We’ve always been a big fan of home automation and the ability to control our lighting and heating from anywhere. Home automation fits right in with home servers, remote access and remote control, all improving your quality of life and making it easier along the way. Who wants to drive all the way home to turn off the light or turn down the heat if you forget to turn it off? And who can blame you for wanting to make life easier and safer? An automated home all sounds so perfect.
We’ve had experience with older X-10 devices for controlling lighting and other small appliances, but had our share of problems with lights going on in the middle of the night or the signals failing to travel over the power line properly. It was clear that X-10 was a dying and antiquated technology and it seemed like it was time to find a replacement.
A few years ago we played around with some home automation systems based on a newer wireless home automation technology called Z-wave. The protocol itself is brilliant; low power wireless devices that talk to each other and repeat the signals to form a mesh network. Although the devices and protocol are fairly mature, the home automation gateway market is in it’s infancy.
When we were first introduced to the Vera Z-Wave Home Automation gateway by a friend in the industry. Initially we were skeptical since we have never heard of MiCasaVerde (Spanish for “MyGreenHouse”), but when we were handed an evaluation unit along with a Schlage LiNK deadbolt, a HomeSeer motion sensor and a few light modules , we were pleasantly surprised. Vera is truly an amazing home automation controller offering plenty of flexibility and power. Best of all, Vera was compatible with every Z-Wave device we tested.
The Brains of the Operation – Vera
The typical Z-Wave network is comprised of a gateway which acts as a controller, along with devices and sensors. All of these devices work together and form a mesh-network, each device knowing how close it’s “neighbor” is and relaying wireless signals through each other to perform the action you desire such as turning on a light, unlocking or locking a door, adjusting the thermostat and much more. Vera can do all of this and more as long as you have the right devices and sensors to do what you want.
Vera is a hardware device that is about the size of a small book that uses a hybrid of some open source and custom software written by MiCasaVerde. Vera runs on Broadcom based hardware (such as a Asus WL-500 Wireless Router) and has a Z-Wave USB stick by Aeon Labs that performs all the communication with the Z-Wave network. This Z-Wave USB stick also acts as a portable device to include Z-Wave devices into the network. It’s as simple as removing the Z-Wave USB stick from the back of Vera and pushing the button until the LED tells you it’s in learn mode. You then push the proper button on each Z-Wave device you wish to add and that’s it. You walk around to each device/module/sensor and add them to the USB stick. Inserting the USB stick back into Vera and she adds all the devices into your home automation network. You then simply assign a device to each room you’ve created in your home and you can start automating. Create timers and scenes and enable text and email notifications based on these specific events at specific times. Gone are the days of wall timers to turn on lights when you go away, Vera makes it quick and easy to add a timer onto any device in seconds. You can even slightly customize the Vera dashboard to show and hide scenes and devices but in the future we would love to see some options to change the look and feel with skins.
Vera itself is very low power, consuming only 6 Watts of energy. It has no hard drive and boots up just as quick as any other router in your network and it fast and stable with the rare lockup. It has a web interface for control and setup and the layout is also very easy to understand. Built in video’s can be set to play automatically walking you through the screens and setup of Vera. Vera also comes with a simple quick start setup sheet to walk you through the network and FindVera remote access setup, but we found the WIKI and User/Support forums more useful for assistance with more advanced devices such as the Schlage LiNK door lock.
For those users that want Vera to replace their current router, Vera also acts as a regular Wireless-G network. You can use Vera as an all-in-one network router or as a home automation controller only by disabling the wireless and DHCP server and connecting it to your current router. We decided to remove the wireless antenna in the back and disable wireless, since we already had a complex network and wanted it only as a home automation controller.
Vera’s Remote Access
Vera can be accessed remotely via the FindVera service that is run by MiCasaVerde. It allows you to manage Vera from any web browser and almost all cell phones or handheld device. If your mobile device can run Java, you can even download the FindVera client for mobile devices, or a simple HTML interface will work with any device that can read web pages. The basic HTML interface isn’t pretty, but it still allows you to turn on and off devices and unlock/lock the door if you have a Z-Wave enabled lock.
The FindVera service is very simple to use and requires no port forwarding, even if you put the Vera device behind other routers or firewalls, you can still remotely access the device. We like this option since port forwarding can be a chore to users that may not be network savvy, but we also like that Vera can be used with any Dynamic DNS service such as TZO.COM and you can connect directly to the Vera itself without having to rely on the FindVera service. There are plenty of benefits to using the FindVera service though, such as SMS Text Messages on selected events, as well as archived camera snapshots, energy usage reports and much more. The basic FindVera Basic service is now free, offering secure remote access to your Vera, as well as notifications via email. If you want SMS messages upon events, you can purchase the FindVera premium service at a cost of $29 per year you get 50 SMS messages for the year and 1GB of storage for remote image archiving of webcam or IP Cameras you may have configured in Vera. You also get 1 year of energy tracking for each device that Vera is aware of, allowing you to instantly see live or past energy usage by device and by room. We love this feature but it’s really only powerful if the majority of your lights and appliances are connected to the Z-Wave network. If you desire more than 50 SMS message and more storage for archived camera images, you can purchase an additional 50 messages per year for $10, and $5 for each 1GB of additional storage. Full pricing details on the FindVera service can be found here (http://wiki.micasaverde.com/index.php/Find_Vera_Service)
Energy Savings with Vera
Vera is designed to make your life easier, but to also make your house more “green” by using less electricity. One really nice feature in Vera is the energy monitoring capability. When you add a new Z-wave device Vera allows you to set the energy usage for that device. For Example, if you add a Lamp Module, you can set the usage to 100W if you have a 100 Watt light bulb in the light. You can then enter the KWH (Kilowatt per Hour) rate that your electric company charges and Vera will track how long the device is on or off and track your costs. Using the FindVera premium service allows you gain access to all of these charts and see your energy use in a variety of graphs. Very cool for only $29/year!
Tracking Energy Use with Vera is Easy and it can help you save money
Tracking energy is great but saving energy equates to saving money as well as doing your part for the planet. Vera can actually reduce your costs in a few different ways. In the energy tab of Vera you can set both alerts and actions if you are using more than a specified amount of electricity, have more than a certain number of lights on, or have left the thermostat on. This will send an email/SMS text message to you notifying you and you can then remote access Vera and turn off the lights, thermostat or other Vera enabled appliances or devices. This feature allows you to set these alerts using time and/or day based timers, so you won’t get notified on weekends if you are using more electricity since you are home.
Using scenes and sensors is another great way to save energy using Vera. Using a combo sensor such as the HomeSeer HSM100 and an automated blind motor, Vera can monitor temperature and activate a scene to lower the blinds on a hot sunny day to keep the house cool. If the temp drops, another scene can raise the blinds to let sunlight in to heat the house. You could also turn on an attic fan to pull hot air out of the house and turn it off automatically after a certain time, or when the temperature drops to an acceptable level. We used the HSM100 and two appliance modules to turn on two window fans and pull cooler air into the house when it rose about 74 degrees. The possibilities are endless to what you can do, and if you have a Z-Wave thermostat you can use it’s built in sensor to heat and cool the house automatically based on scenes. Vera can end up paying for itself in a matter of months depending on the size of your house and your electricity consumption.
Another neat feature in Vera is the ability to react to a “Flex your Power” alert. The FYPower alerts are unique to California and help prevent brownouts and blackouts due to increased energy demand. If you live in California and have a Vera, you can create a scene in Vera that turns off the A/C and turns off all the lights and appliance in reaction to a FYPower alert. If there is a shortage of electricity in California on a hot afternoon, the FYPower organization will send an alert. The guys at MiCasaVerde will take this alert and send it to your Vera and it will then activate the scene to help lower your energy usage. Amazing! We don’t live in California but think this is very forward thinking and hope other states adopt this type of alert to help save power.
A View of the Schalge Lock Control and Codes
Vera Enhances Your Home Security
Vera can no doubt make your home more secure, it all depends on what Z-Wave devices, modules and sensors you employ throughout the home. Motion detectors can turn on lights based on movement at certain times and even take a snapshot from an IP camera and upload that to the FindVera service. This offers excellent offsite security and is more secure than storing the images locally, since a robber can simply run off with your NAS drive or home server.
Adding a Z-Wave enabled door lock allows you to not only keep tabs on who enters the house but you can also lock and unlock it on demand from your cell phone or web enabled device. All of these features help make your life easier and enhance the security of your home or small business.