Smart Homes – make a smart start with Home HQ (review)

A smart home is any home where smart monitoring or control devices linked to the internet are installed. Home HQ from Origin Energy is a smart, first, start.

The A$199 Home HQ starter kit (for more detail on the kit read GadgetGuy’s announcement here) does everything it promises with an almost fool-proof setup.

The internet connected Gateway communicates with two entry sensors to indicate if the doors or windows have been opened, a PIR motion sensor detects motion, the smart plug will turn devices on/off devices, the Temperature/Humidity sensor confirms if you are hot or cold, and the Philips Hue light bulb will wake and dim on command.

It is all controlled by an Android or iOS app that is basic but very usable. Open the app, select devices, turn on the smart bulb or check the temperature.

What is good about Home HQ?

It works very well – an almost foolproof installation. Ten points to Origin for releasing a complex set of products that play well together.

It has some minor issues like using CR 2032-coin batteries ($2-3 each) to power these devices that will need replacing every ‘few’ months, and its current device ecosystem is limited.

The Home HQ ecosystem rapidly needs access to a wider range of open source, industry standard smart home devices if it is to be a serious contender in this space.

To its credit, it says, “Home HQ offers open source technology, so it’s designed to give you the flexibility to expand your network of smart devices as the smart technology and devices evolve.”

Origin is being careful to ensure third-party devices do work so that currently covers water sensors, touch sensors, climate control, sirens etc., – most available from its Device Store.

And the trial that was limited to Victoria is now over, and you can buy the kit and use it anywhere, even if you are not an Origin Energy customer.

After a week of use, I have some general observations.

As my first real foray into smart homes, it has been a pleasure to find everything works as intended – no rocket scientist needed to set it up.

The app allows additional users to be added and to run it from their smartphones as well – for when you are not in the home. I think a Windows and macOS desktop client or web app for home control use would be handy too.

The If This Then That (IFTTT) capability allows multiple devices to interact, e.g. when the motion sensor is tripped use the smart plug to turn on the smart light, send me and email and take a photo/video. The app comes pre-programmed with dozens of rules that cover most bases. At present you cannot nest IFTTT rules to make more complex rules, but you can run several rules concurrently.

Geofencing using your phone’s GPS tells Home HQ if you are away and flips to Away mode and back to Home mode when you come home. These modes are also linked to rules.

You can use multiple spare iOS or Android tablets or smartphones as cameras – handy for seeing what is happening at home.

Let’s explore smart homes

Before you consider making your home smarter, perhaps it’s a good idea to ask why – after all dumb homes have been around since convenient caves became trendy.

The concept is smart, usually single purpose, devices connected to the home network via a control gateway to the internet. The Australian government has an explanatory website here.

Popular devices include all manner of sensors, thermostats, speakers, lights, doorbells, door locks, security cameras, windows/blinds, water heaters, appliances (washing machines, dryers etc), cooking devices, vacuum cleaners, pool cleaners, and more.

Controllers (gateways) includes Amazon Echo/Dot, Google Home, Logitech Harmony Elite controller (not just for TV), Samsung SmartThings/Connect, Apple Home Kit, and many more brands.

Most offer Z-Wave and/or ZigBee device compatibility, but you may also need RF, Bluetooth, wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and more to control all devices (this is where Logitech excels). There is no clear winner yet here, and there is unlikely to be anytime soon with Apple and Google in opposing camps doing largely their own thing!

These gateways are controlled by a mix of dedicated touch screens, smartphone apps, voice (Siri, Alexa, Bixby, Google Home, etc), or even smartwatches.

Many gateway apps support energy monitoring if the device has that feature. The Government warns, “Automated systems use energy, so they produce energy savings only if they save more energy than they use. They are typically expensive, so take a significant time to ‘pay back’ the savings from reduced energy costs.”

So, the intent is good, but the execution can be very costly.

What are the compelling uses?

Frankly it’s the same argument as when the TV remote control was invented – what lazy bum needs a remote control when they can get up and change channels?

I think we are at the same stage as the TV remote – it is an interesting concept but in no way necessary to attain a better quality of life, or save energy etc. That will come when the concept matures, and standards are finalised.

Most initially look at smart homes with a single problem to resolve. It could be anything from making a home look occupied while you are away to turning on and off Christmas lights at set times. It seldom starts with solving multiple problems starting at an entry point covering door or garage door locks, intercoms, climate control, start cooking the dinner and more.

In a safety sense, the addition of a smart lock, smart video and two-way speech intercom makes sense as we move more to an ever-connected, online shopping fulfilled world. Couriers can be let in to deliver goods when you are at work! The addition of window and door sensors and motion detectors are no-brainers.

Similarly, I can see a point for climate control to be controlled automatically – including turning it off when you leave and forget to. But it is not going to save energy – if anything it could increase it making the concept of a net positive energy (NPE) home a long way off.

Interaction via an app, no matter how intuitive, is still a big ask for many less tech-savvy users. Voice control is the answer, but despite reasonable advances, it is still a lottery if the commands actually work for all users and guests.

Finally, I think we are a long way off true ‘standards’ that harness Artificial Intelligence and deep learning to anticipate needs, be of real assistance to living, improve quality of life, and keep occupants safe.

There is a good read about building a real smart home at Dream Green House