Are any smart home systems, such as Zigbee or Z-wave, ready for prime time?

Folks:

I am setting up a new office inside a house built in the 1960s. It is going to need a lot of electrical work including upgrading the service from 60-amp to 200-amp. I am thinking “Maybe this would be a good time to rip out all of the switches and outlets and replace them with the smart home standard.” But as I poke around I find that the smart home still exemplifies the old adage that “The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” smarthome.com offers INSTEON, UPB, X10, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and WiFi, for example.

“The dumb state of the smart home”, a January 2014 article, is not encouraging:

not all ZigBee products can communicate with each other, and that’s a major problem for what’s intended to be a standard.

Can it really be that a country that figured out to cover itself in McMansions while making German investors pay for it all cannot figure out how a PC can turn on a light?

20 Comments

  1. David Wihl

    June 3, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    1

    Not there yet. Your comment is timely as Apple introduced HomeKit yesterday. Coupled with Google’s $3B acquisition of Nest, there is likely a movement to spark consolidation and some emerging standards.

    I think this hasn’t caught on yet because 1) most people don’t care that much, 2) it is a hassle to set up and configure 3) there is a security and reliability concern 4) there are no standards (as you’ve discovered). 5) the systems that are already shipping cost dramatically more than their dumb equivalent.

    Here’s a how a former co-worker wired up her home http://www.chrnguyen.com/writings/2013/10/19/upgrading-to-a-wifi-enabled-life/

  2. Maik

    June 3, 2014 @ 10:56 am

    2

    All the working smart building installations I’ve seen were based on KNX or its predecessor, EIB. I’m based in Europe though, I understand X10 is more popular overseas. Personally, I wouldn’t touch any of the purely wireless systems yet.

  3. Aaron

    June 3, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    3

    So there is still a bit of hackery involved with most ‘expandable’ home automation systems. Sure, you can get the smart bulbs that just operate by themselves or an alarm system that you have to pay a monthly fee for, but for a control center it’s a little bit more tricky.

    I ended up on going in with the Smart Things z-wave/zigbee hub (http://www.smartthings.com/index.php) but there are others, Lowes Iris http://www.lowes.com/cd_Iris_239939199_ , Revolv http://revolv.com/ for example. There’s also Vera – http://getvera.com/ which is by far the most hacky of the systems I looked at a couple of years ago, but it may have matured somewhat in the meantime.

    If you want to pay big bucks and a maintaining fee you can go to Creston or Control4 but that may not be what you want. I’ve been fairly happy with both the Smart Things unit as well as the z-wave technology itself. In 2014, I would say that you do need to have some underlying knowledge of ‘systems’ in general to do some troubleshooting, but just more in the way of how you set it up – for example, before you start chasing down weird pairing problems, know that you have to unpair a device from the network it used to be on first and not all devices are great about documentation.

  4. TimB

    June 3, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    4

    “Can it really be….” I think so, yes. Outlets/Switches (and probably smart thermostats) seem obvious, but maybe this entire segment is still lacking the killer app that will tie it all together. As a side-note; Stacy H. @gigaom.com writes on this topic as much as anyone.

  5. George

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    5

    Technology wise, we are there, human readiness wise, we are not.

    A lot of folks cannot figure out how to operate their microwave properly to set the clock for example. A lot of folks cannot tell a spam email from real one. Having them to deal with a computerize “smart” home is something they are not ready for.

    This reminds me of the days when VCRs were capable of program recording using “G-Code” [1] but almost no one figured out how to use it. Hopes are not all gone however; thanks to Facebook and similar apps, we are becoming “smarter” at using technology.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_recorder_scheduling_code

  6. philg

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    6

    George: Doesn’t the runaway success of Sonos suggest that you are wrong? At least for the millions of consumers who have purchased Sonos systems (Sonos sales in 2013 alone were $535 million (source)).

  7. George

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    7

    @Philip: Sonos is a runaway success because it is targeted toward computer geeks, otherwise you would not see instructions like this to set it up: http://www.sonos.com/support/help/3.4/en/Sonos_User_Guide/Chap05_new/Setting_Up_a_New_Sonos_System.htm

    No, I don’t think your average six-pack-Joe knows how to set it up because they have no idea what a “router” is.

  8. philg

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

    8

    George: positing the existence of stupid and ignorant people does seem like a good way to feel better about one’s own intelligence and knowledge. But on the other hand, it does not seem obvious that the tens of millions of Americans who have purchased routers had no idea what they were buying. And my original posting was not asking why 100% of Americans did not have networked electric outlets, but about whether there was a reasonable technology for the subset of Americans who are (a) doing some rewiring, and (b) inclined toward higher-tech.

  9. Martin

    June 3, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    9

    I have Insteon keypads and dimmers throughout my home and while I love the design and features of them, I wish they were a more responsive and reliable. In my opinion, we’re headed towards a market where you pick a product you want based on the features/design, check that it runs one of the common standards (zigbee, zwave, insteon, wifi, etc.) and it will work automatically via a central controller. The Revolv hub (http://revolv.com) shows some promise in this area.

  10. philg

    June 3, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    10

    Martin: You’re breaking my heart. That a power outlet or light switch cannot be “responsive and reliable” is depressing.

  11. Fazal Majid

    June 3, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

    11

    You could try the Belkin WeMo light switches, but the short answer to your question is no, none of the systems are ready for prime time, in the absence of a universal standard. It’s like PCs in the age of the Apple II, C64 et al.

    You should consider them to be disposable purchases that will need to be replaced in 3-5 years. The good news is, replacing a light switch is straightforward and does not require an electrician, the expensive part of an electrical job is routing the wires through the walls.

  12. Martin

    June 4, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

    12

    Phil. It’s a bit depressing. After all, it’s 2014 – flying cars were supposed to be in every driveway, but we can’t make a decent set of smart light switches?

    In reality, it’s not that bad. Sometimes lights take half a second to turn on instead of being instant. Plus, you might have to replace a dimmer or keypad every year or so.

  13. Mike

    June 5, 2014 @ 2:48 am

    13

    I think the dealer-only, proprietary, expensive systems of switches/dimmers/controllers/apps like Lutron (e.g., Radio RA2 or Homeworks QS) work very well–reliably, quickly. Sadly, they’re dealer-only, proprietary, and expensive. They want the dealer to do the programming; consumers are not allowed to do anything complicated.

    Lutron has a brand-new (proprietary?) consumer line now: Caséta Wireless. Seems too soon to tell if it’s better than the options on your list.

  14. Andy

    June 5, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    14

    i have redone our entire house, 4400sqft with insteon and I am extremely happy. No issues whatsoever as long as you you have proper phase coupler/repeater installed. I love the 8 button keypad dimmers that allow for various preset configurations of lights without having to have to resort to the touch screen interface. They seem to dim all Commercial Electric LED recessed lights as well as all Hampton Bay LED lights from home depot without any problems. Another great feature is the insteon fan controller combined with the insteon thermostat. I would however not recommend purchasing the insteon hub and buying the ISY994i. The beauty of insteon is that since the switches actually hold the configuration and talk to one another, even when the hub is down, the basic switches still function not just on/off, but also as scene controllers.

  15. Andy

    June 5, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    15

    Martin,

    Make sure you have a phase coupler installed. That’s most likely the reason for your delay, switches acting as repeaters.

    Andy

  16. philg

    June 5, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

    16

    Thanks, Andy. If consumers have to understand and buy something called a “phase coupler” then it makes sense that this stuff hasn’t caught on :-)

    Separately, I’m looking at the Insteon outlets and it surprises me that they don’t also have USB jacks. If a person is tech-oriented enough to want Insteon outlets, wouldn’t he or she also want USB jacks built into the wall?

  17. Andy

    June 5, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    17

    Phil,

    I don’t ever see them catching on for retrofit unless you’re redoing your entire house like I did (1920′s knob and tube wiring). Then it’s $29 for a nice Lutron decorator switch or $49 for an Insteon switch, no brainer, a drop in the bucket in relation to the cost of the entire rewire project. The do make sense for brand new construction, but once again, nobody cares about these things on the low end and there are many more better options available when there is no budget constants, as in, a third vacation home in Jackson Hole.

    As to phase couplers, well, what Insteon really needs to do is create one that is built into an outlet since most kitchen outlets already have both phases coming in (on for the top, another for the bottom). Currently, one needs to be installed somewhere inside an electrical box.

    Andy

  18. Javier

    June 6, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    18

    “In reality, it’s not that bad. Sometimes lights take half a second to turn on instead of being instant. Plus, you might have to replace a dimmer or keypad every year or so.”

    In realiy, that sounds terrible, particularly the part about replacing things every year.

  19. Ian

    June 12, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    19

    I have 40+ insteon switches and other devices in my house for about 24 months now. Not a single one has failed, and it is mind boggling to me how responsive they are. You can link two switches together and a human cannot tell they are on different circuits because the latency is so low.

    You do not need a phase coupler with Insteon. Insteon is a RF and PLC dual-band system which forms a mesh network. Your signals bridge phases via RF as needed. In my 2,700 sq ft, 3 level house I just plugged or wired everything in and it “just works”.

    So my experience is much different than Andy’s. In fact Andy’s experience sounds like X10, not insteon, where phase issues, distance issues, and delays were the standard. I had a whole house of X10 before insteon and insteon is orders of magnitude more reliable than X10.

    All that said, I am a EE professionally, so installing and setting all this up was no real issue for me, but it isn’t at the point that literally anyone can do it. The real issue for me is the setup of complex tasks such as “turn on this light when it gets dark out but only if someone is home.”

  20. Dan Lyke

    June 12, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

    20

    Yeah, I’m with Javier: I have a rule about house projects: as we replace and fix things in this house, I want to do everything only once. So I’m going for at least a 40-50 year design life on everything.

    This isn’t as hard as you’d think for most aspects, but the best MTBF I can get on home automation devices involves building my own relay systems.

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