Adventures in Home Automation – Part I

Home automation can be a long, slow journey.
There are always other things that stand between your dream and making it reality; kids, interest rate rises, bills, cars, computers and so on.

Our journey has been years in the making and it’s still going. There’s a long way to go and a lot more to do. It’s one of those things that isn’t a financial priority – it’s a “chip away at it” thing where slowly but surely we become a little more automated.

This series won’t be a “How To” guide by any stretch – it’s just going to be a “how we did it” story.

Just to get it out of the way, we’ll start by talking about network security. Why? Simply because it’ll get in the way later and it’s easier to cover off a subject that might be a bit complex now.

We run a dedicated WiFi SSID for our IoT devices. That SSID is on a dedicated VLAN on our network. That VLAN doesn’t allow any traffic into any other VLANs on our network (of which there are numerous). It only allows it out to the internet. There are a couple of exceptions; devices such as Chromecast don’t play nicely in this kind of arrangement without some fiddling, especially when the clients are in different VLANs with their own set of restrictions.

We won’t get too tied up in that stuff – you either understand this stuff well enough to know exactly what we’re on about so we won’t bore you with it.. or you don’t really understand it and it’s probably a little overkill.
What you do need to know is- quite simply, our IoT network (and the SSID that connects to it) is “isolated”. Basically everything on it has some kind of cloud integration, so they need to talk to the internet. They really shouldn’t be talking to anything else. That’s why they’re on an isolated network. The theory is that if those devices are compromised – a reality of much IoT stuff given it tends to be manufactured then never updated – if they’re on your internal home network, the bad guys effectively have a way of poking around and getting into all of your other devices.. and likely your PCs.
If they’re isolated off, while they might be able to watch your CCTV cameras (these could do with their own VLAN btw), or they can turn off your lights.. at least they can’t poke a hole in your PC and steal your online banking details.

Setting up your home network with a couple of VLANs and maybe a couple of SSIDs isn’t something that’s necessarily easy with normal ISP provided routers. Some support it, some don’t. Cheap networking gear generally doesn’t give you this much flexibility.

We’re fans of Ubiquiti Networks – in particular their Unifi products. You can leverage a lot of the functionality that you need without needing to be a network engineer to make it work. It’s by no means “idiotproof”, but if you take the time to understand basic networking principles, it’s possible to get yourself a pretty good network going with everything you need. The gear is a lot cheaper than the usual enterprise grade gear you’d normally find this functionality in (ie Cisco), but it’s also not in a consumer price point either. Routers like the UDM Pro handle fast internet connections, have firewalls, handle multiple VLANs, will allow you to configure multiple SSIDs (if you buy wireless access points that support this) and so on.

Really – all we’re trying to achieve here is basically a dedicated network that our IoT devices sit in that does not allow any ingress into the rest of the network except where we create firewall rules that allow specific communication between specific devices on specific ports only (and only if required). It’d be worth actually firewalling that network to limit devices access out as well, but that can become quite a bit of work, and we aren’t touching that here.

Now that we’ve got the networking bit out of the way, let’s actually get to the start of the story.

Our adventure started with a couple of smart light switches connected to the Smart Life app. The first goal was being able to set schedules for a front door light to turn on during the night before someone was due to come home. It also meant that we could program an internal light to come on at the same time. The motivators were simply power saving and trying to cut down light pollution when everyone else was sleeping (with a young child in the house, we weren’t keen on closing doors).

We wound up with a number of Amazon Alexa devices to play with, purchased when on sale. Very quickly we had the integration setup to allow us to use voice control to turn on and off those lights.

Over a period of the next couple of years, the number of smart switches increased as did the complexity of use:
– One was put in one of the kids bedrooms. She is notorious for leaving for school and leaving her light on, so it was set to auto turn off during the day. Before she started the usual teenage behavior of hibernating in her room, we had that switch configured to only stay on for about 10 minutes.
– We had light switches in dumb places, such as a backyard light switch in our laundry, but we don’t use that door to go into the backyard. We replaced that light switch with a smart switch and used another one in our living room – replacing the 2 gang with a 3 gang. The third switch is entirely virtual – it simply triggers the switch in the laundry.
– The laundry switch itself is in a bad spot, above a bench requiring you to walk into the room to turn it on – something the kids aren’t super keen on after dark if they’re asked to feed the dog. The wall opposite where the switch is, is actually the hallway, so we have a single gang switch sitting outside the laundry door that is only wired for power. It’s virtual and tells the laundry light switch to turn on.

The ability to control these switches in a virtual manner is simply awesome. It’s a little bit fiddly, but ultimately it allows you to put switches where you need them. We have voice control as well, but not everyone likes to use it.

More recently, we added a Smart Heater in our bathroom. It’s controlled by an app but we wanted to set hard limits on temperature given the forgetful nature of some in the home. We replaced the light/fan switch in the bathroom with a 3 gang smart switch. The third switch is virtual simply programmed through Smart Life to turn off and on the heater. Not rocket science and yet makes the process of turning on/off the heater a button press. No playing with apps, no needing to yell out to the nearest Alexa device. Just push the button.

The latest bits of “smart kit” we installed are:
– A smart power point in our garden shed. The shed itself is powered by an off grid solar system, but during winter we’re not always getting enough charge to deal with the fairly constant power draw (we have a couple of HAM radios in there always on, a mini PC, a couple of cameras, network switch and a wireless access point). It all idles around 25w. We have a schedule running that turns on the point that the charger is connected to at around 10pm (the charger generates a bit of noise on HF bands, so its run late) and puts out 2A. That runs until 5am. It’s only really enough to keep up with the load. There are probably more interesting ways to achieve this, but sometimes simplicity is king. As our generation picks up, it’s easy enough to change the schedule in Smart Life.

– A Sonoff Smart Plug added to our Tiger Oscar’s aquarium for lighting. We have a custom LED setup using an old Typhon Reef LED controller that *should* be doing the job, but over the past few months it’s become flaky and won’t turn off. The Meanwell drivers have also always put out enough current to keep the LEDs on a bit dim. As a bit of a cludge fix, we’ve used the Sonoff Smart Plug to turn off and on the entire light rig. It doesn’t integrate into Smart Home, so we needed to use eWeLink to integrate this one.  This whole light rig needs to get replaced at some point. A decade ago it was a hand built light setup for a marine tank that’s been scaled down and made more fresh water friendly. Still, this is a cheap short term fix.

– Home Assistant. This is an application and it’s completely deserving of its own post, so we’ll cover it in Part II. This is really where we start to tie the whole show together!

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