This article started as way to explore how to make the smart home systems in a home resilient to natural disasters, and other events, that would impact the operation of a home. However, I quickly realized that the article needed to include information on the other systems in a home; which are just as, or even more, important to making a home a livable place for its homeowners and their family. This extended the article to the point where it needed to be broken up into multiple parts.
This first part of the series focuses on making smart home systems resilient to natural disasters, and other events, that can impact the ability of homeowners to live in their residence. The second part in this series of articles will focus on making other systems in the home resilient. The third part will focus on leveraging smart home technology to avoid having issues in your home and, again, leveraging smart home technology to minimize the damage to a home when an issue occurs.
Thank you to Tony Golden of Mobile Technology, an Atlanta, GA, provider of Integrated Systems Programming, Design, and Consulting, for his help with this article.
Let’s start by defining the “resilient home.” A resilient home can:
- Withstand natural disasters and severe weather
- Operate without, or with minimal, impact to the occupants in the event of a loss of utility services
- Continue to operate without impacting the occupants in the event of a failure of one of the primary systems in the home. For example, the failure of a well pump causes the loss of fresh water to be delivered to the home
- Operate efficiently using a minimal number of natural resources so all systems in the home operate independently for an extended period of time
- Provide a healthy living environment for the occupants
- Be adaptable to changing conditions and requirements over time
- Take actions to prevent issues from occurring in, and around, the home
- When issues in the home are detected, take actions to minimize the damage
A resilient home needs to be designed based on its location. For example, a resilient home located in Florida needs to be designed to withstand torrential rain, lightning, high winds, and flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes. On the other hand, a resilient home in southern California needs to be designed to withstand earthquakes, droughts, and heat waves. Finally, a resilient home in the mountains of Colorado needs to be designed with heavy snow and wildfires in mind.
Some issues can be solved using smart home technology. However, smart home technology, like every other system in a resilient home, needs to be designed so that there is no single point of failure that can take the entire system down or that spare parts are available for that critical failure point.
The availability of components to quickly repair a failure point has become a challenge; supply chain issues have left people without replacement parts for months. For this reason, it has become very important for anyone wanting their home to be resilient to plan ahead and stockpile critical parts whose failure could take down a major system in the home.
Protecting a Home from Lightning
If lightning strikes a home, it can do an incredible amount of damage. First, it can start a fire and burn down the house. However, even a nearby hit can cause a surge in the electrical system that damages multiple electronic devices in the home. In that event, having spares of key electronic components set aside is probably not going to offer enough protection to get the major systems in a home back up and running.
If you live in an area that is subject to frequent thunderstorms and air to ground lightning, then it makes sense to install a lightning protection system. These systems consist of lightning rods that are installed on the roof of the home and wiring to allow the lightning to harmlessly travel to the ground around the home.
Even if you live in an area where thunderstorms aren’t as frequent or severe, it makes sense to protect the electronics in your home by installing a whole house surge suppressor as well as using surge suppressor power strips for all your key electronics.
This is inexpensive insurance that a lightning strike, or some other power surge delivered to your home through the electrical grid, won’t do major damage to your home network, smart home system, and any other device in your home that includes sensitive electronics.
Finally, computers, including smart home processors and routers, should be plugged into uninterruptable power supplies (UPSs). These will provide power to these sensitive devices in the event of a brownout, short blackout, or other power anomaly. Again, this is inexpensive insurance to make sure your smart home operates smoothly.
The Resilient Network
The network, both wired and wireless (Wi-Fi), is the backbone of a smart home. So, before you can think about a resilient smart home, you need to make the network of a home resilient. Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult a problem.
The first step is to create an efficient network. Wi-Fi is an excellent way to integrate devices, but once you go down the path of feeding high-definition video to TVs, laptops, etc. over Wi-Fi you will find you can quickly start running out of bandwidth, which can cause a smart home system to become unstable. A better approach is to lay down wired Ethernet to as many high-bandwidth devices as possible and leave Wi-Fi for low bandwidth devices and devices where it would be very challenging to run an Ethernet cable. With a network designed for efficiency and data throughput in place, you can start to look at creating a resilient system.
A home network will always have one weakness: the router. If the router fails, the network fails. Today’s residential-grade routers are not very expensive, so it is not a significant burden to buy a spare and configure it exactly the same as the one being used so it is ready to go into service. Similarly, if the home includes additional wireless access points (WAPs) or Wi-Fi extenders, having a spare on hand will allow you to quickly get full Wi-Fi coverage back in the event that one fails.
Making a mesh networking system resilient is a similar process. If your mesh networking system has a router node that utilizes different hardware than the other satellite nodes, then no matter how many nodes your mesh networking system has, you just need a spare two node version of your current mesh system. This provides you with a replacement for the router node and a replacement for any satellite node. If all the nodes in your mesh networking system are identical and one node is simply configured differently to be the router, then you just need a single extra node to be set aside as a backup in case of a failure.
There is always the chance that multiple pieces of networking hardware can fail at the same time. However, if you have protected your home from lightning, installed a whole house surge suppression system, and used outlet strips with surge suppression built-in, the probability of that is low.
The Resilient Smart Home
Creating a resilient smart home system that eliminates, or at least minimizes, the chance that a single point of failure could disrupt the operation of all smart devices in the home is a significant challenge for a couple of reasons. First, Smart home product manufacturers don’t seem to believe that automated failure recovery is a priority with consumers. Therefore, they haven’t gone through the expense of adding it to their products as this expense would have to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. Even high-end, professionally installed smart home systems aren’t designed to support automated failure recovery.
The other challenge to creating a resilient smart home is that Zigbee and Z-Wave have been the dominant, wireless, smart home protocols used in the smart home for light switches, remote sensors, and similar devices. But these protocols require a wireless device to be bound to a gateway. So, if the gateway fails, an automated transfer to a new gateway isn’t possible
Hubitat’s latest generation C-8 smart home hub, in my experience, comes the closest to a smart home system that can easily be recovered from a failure. First, like most professionally installed smart home processors the Hubitat C-8 operates the smart home locally, on the hub; not in the cloud. So, an internet outage will not impact the smart home’s operation.
In addition, Hubitat offers a subscription service called Hub Protect. The Hub Protect service saves cloud backups of the hub, including the connections between Zigbee and Z-Wave devices to the hub’s built-in radios. In the event of a hub failure, a backup can be loaded to a new Hubitat hub and the Zigbee and Z-Wave device connections are also restored to the new hub.
Unfortunately, due to a security measure built into the Zigbee protocol, it is possible that not all Zigbee devices will automatically be connected to the new hub. This same security measure makes it impossible, if you are using Zigbee devices, to preload a Hubitat Hub with a backup and create an automated way to rollover to the new hub if the original hub stops operating.
In the future, the new Matter protocol should solve this problem as it doesn’t require the dedicated binding of a device to one radio. When more smart home processors/hubs and smart home devices support the Matter protocol this will significantly improve the ability of a smart home system to be resilient.
Many companies are planning to simply release a software update to add Matter protocol support to their existing products. Other companies will be releasing new products with Matter protocol support. I’ve written about the plans of quite a few companies to add Matter protocol support to their product lines. You can find the article I wrote that includes that information here.
With the exception of a hub failure, the majority of a smart home system is distributed throughout a home. This includes smart light switches, sensors, smart thermostats, smart door locks, etc. The failure of one of these devices will not take down the entire smart home system. So, while an individual light switch could fail, leaving a room in dark, this is of limited impact to the overall home and can be easily remedied by keeping a spare switch on hand.
For this reason, it is desirable that identical light switches be used in as many rooms as possible. Similarly, identical sensors and other smart devices also be used in as many locations as possible. This minimizes the number of spare smart devices that would need to be kept on hand to facilitate quick replacement of a failed device.
Professional smart home systems typically include central management of heating/cooling, distribution of music throughout a home, and control of TVs and video sources. These systems leverage dedicated touch panels in rooms and sophisticated remote controls. In these systems, the touch panels and remote controls should be programmed to be able to control the systems in any room of the home. In this way, a failed device can easily be replaced by simply using the touch panel, or remote control, from another room to control the systems in the room with the failed device.
Finally, where possible, an input on a TV should be connected to an off-air antenna or basic cable service. So, in the event of a failure in the smart home’s video distribution hardware, or a smart home control system failure, the family can simply use the TV’s original remote control to watch off-air, or basic cable, TV. While the content selection will be quite limited, this is much better than a family with multiple children being faced with no TV at all during a weather event that forces the children to remain inside the home for multiple days. Smart TV apps are an alternate source of content, but the same weather event could impact the availability of Internet service.
Part two of this article will focus on making the other systems in a home resilient, including the supply of electricity to the home, the supply of water, making the heating/cooling system resilient, and maintaining a healthy environment for family members.