New House – Technology Choices

I’ve recently bought a new house.

We completed renovated our first house and, in the process, we made an awful lot of mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, we got an awful lot of things right too, but we’ve always had some annoyances. These were born of inexperience and naeivaty.

With this new project, we have an opportunity to do another renovation and we can put some of the lessons learned into practice.

I want to write a few blog posts covering the renovation, so to kick that off, I want to start with technology. Obviously.

Readers of my blog will know I love smart home technology. I got to try out various bits of kit in this house, such as Den Switches, Shelly Relays and Aqara odds and ends. I build temperature sensors for my hot water tank and a salt sensor for my water softener. I learned about Home Assistant, MQTT, Z-Wave and Zigbee. I installed and then removed a Nest camera. I upgraded my home network with Ubiquity gear and learned about PoE and cable crimping.

What will I not do again?

Nest Thermostat

This was the first piece of home technology I ever purchased. It was great to begin with, but after a few weeks, I turned off the “learning” mode. It was turning on the heating at random times during the night, when I felt it just wasn’t necessary. Another problem I had was that hot water could only be operated in blocks of 30 minutes or more. During the height of the summer, 10 or 15 minutes would have been enough.

The smart home/away feature was great and it has some limited interaction with Home Assistant. Google then killed off the API program, so all that support went away. I decided I wanted something just a little more flexible.

Cloud based cameras.

When we first moved in to the house I had it wired for security cameras, but against my instructions the electrician put in Coaxial instead of ethernet I wanted. When he then asked for £1000 to install the cameras, I politely declined. At around the same time, Maplin was going into administration, so I picked up a Nest Outdoor camera and two indoor cameras during their sale.

I was very impressed with the Nest outdoor camera’s quality, but it always felt slow to access and the movement notifications always had a noticeable delay. I always thought it was dumb that I was streaming the video from a server (probably in the US) when the camera was *literally* connected to the same WiFi.

After Nest released their video Doorbell, I picked one up and installed it, figuring I’d stay in the same eco-system. This was when I really started to notice the delay in notifications e.g. doorbell would ring and 20 seconds later my phone would chime.

Then there was the cost for storing the video. It was costing me over £100 a year for the four cameras I had. As I became more and more aware of privacy issues with cloud video, I decided enough was enough. I took down the Nest Outdoor and replaced with a Ubiquity G3 bullet. I added three more of them over time. All my video is now stored on a local server and offers almost instant when I’m at home. Access when I’m away from home is also pretty snappy.

Smart light bulbs.

I tried a pair of Ikea Smart Downlighters in my downstairs loo. They were easy to install and use, but light switch muscle memory proved too strong and I had to take them out. I ended up using an Aqara switch in their place and that worked an absolute treat!

Den Light Switches

I bought into Den Automation’s crowd funding via Seedrs and preordered a few hundred pound’s worth of their stuff. After lots of delays in manufacturing, it eventually arrived. I’ve written about the installation and my first impressions of the kit. It worked pretty well, but after a few months the company went into administration and their cloud was switched off. Thankfully I’d figured out a way to make it work with MQTT so I was able to use them for a while longer. Some of the units eventually lost connection and couldn’t be re-paired without the cloud. They did eventually restore the cloud, but I’d lost interest at that point.

An expensive lesson in the perils of both early adopter hardware and investing in startups.

Get somebody useless to wire my alarm.

This isn’t really a technology issue, rather a human issue. I added a Konnected board to my wired alarm and made some shocking discoveries.

What will I do again?

Home Assistant

I’ve had a Home Assistant installation in my previous home for more than a year. The MQTT and Zigbee services ran on the same small tower. I was also using NodeRED for some more advanced workflows. I found it very stable and it never once failed, not in all the time I had it installed.

Smart lighting with the Shelly1

The Shelly1 relays I installed were absolutely fantastic. I could not recommend them enough. Installing them requires some knowledge of wiring, but I had no issues installing them into several of the lights in my house. The pendant housing was the only real problem, so this time around I’ll have to find something a little larger.

I’ll also make the electrician aware at the beginning that I’m planning on installing them and ensure that the wiring is suitable. There will be a few places (outdoor lighting) where there won’t be a ceiling rose, so we’ll have to figure something out for those.

I also plan on installing some of their Dimmer models, so we can have some mood lighting and potentially enable low level lighting at night, for the kid’s nocturnal trips to the loo etc.

Smart Thermostat

As noted above, I was not planning on a Nest Thermostat. This time I’ll be installing a Tado system. It’s completely wireless, with the control unit operating off batteries, which means we’ve more flexibility in choosing where we install it. The company also make smart TRVs, which can be operated remotely. Best of all, I think, is that individual TRVs can turn the boiler on, rather than relying on one central thermostat, we essentially get a zone per room.

It also has an API, integrates with Home Assistant and works with HomeKit too. Offers lots of flexibility. The advanced features require a monthly subscription, but I feel happier paying £30 a year than using the Nest.

Install an alarm

Rather than going for a wired alarm this time around, I’ve decided to go for a wireless model. I wanted flexibility and smart home integration. Some wired alarms offer this, but the newer generation are far more integrated and connected. I’ve settled for the Abode alarm, down to its broad compatibility and Homekit support.

Smart Hot Water

In my last house I had an unvented cylinder for storing hot water. Pretty standard.

One of the major pains we experienced was running out of hot water. This happened on and off, usually when we wanted to draw a bath for kids. I improvised a way to measure the temperature in the tank using some probes and this sort of solved the problem. Assume we checked, we learned that particular temperatures across the tank gave a rough indication as to whether we had enough water or not.

Whilst watching the great Fully Charged on YouTube, I happened across one show about the Mixergy hot water tank. I was really impressed and when the purchase of the house went through, I ordered one.

The idea is that the tank can maintain a certain amount of hot water in the tank, rather than having to heat the entire tank. You can schedule it during the day, heating enough for showers in the morning and than maintaining some for use during the day. It’s about 50% more expensive than a standard tank of the same size. I’ve opted for one that can support Solar PV, so in the future I hope I can heat the water with some solar panels. If I get a smart meter installed, I hope I can also use cheaper electricity at night to heat the water, rather than just relying on gas.

Progress updates

Once the work has begun, I’ll post a few updates as I go.