Building a Smart Home to Stand the Passage of Time: Part 2 | Digitized House
Building a Smart Home to Stand the Passage of Time: Part 2

Building a Smart Home to Stand the Passage of Time: Part 2

In this second part of a series, we examine smart home wireless technologies

The value of a home in the real estate market is determined by supply and demand; if your property has attractive features for potential buyers, you can sell it for a premium price. This is important even if you have no immediate plans to sell your property, since the same features that make a home comfortable and convenient for you also make it more valuable in the market when the time comes to sell.


Missed the previous installment in this series? Read Building a Smart Home to Stand the Passage of Time: Part 1 on Digitized House.


Appliances of all types are becoming smart, including space heating, air conditioning, lighting, and alarms. Thus, the market value of a home can be increased significantly by adding a smart platform to control all these features. Of course, if you are a real estate developer, smart devices provide an excellent way to increase profit from home sale transactions and rental income.

What is the Right Approach for a Smart Home Project?

Smart versions of the door lock are a popular choice for many homeowners. This Yale Assure smart lock has an onboard Z-Wave Plus module for secure networking. Image: Digitized House Media.
Smart versions of the door lock are a popular choice for many homeowners. This Yale Assure smart lock has an onboard Z-Wave Plus module for secure networking. Image: Digitized House Media.

Smart versions of almost any home device are now available, but adequate project planning is very important to achieve the best results. Simply purchasing smart devices and wireless adapters for every application is not the best approach, since you can end up with compatibility issues and a saturated wireless network.

Also keep in mind that some manufacturers use the word “smart” to describe a device with wireless capabilities, and this can be misleading. A device can be wireless without including smart functions, or could also be smart and physically wired.

To increase home value with a smart platform, you should plan ahead so that the structure and its technology can be transferred to future owners or tenants without problems. As such, strive for the following design goals:

  • Obvious simplicity: Consider the fact that new homeowners or tenants can easily use the lighting fixtures in a given non-smart home without complex instructions. This level of obvious simplicity should also be the design goal with a smart home platform.
  • Ease of transfer: Smart home platforms are expanding to more and more appliances. If a large structure has over 100 devices connected to a smart platform, reconfiguring the parameters on all of them for a new tenant can be a tedious task. The best solution is designing the smart building platform from the ground up to be easily transferred between users.

Even if you have developed a smart home with plenty of useful features, the system offers little usefulness if no one else can understand it. A smart home platform that is too confusing or difficult to use may end up being discarded and undervalued by future owners. Building automation enhances property value when implemented correctly, but poor design decisions can turn a smart platform into a liability that demands frequent maintenance.

Furthermore, with the large volume of personal data being exchanged between devices, security is also an important element. Also consider that technology keeps evolving, and the smart home system must be capable of integration with future devices that become commercially available. 

Promising Applications for a Smart Home Platform

Modern smart home technology can integrate with almost any device, and cumulatively the technology and devices working together makes a home more valuable. The best results, then, can be achieved if a smart platform focuses on saving energy, improving comfort, and adding useful functions to a home.

To save energy, the best starting points are heating and cooling systems, followed by lighting fixtures. In many residential and commercial buildings, HVAC and lighting account for over 75% of energy consumption. Excessive energy expenses are often the result of misuse, such as setting the thermostat incorrectly or leaving the lights on for more time than necessary. 

Improved comfort is also possible when adding smart functions to HVAC systems, since they can achieve better control over indoor temperature and air humidity. Lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, and other devices that are normally adjusted manually can also become automated, while leaving the option of wireless manual control.

Keep in mind that the goal of an HVAC system does not lie exclusively in controlling temperature, but rather to provide comfortable and healthy indoor conditions for the structure’s occupants. A smart home platform can focus on overall comfort instead of only reaching a specific temperature value.

  • For humans, thermal sensation is more important than the actual temperature. This is the value reported as a “feels like” temperature metric often found in weather forecasts. For example, if two sites have a temperature of 10°C, the location with higher wind velocity will feel colder.
  • Humidity and air pollutants are also important parameters to keep under control. Smart platforms can integrate with sensors to monitor these variables and adjust HVAC operation and filtration as needed.

New home functions can often be built on top of existing installations. For example, a wired alarm system can be enhanced with a smart hub, providing 24×7 visibility of occupancy—who arrives and who leaves. Security is an obvious benefit of this upgrade, but it also simplifies communication and coordination between occupants.

Smart home platforms can also automate sequences that are normally carried out manually, which saves time and provides comfort. The following are some examples:

  • Turning off the lights, locking all doors, and setting the alarm system when home occupants retire for the night.
  • Adjusting lighting scenes depending on the activities carried out by occupants: cooking, eating, reading, watching TV, and so on.

Different Wireless Networks for Smart Homes

Although wireless devices offer a flexible configuration, a wired smart home platform can offer reliability for years without any adjustments. To be truly smart, a home platform should combine the benefits of both configurations.

We tend to think about Wi-Fi networks when the concept of wireless networks is mentioned, but there are other protocols designed specifically for the need of smart home devices. In particular, Z-Wave and ZigBee have dominated the market. Below are the various wireless alternatives for the smart home:

  • Wi-Fi can be used in a smart home, but this can lead to interference between multimedia devices and home systems. For example, if several users are streaming HD video from the Internet, you may notice a delay in response time in smart home appliances. Wi-Fi can operate on either the 2.4 Ghz or 5 Ghz frequency bands.
  • Bluetooth is another well-known protocol, ideal for short-range transmission and capable of handling large volumes of data, but it can consume a lot of power. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a version of Bluetooth that enters sleep mode when there is no data transmission to save power. Bluetooth runs on the 2.4 GHz band.
  • ZigBee is another widely-used protocol, although its frequency range has some overlap with Wi-Fi, especially in the 2.4 GHz band. Thread is a similar protocol developed by Google and Nest Labs, and some adapters and chips can be used for both protocols. ZigBee is an open solution, though the specifications as set out by some vendors can be a bit difficult to integrate. 
  • Z-Wave operates within the range of 800-900 MHz, which is a much less crowded frequency range than the 2.4 GHz band. Smart devices using Z-Wave have less  interference with 2.4 GHz, and are strongly recommended if your home is already crowded with Wi-Fi devices. Z-Wave is a commercial solution which needs to be licensed by the device maker, however it brings a lot of stability and interoperability between products—which can benefit the consumer. 
  • EnOcean is an innovative wireless technology with an emphasis on energy harvesting. This technology extracts energy from ambient sources such as temperature differences, light and moving elements. For example, sensors and switches with EnOcean technology can send signals without wires or batteries.
  • LoRa, short for Long Range, is another wireless technology that uses non-patented  frequencies below 1000 MHz. As implied by its name, LoRa focuses on long-distance transmission at low power, and it has achieved a range of over 10 km in rural locations without obstacles. Its data bandwidth is low compared to others protocols, which makes it ideal for long-range Internet of Things (IoT) applications that can operate on small bursts of data. 
  • RFID, or radio-frequency identification, uses tags that respond to radio signals from a radio frequency reader device. These tags require no batteries or external power source, other than the radio signal from the reader itself. In order to operate, the RFID tag and reader need to be in close proximity to each other, almost a physical contact approach. 

Making a Smart Home Platform More Resilient Against Cybercrime 

Implementing an IoT approach can enhance devices of all types in residential, commercial, and industrial settings. However, if smart platforms are designed without adequate security, they also increase the number of exposure points for intruders.

One of the greatest advantages of wired networks is that cybercriminals can only access them with the old-school approach: Physically breaking into a property. Protection measures against physical intruders have existed for decades and are well-proven, while digital protection is a less-mature concept that arrived concurrent with the information age. As a result, wired systems have a significant security advantage over wireless infrastructure.

Among wireless networks, Wi-Fi is the most vulnerable protocol. This is attributable to the sheer number of users and devices connected to it, and the continuous data transfer between nodes that is required to sense what is available on the network.

Wi-Fi networks are also widely available, which increases the chance of interacting with a compromised device or intruder. Also consider that Wi-Fi is used for many everyday personal technology purposes, and it can be easy for users to be careless. For example, a user who is not familiarised with digital security may be more inclined to open a malicious e-mail message,  or fail to change the default password on a device.

A Preferred Wireless Network

Z-Wave devices offer high compatibility and security. This network module for an ASSA ABLOY smart door lock enables the device to securely connect with many smart home ecosystems. Image: Digitized House Media.
Z-Wave devices offer high compatibility and security. This network module for an ASSA ABLOY smart door lock enables the device to securely connect with many smart home ecosystems. Image: Digitized House Media.

Communication protocols developed specifically for smart home applications provide key advantages over conventional Wi-Fi connectivity. In particular, Z-Wave is highly recommended for smart home applications due to the following reasons:

  • High compatibility, since all Z-Wave devices are designed to interconnect regardless of the manufacturer and version. For example, a Z-Wave device released today can connect with a device released by another manufacturer years ago.
  • Mesh design, where signals hop between devices until they reach the Z-Wave hub. This is an advantage over typical Wi-Fi networks, where all devices must communicate directly with the hub (unless one is using more expensive mesh Wi-Fi hardware alternatives, such as those from Eero). In other words, a Z-Wave network expands its range automatically as more devices are added by virtue of its built-in repeater capability. 
  • Minimal interference, since Z-Wave networks use non-congested frequencies lower than 1,000 MHz.
  • High security based on AES-128 encryption for the Z-Wave Plus protocol, which is strong enough to be used by banks and governments.
  • Low power consumption, which contributes to overall energy efficiency.

EnOcean can also be an excellent option to achieve energy efficiency along with home automation. As previously discussed, EnOcean devices can harvest ambient power to operate, which makes them independent from batteries and the electricity service.

Conclusions

To be useful, technology must bring benefits that outweigh its costs and maintenance needs. Building systems must also be usable by anyone regardless of their educational or professional background, and a smart home platform must be user-friendly to be considered truly smart. This area was covered in the first article of this series, Building a Smart Home to Stand the Passage of Time: Part 1.

Home automation must make life simpler, without standing in the way or bringing demanding maintenance tasks. If everyday activities become more difficult after deploying a smart platform, the project cannot be considered successful.

When designing a smart home system, the typical lifetime of a building should be considered. Buildings last for decades and are often used by many owners or tenants, and building systems are more useful if they can be easily transferred between.

Ideally, a smart home platform should be designed with the long-term reliability of a wall switch or a thermostat. If future owners can use the device with minimal instructions and reconfiguration, the home platform is truly smart. Wired appliances offer durability, compatibility and security, while wireless functions can enhance the building systems already in place.

On the next and final article in this series, we will explore the benefits of having a wired smart home and how to go about it.


Editor’s Note:

Author Eddie Estelles is the driving force behind the forthcoming Machinon, a connected home automation controller designed around an open systems approach. At its core, Machinon is a hardware-independent smart extension board for the Raspberry Pi platform, resulting in an advanced smart home and building management system controller. With the objective to be compatible with preeminent open source home automation software, Machinon will employ the Domoticz home automation software stack.

Estelles is hoping to launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign later in early 2019 to move Machinon from the current prototype stage to a commercially viable product. Stay tuned to Digitized House for more info.


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Eddie Estelles
Contributing Author
Eduardo (Eddie) Estelles is an electronics engineer specialised in IoT for the energy sector. He founded Logic Energy in 2007, a firm specialising in supporting new energies technologies. More recently, his work has been focused on integrating IoT with demand response for energy networks within the domestic, small, and medium enterprise sector using smart home technology. Today, Eddie is bringing industrial-grade technology to the end consumer for the home automation sector with the Machinon platform. His vision is to bring open, sustainable, and tie-free solutions to the building and control automation sector, taking his experience from the industrial sector to design long-term supported systems.

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