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Smart home: past, present, future     (posted 2022-11-27)

Recently, a few podcasts that I listen to talked about smart home technology. We also got the release of new smart home standards Thread and Matter. So I want to look at what smart home options have worked for me, and see if it's possible to draw any conclusions about what could work for most people. (As in: who don't enjoy tinkering with tech for its own sake.)

Hue lights / smart lights

I think I got my Hue starter kit back in 2013. The original Hue lights are LED light bulbs that can be set for any color. That is fun, but something I rarely use in practice. The full color bulbs aren't cheap, either, at about € 60 for individual "white and color ambiance" bulbs. They later released white-only bulbs which are currently € 16 a piece. But I think the sweet spot are the "white ambiance" bulbs (€ 35) which can be set to warm or cool white or anything in between.

They're all dimmable, even the "cheap" white-only bulbs. This is great because you can set the light level lower than the maximum and thus save some electricity. But still turn them up all the way when you need more light. For full functionality you need a Hue bridge, but if you only have a few Hue bulbs you can also control them directly over bluetooth.

I currently have Hue lights in almost every room of my house. In order for the Hue bulbs to be turned on through the app or some automation, obviously they need to have power. So although you can turn them on and off like regular lights, that mostly defeats the purpose. Which means training other household members and/or visitors to not do that...

The Hue bridge integrates with Apple's Homekit and thus Siri, and there's also the Hue app that is pretty nice. However, I mostly control the lights with motion sensors and dimmer switches.

Motion sensors

The Hue family has a motion sensor that will turn on a set of Hue lights when it sees motion. It also has a light sensor, so you can make sure the lights only come on when there's motion and it is (relatively) dark. Or very dark. This is adjustable. Another nice detail is that you can have different settings for two different parts of the day, so in the middle of the night my hallway light only comes on at 1%.

I have motion sensors in the hallways, kitchen, dining room and my home office. This works really well: the lights come on when you need them, and turn off again automatically when you no longer need them. Because the motion sensors talk directly to the Hue bridge, they're very reliable. (Well, the one in the kitchen sometimes gets confused when the oven is on.)

Dimmer switches

In the living room, bedrooms, home office and dining room, I also have Hue dimmer switches. In the bedrooms, these are great for turning the lights on and off from your bed. In the other rooms, being able to dim the lights and access my most used scenes (presets) is very useful. At € 22, the dimmer switches are much more affordable than the motion sensors, which now cost € 45. (I got mine for € 40!)

Hue lights / smart lights

I find these truly useful. The past decade Philips Hue has built out a line of smart lights and accessories of various types. I have several full color ones, but these are expensive and I don't use colored light much. There's also standard white ones that are still more expensive than regular light bulbs, but much more affordable. But I think the sweet spot are the "white ambiance" bulbs, that can be warm white or cool white or anything in between. All of these bulbs can be set to turn on at full or partial brightness and can be dimmed through the Hue app, a smart home system like Apple's Homekit or a Hue dimmer switch. This is nice because you can save some money by not using the lights at full blast but you can still have full brightness when you need it.

The Hue dimmer switches are very useful and cheap as Hue accessories go. You can turn on the lights and cycle through up to four "scenes" with different brightness and/or color settings, dim the lights and of course turn them off. (And I usually program the dimmer buttons for additional Homekit actions, such as turning a fan on or off, when the lights are off.)

I also have Hue motion sensors in a number of rooms. These will turn on the lights if they see motion and the ambient light level is below a certain threshold. This is super convenient and makes sure lights don't remain on when there's nobody in a room.

Recently I got several Hue wall switches. These are little devices that go inside a wall switch box. The power to the light fixture is then permanently connected, and the Hue device is connected to the existing wall switch. Which makes a regular wall switch "smart", letting you turn Hue lights on and off as if they're regular light bulbs, while at the same time being able turn them back on from the app, Siri or a dimmer switch. This way there is no need to explain your smart home to visitors. However, these devices are not cheap and a bit of a pain to install. In one case I couldn't install the device because it wouldn't fit in the wall box.

I definitely wouldn't want to go back to "dumb" lights.

Smart thermostats

When I moved into my current place it had a relatively simple digital thermostat that let me program a certain temperature at different times of the day. I replaced it with a Tado smart thermostat. With this, I can adjust the set temperature from the Tado app or Homekit, and it supports tracking whether anyone (well, their phone) is at home and adjust the temperature based on the distance from home. I.e., start warming up as you get closer to home. (It looks like that feature now requires a subscription! But Homekit automations should be able to replicate a barebones version of this for free.)

I then put smart radiator thermostats in pretty much every room. These open and close the radiator valve based on a set temperature. Additionally, they communicate with the main Tado thermostat which then tells the central heating boiler to turn on.

Before I had the smart radiator thermostats, the radiator in the dining room (with huge single pane windows on the northeast) was stuck "on". Afterwards, my natural gas use immediately halved.

Note: the paper grid is 25x25 mm. These radiator knobs are huge.

Still, it was a hassle to replace the regular radiator valves that open/close by turning with ones compatible with thermostatic radiator knobs that work with a pin that is pushed in. I was able to do this with four radiators myself, but two of them required an entire morning's work by two plumbers. What I still want/need is an "AVDO bypass" that will allow the water to keep flowing when all the radiator valves are closed. Without that, I always need to keep one radiator half open to avoid problems.

This system and the plumbers cost me a fair bit of money (something like € 1200?) but I could easily save that much money on natural gas next year alone, with the current high prices.

I think a system like this is useful for many/most people, unless your place is so well insulated that leaving all the doors open and radiators on all the time uses almost no additional natural gas.

Power switches

Smart power switches are basically extension cords without the cord that go inside a power outlet. Then you plug some other device into the smart power switch, and you can then turn the power to the device in question on and off through an app or home automation system. I have a couple of Eve smart power switches that I use for various things. For instance, in the summer one controls a fan. Around christmas I use one to turn christmas lights on my balcony when it gets dark (as seen by a Hue motion sensor) and then off again at midnight.

Door sensors

I have a couple of Eve door/window sensors. This is a small battery powered sensor that detects the presence of a small magnet when a door or window is closed. I have a few automations set up that are triggered by these, but these sensors haven't proved all that useful in practice.


Some time ago, I had a package delivered to the neighbors even though I was at home. So I thought I might not be hearing the doorbell when wearing headphones. (Which I do to listen to podcasts whenever I'm cooking or cleaning or anything like that.) So what I wanted was a smart doorbell that would fire off a notification on my Apple Watch when the doorbell rings. Turns out, they only make smart video doorbells. Which I don't need.

So I made my own from an Eve door sensor, by attaching it to my doorbell ringer, which is based on electromagnets pushing around a hammer. So now when someone rings the doorbell, I get a notification "doorbell closed" immediately followed by "doorbell opened". It's not 100% reliable, but it does give me some piece of mind when wearing headphones.

Weather station

I have an Eve Weather mini weather station on my balcony which lets me monitor the outdoor temperature, humidity and air pressure. I can even set up a Homekit automation that turns on a light in blue when the temperature goes below freezing...

Smoke alarm

I have a regular smoke alarm but I worry about its battery. So I got a Netatmo smart smoke alarm. This way, I can simply use an app to see the status of the smoke alarm battery. Not long ago I had a cooking mishap and the alarm went off and gave me a big fat warning in the Home app on my iPhone. Unfortunately there was not a big button "turn off alarm". It took me a while to make that happen through the Eve app. (Which lets you set up much more extensive Homekit automations than Apple's Home app.)

The future of home automation

As an Apple user, I've been careful to only get smart home devices that are compatible with Apple's Homekit. There is a bunch of wireless communication protocols that are used by smart home devices. Many of them are battery powered so they need to use extremely low power communication systems. Some use Wi-Fi or bluetooth, but many use IEEE 802.15.4 low power mesh networking.

For instance, the Hue lights and accessories use Zigbee, a set of higher level protocols running on top of IEEE 802.15.4. Tado, on the other hand, uses 6LoWPAN, an adaption layer to make IPv6 run over the low power, short message IEEE 802.15.4 datalink layer. Both Hue and Tado have a hub/bridge that connects to wired Ethernet and communicates wirelessly with the lights/smart radiator thermostats/accessories.

But it looks like all of this will eventually be replaced by Matter and Thread.

Matter is a new system for running a smart home supported by pretty much every vendor of smart home products. So in the future, all smart home systems and devices should support Matter and thus work together.

However, you still need that energy efficient wireless communication. This is where Thread comes in. Thread uses 6LoWPAN and IEEE 802.15.4. A Thread border router facilitates the communication between Thread devices and Wi-Fi/Ethernet based Matter devices and controllers. (Border routers? That sounds familiar.)

So for the time being, I would only buy additional smart home devices that are part of an ecosystem you're already using (such as Hue or Tado in my case), and otherwise wait for new devices with Matter and/or Thread support. Fewer hubs and more compatibility sure sound good.

Then again, my existing AppleTV 4K from 2018 will not support thread, but unless I'm mistaken, it will support Matter. For now that will be fine. At some point I'll want a Thread border router, but for now, all my stuff works over Wi-Fi or bluetooth, or an existing hub. So no need to upgrade immediately.

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