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Future-proofing a Smart Home

Figure 7 – Keep it Simple 

The main advice I’d recommend when building a local smart hub is to learn from my mistakes and keep it simple. I got into smart home because I was building an off-grid array for a luxury retirement home with a relatively open scope. Does a smart home mean that every light and every switch be motion sensing and connected with smart devices? Starting off with a whole house conversion gets very complex very quickly.

Many smart home enthusiasts approach this differently, adding a few devices at a time to test system stability and building from there. It’s not to say that you can’t do whole house innovation but many of the products being replaced are already on local controls and swapping them out for a cheaper solution can in fact create headache, if the previous solution worked in an analog fashion off the volts and amps within communication wires, whereas the smart solution is based on actual smart communication. For example, traditional security alarm systems used electrical sensors and relays to see when doors and windows open and shut. A do-it-yourself smart security system might be easier to set-up, but it is also way more complex, might not last as long, and requires a new programming process anytime the smart hub fails. In short, wireless communication of any type is more complex than the marketing information indicates, not all wireless communication is equal, and keeping it simple is never a bad idea. 

Figure 8 – Windows

So how do you future-proof a new build for smart technology integration? One area I think builders are being a little short-sighted on is window blinds. There are smart light bulbs and smart light switches and all kinds of smart audio and visual devices, but with window blinds in particular, a motor control and power source is needed to pull these blinds physically open and shut. To start out with, the motorized blind itself is expensive being a few hundred dollars itself for each curtain, so automating all the curtains in a building really isn’t for everyone at this time. But if the infrastructure for the motorized window blind doesn’t get built into the house, then at the time of a retrofit there isn’t any power out to the window blind. What Ikea does is to run the motor off a battery pack, but a smart window is not like a push button on a wall. Rather than opening and shutting on command, an automated window curtain may open and shut every day, perhaps multiple times. That is going to drain the batteries, creating a new chore for the user. Every couple of months they will need to swap out batteries on their heavy use smart devices and window blinds are at the top of the pack. Well Ikea also sells a solar panel that charges the battery that runs the motor and guess what, that starts to get really expensive.

If you are budget constrained you might say to yourself, “Let’s skip the window blinds for now” but the absence of window shades that adjust to the sun is notably absent from an otherwise high-end smart home. A new build can seem obsolete right out of the starting gate. 

In the solar industry, if the project isn’t happening just yet, future-proofing the building might include running conduit through the walls and up to the rooftop, which is relatively cheap but allows for a high-end installation down the road. 

Figure 9 – Cheap LEDs 

Likewise you don’t necessarily want smart home products on the low end of the price range.  This is true of many things not just smart tech. Without getting into too many details, there are low end LED lights and high end LED lights with better power conversion bits inside them, and when planning a solar and battery powered home, using the higher end components usually pays off. 

Figure 10 – Server Rooms 

How does one ensure that a home is “smart ready” to avoid obsolescence? One technology that provides a solution are “powered over ethernet” devices. Although ethernet can only deliver a small amount of power to a device, that power capacity can be augmented if the device has an onboard battery such that it receives a continuous trickle charge. And delivering the power on an ethernet cable means intelligence is being driven somewhere by a computer at the other end of the ethernet. Right now there are only a couple startups making powered-over-ethernet windows, but I think it is a safe bet there will be more options down the road.

In fact I believe running ethernet everywhere, to every possible smart home device location is a pragmatic future-proofing solution. Every window, every possible location of a security camera indoors or outdoors, the doorbell, and even select lighting circuits can benefit from power-over-ethernet. Tucking away an ethernet cable in the wall next to each window location can provide a cheaper manual window blind solution now but leave the home ready for a better solution later.

Here’s our server rack. This was my first server rack, and one thing I would do differently next time is to run all the ethernet into the wall, on a panel called a patch panel, and then ran pre-made wires from the patch panel into the server. In another example, one smart door sensor costs $10 more than the other, but it comes with a removable lid to assist battery swaps, the cheaper sensor involves unscrewing the sensor from the door, which does not bode well for long term use.

So like in other industries, there are savings to be had for do-it-yourself, but professional installation services usually make up for the added cost with increased professionalism and decreased schedule. Still, you shouldn’t have a smart home network at home without someone on site willing to learn about how it works. 

Anyway, a server rack in the home for all the electronics, plus a UPS power system to provide the whole system with battery backup has benefit. Smart home projects can be small, but they can also go into the tens of thousands of dollars just at the residential level. In other classes, we discuss shortcomings of onsite solar battery solutions, and having a heavy continuous load such as the power circuits for all the home media services and lighting on its own backup power source is useful not only for power during a grid outage, but also in optimizing variable peak rate structures throughout the day, something we discuss towards the end of this class.

Turning a server room into a smart-energy management center can be accomplished with smart wall plug controlling the UPS that charges the battery which runs a properly sized UPS system and the battery, at which point the cost is pretty comparable to one-way battery inverters which do not backfeed onto the grid – covered in our residential off-grid class. I had good results buying refurbished quality products online. In many cases, the battery can be replaced with some tinkering. This UPS system is 1.5 kW and can help the home skate over a spike in electrical demand for a short period of time, such as when the air conditioner defroster or electric heating turns on. 

The promise of energy automations really is to provide user comfort without much sacrifice in lifestyle, but batteries are expensive. There is a lot more we could say about the cost-effectiveness of distributed, cascading 100 amp distribution panels on their own backup power inverters as a standard in smart home design, but that would really require another class to set up. And in this class, we want to start with something simple, low cost, and valuable.

Figure 11 – Design Principles

If you want a kitchen that magically helps you cook, an indoor camera with a good view of the cooking area can enable proximity based triggers. But that kind of device needs to be hardwired, and so in a smart build, the building will have substantially more ethernet compared to a traditional build. 

I know the concept of putting cameras all over the house can seem weird. Many retirees only want cameras outside their home, not inside. Although, many burglars prefer to be inside the home rather than outside of it. Likewise millennials who’ve never experienced a world without internet are much more comfortable with cameras inside the home. Facial recognition is one thing, but many proximity-based triggers are done better with a camera than say, an infrared sensor, but the camera requires more bandwidth, and it begs for an ethernet cable. So with regard to future-proofing, it is not a bad idea to go crazy with the ethernet. A camera might be above the stove to help someone cook, or in each room to customize the lights and power up the TV. These locations can be planned and considered with a relatively low cost ethernet run even if the rest of the system is not implemented today. And even if wireless speeds exceed that of Cat5 or Cat6 in the future, certain devices will never need speeds greater than what ethernet cable delivers today but these devices will benefit from a hardwired ethernet connection.

Putting devices on hardwired ethernet reduces bandwidth requirements on the wireless network, whether it be wifi or some other wireless network. Response times improve, energy consumption improves, so hardwired ethernet through the house and dedicated server space is good thinking for project planning.

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