Home Assistant SkyConnect is a combination of Zigbee and Thread dongles for better smart home control

My smart home has been a mess for a while. Before writing this, it was a combination of a Hue hub and HomeKit, the former of which I’m not terribly fond of, and the latter of which I put up with. But for a few years now, I’ve wanted to turn my entire home into Home Assistant: self-hosted home automation software. And now, with SkyConnect Connect, a combination of Zigbee and Matter/Thread dongle from Home Assistant, that transition is complete. But in the process, I broke half of the things in my house. Nothing works, and I couldn’t be happier.

Home Assistant, for those of you who don’t follow the smart home nerd’s beat, is the almost universally accepted choice for free and open source home automation. Unlike Apple’s HomeKit (which requires Apple hardware), it can run on single-board computers like a Raspberry Pi, a Docker container, or basically any mini PC you can install it on. It also lets you dig deeper into the weeds while also automatically selecting how you want your home. It’s not the most intuitive option, but it’s not that difficult, and if you’re remotely paranoid about who has the keys to your smart home (and I am), Home Assistant is one of your best bets.

Now, apart from the home security issue, one of the biggest issues with home automation is the interoperability. Out of the box, not many smart home gadgets have, historically, played well together (I’m looking at you, Philips Hue). It’s only gotten better with the years, particularly 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 nice in very specific ways. If you have a switch that you want to work with another device, it’s very likely that someone spent a lot of time configuring it and putting that information online as a blueprint.

You may also be familiar with Matter, the new home automation standard that seeks to make a lot of these problems a lot easier. If you are not familiar with Matter and Thread, I highly recommend it the edgeown interpreter. The rollout is still in the works, and there aren’t many devices out in the wild yet, but if all goes well (significant if) Then there should be much less headaches in the future.

I wanted to get rid of that hub and make everything work in one small ecosystem

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I briefly experimented with running Home Assistant as a Docker container on a NAS (the little network device 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 well it allowed me to micro program my existing devices. But one thing that kept holding me back was my Philips Hue system, which, for years, made it a chore to use anything outside of its ecosystem. Until recently, Hue relied on Zigbee, a low-energy mesh networking standard, to get the bulbs to talk to each other.

As an early adopter of Hue, Hue doesn’t make things easy. Despite sharing the Zigbee protocol with other lights and switches, getting them to play nice with them has historically been like pulling teeth. For example, Ikea has its own smart home system, with its own hub, app and everything (see, it has one With Matter now!), but a few years ago, getting them to play nice required a lot of weird workarounds. Of course, there are great solutions and integrations I can use, such as Zigbee2MQTTthe Philips Hue integrationand now, Theme. But that was the principle of the thing: I wanted to get rid of that hub and make everything work in one 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 a few of my lights.
Photo: Philips Hue

Adding Zigbee (or even Z-Wave) to the Home Assistant isn’t new. Tons of USB dongles, eg ConBee II, already exists. SkyConnect is new in that it adds support for both Zigbee and Thread/Matter, and despite the lack of Matter devices in my house, knowing that it’s partly designed and receptive to work directly with the Home Assistant itself was motivation enough for me to pre-order. It’s a great excuse to take the plunge and make a fresh start. Another option to add Matter and Zigbee is the Yellow home helpera powerful little board that uses the Raspberry Pi account unit 4but I don’t have access to CM4, so I went with the dongle.

I would normally run this as a Docker container on my NAS, but I had no idea if the dongle was compatible, and thought it would be best to dedicate an entire machine to my home run. Luckily, I recently swapped my Raspberry Pis for WiiM streaming disks, so I had a few Raspberry Pi 4Bs (if you’re still struggling to find one, rpilocator is a great tool). It’s time to get serious. Installing Hass.io (the operating system for the Home Assistant) is easy if you’ve done something remotely complex with your Raspberry Pi; You can just download the .img file or copy the URL, and use programs like printed to write them to a microSD card, and Follow the instructions from there. As far as open source projects go, this is a very simple process to get started.

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A Raspberry Pi, Odroidor other single-board computer that can easily operate Home Assistant.
Photo: Chris Pearson

The SkyConnect looks like a small blue USB drive and comes with a small extension cable, precisely because USB 3.0 ports have been known to cause interference with wireless devices. The device itself is plug-and-play, which means you don’t have to set up anything; Home Assistant will just recognize it and make it work.

Here comes the fun part: the slow and painful process of taking apart everything connected to the Philips Hue Hub. For this process, I was going to use Zigbee Home Automation. The process is simple but less intuitive than software designed specifically for hardware. Since you have to unpair the lights and remotes with the hub to turn them on, this meant every switch in my house was temporarily out of order. Nothing worked, but I was pumped because I had to do everything on my terms, using software I hosted and without a horrible little uncooperative center holding my hand.

I started by pairing my bulbs ZHA (Zigbee Home Automation), an integration that would speak to my Zigbee lights and remote controls. From there, Blueprints becomes very useful. charts These are pre-built automation presets that simplify the Home Assistant programming process. Hue wall switches that I needed to reprogram. HA charts are awesome A great resource, and it had scope Compatible scheme available, though I stumbled a bit on the helper script file I needed to set up to actually make the Blueprint work. From there, I started setting up all the lighting scenes I had.

An Elgato Key Light like the one here Tom Warren’s office It can be folded into the Home Assistant without much effort.
Photo: Tom Warren/The Verge

The situation transitioned from back to baseline to fun when I began integrating adapters other than Hue into my Home Assistant ecosystem. I have Elgato key lights It’s set up on my desk for streaming and Zoom calls, and now, with Home Assistant, I can override the app and treat the lights like any other lamp or switch, add them to scenes, and even automate them. Then I started adding other devices to my home, like sensors from Xiaomi that I was able to use to turn on my desk lights when motion was detected. I also have several other lights and custom light strips that I made by hand that work on something called WLEDIt is a Wi-Fi based system that allows for highly precise control of the light strips. The topic of WLED is an article in itself, but the long and short is that Integration because it is in the Home Assistant. Someone is also working on it integration With my WiiM balls, though I haven’t really dug into that yet.

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From there, things get really skewed. I installed HACS, or Home Assistant Community Store, an add-on that requires a bit of complicated setup but lets you download custom GitHub repositories to do some really awful things. As my colleague Chris Grant, a true home assistant expert, tells me, Node-RED is an add-on for setting up complex home automation using flowchart nodes. I was in swine heaven. I can do some really stupid things now.

Did you need to purchase Home Assistant SkyConnect to start using Home Assistant? Or better yet, do I need a home assistant at all? honestly no. I could live my life with HomeKit and the Hue app and be completely satisfied and content. Everything is set up, and there have been countless solutions developed to get my patched hardware system together talking to each other. But as I got older, I became angrier about who and what had access to my stuff, and I became increasingly impatient when I wasn’t allowed to do something with my equipment in the most depraved of ways. While I’ll never have a use case for a light switch that also sends email, I know that if I ever wanted to make this happen, I could now with a simple Node-RED flowchart.

What this comes down to is control. And while the SkyConnect is just a simple wireless dongle, it’s also an excuse to take that control back, do something I’ve been putting off for years, and finally make a smart home my home.

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