One Weird Trick to Avoid Home Automation Traps

tl;dr: avoid Wi-Fi

Smart home graphic

Posted: October 7, 2020

If you are into home automation – lights, locks, thermostats – a trap lies in wait.

Actually two traps.

The Two Traps

The first trap is cloud processing. When your automation happens in the cloud you are not in control. You are dependent on both the cloud-based service as well as your Internet connection for your automations to work. Gives a whole new meaning to “keeping the lights on,” doesn’t it?

And that’s leaving aside privacy concerns.

Wait, no! Don’t leave aside privacy concerns! Does Google need to know that I spent the afternoon lazing in my bedroom? Does SmartThings need to track the comings and going in my house? I think not.

The second trap is free-forever pricing. If you are depending on free cloud services, then your home automation is now exposed to the revenue model of your provider. For instance, if you are using smart light bulbs with a free cloud-based app that’s financed through your initial product purchase, you’d better hope that people continue to buy the product. It’s almost a pyramid scheme: your success depends on an increasing number of downline purchasers.

Trap is Sprung on IFTTT Users

Both these forces came to head recently when IFTTT announced that they were going to start charging users a whopping $9.99/mo for what was formerly a free service.

[link: IFTTT introduces Pro subscriptions, limits free version to three applets]

IFTTT is a popular service for creating custom automations. It has limited capability, but two powerful advantages. First, the interface is super simple, so end users can easily create automations. Second, it has widespread support, so you can connect your motion detector to your lights to your thermostat to your phone text messages – even if they are all made by different manufacturers.

Unfortunately, IFTTT set both traps for users. It’s a wholly cloud-based service. And it was supposed to be free for users – until it wasn’t.

The remedy for cloud based, free-forever services is doing your automation on local processing. This could be a dedicated controller device, or a computer running automation software. A currently popular approach to the latter is free Home Assistant software running on a $50 Raspberry Pi computer. It is, however, a solution more appropriate for the tinkerer or enthusiast, not a non-technical user.

One Weird Trick

Maybe someday the consumer-ready control device with local processing will be available. Until it is, here is a great way to prepare yourself for that future: when you buy home automation products, if given a choice, steer away from ones that use WiFi. Instead, select standard wireless protocols such as Z-Wave, ZigBee, or Bluetooth.

That’s because home automation devices that use WiFi typically depend on closed interfaces and only work with the vendor’s cloud.

Let me give you an example of how I do this: I use Phillips Hue smart light bulbs in my house. They are controlled with the industry-standard ZigBee protocol. You can use the vendor-supplied hub and their free cloud app. Or, if you have an automation system that supports ZigBee you can control them directly.

In my case, I do use the Phillips Hue hub with my local OpenHAB controller. Their hub has open interfaces and can generally be used with any ZigBee devices. This means I’m not locked into a vendor or dependent on the cloud.

You may not be ready today to setup your home automation controller, but if you go with standards-based components your home will be ready when you are. You lower your exposure if you stick with standard wireless protocols (such as Z-Wave, ZigBee, or Bluetooth) rather than depending on proprietary vendor controls across WiFi.

Do that, and you reduce your risk of getting IFTTTed.

[photo credit: pixy.org]

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