Continuing Struggle for the Core Control Unit

Research is good, research is very helpful in making smart decisions. I’ve gone through several ideas, several manufacturers, several apps, trying to find the best, most robust and most affordable solution for the Core Unit. I still want to use openHAB, but I am struggling to find a computer that meets all of our requirements, is small enough and quiet enough, and has a low power demand. There are so many options and the prices range from barely anything to crazy expensive. Thus we have a dilemma: Go with an established company that makes a very good system or go with a piece built solution that may be cheaper, but doesn’t have the support and warranty of a big company? And so we enter the continuing struggle for the core control unit.

At the end of this project, the culmination with result in two things. First, we’ll have walked readers through all the steps to procure the equipment we found to work, how to set it up, how to install all the software, and how to make it all work together. This will ultimately be condensed, edited, and laid out properly in an ebook that others can purchase. Want to read through the journey and read about all the failures along with the successes? Then read the blog. Want to start from scratch and just build a system that works right away? Then get the ebook.

Second, I’m researching ways to turn this into a business. There is a man out there who travels the country in the summers installing solar systems in RVs. He does one thing, but it he does it really well. I want to become the guy who does that for Smart Homes on Wheels. I want to go through all the failures, all the missteps, all the investigation to find the best, most affordable, and most reliable ways to do this. I am technically proficient and can make all the mistakes that our readers don’t need to make. I have access to the technology and the knowhow to get it all working together. If I can in turn travel the country doing smart home installations for other travelers and campers, then I accomplish the goal of making this project RV a model, and in spreading the knowledge and skills to others.

With that said, I’ll break down the options for the Core Control Unit and list each options pros and cons.

Raspberry Pi and openHabian

I’ve built a few Raspberry Pi boxes and they are easy to setup, easy to use, and work pretty well for a computer that only costs about $35. They are small and use very little power, the Pi 3 has builtin wifi and Bluetooth as well as wired ethernet, and there is a large community of builders who are mostly helpful with small projects. OpenHabian is a customized installation of the Raspbian OS and is very small in resource demands and built just for these little computers. While I can set one up in an hour or so, I don’t expect many of our readers to be able to do the same. It would also require some add-ons to speak to smart devices, depending on the actual interface used. I had looked into building a cluster unit from several Pi 3’s, but after more digging, I found out that it wouldn’t really improve the speed that much for our demands.

Pros
  • Cheap! $35 plus other costs for case, microSD card, power cord. Requires some other hardware for communication to smart devices.
  • Free operating system: Raspbian and openHabian are both free and updated frequently.
  • Compact size at a little bigger than a credit card, we can put several of these wherever they are needed and not worry much about space.
  • They have low power demands and can be plugged into a USB hub or straight through the DC power with a regulator.
  • Lots of options with openHAB, they have the protocol for many different smart home systems, so we can use one control center for everything and not worry about stick to one system.
  • Builtin Wifi and Bluetooth, no need for extra hardware there. Plus it has an ethernet port, which would likely be how we’d connect it anyway.
    Cons
  • They are not very powerful, so we might need more than one for different tasks.
  • Limited to Raspbian and a few other operating systems, so it has a bit of a learning curve for new users.
  • Requires physical setup and isn’t just plug it in and turn it on, which may make it more difficult for readers to follow if they are unaccustomed to computer hardware.

Windows 10 with openHAB

Windows has the benefit of most people knowing how to use it. Its also available in very cheap computers and can be picked up anywhere. There are many options out there for Windows machines, but the smaller, quieter models raise the price significantly. We could go with a cheaper option, but then we run the risk of having an underpowered computer trying to do too much. Many of them come with older Celeron or Pentium processors, where we would like to have an i5. The smallest, cheapest models also usually only come with 2GB of ram, which is far below what we need to make the core control unit able to handle everything we want it to handle.

Pros
  • Pretty common, you can find Windows computers everywhere.
  • Relatable since most people have used Windows.
  • Can be cheap, depending on the specs.
  • New ones will come with a warranty if bought from an established manufacturer.
  • openHAB can run on it as well, and there are several other home automation apps available.
    Cons
  • Windows has a problem with bloatware. When you buy a Windows computer, it usually comes with a bunch of stuff that isn’t needed and has to be removed before any work can be done.
  • Better models get more expensive, often times by a lot.
  • The cheaper, more affordable options can be very slow, so it might require more than one computer for different tasks.

macOS with openHAB or HomeKit

I’ll admit it, I love my Apple products. We have two iPhones and two MacBooks and will likely get an iPad in the future again. I love the macOS, I love the dependability, but I hate the price. We could theoretically install openHAB on a Mac mini and it would have enough power to run the Smart Home on Wheels, act as a backup file sharing drive for our MacBooks, and run iTunes to stream our media to Apple TVs. That would require more purchasing as we have Rokus right now, but its not unsurmountable. The cheapest Mac, a i5 Mac mini with only 4GB ram runs at $499. An older model could be purchased instead, but then we lose the warranty and it might be obsolete sooner.

Pros
  • Small form factor of the Mac mini is nice.
  • macOS is easy to use if you already have a Mac.
  • The hardware for the cost is not too bad, though I’d avoid the bottom Mac mini and go for the 8GB model.
  • In a network with other Macs, its easy to control, share screens, and network together.
  • Powerful enough that we could run anything we wanted without much problem.
    Cons
  • They are expensive. $499 for the base model is okay, but the next step up is $699 and recommended.
  • Mac minis have a fan and can push out a lot of heat, which can be bad in an enclosed space.
  • There is no way to upgrade the current line of new Mac minis aside from adding USB devices.
  • Probably overpowered for what we will use it for.
  • macOS also has builtin HomeKit, which can be easy to use and has a lot of options, but openHAB still has more.

Ubuntu Box and openHAB

Ubuntu is an open-source Linux operating system. The whole idea is to make it easily accessible to new users, and it does its job very well. It has a traditional GUI where mouse clicks open folders, but it also has a backend that can be utilized with a command line, so tasks can be done without ever going beyond the command line. It is free, a single download, and updated frequently. It also has a large following and backing my the geek culture, so new add ons and compatible apps are released often. It can run on a wide variety of hardware as well, meaning the user could buy all the components, throw it together, install the operating system and be up and running.

Pros
  • Ubuntu is free. openHAB is free. Can’t beat that.
  • Pick a computer, it’ll likely run Ubuntu. You may even have an old computer laying around that could be repurposed for this.
  • If you want a new computer, hardware can be come by cheaply, assuming you know what you are doing.
  • It is very customizable, so the end user can do a lot if they need to.
    Cons
  • Ubuntu can be a bit difficult to get the hang of if you’ve never run command lines.
  • If you do build a computer yourself, you have to know what to buy and how to assemble it.
  • While it can be tweaked to do a lot of things, it may require more programming knowledge than most of or readers have.

And in Conclusion…

As we proceed and grow, the project will evolve. I am still leaning towards a few Raspberry Pi’s though, mostly because of the cost and ease of use. If a reader wants us to install a system in their RV, we can have the computer already set up and just have to plug in some cables and set up the interfaces with the smart devices. With a low cost, builtin wifi and Bluetooth, and the ease with which I can throw one together, its the obvious choice.

Once I get everything streamlined, setting up someone’s RV to be a Smart Home on Wheels shouldn’t take too long. Depending on the complexity of zones, it would require putting some smart switches in the lights, connecting everything to a router, and writing the commands to make the central core unit talk to everything else. It would also be easy to have a default setup for a Media Server, so that I could have all the equipment with me and ready to go, and would just have to add media to it, set up the RVers Plex account, and have them up and running in a few hours.

I’m strongly leaning towards the Raspberry Pi for the core control unit and will purchase another one after the New Year in order to start testing it out and developing the commands to make it all work together.

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