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A Guide by Jeremy Phan

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Introduction To Home Automation

Harness the power of technology to enhance your living space.

Home automation used to be the stuff of science fiction: controlling your lights, doors, TV, and surroundings but with advances in wireless technologies, it is now accessible to everyone at an economical price.

In this follow-up guide to my CanadaHiFi magazine article, I'll detail the steps I went through to automate my own home: lights, outlets, heating/AC, access control, and multimedia.

A special thanks goes out to Belkin Canada for sponsoring the 2014 seminars and providing free giveaways to attendees of their WeMo line of WiFi-connected home automation products that were live demoed at the 2014 Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show. The WeMo products were written about in the April 2014 issue of CanadaHiFi (below), along with other home automation products. The WeMo line of devices, from in-wall light switches to WiFi-accessible coffee makers, is one of the quickest and most economical ways to get started with home automation -- however, for the level of integration & control I required, are not used in my own setup. No other promotional consideration was provided to Belkin Canada.

UPDATES:

  • 2016-01-06: Received my Keen Home smart vents & installed the first 4x12 vent in the living room. Need to create booster adapters to fit the other sizes (14x5, 14x6). However, KeenHome is slated to release a 14x6 vent in "late summer" so I may return one.
  • 2015-12-20: Back the Xandem presence detection system. It uses radio tomography to precisely locate people within interior spaces. Will tie this into the home automation system to automate lights, vents (e.g. turn off vents in unused rooms), and other components. Due to ship in 2016 August.
  • 2015-11-12: Ordered an Amazon Echo during their 1-day sale and will be integrating it with the VeraLite through the Amazon Echo Bridge. Had considered the cheaper, successfully crowdfunded Ivee but decided not to wait until 2016 Q2.
  • 2015-09-30: The Oomi Cube has gone into production and is slated to begin shipping in Q1 2016.
  • 2015-04-22: Backed the Oomi Cube Z-Wave smart home automation hub and camera. Ships in 2016 2015 October (hopefully will receive it in time for the 2015 TAVE Consumer Electronics Show).
  • 2015-04-06: Pre-ordered the Keen Home smart vents to better control airflow to each individual room. (Using my referral link gets you $40 off!)
  • 2015-03-26: Backed the Luna smart mattress cover.
  • 2015-03-12: The Neurio Energy Monitor arrived and has been installed.
  • 2015-03-04: Upgraded from Rogers Hybrid Fiber 60/10 cable Internet to Ignite 250/20 Unlimited, saving (yes, saving) $16/month.
  • 2015-01-20: The Securifi Almond+ touchscreen 802.11ac router + home automation hub is now shipping.
  • 2015-01-05: SmartThings has announced v2 of its hub, bringing along offline/local logic, 3G connectivity (fallback to WiFi), and battery backup.
  • 2014-12-08: Added in links for an off-the-shelf Ambilight; updated WeMo, Wink details.
  • 2014-11-17: Printing should now work on modern browsers (still a few CSS tweaks to go but most of the content is now properly printer-formatted.)
  • 2014-11-15: More updates and pricing links are coming soon. Thanks for all the feedback!

Let's Begin

Getting Started

My journey with home automation technology and all its possibilities.

At the 2014 Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show, I presented daily seminars on DIY Home Automation, available below. Additionally, please check out the article from the 2014 April issue of CanadaHiFi.



CanadaHiFi 2014 April/May Issue

Start by assessing your needs and space to determine what you want your home to be capable of doing. Not everything has to be done at once but if you want to have a certain functionality (e.g. automated sprinklers), you need to take this into account to ensure the technology you select has that functionality available.

Home automation has grown so much in recent years that Amazon now has a dedicated section on their site for home automation products, including guides, and videos as well. Things to consider:

  • Internet connectivity: some home automation devices will lose their intelligence/logic capabilities if disconnected from the Internet.
  • WiFi: devices which connect over WiFi will require a strong signal which may not always be available depending on the location of your router.
  • Compatibility: there are numerous competing standards, each with their own pros/cons.

Technology Pros Cons
X10 Well-established wired and wireless home automation protocol Practically obsolete, replaced by newer technologies
Zigbee Communicates both wired (over power line) and wirelessly (mesh or peer-to-peer relay)
Supported by numerous manufacturers
Wide range of products
Devices not always compatible across different manufacturers
Requires a central controller
Z-Wave Supported by numerous manufacturers
Wireless, peer-to-peer mesh network (similar to Zigbee)
Wide range of products
Slightly more expensive than Zigbee
Requires a central controller
Insteon Communicates both wired (over power line) and wirelessly (mesh or peer-to-peer relay)
Backwards compatible with X10
Not as user friendly to setup, program
Less features than other technologies
WiFi Utilizes existing WiFi network Limited WiFi spectrum may be crowded with other networks and devices
Higher power requirements
Bluetooth Very low power requirements (typically a coin battery)
Short range (<100 ft)
Mostly used for sensors, not control devices

Home automation systems I considered:

  • Belkin's WeMo: Wide range of products, simple and easy to setup but only available through the free mobile app. No 3-way/pole switches available (yet). Integration with the VeraLite through the free WeMo app.
  • SmartThings: supports both Zigbee and Z-Wave but logic is Internet/cloud-based (no Internet connection, no "smarts") [Has since been bought by Samsung]. Recently announced v2 of their hub which brings offline/local logic, 3G connectivity, and battery backup power. Ships in April/May 2015.
  • Revolv: multiple radio support (+1) but a lot more expensive (-1). [Has since been bought by Nest and is no longer available.]
  • Wink: Inexpensive ($49 hub) with wide support for "Wink-certified" products but incomplete Z-Wave functionality/support.
  • Lowes' Iris: monthly fees, proprietary
  • Insteon: limited functionality, pricing. [They've recently partnered with Microsoft to expand retail offerings.]
  • Rogers Smart Home Monitoring: Monthly fees, escalating costs as more devices are added.
  • Zigbee: Difficulty finding products (in Canada).

For a more exhaustive list of tools, apps, hardware, and home automation technology, visit this thread on AnandTech.

Security Gem also has a frequently updated table that lists the compatibility of various home automation and Internet of Things devices.

For my own setup, I chose Z-Wave due to the wide variety of products available, the price of components such as light switches, and the functionality available through the central controller I chose: the VeraLite.

(Vera has announced their newest hardware, the VeraEdge and subsequently, the VeraLite is now only $99 USD on Amazon!)

The VeraLite controller only supports Z-Wave but it has both a web-based portal as well as (free) mobile apps, making setup and programming much easier than if one was limited to using a tablet/smartphone. In addition to user-friendly, graphic-based programming, more advanced functions can be implemented through its scripting/programming language. The Vera community also has an app store for integration with other devices such as Philips Hue lightbulbs, Sonos, Samsung TVs, and many other products. Lastly, the VeraLite controller houses all the logic locally/internally so if the Internet connection is unavailable, the majority of functionality would remain unaffected. [Obviously, remote access and functionality dependent on cloud/Internet-based data (such as weather or sunrise/sunset times) would also be unavailable during an Internet outage but local programming (such as turning on lights based on motion or door sensors) would still work.]

Once I had selected Z-Wave, I set about planning what functionality I would automate and the required devices to achieve those functions. As I intended to replace existing switches and add in new ones, this leads to the Public Safety Announcement below!

Warning!

Public Safety Announcement: In Ontario, only the homeowner or a licensed electrician is allowed to make modifications to a home's electrical system. If you are NOT equipped to perform electrical work, please consult the ESA Safe website to find a licensed electrician in your area.

In Ontario, if you are simply replacing/upgrading existing electrical devices (such as an overhead lighting fixture or in-wall light switch), you do not require a permit. However, if you are adding new electrical devices, you WILL require a permit and subsequent inspections. Failing to obtain the necessary permits for electrical work may result in loss of homeowner's insurance and denial of claims, among other more serious issues (such as the risk of electrical shorts and fires). Please ensure that you abide by ALL applicable building, fire, and electrical codes applicable to your jurisdiction.

ALWAYS make sure that the circuit breaker is OFF before performing any electrical work and if needed, consult an electrician.

With respect to home automation products, if you remove an in-wall switch or outlet and only see two wires (instead of three: live, neutral, ground), you will NEED to consult an electrician as the majority of in-wall automation devices will REQUIRE a neutral wire to function.

Lastly, if you are running non-electrical wiring within your walls (such as for audio/video or networking), this low-voltage/signal wiring must be fire rated. e.g. FT4. This will typically be written on the exterior insulating sheath of the cabling and this fire rating prevents the cabling from releasing toxic fumes when ignited by fire as well as spreading the flames via those cables.

Issues

The two biggest issues encountered were due to the structure of our home.

Due to the electronics inside the in-wall switches, home automation devices are typically deeper than standard in-wall switches. It is recommended that fixture boxes be at least 2" deep to accommodate these deeper electrical devices. To accommodate the Z-Wave switches, I had to replace many of the existing fixture boxes and replace them with deeper fixture boxes. [Image #1: existing fixture box on the left, new fixture boxes on the right]

If replacing your fixture boxes is not an option, you can also use external wall extenders to provide extra space out from your wall. [Image #2]

For locations where this was not feasible, an extra fixture box was added just for wiring. E.g. in the hallway, a single fixture box had to be expanded into a 2-gang (double) fixture box despite only being occupied with one switch. The 2nd fixture box was used for the excess wiring. [Image #3]

The other issue that may arise are structural walls. Drywall is often mounted directly onto these (concrete) structural walls which does not leave enough depth to install an in-wall switch. I didn't have any fixture boxes in my home's structural walls so I couldn't install any switches. (I did have outlets but they are low on the ground.) I did, however, channel into the drywall to run low-voltage signal cabling (audio cabling for speakers). [Image #4]

The concrete structural wall also necessitated the relocation of the router from the second bedroom (serving as an office) to a more central location as the wall blocked nearly 90% of the signal to the master bedroom. [Image #5]

Another issue that was discovered was that due to the requirement for arc-fault circuit interrupter breakers on the bedroom circuits, noise was onto the line, interfering with products such as the TED5000 Energy Monitor and powerline networking products which communicate over the home's power lines. These AFCI breakers are designed to trip if there is any current leaking onto the neutral line or if there are sudden spikes, with the intention of preventing electrical fires in bedrooms (above and beyond standard circuit breakers which trip when overloaded or shorted). [Image #6] However, due to the electronics inside the breakers that allow them to perform these protective functions, AFCIs are extremely sensitive, getting tripped by products which surge (such as a laser printer powering on), use a ballast (such as 4ft flourescent lamps), and themselves perform power-related functions (such as an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). To deal with these issues, an inline power filter was installed inside the breaker panel to isolate the AFCI from other circuits. [Image #7]

NOTE: If you click on an image and the bottom description is missing, try loading it again. (It's a bug in the gallery script...)

My Renovation

My renovation encompassed both installing automation functionality as well as multimedia and networking upgrades.

Space

We needed to optimize 850 sq. ft.:
go up & hide in the pantry!

Conservation

Real-time energy monitoring & all-LED lighting means our typical hydro bill is <350 kWh/month.

Media

As cord-cutters, we wanted our media accessible everywhere.

Automation

It's 2014: everything should be remotely accessible or "smart."

Connectivity

Despite having the latest 802.11ac WiFi, gigabit Ethernet is the only way to go when working with 25-100GB of media per week.

DIY

We'd be tackling this ourselves... it's just drywall, electrical & paint!

Quick Numbers

Many of the renovations are now hidden inside our walls.
  • Cabling (ft)500
  • Outlets ADDED11
  • Switches UPGRADED17
  • LED Strips (ft)50

My Components

Below are all the components in my build, from the lights, to the audio/video system, to the connectivity devices, as well as why I selected them.
Automation:
  • Controller: VeraLite, $129 CAD
  • Switches
    • On/off: Evolve LSM-15, $50 CAD
    • 3-pole/accessory switches: Evolve LTM-5, $50 CAD
    • Dimmer: Evolve LRM-AS, $50 CAD
    • Relay: Evolve LFM-20, $60 CAD
  • Bathroom fan control:
    • Dewstop Humidity Sensing Switch: $40 CAD
    • 1/5/10/20/30/60 Minute Timer Switch: $25
  • Sensors: Aeon Labs Door/Window Sensor: $52 CAD
Security:
  • Camera: Blacksumac Piper, $199 USD
  • Door Lock: Lockitron WiFi/Bluetooth Door Lock, $179 USD
  • AC-powered (wall adapter) USB power supply, $15 USD, and 4,400 mAh battery backup, $19 USD.
Climate Control: Energy and Lighting:
  • TED5000 Energy Detective, $150 USD (used off Amazon.com).
  • Nuvo Round Back Track Lighting, $60 USD (from Amazon.com)
  • Ikea Fuga fixture, $29 CAD
  • Neurio Energy Monitor, $269 USD pre-order (will replace the TED5000 in February 2015) - Installed 2015-03-14
Comfort: Hardware:
  • Metallic sheathed cable, drywall, concrete screws, paint, glow-in-the-dark camping rope, insulation, and the list goes on...
Multimedia: Communication:

Automation: I selected the VeraLite for its low cost (it was $149 when I purchased it and has since gone down to $129), graphical interface, free desktop and mobile apps, and advanced programmability. There are a plethora of Z-Wave devices, which connect wirelessly, forming a peer-to-peer mesh network. What this means is that every Z-Wave device acts as a relay for any communication/commands transmitted to create blanket coverage of your home. This is particularly useful if you have a multi-level home as switches in stairwells and hallways will relay the signal up/down levels.

Other devices considered were the Revolv hub (which supports every possible wireless automation standard) but at the time, cost more than double the VeraLite (and has since been bought by Google and is no longer available). I also looked Securifi's Almond+, a combination touchscreen 802.11ac router and Zigbee+Z-Wave home automation hub. This product is only shipping in limited quantities (pre-orders) as of 2014 November and the manufacturer is hoping to have it priced below $120 $300 USD. If/when this combination device arrives and depending on its automation capabilities, I may replace my VeraLite and Linksys EA6500 with this single device.

2015-01 Update: The Securifi Almond+ is now on Amazon.com for $199 USD (no Canadian date yet).

With Z-Wave switches, the one thing to note is that some switches do NOT have a feature called "instant status update" (mine don't) which immediately updates the central controller of changes to their status (e.g. light turned on or off). Light switches lacking this feature get updated when the central controller (the VeraLite) polls each device (the interval can be set depending on your needs: my VeraLite, by default, polls all devices every 60 seconds). Without instant status updates, you will need to resort to manual polling if you wish to instantly use the change in the status of a light switch to trigger other actions. E.g. turn on the lights to the ensuite bathroom if the bedroom light is turned on. Active devices such as door/window sensors or motion sensors have "instant" updates when triggered so this is not an issue with them. HomeSeer has a table that lists on/off switches and dimmer switches with instant update capabilities.

One of the advantages of wireless switches is the ability to install multi-way/multi-pole switches. These grouped devices control the same light/load but instead of having to wire them together, they are associated wirelessly, saving the hassle of running a travel wire. This is similar to switches at the top and bottom of the stairs or both ends of a long hallway controlling the same lights. I use this in multiple places such as a switch in the living room to control the dining room fixture as well as a switch in the foyer to control the kitchen bar, among other things.

Additionally, the accessory switch (LTM-5) is completely programmable since it is not actually connected to any fixture. In its simplest iteration, it can act as an on/off or dimmer switch when paired with a respective load-carrying switch. For more complex operations, it can be programmed to react to different conditions. In my home, for example, if the kitchen and bar lights are off and I press "off" on the foyer accessory switch, it activates an "Away" program/scene where any remaining lights are turned off, HVAC is set to away, and security arms after 30 seconds.

For certain functions, eschewing sensors and programming and keeping it SIMPLE is often easier and more foolproof. e.g. certain lights are hardwired to tiny toggle switches: cupboards, pantry, etc. are hardwired to LED light strips.

For the bathrooms, one bathroom had switches inside the bathroom (preferred) and the fan control's toggle switch was replaced with a Dewstop switch which automatically activates when condensation forms (e.g. from a shower). There are also manual controls. For the other bathroom, I was unable to relocate the switches from the hallway so a timer switch was used. Since there are no Z-Wave GFCI receptacles (required within 1 meter/3 ft of any water source), to be able to add a timer to the towel warmer, the (regular) GCFI outlet was wired through an Evolve LFM-20 relay (which is Z-Wave programmable). The towel warmer's physical switch is left on and the relay is programmed to turn on in the evenings and turn off overnight, conserving energy.

With Android and a powerful (paid) app called Tasker, automation can be extended to Iron Man's Jarvis-like levels. I haven't customized it to this extent yet (partially because I only recently upgraded a 2+ year old smartphone) but if you need some inspiration, check out the videos below.

Voice control:

Custom UI for the Vera:

Thermostat: For climate control, I selected the Canadian-made Ecobee Smart WiFi thermostat. I chose this over the Nest because it has support for additional [wired] sensors, a touchscreen, and Zigbee automation support. The thermostat that came with our home wasn't programmable (useless!) and placed too close to the balcony door and windows (erroneous readings). The Ecobee comes in two parts: an equipment interface which typically goes in your furnace room (in my setup, it is installed where the existing thermostat was) and the touchscreen controller, which is now installed in the middle of the living room for ease of access and accurate readings. I also installed a Honeywell temperature sensor in each bedroom, setting the Ecobee to use an average reading between all three (Ecobee, bedroom 1, bedroom 2) readings. The last part of my climate setup will be to replace existing vents with Z-Wave controllable vents which will open/shut programmatically to balance out the airflow to their associated rooms.

Ecobee recently released the new ecobee3, a sleek touchscreen thermostat that also comes with wireless temperature and presence sensors, but drops Zigbee and wired sensor support.

Security: For security, points of entry and windows are equipped with Aeon door/window sensors. Additional sensors are used to trigger lights and other devices (including mounting one in the middle of two sliding closet doors to turn on closet lights whenever any door opens).

For video, I backed an Indiegogo project (in 2013 August) from another Canadian company: Ottawa's Blacksumac (recently bought by US-based iControl, makers of white-labelled security systems such as Rogers' Smart Home Monitoring, ADP Pulse, Comcase Xfinity, Time Warner Cable's IntelligentHome, and others). The Piper security camera offers motion, temperature, and noise sensors which trigger a wide-angle video recording. The Piper also has a built-in Z-Wave controller capable of controlling Z-Wave devices such as a outlets, lights, and sensors. One of the goals of the Piper is to add "secondary" Z-Wave support, allowing it to be paired to my VeraLite as a device instead of being a primary controller itself. (This functionality is not yet available though so Piper is controlled through its own free app.) The Piper also NOT charge any monthly fees to store or view recorded video (unlike competitors such as Dropcam) and there is an approximately 5 second buffer delay with the video stream.

NOTE: If you're looking to add streaming video to your home automation setup, you will need a sufficiently fast UPLOAD speed. Many broadband connections in Canada offer fast DOWNloads but not uploads. Uploads are required because you are SENDING video from your home (versus downloading) and it is recommended that you have at least a 2 Mbps upload speed for smooth, high-definition video. (My Rogers Hybrid Fiber connection is 60 Mbps [down], 10 Mbps [up].)

For my door lock, I chose the Lockitron, another crowdfunded device (that unfortunately, is delayed due to manufacturing issues). As I live in a building, the bylaws do not allow me to change my lock. The Lockitron gets around this by snapping onto the back (interior) of an existing deadbolt. It uses WiFi to connect to the Internet and Bluetooth to connect locally to your smartphone. It also features a "knock" sensor which will send push notifications to your phone. They're currently working on enabling Bluetooth proximity sensing which will allow it to know which side of the door you're on and lock/unlock the door appropriately. Additionally, I purchased components to power my Lockitron from a wall adapter (with battery backup) instead of relying solely on AA batteries. Similar to competing smart locks such as the August and Kevo Bluetooth (both currently shipping), you can also remotely grant access to guests (with limits such as time). As non-connected keypad/PIN locks are already over $150 CAD, these new smart locks are already priced competitively.

Asked at my seminar about how "secure" these devices are, I have this advice: Make sure you're using WPA2 encryption on your WiFi. Beyond that, all communications between these devices is encrypted and the skill needed to "hack" into your smartphone/smart lock is much more difficult than simply wielding a crowbar or kicking in a door.

Multimedia and Connectivity: When we finally moved in, it was discovered that the pantry wasn't a rectangle but narrows down to a scant 20" wide at one end. It was then decided that all our audio/video and computing hardware would be relocated into that section of the pantry. This allows us to keep the living room clear: only the TV is there (no set top boxes or other components). Additional coaxial cable also had to be run as the Bell "preferred" building didn't put a cable jack in the front living room wall. (Despite having paid to reinforce the wall for a TV mount, no cable jack was installed!)

On a metal wire rack ($39 from Target when we finally found one narrow enough), sits the network-attached storage server (a custom built 20-bay Linux full tower running unRAID), Pioneer receiver, Google Blu-ray player, network patch panel, Logitech RF Wireless extender (to receive commands from the living room), media centre PC (running XBMC), and VeraLite home automation controller. All these devices connect to the Netgear managed switch, which is setup for functions such a quality of service (prioritizing traffic), segmentation (between networks/devices), and other IT functionality. The switch connects to the patch panel, Rogers cable modem (with routing disabled), and Linksys EA6500 802.11ac router (which is mounted high on the breakfast bar, not in the pantry). The patch cables (custom ordered from Infinite Cables in Markham) are coloured based upon the room (cable colour) and individual network jacks in that room (boot colour). Nylon cable labels will be added shortly.

Network cabling was run to the bedrooms, living room, and kitchen as WiFi is typically very congested in multi-unit buildings and would be insufficient for high bandwidth applications such as photo/video editing or multiple simultaneous HD video streaming. The existing network drops (run by Bell Canada at the building's construction) were left unused. Any device that is fixed in location (such as the TV or my office desktop) is wired into the network (gigabit Ethernet) to avoid utilizing WiFi. Network drops were also run to the breakfast bar as the router is mounted high up in that central location for optimal signal (for mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops).

TIPS: Always ensure you are using WPA2 encryption on your WiFi network. Never, ever use the obsolete WEP encryption or leave your WiFi network unprotected! If you are in an environment with many competing WiFi networks (there's only 11 channels to go around!), try switching to the 5.0 Ghz band (802.11n or 802.11ac).

Being in a building also meant that cellular reception is also weakened/non-existent. Neighbours on the interior of the building (not street facing) have commented that they have no reception at all! After a few calls going directly to voicemail and many complaints of bad voice quality, I picked up a Wilson Electronics 4G booster (but have yet to set it up). Its antenna will be mounted alongside the over-the-air TV antenna, hidden away above the bulkhead.

Media-wise, the centralized storage server combined with XBMC media centre software allows us to pause/resume multimedia content across devices (such as the 24" all-in-one TV/PC at the breakfast bar), various laptops/desktops, and the media centre PC (which feeds the main living room TV). (I don't use Netflix due to the lower quality video versus downloaded content.) Combined with the Android app Yatse and its plugins as well as the VeraLite plugin XBMCState, the media PC will dim the lights as well as pause/play if a phone call is received. Additionally, there exists the ability to display text alerts on-screen, which are used for things such as caller ID (if this was a house, I'd use the alerts for things like tripping any exterior motion sensors or other alerts around the house).

Live TV is handled with an antenna mounted on the bulkhead by the window but may soon be integrated with XBMC and the media centre PC (software support already exists, just need to get the TV tuner hardware). A USB v3.0 port was also installed in the breakfast bar and connects to the pantry for any USB-based media. (It took a while to find an in-wall rated USB v3.0 cable!) Various outlets throughout the home have also been replaced with high-amperage USB-equipped outlets. (Most USB-equipped wall outlets top out at 2.1A which is enough to charge a smartphone but not quickly charge a tablet. The outlets I purchased are rated at 4A and are extra deep so their extra size needed to be taken into consideration when installing in a fixture box.)

On the rear of the living room TV is a custom-built Amblight which projects coloured light onto the wall behind the TV that matches the video content being displayed. This increases perceived contrast, keeps a minimum level of brightness in the room (since watching in total darkness strains your eyes), and looks really neat. It connects to the media centre PC over an USB-to-Ethernet adapter connected to the media centre PC (I intended to run a long USB extender but couldn't fit it after I had run the network cabling). Philips makes HDTVs with built-in Ambilights but is unable to sell them in North America due to a patent conflict. UPDATE: The Zambilight has been exposed to be a SCAM. Check out the Lightpack for product actually shipping. There is now an inexpensive (~$60), off-the-shelf Ambilight product (successfully funded through Indiegogo) called the Zambilight, that works with any video input (and doesn't require a PC). The addition of the Pulse CEC HDMI adapter on the media centre PC allows it to be controlled via any connected HDMI device (the TV or receiver). Additionally, HDMI CEC automates functionality such as turning on the TV when the media centre is turned on (and putting it to sleep), setting the TV and receive to the correct inputs, etc.

For audio, my speaker setup consists of the highly acclaimed Paradigm MilleniaOne 5.0 speakers, which I picked up at a great discount when Kromer Radio closed its doors after 55 years, in 2012. The 5 speakers are mounted with the Panavise 105108B 8 lbs. mount. These all-metal mounts feature 210° tilt, 360° turn & 360° rotation. The subwoofers in use are the Paradigm PDR-100 and PDR-W100 (one sub is typically put away to make room for seasonal things like the Christmas tree).

Lighting and Energy: All the lighting in the home has been switched over to dimmable LED bulbs which are cool white in temperature (6,500K) because I didn't want a yellow cast on everything. I also didn't want any floor lamps taking up space so all lighting is via ceiling mounted fixtures, track lighting, or potlights (in the master bedroom bulkhead and the newly constructed bulkhead over the breakfast bar which also hides all the cables run from the pantry to the living room). The only fixtures that are still standard are the bathroom fixtures as we haven't been able to find suitable replacements (the majority of bathroom fixtures don't provide enough light and use expensive, inefficient (high wattage), and difficult to find globe/G or pin bulbs). For now, the bathroom lights are using an E12 (chandelier) to E26 (standard Edison bulb) adapter with an LED bulb. Even the pair of 40W incandescent bulbs in the kitchen fan hood were replaced with energy-efficient, cool white LEDs via an E14 adapter. The LED strips for the under cabinet lighting is tied directly into the fan hood lighting. (The only incandescent bulb left in the home is inside the dryer -- an environment which wouldn't be conducive to an LED bulb due to the heat.)

All the LED lighting was sourced by my dad, from Chinese manufacturers, as he runs an electronics repair shop. (His electrical and my electronics engineering [similar but different!] backgrounds came in handy for this!) While Costco, Home Depot, Ikea, and others have LED products now, their wattage/brightness/lumens aren't as high. One great find are the GU24 adapters, allowing us to use standard Edison E26 (screw) bulbs in place of hard-to-find and expensive CFL bulbs.

2015-03 UPDATE: The Neurio arrived on March 12th and has been installed. While its cloud-based functionality (such as appliance detection and home automation integration) are not yet available (as of 2015-03-25), those intelligent features, once available, will bring new insights into our energy usage. I've already discovered that one of my UPS's may need a battery replaced as its standby wattage is >100W. My initial review video is below:

Real-time energy monitoring is tracked through a local web page created by the TED5000 as well as a small countertop LCD display. This allows us to track our usage and plan accordingly with regards to hydro Time-of-Use rates. The TED5000 will be replaced by the Neurio, another Canadian invention successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign (and expected to ship in 2015 Q1). Beyond just displaying usage and calculating costs like the TED5000, the Neurio tracks and learns your home's energy usage and can even identify specific appliances based on their energy draw. Its API will allow it to integrate with other smart devices so I intend to integrate it with my home automation system once that functionality is available. The Neurio communicates via WiFi from the breaker box instead of over powerline communication like the TED5000 so it isn't impacted by the electrical line noise created by the AFCI breaker either.

With power monitoring, energy efficient LED lighting, and intelligent climate control, our hydro bill is typically under 350 kWh/$70 CAD per month. The only reason it isn't lower is because having to wait until 7pm (off-peak) to start dinner on the electric stove is just too late!

Uninterruptable power supplies power the office, the pantry's myriad of electronics (including WiFi/Internet connectivity), and the living room (including the lights). The space lost in the closet to accommodate the large APC 2200 UPS was the concession made to provide power to the main living space in the event of a power outage.

Renovation Notes: As I was adding in electrical devices, I had to obtain a permit from the Electrical Safety Authority. They then perform two inspections: the first (rough-in) is with all the wiring/drywall exposed and no devices powered up (to ensure wiring is run and protected properly, fixture boxes are mounted correctly, etc.) and the second is once everything is complete. The building's bylaws also required a record of all modifications to the unit. All electrical cabling run was metallic-sheathed cabling. All outlets used are tamper-resistant. All outlets near sources of water are GFCIs. All low-voltage/signal/network cabling is in-wall rated (FT1, FT4).

Shopping Notes:
Home automation: Amazon.com's shipping to Canada will vary depending on the vendor. For a local/Canadian source of home automation products, visit www.aartech.ca, a warehouse based in Oshawa. Future Shop, BestBuy and TigerDirect.ca carry Belkin WeMo and Insteon.
Price comparison: ShopBot.ca
IT/Communications: DirectDial Canada, NCIX Canada
Cables, keystone jacks, etc.: Infinite Cables (Markham), MonoPrice.com (ships to Canada), Prime Cables (a Canadian reseller of MonoPrice USA), www.BulbsCanada.com
Hardware: Home Depot, Lowes, Rona, Prime Cables (low voltge supplies, gang boxes, etc.).
Electronics: Active Surplus, Sayal Electronics.

US remailer: For those things that are just too expensive in Canada or just plain unavailable, I use a US remailer based in Niagara Falls, USA: www.cbiusa.com

Products Used

Evolve Controls
Sony Canada
APC
Linksys
LG Canada
ecobee
Pioneer Canada
micasaverde
Paradigm
With special thanks to the High Road Communications, the iPR Group, LG Canada, Sony Canada, and others for providing equipment.

Progress

Where everything stands after nearly 2 years.
  • Living Room 90%
  • Kitchen 90%
  • Dining Area 100%
  • Pantry 90%
  • Office 80%
  • Bedroom 85%

To Do:

  • Automation:
    • Program more functionality such as geo-fencing, sunset/sunrise-based timing, voice-activation, and more!
  • Dining Area:
    • Install Wilson Electronics 4G Booster antenna on bulkhead.
  • Living area:
    • Finish plates/keystones for coaxial, network, etc. behind the coffee table.
    • Permanently wire in the over-the-air TV antenna.
  • Kitchen:
    • Install additional shelving.
    • Mount/setup Wilson Electronics base unit.
    • Find, install slide-out metal shelves. (Having issues finding the correct size.)
  • Pantry:
    • Organize!
    • Install wall hooks/shelving.
    • Nylon label, route all cables neatly.
    • Setup increased ventilation (probably a temperature-controlled fan).
  • Office:
    • Find, install lighting fixture.
    • Reorganize shelving.
    • Long-term: build/mount a Murphy-style desk that mounts directly to the wall.
  • Bathrooms:
    • Find, install new vanities.
  • Other:
    • Cosmetic touch-ups: drywall, paint.
    • Cut and install Ikea RUNNEN outdoor flooring for the balcony.

Post-mortem

Lessons learned, hard-to-find items found, and other things in hindsight.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy" [~ Helmuth von Moltke the Elder] is a apt quote when taking on any large project but with planning (and more planning), there are ways to at least come out of it with your sanity intact. Having taken on this project ourselves, with my engineer father's help, the biggest issue is finding large enough blocks of time to get the work done. Renovations typically aren't something that can be done an hour at a time given the setup, actual work, and cleanup times. Tasks such as mounting drywall also typically require two people, if only to have the other person literally just hold sheets of drywall in place while one drives in the drywall screws. While the total time spent working on this project was around 4 weeks, it was spread over a year (nothing got done during the summer).

Things were set back even more after an accident ended up breaking a 30 gal aquarium. This meant having to source new flooring as well after the builder's flooring rep quoted a ridiculous amount to replace the floor with the same standard laminate. After visiting half a dozen flooring showrooms and narrowing down the choices, we ended up getting an insane quote (literally half of others) for German-made Krono flooring [link below]. Being a fan of many things German, it was a simple decision once we got that incredible quote. One silver lining to the accident was discovering and subsequently rectifying deficiencies in the structural flooring and upgrading to even better underpadding (noise absorption).

Despite having planned out things such as which wires I'd need to run where, forgetting things such as that HDMI's audio return channel doesn't handle lossless audio (such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio) meant that I couldn't place the media centre PC in the living room (plugged directly into the TV's HDMI-2, which is then plugged into the receiver via HDMI-1). I then had to find a way to connect a USB device (the Ambilight running off a Teensy Arduino) from the living room to back to the media PC which was now located in the pantry. (Fortunately, the bandwidth requirements for the Ambilight are very low and a USB v1.1-to-network adapter was sufficient. [USB v2.0-to-network adapters are expensive and typically require drivers.])

With hundreds of feet of cable to run, it was imperative that they weren't kinked or damaged in any way and great care was taken with extra-sensitve large cables such as the RedMere HDMI cable. Cables were tested BOTH before and after installing them, before the drywall was patched.

NOTES: Generally, any HDMI cable will work (do NOT buy expensive HDMI cables -- especially ANYTHING from Monster Cables) EXCEPT when the run is over 15ft. Longer cables need to be properly terminated and shielded so you need better quality (not overpriced, 24 AWG or 22 AWG) cables for longer runs.

Having worked on previous renovations (such as at my parents 50+ year old bungalow, I was familiar with drywall and other common renovation tasks but creativity was still needed when encountering the shallow walls of the unit (literally just drywall, metal stud, drywall) versus the deeper size of the automation switches. The wall extenders were deemed too unsightly (I do use one in the second bedroom/office for the network jacks for my desktop due to the structural wall that runs the entire length of the room) so that meant workarounds such as replacing fixture boxes as well as other methods to make everything fit. As shown above, for some fixture boxes, I ended up cutting out the other side of the wall, halving the drywall and then patching it back to gain those precious few 8th/quarter inches. Despite the new building, always be ready for situations such as these.

When it came time to source products, being in Canada, many things are expensive or altogether not available so having a US remailer and/or family /friends helps to overcome these pricing differences. E.g. the living room track lights were $150+ CAD at local GTA lighting stores but only $60 USD on Amazon.com. I ended up placing large orders and then making the 90 minute trip across the border to pick up everything when they arrived. Again, planning is crucial as you don't want to order too much (hopefully you can return things) or too little (and stall the work due to lack of parts).

As this was our first home, we had to source quite a few new (non-automation related) things. It was surprising how difficult it is to find smaller items that would fit (that also weren't outrageously overpriced) despite the new crop of apartment/condo-oriented furniture retailers. Here are a few of our finds:

Lots of research and a little luck pays off: we checked out dozens of new builds before finally deciding on our unit. When we finally signed on the dotted line, shovels were already in the ground and we ended up being delayed (twice) by only 10 months. There were no major functional issues with our unit and warranty issues have been dealt with in a reasonable time frame (it helps to make friends with the builder's rep!). Best of all, and practically unheard of, after the building's first year as a registered corporation, our monthly strata fees went DOWN and the building has an operational surplus! The one thing I wish I had gotten written explicitly into our contract (instead of just a "note" in our design/finishes file) was to get our own electrician in to run the cabling during construction. The builder's designer swears she called us but the detailed billing records [call logs] from our cellphones confirm that's a lie.

Last, but certainly not least, a special thanks goes out to Terence and Ryan, who helped move on that snowy January day, as well as for lending us the ladder to get these renovations done.

Gallery

See the wiring, construction, and finished product.

NOTE: If you click on an image and the bottom description is missing, try loading it again. (It's a bug in the gallery script...)

Construction: Kitchen and Pantry: Living Room: Dining Room: Master Bedroom: Bedroom 2/Office:

Connect

Let me know what you think!

Thank you for taking the time to check out this site. It has been a journey for both my wife and I and there's still more to come ("Ok Google, let's watch TV" will be implemented shortly...)

If you have any questions, comments, feedback, or want some insight regarding your own potential project, drop me a line!

I can be reached via Twitter, Google+, or email at jeremy AT canadahifi.com.