My Smart Home Design

Here is my smart home design. I doubt my exact design will satisfy all your needs, but may be a start for your customization or at least give you some ideas. Whenever doing any type of design–software, hardware, organization, etc.– you need to clearly define, ideally quantitatively, what you need to accomplish. Otherwise, how do you know your design does what you want? You also need to consider the effort/cost and risk-reduction trade-off if you are looking to automate to deal with some problem. It’s usually easy to get some cost-effective, risk-reduction but much harder and more expensive to eliminate almost all risk.

In my case, I wanted to protect against water damage while we are away. Water is the unsung villain causing incredible damage if not quickly cleaned up. While the water damage could be very expensive to repair (our neighbors had a $50K bill to fix damage caused by an ice maker water line that ruptured while they were gone), most of the damage repair bill would be reimbursed by homeowner’s insurance but there would certainly be a hard-to-quantify hassle-factor in dealing with the damage and restoration. So my primary goal is to eliminate the hassle-factor associated with water damage.

Since we travel a lot since retiring, I wanted an automatic system that didn’t depend on us being present to hear an alarm, notice a problem or take corrective action. After moving out to live on my own, I’ve had a clothes washer hose burst in the middle of the night leading to water cascading down the stairs, a hot water tank leak in the basement, and a reverse-osmosis water dispenser leak overnight leaving a wet kitchen floor. Since we may be away for several weeks, even a small leak could do extensive damage if left unattended for long. But at the same time, these occurrences remain somewhat rare, happening to me three times over the span of almost 50 years. Since I live in the part of the country that has basements, I have also had sump pumps fail. Luckily, I noticed the high-level of water in the sump pit before it overflowed and could damage carpeting and drywall in my finished basement. I frantically replaced the sump pump literally hours before the airport limousine pickup and we would be gone on a 10-day family vacation. And finally, we often travel during the very cold parts of winter and need to protect against furnace failures that could lead to frozen pipes which would then lead to extensive water damage. We have had the furnace fail, but we were home to notice the house was getting cold and got the furnace repaired before it was anywhere near freezing inside.

Luckily, I’ve never experienced the significant power outages noted in the news where homes are without power for many days after a major storm. Such situation would require a much larger battery backup (or even an automatic generator) than I have planned. Dealing with extended power outages is beyond a smart-home design. My design assumes protections against the typical few hour power outages.

(Note that I have included Amazon.com links to the items I have bought, used, reviewed and/or mentioned. But Smart Home is still an evolving industry with players leaving, products updated and new companies with products. When I find a product is no longer available, I look for alternate items.)

Overview

These needs led me to construct a smart home design that provides 1) an immediate response for the most damaging and substantial types of leaks (e.g., an appliance hose bursting), 2) fast action for smaller, less damaging leaks, and 3) notification for problems that cannot be resolved remotely and requires calling neighbors or near-by relatives. Note that my design started from the objectives rather than from the solution.

I wish I could have bought a DIY packaged solution with all the sensors/valves/etc. but that currently (2021) isn’t available.

Having multiple tiers of “smartness” in a smart home isn’t unusual and often is the most cost-effective way to a solution. While it would be wonderful to have a fully integrated smart-home solution from a well-known vendor, smart-home solutions are too fragmented right now as the technology emerges. So be prepared to do some custom integration yourself.

Also note that just because a device supports a given smart home protocol, such as Z-Wave or Zigbee, doesn’t necessarily mean that you can use it in a smart home solution. You also need to verify that a software driver exists for the device for your smart home hub. This is particularly a problem with multi-function devices. Say you have a sensor that detects water leaks and temperature, unless there is a specific driver for that device you will often only be able to use it as a leak sensor. Or if you have a dual switch, without a specific driver you will likely only be able to use it as a single switch. In the case of the Hubitat hub, without a specific driver, you can use a generic driver but that driver will only know how to do one thing for each device. So first pick your device and then verify that your hub supports it before purchasing, unless you want to learn how to code a device driver.

Immediate Detection and Response

For immediate action response, I use a leak detector with plenty of sensors and a shut-off valve directly at the appliance. I’m not looking to protect from rare failures in the copper plumbing pipes but in appliances and hoses. After doing my due-diligence, I selected the Flood-Stop brand of products. There are other brands but I have a front-load LG washer that is somewhat sensitive to water flow restrictions and so looking for valves with large internal diameters. I have had no problems using this brand of valves. I have a Flood Stop system on my clothes washer and on the dishwasher since these are easy installs to the existing supply line. Since the products come with a single sensor about a foot long, I bought extra sensors to place closer to potential leaks (such as under the washer as well an under where the hoses connect to the plumbing). The automatic shut-off valve sits between the manual shut-off valve and the supply hose going to the appliance. The sensors are sensitive and the valve closes within seconds of a leak detection. I did not put a flood-stop on the hot water tank line since it would require cutting into the copper supply line, and so not an easy install, and the water tank is in the basement near a floor drain and so less likely to cause extensive damage. The largest amount of water is in the tank so shutting off the supply line will not significantly reduce the size of the leak and I think/hope a sudden failure in a water tank is less likely than an initial slow warning leak.

I bought the right-angle valve assemblies shown below, but if I were to rebuild my system I would probably buy the straight valves and add a water-hammer suppressor (or at least I would try that). I find my front-loading washer to have fast acting water valves and can hear some water hammer when the washer pulses water when initially filling.

Though not strictly needed since the Flood Stop shuts-off the water at the appliance, I signal a leak to my overall smart-home hub which shuts-off the water to the whole house (i.e., the fast-action response described below) and alerts me to a problem.

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Fact Action

For fast action response, I use a 1/4-turn shutoff mechanism mounted on the water supply main shut-off valve as shown below. I opted to add a motor to turn the existing valve rather than replace the manual valve with an automatically-controlled one. Changing valves would require more substantial plumbing work. When a leak is detected, the valve is closed (using a rule in my smart home hub) and water to the whole house is shut off within a second or so. This doesn’t immediately stop water from a leak because the water in the house pipes need to drain and the hot water tank depressurize, but does prevent ongoing water leaking for hours/days/weeks while we are gone. I use the ECO-NET valve actuator since it mounts to the valve body eliminating stress on the pipe and it has a high-torque motor (I noticed my 13 year-old valve was a bit hard to close). I have also added an external battery backup so the actuator operates during power failures.

Eco-Net actuator installed on valve
Eco-Net actuator installed on main water shutoff valve

Note that I added a description of how to disengage the motor to manually turn the valve in case I needed to contact a relative to fix a problem while we are gone on vacation. The picture also shows the position sensor switch (described in Z-Wave and Ring Alarm Integration) I have zip-tied to the pipe to detect when the valve is closed.

For whole-house operations, I use Z-Wave sensors and actuator and the Hubitat hub. It is possible to get a self-contained system with sensors and automatic valve if you want to change the plumbing valve. Since I had other potential uses of a smart-home hub in mind, I took the individual component approach and set up smart-home automation rules. Using a hub requires a bit more skill, but not really anything beyond someone that can follow instructions.

While sensors are available in both ZigBee and Z-Wave varieties, the actuator I wanted to use for the water valve is Z-Wave so it made most sense to just use Z-Wave. (See Smart Home System Types for why I’m avoiding the WiFi sensors.) My original installation used “Dome by Elexa” water sensors since they were Z-Wave Plus, didn’t include functions I didn’t need, and were reasonably priced. Since then, those sensors aren’t available. Most Elexa smart-home products show unavailable on Amazon, their website is copyright 2019 and last blog entry in late 2018; my guess is they ceased operations soon after I bought my products but I did not try to contact them to verify their condition. My original installation put Dome sensors in the obvious places for leaks–washer machine, water heater, dishwasher–but after finding a wet rug in the basement from a water softener leak, I’ve expanded my sensors. Unable to buy a Dome, I bought a Fibaro water leak detector. It includes functions I don’t really need and a bit more expensive, but after installing a new water softener I just wanted to complete the setup with a leak detector. A benefit of the Fibaro sensor over the Dome sensor is support for external “rope”-style leak sensors that you can place around an area or appliance that might leak. I had to do a bit of soldering with the Dome sensor. I recommend the “rope” remote sensor since I could have easily placed a point sensor at a location that would not have detected the dripping leak from my softener; the whole floor wasn’t wet since the water ran one way under a wall to soak the hallway carpeting, and the other way under shelving towards the basement wall. Perhaps with a gushing leak more of the floor would have been wet. Unfortunately, the rope sensors that have wire ends that work well with Fibaro devices are currently unavailable; an alternative that I haven’t tried but should work is a rope sensor with a 3.5mm plug into a 3.5mm female-to-bare-wire adapter hooked to the Fibaro.

While the Hubitat hub has it own app to show notifications on my phone, I have integrated it with my Ring Alarm system which I use for my doorbell camera. By doing this integration, I have the Ring Alarm keypad in my bedroom to announce any water leaks and Ring sends a notification to me smartphone. At night, I silence app notifications on my smartphone (i.e., do not disturb mode) but the Ring Alarm keypad voice-alerts will warn of a water leak; see below for more details of integration with the Ring Alarm system.

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Remote Notification

For leak notifications, I use the Ring app hooked to the Ring alarm and its matching leak sensors. I already have the Ring Doorbell camera so adding their alarm made sense; I don’t need another app on my phone and I know it is working since I get alerts when packages are delivered. One issue when creating a water leak system is periodic testing to ensure it works when needed. The Ring alarm unit has battery backup for power and a cellular backup for the internet connection so I’ll get alerts no matter what. I use the self-monitoring option since I don’t need police responding to a water leak. There may be other options for notification, but this is what I use. Once I have the Ring alarm setup, I also installed the listeners for fire alarm and CO alarm; since our townhouse has a central fire alarm system, a sensor that listens to the annunciator is exactly what I wanted. Not that there is anything we can do about a fire when remote, but we can alert near-by relatives to checkout the situation if there was indeed a fire. I can remotely tell if there was serious damage if the NEST thermostat or Ring doorbell camera no longer work.

I also have my Nest thermostat hooked up to IFTTT to alert me if the inside temperature climbs above 100F (failed A/C) or below 50F (failed heater). I would also get a freeze-warning notification from the Ring leak sensors. The integration of Nest with IFTTT is fragile since Google has “improved” their security. I didn’t migrate my Nest account to my Google account so that 3rd party integrations would continue to work. I think companies fail to understand the security sensitivity of different pieces of data. While you need to be careful about what any leaked data could expose (e.g., someone could tell you aren’t home or are asleep), I really don’t care if someone gets periodic temperature reports from my thermostat; they could easily tell I’m asleep or not home by observation. I would, of course, not want someone to remotely control the Nest.

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Systems Integration

Since no single system offered everything I needed nor provided off-the-shelf integrations, using three systems required some work integrating them together. In fact, one of the biggest down-sides of Ring and Flood Stop is lack of integration with other smart home systems. Ring uses Z-Wave technology to interconnect its sensors, but is closed. Flood Stop is self-contained with no smart-home network but does provide a “contact-closure” to allow integrations. Since Ring and Flood Stop don’t provide integrations, I integrate by soldering a few wires. There are three integrations I needed: 1) between Flood Stop and the whole-house Z-Wave, 2) between the whole-house Z-Wave and Ring and 3) between Ring leak sensor and a remote sensor. These are described in detail below.

And finally, I automate the whole-house functions using the Hubitat Z-Wave hub. Using Hubitat, I have an automation rule that says to turn-off the water to the whole house whenever any water sensor reports a leak. And I have integrated Hubitat with Ring so that turning off the water is seen as a leak to Ring, which then announces the leak (I keep the keypad near my bed) and sends a notification to the Ring app on my phone. I have also integrated Hubitat with Alexa so that is another way to control the system.