Home Automation Sucks

by Colin Berkshire

I decided to delve back into Home Automation at my house recently. I was cautious about it, as 25 years ago I also got into it and it was a disaster.

There are several competing technologies out there, so my first task was to decide what camp to get in. It quickly narrowed down to Z-Wave because they are clearly the most widely accepted, and are an open protocol. There are a lot of Z-Wave devices available.

The runner-up was Insteon. Insteon is clearly technically superior, and their plastics are higher quality and they have a better variety of devices. Insteon has 0-10V dimmers (this is a standard with LED built-in lights) and also they have DIN rail devices. They have a very good lineup. But alas, they are sole source, are proprietary, and they are behind when it comes to controllers.

I was sad to not choose Insteon because clearly they have better modules that round out an automated home. The modules looked better, and they did operate with better range and faster. Insteon is just plain better as far as I can tell. In every way. But over and over again they tripped up by not being compatible with any of the leading edge home controllers. If you can’t control the modules, what good are they?

After asking around I determined that HomeSeer was the most widely compatible, most powerful, most flexible, most capable, most supported home control software out there. So I plunged in and purchased the software. (Runs on Windows, Linux, or Mac.) Boy was that a mistake! “Hideous design” doesn’t begin to describe this terrible, horrible, incomprehensible mess of bailing wire, tape, wire, and dung strapped together into an incomprehensible mess. It looks ugly, The menus are illogical. The logic defies logic. It has special-case after special-case in its programming. It is obscure, overwhelming, and just terrible.

My home was fully automated in 1992 using X-10 modules and a home controller call “Stargate”. It worked well for a while, but programming was a bit of a challenge/mess. Well, the HomeSeer software brought back memories because it looks and acts like something designed in 1992 (and that was never updated.) There is no possible way that HomeSeer can ever be a mainstream home controller.

With that rather terrible setback I got more serious about choosing a controller. While there are half a dozen of them out there, it became apparent that the two leading ones are Samsung’s SmartThings (which started as a Kickstarter project and then they got bought out) and Vera.

Vera is up to Version 7 and has been around for a number of years. It has decent support for Z-Wave modules, it has a big user community, and a lot of plug-ins. But it cannot do logic. You CANNOT do something such as “If the door is opened AND the temperature is under 75 THEN do something.” This is because it doesn’t support any form of “AND.” Whoops.

SmartThings supports slightly more logic, but it isn’t let you construct an IF-THEN-ELSE type of condition.

So which one did I pick? Well, I haven’t yet. Both Vera and SmartThings have quirks and limitations. Right now I am playing with both of them and cannot decide which of these “best in class” controllers is the least-worst.

So in the end, I feel that Home Automation is still not ready for prime time. If all you want to use it for is turning all of the lights off when you leave then either Vera or Samsung can do the task. But if you want to control heating, lights, have wall-switch operated scenes, and perhaps have a red light turn on when the stock market is down then it’s not there yet.

I’ve been in technology for 45 years now. It is incredibly frustrating to see how far it hasn’t advanced. Why don’t the companies just think it through and make it work and make it simple? Really, this is not that difficult. Things CAN be simple and powerful at the same time. (Apple is famous for this.) Oh, yes, Apple has Home Automation and I was excited that this could be the golden answer with the Apple touch. But it’s a few years old and hasn’t caught on, is also complicated, and is also very limited in what it can do.

Am I being unreasonable here? Consider that I would like to have a card-key ($1) that is read by a reader ($25) and that then personalizes the room to my preferences. Isn’t that reasonable? It simply cannot be done nay any of the mainstream home automation systems. Or, let’s say I wanted a Decora sized panel with an LCD display and a few buttons, and that it would set flush with the wall inside the outlet box. Nope, no such thing.

And heaven forbid that my Home Automation system would turn on the TV and tune the Satellite to my favorite channel when I get in. (This, too, isn’t possible with any mainstream Home Controller.)

Home Automation just sucks. It makes me sad.