment in 2015 I set myself the target to make it a smart home, and over the last 6 years its been slowly coming together, but in all honesty its been thrown together. Stepping back and looking at the system as a whole has highlighted a number of issues which over the Christmas period I have had the time to plan, tidy and implement a more fluent system, as I write this its not finished yet but the plan is clear, in my mind at least?

So lets go back to the beginning, it all started with a simple quest, to make my entertainment smarter! I hate remotes, so for a while I’d been using the Roomie app to control our system, it worked well for a number of years but I became frustrated with the ever increasing price subscriptions. Roomie had replaced a Logitech tablet style touchscreen remote, it had more customisations, but whilst I had been using Roomie, Logitech had moved on now offering the Harmony Hub, basically a remote sender using both Infrared and Bluetooth, connected to the network by Wi-Fi with an accompanying iPad remote control app.

I wanted to go one step further and this offered voice control via Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant. So with our SONOS Play:1 speakers we added Echo Dots next to each one and paired them, this way we could ask for music to be played on the speaker, and adding a Dot to the living room allowed us to voice command the TV.

Next came lighting and over time I replaced every light bulb in the apartment with Philips Hue lighting, an app for configuring and controlling with the ability for automated routines and control away from the home.

And of course the switches, to ensure guests weren’t disturbing the system turning off the physical switches which must remain on.

Over time the SONOS Play:1 speakers were updated to One speakers eliminating the need for separate Echo Dots and a SONOS 5.1 system was added to the living room.

Next were the blinds, again over time they were added, the first with a remote control and then as more blinds were installed switched to the Somfy Hub for control by app or voice with Alexa. These were the first major disappointment, discovering the motors only had one way RF communication to the hub, I couldn’t ask for the blinds to be lowered 30%, it was just up, down or one predefined point. I overcame this with a wall switch for each one and automated programming within the hub, turning it into a near perfect positive

Then came the door lock, I chose Nuki as this unit was a bolt on to my existing lock, no need to change any of the handles or locking mechanisms on the door, another app, more automations, but working well.

An Amazon Echo speaker was added to our en-suite bathroom allowing music to be played with account linking to our Apple Music subscription, but again we were losing consolidation, no AirPlay, no linking with SONOS and account switching is just a pain!

As our apartment is all electric, like many purpose built apartment blocks in the UK, heating was the next challenge. The overnight storage heaters had no control and were just plain ugly!

Some may not get excited about heating but we wanted something modern, stylist and controllable, so we opted for the Rointe D Series electric radiators in graphite, with direct Wi-Fi connection, app and Alexa voice controllable. The Alexa voice implementation is so poor, the app control has become the norm.

Cameras and connected smoke alarms were the last items to be added earlier in the year which I previously wrote about. There are all Apple HomeKit compatible and the basis of what is to come.

So you can see, lots of items, lots of apps, certain things work well, others not so well and no central point of control. It all adds up to a big mess! I’m sure many people end up in the same position.

So this is where the consolidation begins!

We are an Apple household, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, Apple TV in every room, it all works seamlessly, so of course this should be the basis for the smart home control.

Without boring you with protocols, the easiest way to explain is Apple has a certification called HomeKit and an App called Home, so everything should be controllable from one app without the need to be constantly switching between apps. It works well, but not perfectly which is accounted to the many different products, protocols and willingness to be adopted within the Apple eco system.

Everything works with Alexa, because its so easy for developers to implement, whether its good or bad, from looking at the reviews you’d come to the conclusion its all bad!

My Home app was a mess, it had created rooms from the information it had pulled from the Philips Hue system, which in its self was a mess as each zone had been created as a room, zoning wasn’t an option at first, and when it was introduced i didn’t implement it as whilst everything worked, why change it? To some extent it still hasn’t been changed much, but the Home app can be reconfigured without affecting configurations elsewhere, so i dived in, moved items in to their correct room locations and deleted unnecessary rooms.

Adding the unsupported items was the next task, the Somfy blinds and the Logitech Harmony activities. With thanks to Stephen Robles from Apple Insider and the fantastic HomeKit Insider Podcast (released every Monday), he suggested I look at HomeBridge, a platform designed exclusively for this task. At first I decided not to venture down this path as the Rointe heating system wasn’t supported, but with careful consideration, continuing to use the Rointe app wasn’t a deal breaker, so I installed HomeBridge on my Mac to see how it worked. It was quick and I was suitably impressed. Their recommended implementation is on a Raspberry Pi Micro Computer, so I placed an order that day, although it hasn’t arrived just yet, that will be an afternoon challenge at the weekend to deploy.

So the final thought was finally ridding myself of the reliance on Alexa, and that hit me right in the middle of taking a shower! Always the right time & place. I had invested in SONOS, it was of course a fairly large expense but so easily replaced. The SONOS One speakers in the kitchen, office & bedroom along with the Echo speaker in the bathroom could all be replaced with Apple HomePod Mini’s. Our voice assistant would finally be one, Hey Siri (or Dingus to quote Stephen Robles). I don’t have to remove the SONOS system in the living room, I rarely listen to music there, its setup for our home cinema, I just turn off the voice assistant feature within. With an iPhone or iPad always available in the living room a request for music can AirPlay to the SONOS Beam. Harmony’s activities can be started with Siri from the HomeBridge implementation and the rest controlled from the iPad app.

The HomePod doesn’t require profile switching, it just knows us from our voice, there’s no account linking for Apple Music, its all in the eco system.

And the used SONOS market is so good we make money in the switch!

I always had the idea that everything must be voice controlled, but in reality it doesn’t, that’s not what makes the Home Smart, its the implementation and the ease of use.

I don’t need to tell the blinds to close, I can, but they are automated from the programming in the hub, they open at 8am and close 15 mins before dusk, any slight alterations can be made from the wall switch, do i need it to do more, no not really!

Do I need to add automation to the door lock, not in the Home app, I found them to be quite bad, the automations are setup in the Nuki app and work perfectly, yet with the ability to control from within the home app, I can lock & unlock with a tap on my watch or a request to Siri.

All of a sudden the mist begins to clear, and although this isn’t the perfect HomeKit house, its as near as I can get it with the items I have, and another step to becoming simple to use, In fact it’s The Step until the future throws something new at me!

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