So, you're building a new home and want it to be ready for the Smart Home Revolution. Well, not to burst your bubble but, it won't be - not entirely. Until there are standards in place for that future home, you'll just have to make your home as standardized as is currently possible and probable.
I've been hearing about how the "The Home of the Future is Here!" my whole life (as of this writing, I'm 47). As much as I enjoy the apparent "Smart Home Revolution" that people say is happening right now. What's happening is not revolutionary. That isn't to say that there aren't new and very cool things going on now, there are! Right now, AI systems are making speech recognition as powerful and as inexpensive as it has ever been and cameras that can tell the difference between you and your cat (that you can afford) is REALLY new! We are truly entering the data driven age.
What isn't new? Standards.
While it is fantastic that all of these new things exist, they don't talk to each other. Sometimes devices made by the same manufacturer don't talk to each other. The medium for these things is apparently going to be WiFi but what about battery powered devices? WiFi will have you changing / charging batteries every day or two. What about distance? Here's a little secret... If you want to have the fastest possible WiFi to stream 8K movies over, what are you sacrificing? That's right, signal distance.
These are called transmission media limitations and every way to transmit data has a set of pros and cons. Bluetooth BLE is low power and battery saving but it's effective signal distance is practically confined to the room it's in. There are other long range technologies available like LoRa and others (that are not proprietary) that may very well hold the key to a good standard but, a technology isn't a standard if very few manufacturers adopt it. Hence our problem - everybody wants to be the king of that standard and there are too many kings in the kitchen.
So, what do you do? I say, don't worry about all of that - not right now.
If you're building a new house, then your biggest regret after the build is wishing you had run cables here and there. Having someone come in and run new cables of any kind after the sheet-rock is up is much more intrusive and expensive than installing it during the build. At the beginning of this article I said that you'll have to make your home as standardized as is currently possible and probable.
Here I am talking about two kinds of standards - one of course is your building codes. There is little you can do about these except to follow them and when appropriate, exceed them. In the US you have to follow wiring standards for house voltages and safety equipment such as GFCI, AFCI, and how smoke detectors are wired. Your devices will have to work within those rules. When I say exceed them, the one big place that will help your automation aspirations is to make sure that your electrical contractor doesn't place your light switches at the end of a run. Make sure that there is a neutral wire in every box.
The others are the current highly adopted standards such as Ethernet, TV cable, common security system wiring, and low-voltage wiring for doorbells, counter lighting, etc. Today it doesn't look like Ethernet cabling will go away anytime soon but it eventually will - just like in-home phone lines are all but a thing of the past. Have you ever been in a home and seen strange two pronged connectors spread around - those are old style TV antenna connectors. Once upon a time, people were certain that these things would always be needed. Eventually, people will wonder what that network jack was for.
The good news is that for the foreseeable future, Ethernet is still very much the king and from that, WiFi is a second runner up. Additionally, there are 8 copper wires in that cable that can be used for a whole host of other things down the road. Putting Ethernet cables in your walls is not a waste of your time or money.
First, why not just use WIFI or other wireless options for everything?
Well, you can and a lot of people do. Also, if you're home is already built, you may not have much of a choice. However, there are some advantages to a wired connection:
- Faster - WIFI is faster than it has ever been but it still isn't as fast a good ole copper - especially over a longer distance. Although Ethernet cables have a length limit of around 300ft, you generally get the max speed up to that limit. WIFI is fastest in the room it is in and the further you get away from a the access point, the slower your connection will be. This slowdown is compounded by walls, fireplaces and other materials and electrically noisy devices like motors and cordless phones. Plus, the more items you have on the same frequency, the slower the overall transmission will be much like how it is more difficult to hear someone in a crouded room.
- Reliability - A wireless device or sensor like a door or window sensor may need batteries to work and, of course, batteries die. If your device doesn't report that the battery is about to die then you might find that your security system isn't getting the full picture of the state of your home. Wired sensors don't have this issue and although it is possible for house settling to break a wire, a good installer can account for this possibility with loops and dips at intersections. Plus, modern security wiring is closed loop meaning that sensors are wired to show break and fault conditions.
- PoE - For some remote devices like cameras, having a power plug near where the device will be (like an eve) is not really practical. Ethernet offers the ability to Power your device Over Ethernet, if your switch and device support it.
Now, it isn't all rainbows. There is added cost to wiring up everything like I've listed below which is much more expensive than the wireless alternative. However, installing wiring is a long term investment that does pay you back in the ways above and in convenience down the road.
So, what do you recommend?
This is my ongoing checklist for the next house I build:
- Security Systems, the unsung champions of home automation - I would recommend wiring for a security system (doors, windows, basement, motion detectors and opt for some behind the toilet/sink sensor runs). This wiring will allow your home automation system to monitor the condition of windows, doors, room motion, water leaks, and the like. Wired solutions are WAY better than wireless solutions no matter what ADT tells you. Get yourself a security contractor and wire this part right. Half of your automation inputs will come from this system.
- Smart-ish Smoke Detectors - Since code will require wired smoke detectors (at least in the U.S.), I would also opt for A / C relay detectors so that in addition to the interconnected line that is standard, you also get relay outputs that you can interface with your security system. This will allow your system to know which detector triggered the alarm. They won't have all of the bells and whistles of something like the Google Nest Protect, it also won't cost as much and will likely have replaceable sensors further saving money down the road.
- Smart TVs and smart cabling - Double or triple up on network cables to each spot where a TV might go. Most live TV providers are transitioning to headless streaming services so the extra network connection may be useful if you have a streaming box and a gaming console connected to the same TV.
- Sonic Magic - Speaking of TV, what about the audio? OK, since Sonos entered the space, many people have opted out of whole house audio wiring and for good reason - it is expensive and complicated. However, I'd like to make the case that wiring for speakers, especially in the living room is a good idea. First, your focus is more specific. While whole home audio need zones and special head units, amplifiers and controls, Single room audio is much simpler. Also, have you looked at the beating Sonos is taking from botched plans and competition lately? Plus look at the competition - Echo and Google Home - both require an internet connection. Not always very practical. My next home will have wired speakers in the ceiling and possibly in the walls. You can connect anything you want to the amplifier later as the latest audio fad changes and that set of speakers will be ready for whatever. But you need to wire for them now.
- WiFi In the Sky - Wire for ceiling mounted wireless access points in separate parts of the house / on each floor. For these runs, go ahead and opt for the good stuff (cat 7 shielded cable) so that when the standards increase, your cable will be able to manage the bandwidth.
- Eye In the Sky - If you plan on having cameras, run those cables too. This can be a little harder to plan in advance but corners and porches are good and hard to get to after the siding is up.
- Knock Knock - Run doorbell wire to every door. You'll be happy you did later. This will make video doorbells or whatever comes next easier to install. Also on that note, Make sure that your doorbell mounting space is decently wide and tall. Think of the largest video doorbell option on the market and make sure that it will fit in that spot. They will all get smaller as time goes on so, if that space will accommodate the worst ones today, you should be good going forward.
- Give Me Some Shade - One other nice-to-have that is much harder to install after the fact is power window shade wires. I so wish my current home had them. If you want to build or buy motors to control your window shades / blinds, you'll either need to conceal a wire running up the side of your window OR run these things on batteries. Both options are entirely possible but less than ideal. Adding a small power tap to the side of your window now will save you time and frustration later.
- Glowing Goodness - If lighting is your thing then make sure to run both network and power outlets above and below cabinets. Even if you don't use the network cable for network data, it may be handy to have some extra wires up there for future projects. Another trend is to place lighting strips in crown and baseboard molding for indirect lighting. Power and signal lines will need to be run to convenient locations. Here distance (especially for signals) is critically important.
- Here Comes Santa Clause - Speaking of lighting, a growing smart home trend is to put in year-round external lighting. This is a topic all its own but in general, you will need low voltage high current wiring from a central point to your eves, porches, front walk and outside of your windows, if you decide to pick up this hobby.
- Keep your Crap in the Closet - Lastly, run all of these cables to a dedicated data closet - a small room that doesn't have water lines in it that will house your security panel, home automation hubs, your camera NVR equipment and any media servers you want. Make sure that this room has a dedicated conduit that runs from the outside of the house to it so that internet service providers have an easy way to get their cables to this closet. I would also recommend putting this closet on its own breaker.
What about Low-Voltage Primary Lighting?
There are a number of proponents of having low voltage lights ONLY in a house. The benefits is a reduction in potential fires, reduced power consumption, less codes requirements, and more options for control. The downside of these is that they would almost certainly require a controller and as such, requires a significant increase in technical knowledge from the homeowner. Remember, you might not live in this house forever and the next tenants may not want to have to learn how to manage your systems.
Your house also needs to maintain marketability as you build out your plan. No one wants to read a manual for turning on lights. While I would prefer this in my own home, for the reasons above, I can't recommend replacing the house voltage wiring in your home with low voltage controller based solutions. You won't really save any money and the energy benefits aren't a lot better than using LED lighting.
But I Like Having a Home Phone!
That's totally fine! However, don't invest in the old phone cabling. Use Cat6 network cable to run your lines instead of the old 4-wire cable. This kind of cable will allow you to connect older standard phones but can also be used for newer phones or IP phones.
Other Dream Items
- Home Run - Remember I made a point of talking about leak sensors? Well, what do you do if you have a leak? If you home run or run each water line to a central accessible spot like the basement or utility room, you can add shutoff valves to each line. If a leak is detected, your system can shut off the affected area without shutting off all the water to the house. Make sure to include the water line to the refrigerator as well!
- Kitchen Computers - As old fashioned as it may sound, add some network plugs to your kitchen counter. In this current era of tablets and apps, the idea of a PC in the kitchen seems antiquated but it may not be. Many people are now using dedicated computers in their kitchen and other places as a central node or place to see lots of information about their home, calendar, security cameras and other info in one convenient place that is larger than a tablet.
- Picture Picture on the Wall - OK, this one seems excessive, even to me, but hear me out. Digital picture frames - BIG ones in specific places. Sure they can be wireless but they need to get their power from somewhere and do you want to see an ugly power cord hanging down from it? So, in these well planned spaces, it may be a good idea to put in some recessed power plugs where pictures may hang.
- Hey Good Looking - Ever heard of Magic Mirror? Look it up, I'll wait. OK, so where would you put such a device? Now what do you need to power it? Like the digital picture frame idea above, if you think you want information on a mirror in your bathroom, hallway, whatever, you'll need a power outlet there.
- Yards by the Square Yard - Are you watering your lawn? What about growing tomatoes or peppers in your cul-de-sac? Might it be fun to gather some data or water them automatically? From simple timer to soil moisture sensors and weather stations, you'll need cable ran these devices. My recommendation is to have a large conduit ran from your data closet to an outside box in the back yard that will allow you to pull cables as needed for your projects. Keep in mind here that you'll want to make your run short between the closet and your outside box and you'll want to run power cables and outlets separately from the data cables.
Wiring Do's and Don't
When working with wire, there are a few things that you need to know. First, you can't buck against the electrical code and nor should you. The electrical code tries to keep you alive. It has no concern for your smart home needs. Subsequently, when your electrician is wiring your house, he/she is first and foremost interested in making it safe per the code. While this is very important, the results aren't always practical for your devices.
- Neutral is necessary - As I mentioned above smart devices need both the hot wire and a neutral wire in a box. While there are several switches that don't and use some interesting magic to work, they often have side effects especially if you are using LED bulbs. At the outset, make sure that your electrician knows that you need a neutral line in every box. This means no end switched circuits.
- Power At Points of Entry - The code is very particular about having house voltage plugs near doors and windows. The NEC doesn't allow plugs or switches directly below windows and some states have stricter requirements for house voltage plugs within a certain distance of these openings - side to side. This is to prevent rain ingress introducing a shock hazard which is good. However, it may also limit your options for powering devices near windows. I recommend that you have 12VDC low voltage taps near doors and windows to power such devices. These lines can be powered by large 12VDC supplies housed near your electrical panel.
- Separation is Key - It is really important to keep house voltage wiring away from DC voltage and data lines like the low voltage lines above, network and phone cables, TV cables, and video cables. It is also important to keep low voltage AC doorbell cables away from these data lines. The reason is simple - AC lines can induce voltages on parallel low voltage DC cables creating unintended spikes and interference. Do Not run AC lines parallel to DC lines, period. When they need to cross each other, make sure they meet at 90 degree angles to each other so that this potential is minimized. If they must run parallel, make sure that they are separated by at least a foot or more and preferably separated by a wall stud.
- Audio Cable Seperation - Audio cables such as speaker cables need to be separated from all other cables. Don't let audio cables touch other cables when they cross them. Don't run audio cables past any electrically noisy devices like motors, florescent lighting, kitchen appliances or your washer and dryer.
Safety and Personal Security
Now of course we move into the area that is closest to my heart.
Look at you, you're healthy, strong and able to get around on your own two feet. This is a very good thing and I sincerely hope that you live a long life in just this condition. However, what if you don't? Will your up and coming dream home become a logistical nightmare if something were to happen to you or your family suddenly required a walker or a wheelchair - even for a short term? What happens if you retire in your home and as you age, you can't quite get around like you once did?
These are things that most people know academically but generally don't take into consideration when building. We found ourselves in this place a few years ago which actually began my home automation journey. The truth is that you can't be prepared for this kind of unknown but you can add in some things that will help.
- Boxes for Pull-Cord Alarms - If you've ever been in a hospital room you see them all over - cords that have a string that reaches just above the floor. These are emergency pull cords for those instances when someone falls and need assistance. These are low voltage contact closure devices that need simply two wires that go from the pull cord location to an alarm panel or other controller. The beauty here is that you can put the wall boxes and wiring in without actually putting in the sensor. If you need them in the future, they can be added easily later. Showers, by the toilets, next to both sides of the bed, and in each room. Label the cover if you don't put them in so that it will be easy to remember what these blanks on the wall are for.
- Inside Facing Cameras - Don't freak out! You don't have to install any now! However, if the event of an accident, wouldn't it be good for someone to be able to check on you visually? What if you do fall and you're knocked out or worse? There are ways to make this idea more secure and private but it is important to install the network or CC cabling now rather than later.
- Ramps? - Don't build accessibility ramps on your new house if you don't need them. However, I do recommend designing your home to have at least one elevation level entrance - preferably where your car is parked. Even if you don't need them yourself, in the future there will be bots available to take your stuff from the car to your kitchen counter. How do I know? I'm building one now and if I see the need, there are others working on this problem already. These bots probably won't like stairs anytime soon so having a smooth path between your car and the inside of your house is a good start. Plus, as we all know, robotic vacuums don't like stairs!
So What About the Smart Stuff?
OK, I didn't cover any smart devices in this article for one big reason - next week they'll change. The intent of this article is to get ready for the smart home, not make it smart. There are a million and one opinions on how to do this and you can find them everywhere. Truly getting ready is a little more fundamental in my opinion and one that is often overlooked by those quick to answer the "complex" questions of smart homes.