My Alexa Home Automation Journey
This is a recap of my recent experience with the Amazon Echo Dot, Phillips Hue bulbs, Samsung SmartThings, Harmony Hub, and numerous Z-Wave home automation devices.
Amazon Echo Dot
This Christmas I took advantage of Amazon’s special deal on their Echo Dot smart devices and bought several for use in my home and to give away as gifts. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard of the Echo Dot, they are really cool, hockey puck sized devices that are inexpensive and very useful and entertaining.
The all-new Amazon Echo Dot is in it’s second generation and is available in either black or white. The Echo Dot uses seven microphones with far-field voice recognition technology. This enables Alexa to understand your voice commands even in a noisy environment. I have one right below my big screen TV and it works exceptionally well at discriminating between your voice and the background noise from the TV.
The speaker that comes in the Dot is usable, however you can connect speakers or headphones to the Dot via Bluetooth or using a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone cable. Personally I use the Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ Angle 3 portable Bluetooth speakers with my echo dots. The OontZs Angle 3 speakers sound great and will not automatically shut off after inactivity when connected to a AC adapter. This allows you to leave the portable Bluetooth speakers permanently connected to your Echo Dots.
The Dot is a smaller version of the Amazon Echo. The full sized Echo is more expensive and has a larger speaker comparable to it’s Google Home competitor.
Alexa Home Assistant
The now familiar female voice from the Amazon smart home devices is named “Alexa”. You can rename her in the settings, but I left the default, which works better than I had expected. You’ll need to download the Alexa app for your specific device or use the Alexa web page from a computer browser.
Alexa Add Beer To My Shopping List
In addition to retrieving useful information such as your local weather forecast, commute time, theater line-up, etc., Alexa can also create shopping and to-do lists. I really like this feature. Alarms and timers are also convenient.
Alexa Smart Home Control
I had to try out the voice activated lighting and other home automation features that the Echo Dot integrates with, so I purchased a Phillips Hue starter kit which included the Hue hub and two Phillips Hue bulbs. The Hue hub installation was fairly straightforward and after a little experimentation with the Alexa App, I had Alexa controlling the two Phillips hue bulbs that I installed. You need to ask Alexa to “Discover Devices” and press the button on your Hue hub to get it working. Then you can say “Alexa turn on the bedroom 20%” and Alexa will link to your Hue account and turn on the bedroom lamps to 20% brightness. The wow factor is very high and it is “WA” (Wife Approved).
After this taste of futuristic smart home automation, I needed (truthfully wanted) more, so I fired up my Amazon Prime account and ordered a Samsung SmartThings hub and a Harmony Hub along with several Z-Wave switches, outlets, dimmers, and other controls.
Samsung SmartThings Hub
To control electrical devices you need a Z-Wave Hub. There are competitive Z-Wave hubs from HomeSeer, Wink, Vera and others, however from my online research, it appeared that the Samsung SmartThings hub was the most popular and compatible.
The Samsung Z-Wave Hub connects to your router via an Ethernet patch cable and then communicates with the controls using Z-Wave. Z-Wave is a 900 MHz mesh wireless network. This allows the devices to repeat the signals giving you a large range for your Z-Wave network.
Once you connect the hub, you need to download the SmartThings App.
Apple – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/smartthings-mobile/id590800740
Android – https://d3ijxvf5kli6f6.cloudfront.net/assets/img/icn-app-android.c06b457b.png
Windows – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/apps/smartthings-mobile/9wzdncrdszmq
The app gives you full control of your SmartThings Hub from any Apple, Android or Windows phone or tablet. You’ll also need to set up a Samsung SmartThings account. Here are the detailed instructions for setting up your SmartThings Hub.
Linking Alexa and SmartThings
You need to add the SmartThings skill to Alexa so you can use voice commands to control your devices. Here are the Alexa SmartThings skill instructions. Once everything is configured, remember to ask Alexa to “Discover Devices” when you add a new device to your SmartThings hub or rename an existing device.
SmartThings Z-Wave Devices
There is a plethora of Z-Wave devices available for the Samsung SmartThings Hub, Here are a few that I am familiar with:
Z-Wave Plug-In Lamp Dimmers
GE Lamp Module
These are very easy to install and require no wiring. You just plug the Z-Wave dimmer module into a standard electrical outlet and plug your lamp into the module.
I purchased two GoControl PD300Z-2 Z-Wave Plug-in Dimmer Modules from Amazon. They are also available at other retailers such as Home Depot. I like the GoControl PD300Z because it only takes up one spot on a duplex receptacle and has a grounded pass-thru outlet. In effect you can still use both grounded outlets and also have a lamp connected with Z-Wave dimming and on-off features. They are rated for up to 300 watts (Incandescent).
UPDATE: While researching the specs on the PD300Z-2, I noticed that several Amazon reviews complained about poor performance when dimming low wattage LED bulbs. I haven’t experienced this, but both of the GoControl PD300Z-2 units that I have are used in multiple LED lamp applications. One lamp has 2 Phillips 9.5 watt (60 watt equivalent) dimmable LED bulbs and the other PD300Z-2 connects to two bedside lamps via a multi-tap extension cord. Each bedside lamp has one 9.5 watt Phillips dimmable LED bulb. Looking at the GoControl PD300Z-2 manual: it states Incandescent only and a 20 watt minimum load for proper dimming. My setup is 19 watts of LED bulbs and it works good. For a lighter LED load you might want to choose a different model such as the GE 12718 which is rated for LED’s. The GE 12718 Lighting Lamp Module with Dimmer Control is almost identical in outward appearance to the GoControl PD300Z-2 but supports dimmable fluorescent, LED and CFL fixtures.
Z-Wave Plug in Appliance Modules
These are also very easy to install and require no wiring. I bought the GE Lighting Control 12719 Appliance Modules from Amazon. These are rated for 1800 Watts (15 Amps) and are used for switching heavier loads such as a portable heater or coffee pot.
The GE 12719 Smart Switch is designed the same as the GE lamp dimmer switch with one pass-thru outlet and one Z-Wave controlled outlet. The difference, in addition to the 15 amp rating is the 12719 Z-Wave controlled outlet is grounded and doesn’t support dimming, just on or off.
Z-Wave Outdoor Plug-In Switch Modules
I purchased two GE 12720 Z-Wave Outdoor Modules to control my outdoor holiday lights. These function like the GE 12719 Smart Switch above, but are encased in weatherproof protective cases for outdoor use in damp or wet conditions. These are very convenient for outdoor lighting. You can tell the SmartThings app to turn them on automatically at a specific time or even at a preset time before or after dusk. The dusk setting adjusts for your location so you don’t need to reconfigure your timer settings throughout the year as the days get longer or shorter.
Z-Wave In-Wall Switch Modules
The Z-Wave in-wall switch modules replace existing switches to make them Z-Wave controllable. Although these are the best solution for many Smart Home upgrades they also require more knowledge and skill to install.
The advantage of installing Z-Wave switches over using smart bulbs such as the Phillips Hue is: If you install a smart bulb in a fixture that is controlled by standard switch(s), then the switch must be left on all of the time for the smart bulb to be able to communicate with the hub. If you turn it off manually with the switch, you’ll need to manually turn it back on. With the Z-Wave Smart Switch you can turn the light or device off with the switch or via the hub. The switch is momentary, and doesn’t stay in a off position like a standard switch does. This allows full manual or wireless control anytime.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In-Wall Z-Wave modules require a “Neutral Wire” to be connected in order to function. If you don’t know what a neutral wire is, then you should most likely have someone experienced with electrical wiring install them for you. Normal switches do not require a neutral wire, so it’s about a 50/50 shot whether there will be a neutral in the switch box. I got lucky all of my boxes except one had neutral wires.
Many times the switch box is used as a junction box to connect wires going to other locations. If this is the case there will typically be a bundle of bare ground wires, a bundle of black (hot) wires and a bundle of white (neutral) wires in the box.
All neutral wires are white, however all white wires are not necessarily neutral wires.If there is a white wire connected to a standard switch, it is NOT a neutral wire. Switches simply break the hot wire going to the load, so one wire will be the line side from the breaker panel and the other wire will be the load side which connects the line to the load when the switch is closed. The neutral connection is never switched.
In addition to requiring a neutral wire, the Z-Wave devices are thicker than standard devices, requiring more depth in the box to fit flush.
DANGER WILL ROBINSON: There are dangerous AC voltages inside of electrical boxes. You should make sure all power inside the box is turned off at the breaker panel. Use a multi meter or audible voltage detector like this to be sure all power is off.
If you separate the bundles of hot or neutral wires in the box, make sure that they are tightly reconnected by twisting with a pair of linesman pliers and tightly twisting on the proper size insulated wire-nut. Those wires carry current to other circuits and loose connections can heat-up, melt and possibly cause a fire.
If you don’t feel comfortable working with electrical connections, then have the Z-Wave controls professionally installed.
In-Wall Z-Wave Switch Module
These are used for switches that control non-dimmable loads. Such as a switched outlet, non dimmable lighting, exhaust fan, etc. There are two states on or off. The switch also has a blue status LED that can be configured to illuminate when the switch is on or when the switch is off. It can also be disabled completely if you like.
I used the GE Z-Wave 12722 On/Off Switches . You can use a Z-Wave hub for wireless operation of the switch or traditional manual, up is on down is off operation.
In Wall Z-Wave Dimmer Module
As the name suggests these are Z-Wave on/off switches with dimming functionality. You would use this type of switch when you have a switch controlling lighting that can be dimmed.
I used the GE 12724 Z-Wave Smart Dimmers . You can adjust the brightness of the lighting locally by holding down on the switch to dim or holding up on the switch to brighten. A single press will turn the lights on or off to the preset light level.
Using your SmartThings app you can control the lights from anywhere using your smartphone or tablet. Once you teach Alexa the SmartThings skill you can also use voice commands such as “Alexa dim the bedroom to 10%” to control the lights.
In Wall Z-Wave Fan Speed Control
This control is used for motor speed control. Don’t use standard dimmer switches for fan speed control. The motor will hum and operate poorly.
I used the GE 12730 Z-Wave Smart Fan Control , it works good and smoothly and quietly controls the fan speeds. A single press turns the fan on or off at the last preset speed. Holding the control to the top will increase the fan speed and holding the bottom will decrease the fan speed.
NOTE: The GE 12730 Fan Control will not work with remote control fans, this control is for fans with manual speed control. Put your fan in high speed using the manual switch and use this control to vary the speeds or turn the fan on or off.
In Wall Z-Wave Add-On Switch (3 Way Applications)
This switch can not be used by itself. It is a add-on for any of the above in-wall Z-Wave controls for use in 3 or 4 way applications. When used with dimming and speed controls the add-on switch can also control the brightness or speed in addition to on/off capability.
I used the GE 12723 Add-On Switch for Z-Wave, ZigBee and GE Bluetooth Wireless Lighting Controls . Once I figured out the wiring diagram installation was straightforward. I had two 3 way switches that needed the add-on to function properly. You can add up to 4 GE add-on switches to a GE in-wall control.
NOTE: Make sure you examine the wiring diagram carefully. this switch does not connect like traditional 3 and 4 way switches. only one traveler is used to communicate between the switches.
Z-Wave Duplex Receptacles
Z-Wave controlled duplex receptacles are fairly easy to install and typically provide one Z-wave controlled outlet and one always on outlet.
Be sure to read the “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” section before working on electrical wiring.
I used GE 12721 Z-Wave Duplex Receptacles . These work very well, however the blue status LED is very bright and might be a distraction. In the SmartThings App you can configure the status LED to be always off, however you can not adjust the brightness.
The outlet has three pigtails and uses included wire nuts to connect to your existing wiring. All you do is remove your existing receptacle and connect the pigtails to the wires that you removed from your old outlet.
The GE 12721 is rated at 15 Amps. The Z-Wave controlled outlet is rated for up to 600 watts incandescent, 1/2 HP motor, or 1800 watts resistive.
Z-Wave Door Locks
Have you ever left home and wondered whether you locked the front door. Well, with the new Z-Wave door locks those days are over. You can check the status of your lock and remotely lock or unlock it from anywhere.
I used the Kwikset 910 Z-Wave SmartCode Electronic Deadbolt . It comes in three finishes and features Kwikset’s SmartKey technology for easy re-keying to match your existing Kwikset keys.
The lock is easy to install and has a keypad that you can program with up to 30 user access codes so you can unlock the door without keys.
You can use the SmartThings app to control the lock, however for security Alexa does not control the lock so someone does not stand outside and yell “Alexa open the front door”. There is a workaround for locking the door. IFTTT (If This Than That) is a collection of applets that allow Alexa to control many devices that it doesn’t natively support.
Many smart thermostats can be controlled using their apps or by Alexa. Names include Honeywell, Nest, Ecobee, Sensi, and others. Here is a list of Alexa supported thermostats.
These devices are very cool. I have one installed at my older parents house so I can remotely diagnose problems and get smartphone alerts if the house becomes too hot or cold.
I have the Nest in my house , it was very easy to install and is built very well, metal and glass as opposed to plastic construction. Easy to configure and plays well with Alexa. Using the Nest app you have full remote control of the thermostat. You can also have the nest set back the temperature levels when no one is home which it accomplishes by sensing the presence of your family’s smartphones.
NEST UPDATE: The Nest skill is rather limited to adjusting thermostat temperature. Read this blog post for a better Alexa Nest skill, that offers much more control of the Nest via Alexa.