Smart Home Talk, 2020 Edition

I spent a good part of yesterday mulling about this and I think my efforts toward creating “a smart home” are coming along better than I would’ve expected.

There are still plenty of challenges – a lot of this stuff is expensive, and much of it exists in closed ecosystems that don’t like to integrate well with others, but we’re slowly getting there! 😉

Smart Lighting
I still can’t deny that Hue lighting is stupid expensive – frankly, if it weren’t for the cost, I’d have finished this part a long time ago, but I love the flexibility and the quality of their bulbs so I’ve been gradually changing over a room in our house at a time, going from boring, old CFLs to these full-color, albeit $50-a-bulb equivalents.

They work great in the kids’ rooms because they get to pick whatever colors they want and then we keep them on all night long as nightlights.

Earlier this year, I also replaced the sconces on our garage and our porch light, so it’s fun to be able to light those up with different colors for whatever holiday we’re celebrating at the moment!

After first toying around with these about two years ago, I’ve now switched over about 4 rooms in the house with a couple more to go, in addition to some outdoor lighting around the pool out back that I’m pretty excited about.

Smart Displays
Next to Hue, DAKboard is one of my favorite digital toys around the house. I think I’ve got a total of four boards running right now – the original calendar I setup in my office, a second one to display my to-do list and some other stuff, a daily calendar in our kitchen that helps us to keep track of school and therapy schedules for the kids (and displays family photos!), and fourth – another calendar at my desk at work where I haven’t been in like nine months now!

Side note – over the summer I even started tinkering with using DAKboard to create a dashboard for tracking COVID so I could have the stats handy that I think are the most important, however I got frustrated because the API block – while neat – isn’t quite there yet.

Still, I love these things and next year I want to try to work on upgrading the old hand me down monitors I’m using to some proper IPS displays that are a little better suited for casual viewing from any angle.

I can seriously see our home having a lot of these things between picture frames and other stuff by the time I’m done…

Digital Media
So apparently it’s been almost six years since I first started dabbling with Plex, and I’m happy to say that the whole household is definitely converted to digital now. I think the only place we still use physical DVDs is in our van because despite having the option to play media off a USB drive, the UI sucks! 

But other than that, all of our movies and TV shows are there and easily accessible from pretty much any device, and unlike Netflix and Disney+ and all of the rest, we don’t have to worry about our favorite movies or shows suddenly disappearing because a service didn’t feel like renewing their license for it.

One improvement I’d like to see here is now that 4K media is becoming more commonplace, we need newer TVs to handle the content because ours can’t natively decode X265/HEVC and it’s just way to cumbersome for Plex to transcode.

In the next couple of months, I also want to add a video card to the server for transcoding because Plex now supports hardware transcoding for Linux, as well as an NVME drive to speed up access to the rather large collection of metadata that supports our ever-growing Plex libraries! Admittedly these upgrades are mostly for other people because we also share our media out to a few friends and family, almost all of who transcode via Roku boxes, but it would be nice to not have to worry about a 5th or 6th stream maxing out the box.

Home Assistant
And last but not least, I’m giving Home Assistant another try at tying all of my smart home toys together after admittedly not getting very far with it last year because it felt clunky and not nearly as polished as the Hue app, for example, that I was falling in love with at the time!

I also had issues getting it installed in its own VM, however that was solved this time around by just using the virtual appliance image that they offer to skip fighting with Python and everything else OS-oriented.

So far, it looks like the UI has improved. I’m still going to have to get comfortable with most of it being code-driven instead of having a pretty UI, but frankly that’s also why I’m giving it another try because what I want to do now is apparently more complicated!

For starters, getting different ecosystems to work with one another and controlling them all in one place.

Also, I’ll soon be approaching the 50-device limit for a single Hue hub, and although I can still expand and add more hubs, from what I’ve read they don’t play nice with the app and we’d have to switch between hubs to control the lights associated with each one, which is dumb. Another option would be controlling them through Homekit, but I think that’s kind of ugly and already some of the smart plugs that I use aren’t compatible, whereas HA will see everything.

The Next Steps…
I think now that I’m starting to get a good base with a few of these systems, I’d like to move towards having them work together via Home Assistant and DAKboard or whatever else makes sense.

Part of this will be simply moving the handful of lighting schedules that I currently have setup on my Hue bridge over to HA to be ready for eventually adding a second bridge.

As I explore HA, I’d also like to add more sensors to track things like open doors and room temperatures. Already I’ve found that apparently my Hue Motion Sensor also captures temp and can confirm that my office gets as much as 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house!

On this note, I’m already looking forward to adding a control to the thermostat to automatically switch over from air to heat when the outdoor temp falls below a certain threshold – an otherwise manual task that’s always been a pet peeve of mine since I moved to Florida!

I also want to build on my outdoor lightning scene by incorporating the pool lights into the mix – something that I think I finally figured out how to do by swapping the switch that they’re on out for one that’s controllable via wifi. It won’t give me the ability to change colors, but for only $14 it’s a start.

And one of the new features that I’m most excited about exploring is this support for interactive pictures to control the devices around your home – my favorite being a floor plan of the entire house with clickable icons representing lights and cameras and other devices that can all be controlled right from the picture!

I feel like one of the biggest challenges with creating a truly “smart home” is having all of these different devices be easily accessible to people who aren’t geeks. A lot of enthusiasts talk about having “wife approval” for these types of home improvements, but I also find myself faced with the “kid friction” that stems from things like light switches that are remote controls and end up getting lost because tiny hands don’t leave them on the wall where they belong!

Still, it’s a fun challenge to face and I’m happy to see the technology slowly improving – maybe not out of the box, but at least to make a handful of my newest ideas a reality. 😉

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