Monday, October 02, 2017

The "Just Smart Enough" House

Less Architectural Digest, more "This is our home"

We've been doing some remodeling on our house, and the overarching theme of the renovations has been "make this house convenient for real humans to live in". When we bought the house, it was "perfect" in one sense - the house is broken up into two sections, with a central courtyard between, and we were looking for a place where my Father-in-law could come live with us, and still have some space to himself and some privacy.

In many other respects, it was a wildly-impractical house. There's a sad story there, of a couple who fall into and out of love during a remodel, of a mother who overruled the architect in a few critical ways, of a home that was left unfinished when the couple living there split up, and of a house split (illegally) into two units to try to keep it, by supplementing income via renting out the back. 

The end result was a house that certainly looks "fancy", in that it's got a Great Room with a wall entirely filled up by windows and sliding doors, a big fireplace faced in Travertine, and a ridiculous number of doors to the outside, for that "indoor/outdoor living" feeling. Seriously, there are 11 doors to the outside, not including the garage door. Other than being slightly unfinished, it could totally have been a house featured in Architectural Digest.

But when you're living there, you start to notice some of the compromises. I don't think I've ever lived in a house that didn't have a coat closet before. Or a broom closet. Or a linen closet.  Hence the remodel, the first part of which was just turning the illegal 2nd unit into a more-reasonable bedroom suite for Bob, and adding some damn storage.

We added a bunch more storage into the Great Room, and that meant adding new electrical circuits for new under-cabinet and in-cabinet lighting. And because I'm a total nerd, that meant researching Smart Switches to control all of the new lighting (and ideally move some of the more-inconvenient switches to a better location).

Who do you trust?

I pretty quickly settled on getting my smart switches from an electrical equipment manufacturer, rather than some startup "home automation" company. I really, really don't want my house to burn down, and while I have no reason to think that the quality of the zillions of Wi-Fi enabled switches on is anything but excellent, I felt more-comfortable going with a company that has a hundred years or so of experience with not burning people's houses down.

Lutron vs Leviton

(that really sounds like a super-hero movie, doesn't it?)

Lutron and Leviton are two of the largest electrical fixture manufacturers, and choosing between one or the other when buying a regular switch or receptacle is mostly just a matter of which brand your local hardware store carries, and whether or not you want to save $0.25 by buying the store brand.

In the "Home Automation" arena, they each have a variety of solutions, ranging from giant panel-based systems that you're expected to put in a closet somewhere and have installed by a "trained integrator", to simpler systems which are aimed at the DIY market.

You can go all-in, or you can just put a toe in

It didn't take long for me to decide that the fancier integrated systems were not really what I wanted. First off, they're fairly expensive, though the expense looks a little less extreme once you start comparing the per-switch cost of the smart switches vs the centralized version. But ultimately, I didn't really want to deal with a "system integrator" setting the thing up (though apparently it's very easy to get certified by Lutron if you're a licensed electrician, which I'm not). Also, nobody had anything good to say about the phone apps that were available for these systems. And finally, the high-end systems are all about providing a touch pad interface, to give your home that proper Jetsons look. I have no interest in having touch screens mounted on the wall in every room, so that was more of a downside for me, than an attraction. The stand-alone switches from either vendor look more-or-less like standard Decora-style dimmers.

In the consumer-focused lines, there are some interesting differences between the two companies. Leviton's consumer products are mostly compatible with the Z-Wave standard, which means they work with third-party smart home hubs. The reviews online for the Smart Things and Wink hubs weren't particularly encouraging to me, so that was a bit of a bummer.

The Lutron stuff uses a proprietary wireless protocol, and they sell their own hub. The Caseta hub (Lutron's hub) seemed to actually get pretty good reviews. It isn't as capable as the Smart Things hub but, and this was pretty critical for me - it does connect to HomeKit, Apple's home automation system (it also works with Amazon's Alexa and the Google Home device). So, we went with the Lutron Caseta stuff, because it's easy to use, looks reasonable in our house and is available at both Home Depot and Lowes, as well as the local electrical supply store.

Hardware from the hardware store, software from a software company

The connection to HomeKit means that even though the Caseta hub isn't as full-featured as some of the other smart home hubs, I don't really need to care. We're pretty much an all-Apple shop here at Casa de Bessey, so knowing that I could control all of the things attached to the Caseta hub from my phone, using Apple's Home app, is a pretty big draw for me. 

I know it's the 21st century, and everybody needs to have an App, but that doesn't mean every application is equally well-made. If there's a feature that I really "need", and it's not available in the standard software that comes with the Caseta, I could (at least in theory) set up an Apple TV or an iPad as an always-on HomeKit hub, and write my own damn software to run on it.

HomeKit will likely continue to gain new features over the years, so I may never need to do anything custom. But if I do, it's nice to know that I can work with familiar tools and environment, rather than struggling with some obscure system provided by the switch manufacturer.

The Caseta Wireless experience

We're a couple of months into using the Caseta hardware, and here's how it's been going so far.

The Good

Dimmers everywhere
One thing I hadn't really thought about before doing this work is that the dimmer-switch version of the Caseta switches is almost the same price as the plain switch version. We were in the process of gradually replacing our CFL bulbs with LED bulbs anyway, so we've gone with dimmer switches basically everywhere. The added flexibility of being able to set the brightness of any particular light is a nice upgrade.

The basics are all there
All of the fancy features in the world wouldn't be helpful if the basic features weren't there. The switches feel nice, they look nice, and they're easy to install. The software makes it easy to set up "scenes" where you can hit a single button, and set the brightness level of any sub-set of lights in the house.

HomeKit/Siri integration
It just works. There really is something magical about being able to say "Siri, turn out all the lights", and have the entire house go dark. Or indeed saying "Siri, turn out the light in Jeremy's Room" to my watch, and having that work on the first try.

Easy to setup and use
You basically plug in the hub, press a button to pair it with the app on your phone, and then start adding devices. The switches are direct replacements for your existing switches, so installing them is basically:
  1. Turn off the power
  2. Remove the old switch
  3. Wire the new switch/dimmer in
  4. Turn the power back on
The only slightly-complex cases are when you're replacing a three-way switch. The Caseta solution for 3-way (or more) situations is to install the switch at one end, then just install battery-powered remotes at any other location you need to control that light from. When you take out the 3-way, you do need to connect the "traveller" wires together, but they provide instructions online to show you how to do that.

You do have to add each individual switch to the app one at a time, which could get tedious in a large installation. It sure made things easy for the electricians, though - they just had to wire things up, without keeping track of which switch went in which room, since I would set all that up later after they left. From talking to them, I got the impression that the usual install of the higher-end stuff does involve writing down a bunch of "this circuit is on switch #12345" notes, then going back and fixing things later when setting up the controller.

Unless the WiFi in the house is down, I haven't had any problems connecting to the hub, either from the Lutron app (when adding new hardware) or from Apple's Home App. Because the individual switches all have controls on them, even in the case of catastrophic failure, you can still walk around and turn off everything "by hand". That's another point in favor of the non-centralized system, I guess.

Supports "enough" devices for my house
One of the big differences between the Caseta stuff and Lutron's next higher tier (Radio RA2), is the number of "devices" they support. Every switch, every dimmer, and every remote control is a "device" for these counts. Caseta only supports 50 devices. I haven't come anywhere close to the limit yet, but we haven't replaced every last switch in the house yet, either. I think we'll be over 40 once all of the switches I care about have been replaced. Our house is close to 2,000 square feet, so if your house is smaller than that, I doubt the limit will ever matter much. And here's where the connection to HomeKit also helps - if we ever do hit the device limit, I can buy another Caseta hub for $75, and have another 50 devices.

The Bad

Range and range extenders
The Caseta documentation says that every controlled device needs to be within 30 feet of the hub. In practice, the maximum reach is just a bit longer than that in our house, but not very much farther. You can extend the range of the system, by using a plug-in dimmer as a repeater. You can have exactly one repeater, which is another limitation compared to the higher-end systems, which support multiple repeaters. But again - if I ever did run into this in practice, I'd probably just get another hub, and have one for each end of the house, since the hubs really aren't all that expensive.

Pricing structure
Honestly, the way that Lutron prices this stuff makes almost no sense at all. You can buy various "kits" with a hub, a dimmer and a remote, or a hub and a few dimmers and remotes, or a hub and some plug-in dimmers. The individual kit components cost more separately, which is no surprise, but some of the prices are weirdly inverted - it costs more to buy just a dimmer than it does to buy the dimmer, a remote, and all of the trim hardware. I assume anybody who makes extensive use of this product line eventually ends up with a box full of unused remotes, but that's just slightly wasteful, not an actual problem.

Trigger configuration is very basic
The "smart" hub isn't very smart. You can bind particular remotes to particular switches, set up scenes, and do some very basic automation. A recent software update improved some of this so that you can now do some more scheduling.

But take, for example, the "arriving home" automation. I can set up a scene to activate when I arrive home. That's nice, but I can't actually set up a scene to activate when I'm the first one home, or the last to leave. HomeKit supports this, so that might be the thing that gets me to finally set up an Apple TV as a HomeKit hub. Or maybe I'll wait for the HomePod...

The Unknown

I haven't done a basic security audit on the Caseta hub, yet. That'll make a fun weekend project. The online component of the hub is protected by a user name and password, at least. And if I do get totally paranoid, I can always disconnect the hub from the internet, and route everything through an iOS HomeKit hub, which is likely to be more-secure.

What happens if Lutron decides to end-of-life the Caseta line? Will I still be able to get replacement parts, or a new hub if the old one breaks? For that matter, what if Apple stops supporting HomeKit, or removes the Lutron app from the App Store?

This is the problem with going with the proprietary solution. I am somewhat dependent on both Lutron and Apple staying in this business, and getting along with each other. The hub is basically unusable without the app, so that's definitely a concern. I suspect if Lutron found themselves in a situation where they could no longer provide the iOS app, they'd be motivated to provide another solution, or at the very least, a migration strategy to one of their other control hubs.

At the absolute worst-case scenario, the Caseta switches and the remote controls can be set up and paired to operate completely independently of the hub. I'd lose all of the "smart" features, but at least I'd still have working light switches.


Overall, this was a really great way to get my feet wet with "smartening up" my home. The increased control over the lights in the house is convenient, and actually helps make the house more livable. The potential downsides are limited by the design of the Caseta system, which gracefully falls back to  "no worse than just having old light switches", something which is not necessarily true of other connected home devices, like thermostats, which can have terrible failure modes.

If you're interested in adding some smarts to your home, I can definitely recommend the Caseta products. They're easy to set up and use, and have been very reliable for us so far.

1 comment:

Chris Berthold said...

Just in case you are interested, I've created (in-progress) a cross platform C# library ( that allows you to discover smart bridges, get list of devices, status, and set Caseta devices levels through the bridge.