Home Automation on the Cheap

Ever thought of creating a ‘Smart Home’ without the hefty price tag? This article will guide you through a potential Cheap Home Automation solution using Sonoff remote switches, taking you through some of the issues and the solutions along the way.

Note, the author here is not a qualified for electrical installations! This is a general guide, its up to you what you do with it!

 

Cheap Home Automation

Just like many of you out there I was ‘gifted’ with a new family member over the Christmas season – an Amazon Echo!

Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)

Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)

The problem now is that I want to automate EVERYTHING in the house, and not because I’m lazy, more due to being generally tight with money! This has been made worse with the addition of a free Smart Meter for the home which shows you how much power your using at any given time.

I consider my family to be fairly average, I have 2.5 children (wife and two kids), who also come with a multitude of electrical devices either forever on standby or always on charge. In fact I did a quick survey and was surprised by the results…

  • 6 Televisions
  • 3 Digi boxes
  • 4 Stereos
  • 2 Computers, 1 Laptop, & 4 Tablets on charge
  • 3 printers (Laser, Ink jet & 3D printer)
  • Various other chargers plugged in continuously… Mobile phones, cordless hoover, power tools etc

And this doesn’t include what feels like 200+ light-bulbs being left on whenever we leave the house!

Wouldn’t it be great if when leaving the house I could say ‘Alexa turn everything off’ and all these devices would stop drinking the electric!

 

So, time to start the Cheap Home Automation Project!

After spending the usual three days searching the web, I came to the conclusion that to deal with the above would require in the region of 30 Wi-fi enabled plugs. At current market rates, even the cheapest Belkin WeMo sockets would cost me in the region of £300.

Remember my goal here is to same money, so this price tag is just not acceptable!!

 

Cheap Home Automation – The solution

Cheap Home Automation Solution - Sonoff

I found these little switch devices on sale for £3.70 each with Banggood which I’m sure was an error on their part as every time I tried to add multiples to the cart, the price went up to around £7 each! However I found if I increased the quantity in the cart at the checkout stage, then the price didn’t go up. So I ordered 10off.

Cheap Home Automation - Sonoff Basic WiFi Switch 10 amp

Sonoff Basic WiFi Switch 10 amp

Why only 10? Well our house, being 1990’s construction has a limited number of wall sockets, so everything is on extension leads. For example. In the living room, the TV, digi-box, stereo and one lamp are all on one extension lead, the phone and tablet chargers are all on another lead etc.

Each Sonoff device can be used to control each extension lead, Turning each group of devices on and off in one go.

Note – The Sonoff basics are designed for only 10 amps so keep this in mind when connecting to an extension lead. For safety I installed 5amp fuses in each extension.

https://www.rospa.com/home-safety/uk/northern-ireland/electricity/plugs-fuses/choosing-fuses/

Another bonus with these devices is that they each come with a button on the top and a status LED. If there are any problems with the WiFi, they can easily be turned on or off with one press.

 

The project

Well just over a week later and the Sonoff’s arrived. Realising these are only capable of 10 amps I also bought a 16 amp version with power monitoring function off eBay for the garage so I could shut off the garage from inside the house if I left anything switched on.

Collection of Sonoff's

Collection of Sonoff’s. 10 Basics and one High Power 16 amp version with Power monitoring function

Surprisingly for a Chinese product, they arrived in very good packaging with instructions in English (and not the usual ‘Chinglish’ translation).

I grabbed my first extension lead and began the install. I would need to cut the cord and insert the Sonoff between the plug and extension so it could act as a switch

Standard 4-way extension lead

Standard 4-way extension lead

PROBLEM 1 – What I didn’t realist was that the basic sonoff’s (10 amp version) only had Live and Neutral terminals, however I needed to have the lead earthed so needed an additional terminal adding.

To do this I decided to add a terminal block. The sonoff’s come apart very easily, simply pull the top off when the terminal screws aren’t in place and you can see the board inside. Luckily there was enough space for the terminal block to be added here.

Getting ready to wire up the sonoff basic to the extension lead

Getting ready to wire up the sonoff basic to the extension lead

The wiring was very fiddly. The terminal blocks of the Sonoff are only cheap and I guess made for low power devices like single lamps, so trying to fit the higher gauge cable from an extension lead was a bit of a pain. The extra terminal block was hot-melt glued on the board inside. Eventually, everything went together…

Sonoff Wired to the Extension Lead

Sonoff Wired to the Extension Lead

 

The setup

Next comes the downloading of the app. For these devices I used the E-Welink app (google eWeLink) on an android phone, in my case the samsung S7. The download was straight forward enough through the google play store and the usual account creation was done.

The Ewelink App

The Ewelink App

The app uses the AWS (Amazon web services) cloud so you can control the devices when away from home.

There have been some negative reviews around the reliability of the server, but a little more digging leads me to believe that this was due to the explosion in popularity over the past few months and the servers have now been up scaled to take care of this. However I have a plan B which is to change the firmware on these devices so they mimic the Belkin WeMo plugs.

The great thing about these Sonoff’s is that there’s lots of open source firmware being developed which greatly improves there capabilities, however, this may be a project for a later date!

 

PROBLEM 2 – These devices don’t work with 5GHz Wi-fi!

At first, the app refused to connect. Fortunately it did tell me the problem so I went into my router settings and changed the Wi-fi to be ‘split’.

Initial WiFi setup problem

Initial WiFi setup problem

On some newer routers, the Wi-fi operates at two frequencies, 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. The router then provides both options to your devices seamlessly without you knowing about it. Some rather popular devices still struggle with this (iPads are one example) so it is possible to give your router a split personality and get it to use each setting separately or even turn one mode off and not use it at all.

I’ve not included a guide here for how to do this on every router out there, but have used my own example which is a BT Smart Hub. If you google ‘guide to separate 2.4 and 5 on XXXXX router‘, and replace the X’s with your own router, i’m sure it will be there.

When ‘split’ the Wi-fi router effectively creates two separate Wi-fi networks, one that’s the old school 2.4Ghz (that all devices are compatible with) and the newer 5Ghz network which only certain devices currently use.

BT Home Hub 6 - Wifi Settings Page

BT Home Hub 6 – Wifi Settings Page

Operating on both 2.4Ghz and 5GHz I kept the name of the network for 2.4Ghz the same so I didn’t need to mess with any other Wi-fi devices in the house, however for the 5Ghz network, the name was changed slightly by adding a ‘-5’ to the end.

Once the problem was fixed, adding a device was very easy, simply hold down the button on the Sonoff for several seconds so that the LED on top changes to a rapid flash sequence, and the app then finds it. You need to tell it your Wi-fi password, however this is fairly standard (home automation devices in general can’t work without this!)

Initially the device is given some obscure name so if you plan to use it with voice control you will need to re-name it to something pronounceable. When renaming, think of the context for speech so its easy to remember. For example, for the TV and stereo in my living room I decided to call it ‘Living room extension’ so when I use Alexa, I simply say “Alexa, turn the living room extension off”.

Also, each device can be shared with another app user. You will need to create an account for each person and install the app on their phones. The devices can then be shared which is handy when you have a family to satisfy.

Multiple devices can be grouped under one name for turning multiple items off or on with one voice command – more on this later.

 

PROBLEM 3 – No Alexa Skill!!!

Despite “compatible with Alexa” being branded on the boxes and instructions calling for the skill to be installed, when searching through the Alexa app for the EWeLink skill, there’s nothing there.

What they fail to tell you is that the skill must be installed via a PC. You need to go to the Alexa skills website from your computer. The only way to find this is to google ‘ewelink alexa app’ or use this link https://www.amazon.co.uk/xiao-fang-eWeLink-fan/dp/B01N313EQI

Once the skill is installed, the app will then take you to account linking where you will enter the user name and password created when installing the android app. This is why its important to have the android app installed before the alexa skill is added.

Amazon Skills page via a desktop PC

Amazon Skills page via a desktop PC

Next, using the Alexa app, you need to add the wireless devices you have installed using your phone.

  1. On the menu, select ‘Smart Home’
  2. Next, press the ‘Add Device’ button.
  3. The app will then scan your home for compatible devices and then add them to the alexa. This typically takes around 20 second.
  4. Once added, you will be able to control the device view the Alexa app or through voice control

 

Making a group

The next step is to make a group. This saves you from having to turn every device on and off individually by clustering all your devices together under one name. For the group, again its important to consider a voice based command you will remember and it easy to say. Single words work best and for my installation, I simply went with ‘Everything’.

Now when I say “Alexa, turn everything off” all the Sonoff switches I’ve added to the group are turned off at once.

This is great, when leaving the house I now have the ability to turn off 30 plus devices in one instant hit!

I may still have 10 devices on standby (the sonoff’s themselves) but these use less than 0.5W each, which I can guarantee was more than I had to begin with. I also now have the ability to shut off the garage if I’ve left anything on charge without going out to it in the cold.

I did connect a few lamps with the sonoff’s but not all the lights that keep being left on by the kids, so I will probably need to expand in the future.

For now, I’m really happy with the installation. Time will tell if the power savings out way the cost of the kit, but the crude maths in my head says yes!

 

Summary

The Sonoff’s were only £37 total for 10 and I see you can now get these in Amazon. I’ve not included the Amazon echo as that was a gift, however you can get various versions at different price levels and if you don’t want a voice assistant, you can always just stick with the free app.

 

Installation was fairly simple, no soldering, no major hacking (except for the extra earth terminal & changing fuses)

There were three problems in total, but all had solutions on The Home Automation Hub

In the future I may consider updating the firmware as the reliability of the ewelink app is still concerning me (although I’ve not had any problems yet) and there are lots of alternative firmwares out there which improve reliability and reduce overall power consumption.

 

BONUS POINT – being able to turn off everything in the kids bedroom with one command to Alexa when bedtime calls is quite satisfying!! Although it may be cruel, it does save me shouting upstairs. Not sure how long it will be before they discover that the button on the Sonoff will overwrite my command and turn things back on!

 

Please let us know what you think about the guide in the comments below – Have we covered everything? would you do things differently?

 

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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