Practical smart home in a long run

Maxilect
10 min readMay 3, 2023

Every month, a new set of flashy smart home gadgets hits the market, promising to make our lives easier and more convenient. But let’s be honest. Not all of these devices actually solve real problems or improve our daily routines. It’s hard to know which features will be helpful in the long run when choosing the next shiny toy for your home.

During one of our internal meetings, we had a fascinating discussion with colleagues who spend a lot of time at home and are always looking for the latest technological innovations. We shared our experiences with different smart home devices, and in this article, I, the editor of Maxilect’s blog, have compiled their insights and added a few of my own.

Now, I’m not going to give you a comprehensive list of all the devices we use in our team because it’s constantly changing. The point here is to share our user experience and highlight the scenarios that work for us. The truth is, beyond a few common scenarios, smart homes don’t seem to appeal to many people.

But let’s start with the common scenarios that have worked for us.

Basic scenarios

It is a basic knowledge that those scenarios that help save money on maintaining comfortable living conditions or a sense of security are popular. Let’s start with them.

Heating

Some of my colleagues who live in private houses have already implemented water-heating solutions to make their lives easier and save money simultaneously.

For instance, one uses a timer to heat his boiler at night when the electricity is cheaper. However, when the timer broke, they had to come up with a different solution. They then started using a smart switch that could be controlled via a mobile app. While it was more convenient than manually turning on the boiler, it still required some effort to control.

So, they decided to take it one step further and got a smart speaker that could turn on the boiler with voice commands. Of course, they had to plan in advance due to the size of their 100-liter boiler, but it was still much more convenient.

Another colleague purchased a boiler with a “training” function that could analyze their water usage throughout the day and adjust the heating schedule accordingly. The boiler had two modes of operation — one for quick tasks like hand washing and another for longer tasks like taking a bath. It would also dilute hot water with cold water to increase the volume of water at the desired temperature.

To optimize the heating schedule, the boiler analyzed their daily water usage and predicted when and how much hot water would be required. For instance, it wouldn’t heat the water at 3 am when nobody was likely to use it but would be ready for the family’s evening shower time.

These automation techniques also work well with climate control, such as underfloor heating. Using a temperature and humidity sensor, the underfloor heating system could turn on and off to heat the room or dry it out after a shower.

Control of heating devices depends on the readings of temperature and humidity sensors. This is a logical automation scheme where you do not need to think through complex scenarios.

Light

One of the most common applications is controlling the lighting. In fact, many of my colleagues have switched to using smart devices instead of conventional key switches to control their lighting. These devices can be easily installed in standard sockets and controlled through a smart speaker like Yandex or an app on your phone.

With this technology, you can control your lights using your voice, which is especially convenient when your hands are full. For example, you can say, “Turn on the lights” when entering a room with full bags, or “Turn off the lights” when you’re ready to go to bed. Additionally, automatic light control based on sensors or scenarios can be integrated into your home layout. For instance, you can implement a system that uses motion sensors to turn on the lights in the right sections of your corridor or stairs. You can even set it up so that the lights turn on in front of you as you walk rather than after you pass by.

Another popular scenario is using a “master switch” to turn off all the lights in your house before leaving. This can be done through the old “wired” method or with a wireless module installed in your electrical panel. In either case, you can rest easy knowing your lights won’t be left on when you’re not home.

Security

Smart homes have come a long way since their inception, and the idea of a secure home was one of the first to gain traction. I remember speaking to professionals in the industry who emphasized the importance of securing the perimeter. However, security has now expanded beyond just protecting from intruders; it’s about safeguarding your home from various accidents like water leaks, internet outages, and gas leaks.

Many well-known systems are available that can detect smoke, gas leaks, door and window openings, and leaks in multiple locations. These systems can alert you via phone or SMS when a problem arises. However, some issues remain, and the gas sensor sometimes has false alarms, leading to frustration for the household. In such cases, they often just turn off the power to the sensor, rendering it useless.

GSM alarms are a popular choice among our colleagues for monitoring the input voltage of the house, making it an excellent option for homes used episodically rather than for permanent residence. The security aspect of smart homes is undoubtedly a significant selling point for many. However, it doesn’t necessarily require complex programming. Simple notification alerts, automatic water supply shut-off, or switching to a backup power source can go a long way in securing your home.

What about complex scenarios?

Practice shows that on a large scale of time, only simple scenarios survive in most houses:

  • “turn on the light if I’m walking”;
  • “turn on the heat if the temperature starts to drop”;
  • “Notify me if there’s a problem.”

This market will be conquered by the one who figures out why the user has to pay for more complex sequences of actions.

Smart Home Management

In depictions of a “Smart Home” in futuristic images, we typically see a person controlling their home’s features from a large touch screen. However, is this the case in real life?

Within our team, we rarely utilize centralized control of smart home devices, except for the applications provided by the manufacturers. I would speculate that this is due to the associated labor costs. Before exploring this idea further, let’s examine the options available to the end user.

Manufacturers application

Manufacturers of smart home devices usually try to build an entire ecosystem of products that can be controlled through one mobile application. Typically, this is the manufacturer’s application. From the point of view of sales, this is an excellent idea because it allows you to sell not only the temperature sensor but also the software that will work with all sensors at the same time. But from the user’s point of view, things are not so great. If, for some reason, you buy a device from another manufacturer, you have to create a zoo of applications. And worst of all, often, devices from different manufacturers cannot exist in the same automation scenario. So the “layers” of a smart home remain entirely independent.

That’s why almost everyone who installs 1–2 switches uses control via the manufacturer’s mobile application. It just doesn’t make sense to complicate when you can conveniently control all the functions from your smartphone.

Third-Party Application

Some manufacturers are integrating with market neighbors’ applications. So control can be transferred to some Google Home or Yandex.Home. The second option is used by one of my colleagues. I have it implemented only partially (because Alice is in the nursery, light control from her is available only to children).

The problem is that when using a mobile application — from the manufacturer or any third-party — most activities inside the house require Internet access. We’ll talk about this separately.

Home hub

One way to bring together multiple smart home devices is to use an open-source platform integrated with your hardware. By doing this, you can have more control over your devices and avoid having to juggle multiple applications from different manufacturers.

One of my colleagues has set up a platform called Majordomo based on the Odroid h2 plus. They mainly use it for climate control, including controlling the curtains, underfloor heating, and air conditioning, depending on the season. They can even remotely turn on the heating before they arrive at their country residence to ensure a comfortable temperature when they get there. This is a great example of how centralizing control over different smart home systems can be really useful.

Centralized management provides more freedom, allowing you to connect devices through the Internet or on a local network. However, if you want to control the devices from your smartphone, you will need to install a server for a mobile application, which can require some effort.

In my case, I was not able to launch the platform for remote management in a user-friendly way due to my outdated hardware. The platform requires a virtual machine and hardware virtualization support to deploy the full feature set, which my 10-year-old motherboard doesn’t support. I didn’t see the point in buying something newer without knowing if the investment would be worth it.

Possible issues

Wireless leads to wires

Most of the simple Chinese components work on WiFi and greatly slow down the internal network if you try to “hang” with a working laptop in the same segment. After experimenting with dividing the home network by frequency, moving routers, etc., I reduced everything to laying a regular Ethernet cable to the workplace in the office (the same cable was required for a 4K set-top box connected to a TV where we watch a movie). Now only smartphones and those very smart devices fully use the wireless network. In essence, they squeezed our jobs out of the wireless network and put them back on cable.

This problem is clearly not widespread. I asked my colleagues if they had experienced the same. In fact, if the work equipment and the router support the 5G, then the subnet with smart devices and the subnet with work equipment “stratify” perfectly. It’s just that, in my case, it was necessary to ensure the operability of the old equipment as well.

You can buy ZigBee devices instead of WiFi to get around my problem. This standard was originally developed for the Internet of Things. It can do mesh, but it is a little more expensive in terms of the number of costs. The end devices cost the same, but you need a hub connecting the entire segment to the Internet. The hub itself will also work slowly. To get around this, you will have to wait until newer versions of WiFi are widely introduced (it is necessary to ensure that all these manufacturers of smart devices support them). Everything is arranged a little differently there.

Wires come up not only from Internet access. The same switches in the sockets, which were discussed above, often also need an additional wire (the phase is already in the socket, but they also need zero for power). A colleague says he has seen ZigBee switches without this requirement, but everything is not going smoothly there either. He tested such a switch and said they only work well with powerful consumers. If the light bulb to which this device is connected is low-power, it flashes periodically and quite noticeably. To eliminate the defect, the seller applies a capacitor, but even after installing it, some LED lights still blink, although less noticeable.

Voice control takes some time to get used to

It can be challenging to adapt to new technologies, especially when they require a shift in behavior. For some, using voice commands to control the lights may not come naturally, and pressing a button or relying on automated scenarios may be a more comfortable alternative.

It seems that this sentiment is shared by many, as colleagues have expressed similar feelings toward voice-controlled smart home devices. It’s often easier to locate a physical switch rather than relying on communicating with an AI assistant like Alice every time.

Interestingly, younger generations may have an easier time adjusting to this new way of interacting with technology. Children who have grown up with voice assistants like Alice may find it easier to learn this skill than those who have not.

You can’t get away from the Internet

As mentioned earlier, most smart home devices require access to the Internet. However, this can cause issues if there is an internet outage or disruption in service from the local provider. Some manufacturers like Sonoff have found a way to bypass this by allowing simple scenarios to be closed within a local network if both the sensor and relay are in the same network. However, this is still limited in its capabilities.

To completely avoid reliance on the Internet, one can reflash the device. This involves installing another firmware on the purchased smart device and integrating it with a hub like Domoticz, HASS, or Majordomo. However, this requires time, effort, and hardware to install the hub. It’s important to remember that this solution needs to be supported on one’s own.

No guarantees

During my experience with smart home devices, I have encountered various issues, ranging from losing internet connection, software glitches, and reduced software support for certain functions. Sometimes the problems are ridiculous, like the inability to set a script that works with both temperature and humidity on a Sonoff relay with a temperature and humidity sensor or not being able to select the same device in the list of sensors due to software limitations. Unfortunately, resolving these issues through support can be difficult, especially without a premium subscription. As a result, we often have to put up with the occasional incorrect turning on or off of lights and floors. To address these issues, reflashing and installing a custom smart home platform can be a solution, but it requires time, effort, and hardware.

A smart home is ideal for narrow tasks

It’s not all bad news when it comes to smart homes. Smart homes can be very useful for solving specific problems with automation. For example, one of my colleagues plans to launch automatic watering for his greenhouse at his country house. He has already purchased most of the necessary components. He needs to lay the pipes made of low-pressure polyethylene and solve the issue of controlling the water level in the well to avoid overwatering. In addition, he plans to add automation to his electricity meter, which is mounted on a pole outside his property. He’s tired of trudging through snow drifts in the winter to check it, so he found a project on GitHub that will help him: https://github.com/vad7/PowerMeter-IrDA. Although he still needs to implement the idea, he has bought the necessary parts and is drawing and ordering parts from China.

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Maxilect

We are building IT-solutions for the Adtech and Fintech industries. Our clients are SMBs across the Globe (including USA, EU, Australia).