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My Smart Home Journey

BrianSnelgrove - March 25, 2024
Posted Under: Smart Home
A high level overview of where I started my smart home and a few tips I figured out along the way.


Unless otherwise noted, all directions are for Debian based systems. Most steps will work for other distributions but some commands may need modifications.

My Smart Home Journey

Several years ago, I began looking into smart home technology. I found Home Assistant (HA) and tried installing it as a Docker container on my Synology device with little luck. I tried installing it on an unused Raspberry Pi; again, I had very little luck. I decided to give it another go about six months ago (mid to late 2023). This time, I had MUCH more success! Most of this article will be my ramblings, what I have done, what I have tried, what has worked, what has not, what I would do differently if I were to start over, etc. Maybe someone will find this helpful…

What Lead Me Here

I have always been interested in technology, how it can simplify your life, and the “cool factor” it can add. My first smart home experience was with Philips Hue lights. They were simple to install and worked great. Later, I started adding a few Google Home (Nest) devices. Then came the Roomba vacuums. Eventually, I started playing with WLED on cheap ESP32 devices and LED light strips. Add in a few Wi-Fi light switches and a couple of If This Then That (ITTT) automations; it seemed like things were coming together.

Everything was going great until... The great interweb outage of 2023 hit the Dr. B. household. We went about two months without internet service (I am stubborn and was unhappy with my provider). Suddenly, all the great technology I had installed and started to rely on daily did not work. I HAD to find a different solution that did not rely on the internet to work. Enter local control.

My Solution

I have used virtualization at work for years (VMware) and tinkered with it at home (Virtual Box), but it was time to get more serious about it. Enter a used HP EliteDesk micro form factor PC (from Amazon) and Proxmox. Proxmox was simple to install, and after a bunch of Google searches, I had it running with an HA instance.  HA quickly found my Philips Hue bridge, several TP-Link Kasa-based light switches and plugs, and the WLED strips. After a little clicking around, I had them working and was hooked.

Every room of my house now has some smarts – lights, thermostats, vacuums, switches, motion sensors, etc. I have picked up a few tricks along the way, and I assume that is what you are here for. So, without further ado!

What I Would Do If I Were Starting Over

Let's start with the physical stuff – bulbs, controllers, switches, etc.:

  • Start with a computer, Proxmox, and Home Assistant – keeping track of 10 different apps to control various things is a pain. Virtualized HA makes it much simpler (after you get over the initial installation hurdle).
  • Backups – this is a little hardware and a little software, but have a way to get backups of your HA instance. If you screw something up, you can restore from the backup and be running again in no time. I have done this several times!!!
  • Philips Hue is a great product - easy to set up, use, and rock solid. But in my case, it was too expensive for what I could do with HA, a mini PC, a USB Zigbee dongle, and Sengled Zigbee bulbs.
  • Connect devices one at a time – sure, you can screw in 15 bulbs and let HA find them. But you don’t know for sure which bulb is which. In some cases, you may not need to know individual bulbs (4 bulbs in a ceiling fan), but in other cases, you will (4 bulbs in a ceiling fan and four bulbs in canister lighting that will be controlled separately).
  • Zigbee routers – cheap ThirdReality Zigbee smart outlets are a fine starting point. Buy a few of them and spread them out around the house. The Zigbee USB dongles I have used will only support 30-ish devices connected directly to them but the routers will significantly increase that number.
  • Z-Wave devices - there is probably a need for them somewhere, but I have not found one. Wi-Fi or Zigbee covers everything I need.
  • Home Kit Devices – integrate straight into HA with no hassle. I am not an iPhone guy and am not involved in the Apple ecosystem at all, but I have several Home Kit devices running without any problems.

Now let's look at the software stuff:

  • Consistent Naming - Name your areas, devices, zones, automations, etc. consistently. Use descriptive names for devices—bulb #1, bulb #2, and bulb #3 are OK if you only have three bulbs. When you have 40, it will get pretty confusing.
  • Backups – this is a little hardware and a little software, but have a way to get backups of your HA instance. If you screw something up, you can restore from the backup and be running again in no time. I have done this several times!!! (Yes, this is listed twice. I am serious!)
  • Use groups – specifically Zigbee groups. HA groups are great and provide an easy way to control multiple things with a single action. But, when you start getting a lot of Zigbee devices, you start noticing “popcorn” effects with lights (lights not all turning on or off simultaneously, sometimes several-second delays). Zigbee groups are a little confusing initially, but they eliminate the popcorn effect once you figure them out.
  • Visual Studio Code plugin - install the plugin for HA. It will make editing configuration files MUCH more accessible. To get started, you need only one configuration file—configuration.yaml—but as you get more complex, there will be a few more you may need to edit.
  • Areas - Create an area for every room or section of your house, even ones you do not think you will use smart devices in. Yes, even the attic and crawl space. Name them consistently.
  • Automations - Start with basic automations. Turn a light on at 7 a.m., turn a light off at 10 p.m., and expand from there. If you have really complex automations, convert them to scripts. If an automation encounters an error, the whole automation stops, but if a script encounters an error, the rest of the automation can continue.
  • Use SSL Certificates – this goes for your HA instance and your Proxmox instance. No, they are not required. Yes, your home network is probably safe without them. But they are easy to set up, you might as well use them! Look up Let's Encrypt. It's an excellent service that is free! The only time this has been a drawback for me is when playing media on my Google Nest devices – but I have a virtual environment and can host the audio files on an internal website that does not use SSL!
  • Configure Icons - This might sound dumb when you only have a couple of devices and one or two automations, but you will appreciate them as your smart home grows.
  • Nabu Casa – this is not necessary, but it supports the HA creators. Free stuff is not free to develop and the folks working on the software like to be rewarded for their hard work! It also makes the following point much easier.
  • Zones – create zones around the places you commonly go. Create a zone where you work, when you leave work an automation can change the temperature of your thermostat, turn on air fresheners, etc. When you leave home an automation can turn off your lights or lock your doors. You CAN do this without Nabu Casa (OpenVPN, TailScale, etc.), but it is MUCH easier with it.

That is it for now. I am considering writing several articles that expand on the topics above. If you have specific questions or suggestions, please comment below! I check messages every day and try to respond to them in a timely manner. 

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