How my Automation journey began

How my Automation journey began

William Zink

Well a few years ago (2018) I decided to venture into the smart home world. I heard about home automation through Apple's keynote when they announced that Home was coming to the iPhone. I figured if Apple was doing it that was the way of the future. I looked forward to that app being released and dreamed about the control I could have over my entire condominium. But... as with most projects that's not anywhere near where I ended up. This blog is about the journey and process of helping get you started into Home Automation. In two years of fumbling; I went from nothing and flicking on a light switch, to my shades following the azimuth and elevation of the sun so I know longer pull a string. If this journey excites you as much is it did me! Let's see how I got there. And I promise to shorten your journey way under two years!

TL;DR - I use an Intel NUC (8th Gen) - Home Assistant and will show you how you can too!

Ok, but why did you start this journey?

Great question, and to be honest it was out of laziness. As most great ideas begin, I was tired of having mini-fights with my girlfriend about who left the lights on or who's turn it was to turn them off as I cuddled up in bed. What if you could press one button and it could do everything I thought...

All of the biggest technological inventions created by man - the airplane, the automobile, the computer - says little about his intelligence, but speaks volumes about his laziness.
- Mark Kennedy

After fumbling around with the iOS Home app for a while, it had a couple basic features I was looking for. It gave me a single app, although clunky. It's automations (at the time and still kind of are) were very rudimentary and if I wanted two things to interact it was like an act of congress. So I got frustrated and mainly bored, so I thought there has to be a better option out there. What are they?

So....

What was I looking for?

  1. Ease of use
    If it's not easy to use or easy to setup what's the point? The Last thing I want to do is learn a programming language to setup my house.
  2. There has to be an SINGLE app
    I mean come on in 2020 there has to be an app for everything, but the main goal here was to not have 100 apps (looking at you SmartThings) to control 200 devices, I want to spend less time on my phone not more.
  3. I really didn't want to use a voice assistant....
    I understand their purpose and all of the great benefits that they can provide but it's just not for me.
    A device that can listen to every conversation or my clicking keyboard as I type this is just not for me. Which leads into privacy, it would be an added benefit if I could control my data. But it wasn't a main concern at the time.
  4. No subscription fees
    I'm not looking at adding another subscription. I was one of the first to cut cable and just don't like when tiny monthly fees add up over time.
  5. Backwards compatibility
    I want my house to continue to work if my computer is server is down. Automation should help your life, not make it more complicated or annoying. I don't need 2 full time jobs debugging Home Assistant every time I come home.
    People always ask me this which is hilarious - "What happens if your power is out" - uh, if my power is out my house wasn't going to work anyways. lol!

Some Home Automation options

I looked into some options before just jumping in. I considered the following:

  1. Fibaro
  2. SmartThings
  3. iOS Home - I know, but if it's not terribly broken, do you fix it?
  4. Alexa (ugh... don't get me going on the voice assistant, but what are my other options)
  5. Just paying someone to do it... How expensive could it be?
    Spoiler Alert: Very Expensive... sigh
  6. Home Assistant - What's this? Maybe.
    Spoiler Alert: Best thing ever (yes better than sliced bread)
  7. OpenHAB - I never got into this one, but a very good alternative to Home Assistant if you are a contrarian

Everything kept leading me back to Home Assistant. Integrations (new devices and services) were being added at a blazing pace. It could be installed on a Raspberry Pi, luckily I had one of those laying around. So why not, let's try it.

I followed the Getting Started Guide for Home Assistant. The Raspberry Pi is a great little machine, but just know that if you are anything like me you might run into it's limitations. It's a computer for under $100, what more could you ask for. If you are looking at dipping your toe into the vast world of Home Automation, I would suggest it as a good starting place. Even if all things go awry you can repurpose the Raspberry Pi for other projects.

Here are some other ideas for a Raspberry Pi

But unfortunately I ran into the Raspberry Pi's limitations after about the 6-8 months. When I say I got addicted. I GOT ADDICTED to adding sensors and integrations. I think it can handle about 50-60 sensors pretty well. After that you might consider going with something that has more power.. I would suggest the Intel NUC10 (i3), it is a full computer with an Intel i3 and the size of a hockey puck. If you are looking for more power they have an i5 and i7 variant but they are more expensive. Not only is it a powerful machine it's also quiet! I don't to hear a turbo fan spinning up while I'm trying to sleep. So all the benefits laid out, quiet, small, powerful, relatively cheap. Yes please!

Hardware

  • Intel NUC8 (i3 Short) - mine (maybe cheaper)
  • Intel NUC10 (i3) - Latest as of 12/12/2020
    NOTE: You do not need to buy a NUC with Windows 10. I will go over installing Linux (Debian) so that you don't have to pay for a windows license. My goal is to save you money anywhere I can!
  • Raspberry Pi - 4 is the latest one and comes in RAM sizes of 2GB | 4GB | 8GB

NUC Requirements - if you decide to get the NUC you will need a few more components:

  • RAM 16GB - 8GB would be plenty
  • SSD 500GB - I went with 256GB to save even more money

Total (check the links as it might be cheaper):
$ 247.88 - barebones NUC8
$ 56.98 - 2 sticks of 8GB of RAM
$ 50.99 - SSD harddrive
Not including Tax = $355.85

NUC Size

Check the links but all of the above goodies should get you a full tremendous computer that can do numerous tasks for approximately $350! I also use my Intel NUC to host a lot of other services alongside of Home Assistant and it doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what this thing can do.

Not to get too ahead of the blog, but here is a glimpse of some services that run on my Intel NUC

  1. Home Assistant
  2. Node-Red
  3. Docker
  4. Portainer
  5. NextCloud
  6. Google Assistant Relay
  7. PiHole
  8. Let's Encrypt
  9. Plex
  10. NGINX
  11. Watchtower

I know... I know... $350 is a lot of money, but I am of the mindset "cry once, buy once" but if you are trepidatious or do not want to spend the money. Look at the Raspberry Pi or maybe an old computer that you might have laying around. Sometimes the best solution is sitting right in front of you.

Intel NUC Raspberry Pi Laying around Computer
+ Powerful +/- Get's by That's up to you
+ Size +++ Size - Size
- Power consumption + Power consumption --- Power consumption
- Cost + Cost +++ Cost
+++ Noise +++ Noise - Noise
+++ Stable +/- Stable +/- Stable
Can host many services Could be limited Can probably host many services

Being in a 750 square foot (70 square meter) condo, I need to save as much space as I can and that was my final reasoning going with the Intel NUC. I am very happy with my purchase and if you are looking for my first review. 10/10 :)

Well that's how my journey began. A Raspberry Pi and hope. Hope you enjoyed my first post! Thanks for reading, hope to see you again soon!