Choosing a Hub

At the centre of all smart homes lives a “hub”, but what do they do, how do they do it, and what do you need to look for when choosing one?

In our last post, we looked at smart bulbs vs smart switches and why I’ve chosen to go down the smart switch route (spoiler alert: it’s easier for people to use without voice control or installing an app). In this post, we’re going to look at the various options that are out there, focus on the ones that I’ve used, and talk about why I’ve made the decision to settle on the Hubitat C5 as the heart of my smart home.

The options I’ve used

I’ve been playing around with smart home kit for a long time now. I started with LinuxMCE sometime around 2004/5, then moved over to OpenHAB, then over to HomeAssistant, dallied with LightwaveRF, and then settled on Hubitat just over a year ago.

LinuxMCE was the first of it’s kind to offer some really cool niceties including media following you from room to room based on the signal from your bluetooth-equipped device, and integration of Media, Gaming, and Home Automation for those who could afford the X-10 devices that it spoke to. It worked fantastically well as a home media centre, and because it was Open Source then it was free to download and use, but then new challengers came along.

OpenHAB is also Open Source and will run on just about any bit of hardware (I’ve run it on Linux servers with significant resources and I’ve run it on raspberry pi’s!). It’s JAVA-based, so extending it requires learning how to code, however the user experience was positive and configuring it was always relatively straight forward. Unfortunately I’m a Python developer, not a Java dev, so when I needed it to do something that it wasn’t yet doing, I couldn’t write the code I needed.

HomeAssistant came next - Open Source, Python-based so I could develop for it if I needed to, a huge ecosystem of supported devices, and able to run on Raspberry Pi’s without any issues at all, it looked like it would fulfil all of my dreams, and for a while it did. The biggest issue I had with HomeAssistant was having to keep track of all the configuration settings in YAML files. I work with code every day for a living, I’m happy working with YAML, but for my home automation setup I just want stuff to work, and I want it to be easy to configure. I’ve seen that in more recent versions of HomeAssistant the web interface lets you configure a lot more via “point and click”, so is a great deal more use friendly, and thousands of people use it every day so it’s definitely worth looking at.

LightwaveRF was the first commercial offering that I purchased. It promised an ecosystem of lighting and plug sockets all hooked back to a single app/web interface with easy to use “point and click” configuration, and it came with its own light switches that looked relatively similar to a standard UK switch meaning that family members didn’t need to remember how to interact with the lighting. This was amazing until I realised that the 1st generation kit that I’d purchased could only send data to the end devices, not receive it, so there was no way of telling whether a light was already on or not, you just had to send it the “on” command and the switch would ignore it if it was already in that state. There was also an issue that the app had to go via the LightwaveRF servers and back to my hub, so if I lost internet connectivity then all the automations stopped working. These things, coupled with the lock-in to the LightwaveRF switches via the proprietary protocol made me start to look for something else.

Hubitat was something I found whilst looking for a new hub. Like OpenHAB and HomeAssistant it’s entirely local for the vast majority of device control, has a community who are actively developing drivers and apps for new devices, and can talk to a significant number of different brands and types of device from Hue bulbs to ZWave blind controllers. It also has the advantages that LightwaveRF had of being backed by a commercial company, and having a pleasant user interface, so it really did tick all the boxes for me. I’ve been using it a year now and it’s been excellent!

Other Commercial Options

If you start to look at commercial options then you suddenly need to seriously consider your budget, the wiring in your house, and whether you need professional installers to carry out the work. The costs of installing one of these systems (along with the fact that they tend to only support their own devices when it comes to whole-house audio!) ruled them out for me, but here’s a few options you may want to consider.

Control4 - one of the leading options for the UK Market, it includes everything you’d need for a smart home but is only available through dedicated installer companies. Any changes that need to be made to your setup once it is installed also need to be done via the company who installed it for you, so expect to pay some kind of support/maintenance contract.

Loxone - European-based, but very polished and appreciated by everyone who I’ve spoken to that uses it. Loxone has a dedicated wiring solution with all switches and bulbs running back to dedicated controllers somewhere in your house. The additional wiring means that whilst you can purchase it and install it yourself, you’re probably better off getting a qualified electrician in to do the job, especially if the regulations in your area say you’re not allowed to touch the mains electricity!

KNX - More of a standard than an actual product, KNX sits half-way between Hubitat and the Loxone/Control4 level platforms. You can install it yourself and there are a wide range of vendors who support the protocol, and with a long history in smart buildings such as offices and schools you can be confident that it will work!

Summary

I’ve ended up going with the Hubitat C5, and whilst there is the C7 out there I’m not feeling a real need to upgrade just yet. I’ll do a full write-up on the Hubitat at some point in the future however so far I’ve had it connected to my LightwaveRF lights (which I’m slowly replacing with Zigbee alternatives!), Sonos speakers, LG TV, and even my Unifi network devices! In short, whilst the other solutions that I’ve used over the years have been amazing, Hubitat hits the sweet spot for me between functionality, flexibility, cost, and commercial support if I need it.

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