My smart home has been a mess for a while. Before I wrote this, it was a combination of a Hue hub and HomeKit, the former I wasn’t particularly fond of having, the latter I tolerate. But for a few years now, I’ve been wanting to convert my entire house to Home Assistant: the self-respecting home automation software. And now, with SkyConnect Connect, a combination Zigbee and Matter/Thread dongle from Home Assistant, the transition is complete. In the process, I broke half the stuff in my home. Nothing works, and I couldn’t be happier.
Home Assistant, for those of you who don’t follow the Smart Home geek beat, is the almost universally accepted choice for free and open source home automation. Unlike Apple’s HomeKit (which requires Apple devices), it can run on single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi, a Docker container, or basically any small computer you can install it on. It also allows you to get very deep into the weeds with exactly how you want your home automated. It’s not the most intuitive choice, but it’s not that difficult, and if you’re even a little paranoid about who has the keys to your smart home (which I am), Home Assistant is one of your better bets.
Now, aside from the issue of home security, one of the bigger issues with home automation is interoperability. Out of the box, tons of smart home gadgets haven’t, historically, played well together (I’m looking at you, Philips Hue). It’s gotten a lot better over the years, especially with HomeKit and Google Home, but Home Assistant has always excelled at this because it has a very active community of geeks who want all their weird toys to play well in deeply specific ways. If you have a switch that you want to work with another device, someone has probably spent a lot of time configuring it and putting that information online as a blueprint.
You may also be aware of Matter, the new home automation standard that tries to make many of these problems much easier. If you are not aware of Matter and Thread, I highly recommend it The borderown explainer. The expansion is still going on, and there aren’t that many devices out in the wild yetbut if everything goes according to plan (big if) then there should be far fewer headaches in the future.
I wanted to get rid of that hub and make everything work in a small ecosystem
I had briefly experimented with running Home Assistant as a Docker container on my NAS (my little network drive that I use to store movies) a few years ago. I was very impressed with how well it was able to communicate not only with my existing smart home devices but also how detailed it allowed me to program my existing devices. But what kept holding me back was my Philips Hue system, which for years had made it difficult to use anything outside of its ecosystem. Until recently, Hue relied on Zigbee, a low-power networking standard, to make light bulbs talk to each other.
As an early adopter of the Hue system, Hue hasn’t made it easy. Despite sharing the Zigbee protocol with other light bulbs and switches, getting them to play nicely with them has historically been a pain in the ass. For example, Ikea has its own smart home system, complete with its own hub and app and all (hey look, it has a with Matter now!), but a few years ago, getting them to play well involved a lot of weird workarounds. Of course there are good solutions and integrations I could use, like Zigbee2MQTTthe Philips Hue integrationand now, Matter. But that was the principle of the thing: I wanted to get rid of that hub and make everything work in a small ecosystem. I wanted a fresh start. This is where SkyConnect comes in.
I wanted to avoid having to use multiple Zigbee hubs like the Hue Bridge just to control some of my lights.
Image: Philips Hue
Adding Zigbee (or even Z-Wave) to Home Assistant is not new. Lots of USB dongles, like ConBee II, already exists. SkyConnect is new in that it adds both Zigbee and Thread / Matter support, and while I don’t have Matter devices in my home, it was enough to pre-order that it’s partially future-proofed and made to work directly with the Home Assistant itself . . It’s a good excuse to take the plunge and get a fresh start. Another option to add Matter and Zigbee is Home assistant Yellowa robust little board that uses a Raspberry Pi Calculation module 4but I don’t have access to a CM4, so I went with the dongle.
Now normally I would just run this as a Docker container on my NAS, but I had no idea if the dongle was even compatible, and I thought it best to dedicate an entire drive to running my home. Fortunately, I had recently replaced a network of Raspberry Pis with WiiM streaming pucks, so I had some Raspberry Pi 4Bs lying around (if you’re still struggling to find one, rpilocator is an excellent tool). It was time to get serious. Installing Hass.io (Home Assistants OS) is easy if you’ve ever done anything complicated remotely with a Raspberry Pi; you just download the .img file or copy the URL, use software like Etcher to write it to a microSD card, and Follow the instructions from there. When it comes to open source projects, this is a very easy process to get started.
SkyConnect looks like a small blue USB device and comes with a small extension cable, especially since USB 3.0 ports have been known to cause interference with wireless devices. The device itself is plug-and-play, meaning you don’t need to set anything up; Home Assistant will just recognize it and make it work.
Here comes the fun part: the slow, painful process of disassembling everything connected to the Philips Hue Hub. For this process I would use Zigbee Home Automation. The process is simple but less intuitive than software made specifically for the hardware. Since you have to disconnect bulbs and remotes with the hub to get them to work, this meant that every switch in my home was temporarily out of order. Nothing worked, but I was pumped because I got to do everything on my terms, using software I hosted and without some crazy little cooperative hub holding my hand.
I started by pairing my lights to ZHA (Zigbee Home Automation), an integration that would talk to my Zigbee lights and remotes. From there Blueprints came in very handy. Drawings are pre-made automation presets that simplify the programming process in Home Assistant. The Hue wall switches I had needed to be reprogrammed. Amazing HA drawings is a great source and had one compatible drawing available, although I was a bit stumped by the help text file that I needed to configure to get Blueprint to actually work. From there I started setting up all the light scenes I had.
Things went from back to baseline to fun when I started integrating other non-Hue switches into my Home Assistant ecosystem. I have Elgato Key light set up at my desk for streaming and Zoom calls, and now, with Home Assistant, I could skip the app and treat the lights like any other light bulb or switch, adding them to scenes and even automating them. I then started adding other devices to my house, like sensors from Xiaomi that I could use to turn on my office lights when they detect motion. I also have several other bulbs and custom light strips I made by hand that work on something called LED, a Wi-Fi-based system that enables very granular control of light strips. The topic of WLED is an article unto itself, but the long and short of it is that a integration for that is in Home Assistant. Someone is also working on an integration with my WiiM pucksalthough I haven’t really dug into it yet.
From there, things get really perverse. I installed HACS, or the Home Assistant Community Store, an addon that requires a little bit of complicated setup but lets you download custom GitHub repositories to do some really crazy stuff. My colleague Chris Grant, a true home assistant, also tipped me off to Node-RED, an add-on for setting up complex home automation with flowchart nodes. I was in pig heaven. I could do some really silly things now.
Did I need to buy Home Assistant SkyConnect to start using Home Assistant? Or better yet, did I need a home assistant at all? Honestly, no. I could have lived my life with HomeKit and the Hue app and been completely happy and content. Everything was set up and there were countless solutions developed to get my interconnected system of devices talking to each other. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten angrier about who and what has access to my stuff, and I’ve grown increasingly impatient when I’m not allowed to do something with my hardware in the most depraved way possible. While I will never have a use case for a light switch that also sends an email, I know that if I ever wanted to make it happen, I could now with a simple Node-RED flowchart.
What it comes down to is control. And while the SkyConnect is just a simple radio dongle, it also represented an excuse to take back control, do something I’d been putting off for years, and finally make a smart home my home.
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