Home Automation in South Africa

Righty-o. It’s been a really long time since I have written anything about our home renovation project. That’s because it’s been finished for most of this year and has rapidly moved onto needing to be patched, repaired and generally starting to behave like a normal house again.

Which is boring.

But today I am here to tell you about adding home automation gadgets and gimmicks which is not at all boring. In fact, it’s so complicated it could afford to be a little more boring.

So let’s start with: what do I mean by home automation? In my world that means connecting stuff to the Internet – or at least to my home network. It does not mean some old-school, proprietary system that only works with its own consoles and panels. These are probably a lot more reliable but hellishly expensive and completely incompatible with anything else you may add in future.

Approaches to Home Automation

I’ll get back to the question of why you’d want to connect your house to the internet in a moment. But let’s start with the three basic approaches:

  1. Proprietary: there are numerous systems that are “black boxes”, installed by expensive professionals and work as advertised. These have actually been around in one form or the other for decades as it’s easy to understand that some of them are just switches with long cables attached to them. You see a lot of this kind of gear in corporate boardrooms and in Donald Trump’s apartment. Like him, it’s old, it’s ugly and it’s rapidly losing credibility.
  2. Networked Out of the Box: this is the modern class of home automation devices. They all use internet protocol and a lot of other stuff that makes them a lot more inter-operable (although not always as we shall see)
  3. Networked DIY: this is the murky world of solder and circuit boards and repurposed old desktop machines running Linux and Arduino’s and Rasperry Pi’s. I admire the smart people who set things up this way, and even more the people who succeed in having a seamless automated home at the end of it. They will have to write the article on how they achieved that because I have no idea.

So, as you may have guessed by now, I am going to talk about option 2 above.

What can you Automate?

In a country that typically doesn’t fit smoke detectors (we build our houses out of stuff that doesn’t burn that easily like bricks, go figure) or central heating, the big automation wins right now are lighting, sprinklers, alarms and audio visual equipment. In the security realm there is a lot of stuff out there from cameras to sensors but is actually not Joburg Thief-grade so I’m not going to spend much time on it. But right behind the AV industry in terms of old-school crappy gear the home security industry stands. They need a major shake-up.

So I’m going to talk about these areas primarily.

The Components

Ok so when you start out on this process the hardest thing to get your head around is what the ingredients are to bake the home automation cake. The internet is often unhelpful as it’s populated by geeks who write incomprehensible pieces that only they understand. Maybe they can’t write. Or maybe they’re just assholes.

Here they are, in simple terms:

  1. A Hub: right so in order to control a diversity of gadgets you need some kind of control box that can talk their language. This is simply because your phone (or tablet) in and of themselves can’t communicate directly with most home automation equipment. The likes of Apple and Google hope to change this – and might – but for now you need an intermediary.
  2. The Gadgets: these are the light bulbs, speakers, motors, switches, dimmers, cameras etc. which are designed to operate in a smart home. It’s NOT as simple as getting something that connects to the Internet. They have to integrate with at least one of the available hubs (above).
  3. The App: each hub comes with an app that allows you to control your devices in various ways. There is a degree of inter-operability here so you don’t have to buy a new hub for every brand of light bulb you buy. It’s tricky but a lot of these things do talk to each other quite well which is big advance over the old-style equipment.
  4. The Network: I shouldn’t have to say (but I will) that your home needs to have a network running to use these gidgmies. And an internet connection. Although the devices themselves generally don’t use regular wi-fi the app and hub do and you can’t get away without it. This is true of any happy life anyway – who can live without the internet?

The Technology: Try to Stay Awake

I need to give you some tech details now. Whilst this might be dull it’s quite helpful to get an understanding of what’s going behind the scenes before making purchases.

There are two important technical details that matter here: one is electrical voltage and the other is Z-Wave frequency.

Voltage: right, so you probably know that South Africa’s electricity grid operates at 220-240V. That means that you need to have electrical devices that can run at that voltage. This turns out to matter when you realise that the US operates at 110V. So if you buy US devices they won’t power on in South Africa. And don’t imagine you can get some nifty transformer that can improve your situation because you can’t. I say this as a proud owner of a small number of hurriedly purchased US gadgets.

Smart home devices communicate with each other using wifi, ZigBee and Z-Wave. ZigBee is kind of an open source platform and runs on the same frequency worldwide. But few devices (that I’ve found) use it. Z-Wave on the other hand is much more common but irritatingly runs on a different radio band depending where you are in the world.

Thus even if you get a US electrical device that is happy to run on SA 220V, the Z-Wave frequency will be different and the devices won’t talk to each other anyway.


Ok, So? Where do You Buy Stuff?

Right, so your best option in my view is to buy devices from the UK. UK uses 220V electricity and the same Z-Wave band as us. If you guy from Amazon UK, then, and find a way to ship it to SA, you will be (generally) good. I say generally because there have still been some foibles in my experience. But overall it’s worked.


What do Buy

Ok so this is not a complete list or by any means the only configuration you can try, but it’s what I have and what has worked. Note that not ALL devices here are compatible or talk seamlessly to each other. This stuff is still starting out so you are most likely going to end up with parallel ecosystems. All that really means is having to open multiple apps instead of one.

Hub – Samsung Smartthings v2 – whilst this is not entirely compatible with Apple devices (for instance) it is a really great hub, has a lot of compatibility and has a future. Buy it from UK Amazon.

Light Switches – Aeotec by Aeon Labs – I bought dimmers and switches from these guys. These can be installed into existing lights and pair seamlessly with the Smartthings hub. You can then use the Smartthings app to control them.

Music – Sonos – these devices are only partly compatible with Smartthings, but they are the best multi-room music system available.

Sprinkler System – OpenSprinkler. This is not compatible with Smartthings at all but is a great product and available for purchase in SA.

Outlets (plug sockets) – Samsung Smart Outlets. These are part of the Smartthings family so inherently compatible. I’ve had some issues with these in SA because you need so many converters to make them work. Am currently sourcing UK plugs so I can try and get them working correctly.

Alarm System – DSC with Envisalink – sadly in South Africa because of our reliance on armed response companies most of us are saddled with DSC alarm systems that alarm companies understand. These are old school electronic and not digital systems. Fortunately the Envisalink expansion board Internet-enables DSC alarms. The interface is pretty crude but it’s good enough to let you control the system from your phone. There are some hobby projects to connect Smartthings to Envisalink but they are a little beyond my skill set.

…and others: there are many gadgets still to try, Smartthings UK has a far more limited range than the US counterpart but no doubt more is coming. From video cameras to gas bottle monitors to garage door openers…well, you see where this is headed.

Hope this was helpful to the budding smart home enthusiasts out there. Give me a shout if you want some more specific info.