Long time contributor to Automated Home, Ken Watt documents his recent move from the world of HomeVision and X10 to a new Z-Wave home automation system powered by the HomeTroller.
I used to have a dangerously obsessive attachment to my trusty old HomeVision unit, the Pro version of course because I’m that way inclined and I upgraded from an old original HV box. Both served me extremely well and I was very happy with what the HV could do and, for X10 stuff, it is about as robust and reliable as I think you could have gotten a few years back.
So, I started to look for something that had the power and reliability of HV but that was more modern, allowed me to use all my IR stuff, could use new things like iPads, phones and such like as well as talking to all the existing X10 modules and new Z-Wave (ZW) ones.
You’d think it’d be easy right? You’d be very, very wrong – You see HV has a whole bunch of ports that allowed you to connect all manner of external stuff, like the PIRs that I use for motion detection and in turn the operation of lighting. No other controller, even now (except perhaps Comfort) has that out of the box.
After due consideration I chose the Hometroller SE Pro, the sort of “light” version of the Hometroller. But I found the learning curve a real challenge as I already had all this knowledge on how to get stuff done using HV. HomeSeer is completely different and the interface doesn’t help the confusion with things seemingly in the wrong place logically. But, in defence of it, it is software that has been added to over time and actually, when you dig into it, has massive capability, you just need to spend time with it. Me being me however, I continued to look at alternative controllers.
Alternative Home Automation Controllers
In a fit of lunacy one afternoon I decided to go and get a Fibaro Home Centre 2 because it’s all nice and shiny and I read Ant’s review which seemed to make it a reasonable fit and offer some really good features. Plus, Fibaro had released the API allowing it to talk to other things and so on.
What I didn’t know was that the HC2 couldn’t communicate at all using IR or even to a blaster nor is there anything that can help in that or other respects. It’s fine if all you want to do is Z-Wave stuff but going beyond that as things stand simply isn’t possible. If you are an advanced user or old hand with home automation then my opinion is that the Fibaro controller currently will likely not meet all your needs.
I looked at the Mi Casa Verde box and decided that, while MiOS and the interface looked nice, using it with X10 was too much hassle and you have to run it using MCV’s servers, even to see the Verde in your own home. I didn’t fancy that much at all because if the MCV servers fall over you lose control of your own house! So, back to the drawing board. Or, maybe not?
I decided to ignore the pain and go back to the HomeSeer box and have a bit more of a play with it and, that has turned out to be not such a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, HomeSeer needs a serious facelift and the guys there probably won’t mind that comment too much given that they are working on HS3 which, as far as I can gather, is addressing that very issue in a big way with a whole shiny new UI. It really is badly needed to make the system easier to use and look at.
Why Move To Z-Wave?
Z-Wave is reasonably priced in the home automation world, being comparable in many respects to X10 whilst looking a lot better in most cases. There is a wealth of units available and more seem to be popping up all the time including some very nice switches that actually fit standard UK back boxes. There are also micro modules that are better and cost less than their X10 counterparts.
It’s wireless communications mean no filling up the walls with CAT5, which is often extremely impractical for retro-fitting into an existing property. Also I could actually get proper status reporting from the old modules instead of the controller “guessing” it.
But it’s the cool stuff that makes a world of difference like being able to use a Z-Wave door lock which I have yet to fit but, that’s planned for next month. The ability to use wireless switches that can be fitted almost anywhere like the Zwave.me Duwi based one that allows for huge possibilities.
I also have, in my growing collection of “bits to be fitted”, some of the Fibaro Universal Sensors to experiment with for PIR motion detection, some dimmer modules, a few switches and some other stuff when I get time to do it. Some of this is to compliment the X10 gear, some to replace it and some for a new room that was a loft conversion I had done that has no automation in it at all.
Moving Forward By Stuff Blowing Up
Recently an old X10 AD10 module that controlled the main bathroom lights popped and I didn’t have a replacement to hand. Big issue.
What I did have though was a Fibaro relay that could switch the lights no issue but that meant I couldn’t then use HomeVision that contained all the programming to control those lights. Or could I?
As is the way with home automation, I came up with a Heath Robinson way around the problem which has forced me to use the HomeSeer box more. I got it to carry out an action based on received X10, so it gets the command to switch on the bathroom lights (C8) and it translates that to a Z-Wave command on the new module to put the lights on (same with the off command).
Okay so there’s a slightly longer delay of a second or so when the PIR picks up movement in the bathroom and the lights coming on but hey, it works and everyone is back to being happy with no whinges about “normal” lights.
The installation of the module was really painless, easier than expected although Fibaro could have included the link required rather than having to use a bit of old cable. Heavy cables however can be a bit difficult due to the size of the terminals, hardly impossible but it was a minor annoyance. Once included in the Z-Wave network it popped up and just worked no problem at all.
My thinking is that, if I get one of the Universal Sensors on that PIR then I can associate the relay that operates the lights with the PIR via the sensor and that should (hopefully) speed up the reaction time. If that works then I will very likely convert the rest of the motion detection to the same, effectively turning them into Z-Wave enable PIRs.
This is a cheap way to get Z-Wave PIRs as the universal sensor is £36 and will do for two PIRs and, as we all know, standard wired PIRs are as cheap as chips, you get a lot more options and the reliability of wired PIRs. £18 a PIR is a lot less than any available Z-Wave wireless unit and, if you already have PIRs installed it’s a good option. One golden bit of advice on these modules was gleaned from Ant’s review, program them before fitting with the use of a lead. Yes, it will scare the bejesus out a Heath & Safety officer but it will save you mountains of trouble and bad language up a set of ladders of squeezed into a crawlspace.
Hometroller & Homeseer
After this I started to look more in-depth at HomeSeer and what it could actually do and I have to admit that I was probably very unkind to it in the past. It is a very mature and comprehensive bit of smart home software.
Yes, I don’t like the whole Windows centric thing being an Apple fan and having to run a Windows installation is a pain for me. Yes, it can be a bit clunky and not obvious what you should do where. And, running a PC to do this seemed a bit mad as Windows isn’t exactly renowned for it’s reliability. But as I started to discover, HS is actually incredibly powerful and offers a depth that few, if any, others could even come close to matching let alone surpass.
I have HomeSeer talking to the HomeVision Pro unit controlling multiple Z-Wave sensors, modules and stuff and it’s not skipped a beat. Relying on a Windows box is at best unnerving, but this little fanless solid state unit has been outstandingly reliable for months on end, hardly ever needing to be looked at asides from the occasional update.
I’ve had the unit doing some really basic things like bringing on the odd light but in the past few weeks I have started to explore it a bit more and look at doing some more complex tasks. It is difficult for me, with my familiarity of HomeVision, to get my head around why the HomeTroller does things the way it does as it sometimes seems a little less than elegant. But in reality it isn’t really, it’s just different. It’s likely not helped by my almost exclusive use of Apple PCs and all the pretty things on it which, when I look at the HS interface, casts me back a couple of decades.
One of the biggest issues that I gripe about is the status screen and the events page. I would have much preferred to see these broken down a little more as, if you have a large amount of events, macros and modules then it gets very cluttered. It is however great in other ways as you can see everything on one screen and you can of course hide any device or event from view. Unless you want or need to see the hidden things, you never will. But that’s just an interface thing really, I’m hoping that HS3 will solve that.
Many of the other elements, such as the setup and interfaces, will rarely be access after they are set up. The only exception being the import of Z-Wave devices which is done through the interfaces screen. This process is a little clunky but nothing difficult and you’re not exactly importing new modules on a daily basis so it isn’t a criticism, merely an observation.
What is impressive is the ability to add commands, alter existing commands and add actions completely on the fly. You simply make the changes you want in the web interface and, that’s it, they’re live! This saves the need to upload files and so on as I used to do with HomeVision meaning nothing worked for several minutes while the new file uploaded to the controller. That may seem unimportant but, when you are building an HomeSeer system that has many different changes being made to it this speeds up debugging your programming of the system hugely faster and less painful allowing you to get stuff sorted faster.
What has really impressed me about HomeSeer is that it has never once missed a command or so much as skipped a beat. Just like my old HomeVision units which means that I think I can trust it to be uber reliable and, that’s a major point.
I would like to have seen a backup option though so that I could back it all up to a NAS drive (automated of course like Time Machine) and it could even be there and I’ve just not found it or, there could be a plugin for it that I haven’t stumbled across, read: jumped up and slapped me. The beauty of course being that, if the unit ever died, I could just whack it on a Windows box and be back up and running reasonably quickly. When the controller that you use controls your entire home lighting system this is important and, when this extends to door locks and heating it becomes even more so.
Of course, you can do things manually usually but in many HA environments this isn’t so easy as the entire premise of a home automation system is that things just happen, meaning that some things are either not obvious or always easily accessible.
I haven’t yet played with the HSTouch side of things. The stock app is really not very good as much as it pains me to say so. It’s clunky, often seems to crash and just looks horrid in my opinion. Think X10 circa-1990 design. In fairness though, what could the guys at HomeSeer design that would suit as many people as possible, they would certainly never please the hard core HA freaks with a stock app so why bother to try?
Thankfully however there is the option to design your own which I intend to do in the near future and combine this with the use of a Square Blaster Pro allowing me to use one screen to control all the AV equipment as well as home control. I’ve looked at it and it looks superb but will also need a fair bit of time being devoted to it in order to achieve what I want to a standard that I can live with.
Using this system over Wi-Fi, as opposed to the old IR way, allows me to do some really cool things with lighting when, for example, I pause a show on Plex and have the lights come up a bit. It’s totally superfluous really, but very cool. What is more relevant is being able to use a tablet or phone screen that costs a heap less than a proper Pronto used to as well as having the reliability of WiFi instead of a network of IR sensors and receivers. Also, for those that haven’t been down this road before, it also saves a lot of cabling. I am really keen to see what can be done with it.
The HomeTroller’s HomeSeer software, while not perfect, has proven to be very good indeed. Even better, you can download it and try it out before you buy as well, which you can’t do with any of the other systems I looked at. HSTouch adds a whole new dimension to what you can do as well, although I haven’t explored that fully yet, and it is liable to prove to be an article’s worth on its own.
You can also run HS on almost any Windows PC, you can’t do that with any of the others either. You are forced to shell out for the hardware based on what is often very limited information on the company’s websites plus a spattering of reviews perhaps. The little Hometroller has proven over the past year to be rock solid and, it just works.
If you have the money to get the pre-installed version on the Hometroller I’d say it was a very good option allowing massive flexibility on what you can do and some very advanced possibilities open up. If you don’t, you can always use any old PC you happen to have kicking about to get started. What I can say for sure is that, there are almost no other options that will offer this degree of ability and none that I could find that would operate with so many different devices and systems.