How to set up and monitor your smart home

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As we move towards a fully IoT-enabled world, the concept that seems to have the most appeal to the consumer is that of the smart home. There is, of course, an obvious reason for this. If set up the right way an intelligent home can deliver more comfort and safety, save energy and improve the quality of living for its inhabitants. And of course, the ‘cool factor’ is also not to be discounted when, for instance, the lights come on automatically just as the sun goes down, and your favourite playlist starts to play on the surround sound speakers.

But how does the home become truly ‘smart’? Although some would have you believe it, a thermometer that can be operated via smartphone does not make a smart home on its own. Only the integration and automation of many components into a central control and steering unit can truly be called a ‘smart home’.

Today, there are established manufacturers that offer all-round smart home packages: sensors and control units for almost every aspect of house and home, as well as a central console to control and coordinate everything. However, such out of the box offers usually come with disadvantages:

·         Arguably, no provider offers a full program. At least one component that you want is usually missing, and compromises have to be made at some point or another

·         You will often be forced to pay over the top for the luxury of being offered everything in one place

·         The data of your intelligent home (and there is a lot of it) is often stored in the cloud by the manufacturer. In an increasingly data-conscious society, this is anathema for some

·         The data is usually stored only for a certain period of time, and long-term evaluations are not possible, in some ways reducing the smart-ness of the home by limiting the opportunities for optimisation

The DIY smart home

One alternative to the ready-made smart home solution, and one that is gaining popularity, is the "do it yourself" smart home. Nearly all smart home components can be built with a little manual skill and rudimentary electronic knowledge. The necessary parts are available for comparatively tiny costs online, as well as detailed construction manuals on the Internet, where a worldwide community known as makers constantly provides new ideas and suggestions.

The possible creations range from gesture-controlled light dimmers to animated cotton-clouds announcing upcoming thunderstorms with lightning and thunder. And with a relatively inexpensive 3D printer, professional-looking casings for sensors, switches and control devices can be built within the home itself.

In addition to 3D printers, the makers’ community relies on a few basic components, which are characterised by low power consumption, small dimensions, reasonable pricing and worldwide availability. Just one of them is Raspberry Pi. The mini-computer from the British Raspberry Pi Foundation comes in a variety of equipment variants and is certainly the most established device of its kind in the world. The hardware is supplied without an operating system and is usually operated with different Linux systems.

And in addition to hardware, a number of online retailers also supply the makers’ community with numerous tutorials, blueprints and examples. These traders have often emerged from the makers’ community, and are still seen as part of the movement, and therefore supply their products as open-source hardware so that the buyer can build the hardware in principle themselves.

Creating a control centre

By using these resources, makers can access all the necessary equipment and information, and start constructing sensors, switches and control units by themselves. However, there is still the absence of a central console, which combines all of the individual components into one easy-to-operate solution. This must be able to display more than just all devices, and needs to cover four central tasks:

1.       Collect data - It is important that all self-assembled components can be connected as easily as possible to the central console

2.       Save and evaluate data – Within a smart home context, keeping track of current electricity consumption is essential; and being able to see the electricity consumption of recent months at a glance is even better. The console should also provide appropriate data storage and reporting capabilities

3.       Publish data - Above all, it is important that the data is universally accessible, meaning that the console offers both a web interface and a smartphone app. And, of course, the data should be presented in a clear and appealing way

4.       Respond and alert - If it grows dark in the living room, the central light should be turned on; when the TV is turned on, the central light should be dimmed and the light behind the TV turned on. What sounds simple requires relatively complex processes, which must be managed by the central authority.

Solving the problem with IT monitoring

An IT monitoring solution can help to aggregate and visualise collected data over time. This historical data provides an opportunity to recognise trends, and the potential to optimise energy consumption.

Many IT monitoring solutions are available free-of-charge as a scaled-down or restricted version. Here, all functions for data storage, evaluation and visualisation are already in place, and the only thing the maker has to do is to connect the devices they’ve built and set up the corresponding routines.

However, it should be noted that not every monitoring tool meets all requirements of a central control unit for self-built smart home environments. First of all, an API is required in order to be able to connect sensors and controllers that are developed in-house. In addition to a web interface, apps for mobile devices are an important component, providing you with an early warning system. And finally, the accessibility when outside the home is important when, for example, during the journey home from holiday the living room temperature is retrieved, and the thermostat is adjusted so that it is warm on arrival.

With a little bit of technical skill and the appropriate IT monitoring solution, you can turn your own home into a smart home for minimal expense. In addition to the more acceptable price, the do-it-yourself method is attractive because of the comprehensive control you have over sensitive data and, of course, the satisfaction of having designed and developed something by your own hand.

Dirk Paessler, CEO, Paessler
Image Credit: Pixabay