Easy startup guide for newbies: HA, ZWave, Presence, Alexa, move to new platform

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone in the community for their help and guidance. More than anything else, that is what makes HA such a great product.

This is the story of my transition from Vera 2 to HA. It is intended to help anyone else who is starting from scratch and unfamiliar with HA. I was very surprised how easy it was to get up and running, how well it worked and how expandable it is.

I had a Vera system for many years and accumulated a number of z-wave nodes. My z-wave network worked very well but my Vera was not z-wave plus and was well past its best before date. I researched alternatives and decided (luckily) on HA. I’m reasonably technical and familiar with computers and programming but I’ve had hardly any experience with linux and none with docker (though I understand both). Although your situation may differ, the principles below still apply.

First, learn the terminology. Read posts. It is important to understand things like the four installation methods (recently changed and very poor name choices). See what is common practice (e.g. which z-wave to use!). See who are the big posters and helpers. Learn the layout of the forums. Learn the layout of the online documentation. Figure out what an “Add-On” is and which install methods support add ons. Figure out what HACS is. Figure out what an integration is and realize that many of the HACS packages are integrations. Take the time to get familiar. It WILL pay off.

Unfamiliar with linux I decided to start with the “Home Assistant” image install (TERRIBLE name!!!) on an RPi 3 I already had. I got it running very easily and it even found a couple of things on my network (printer, router etc.) and made many entities. So now I played with the UI for a short while and realized I needed three add-ons: File Editor and SSH and Web Terminal (always want that low level access!). I tried the official ssh terminal and it seemed difficult to use so I deleted it and went to the unofficial one which I am happy with. Tried snapshot. Then updated. Basically got familiar.

Add z-wave
Now I figured I would add z-wave and move some unimportant devices to HA. I researched and found that z-wave (beta) sounded stable, well liked, not missing any critical features and was the future. I don’t like beta but this sounded right. I added the Mosquitto MQTT add-on, the OpenZwave add-on and the zwave (beta) integration. I read the docs for each. I added a network key because I knew I had some secure nodes (door locks). I found how to address the dongle port so it didn’t change on reboot. It started up perfectly. I added my first node and it was easy-peasy.

Within 10 minutes I was confident enough to move over a dozen nodes, some z-wave and some z-wave plus. All were not secure nodes. Some of the nodes weren’t recognized or were missing config settings so I played with editing the xml files (not actually HA but OpenZWave). No trouble at all and, again, worked perfectly. I submitted PRs on github for the changes I made.

Within a week I had moved over all nodes including secure ones. I packed up the Vera permanently. ZWave was working as well as ever and the control panel gave better info than I had with Vera.

Then I had problems with one node (Leviton DZPA1). Searched the forum to see it was a known problem and someone had submitted a PR to OpenZWave to fix it. That means it will take a while to make it to HA (it is an add-on) but I was patient. The fix finally came and shortly afterwards my DZPA1 failed (coincidence). I got a warantee replacement but stupidly forgot to remove it from z-wave before sending it away for replacement. Now I had a phantom node in my system. Back to the forums to find out how to remove a phantom node completely. Not as simple as I thought. Turns out there used to be an easy way with the old control panel (OpenZWave) but the new one doesn’t have that option. Found a couple of other posts and it looked like likely way was to use Sigma’s PC tool offline. I was afraid I might have a phantom device or entity afterwards so I kept looking. Some posts said to do it in MQTT. I tried the MQTT solution and in 45s with no downtime at all the node was eradicated along with all devices and entities! Again, read and ask on the forums. If you think there might be a better answer, read again and ask. The community is awesome.

More goodies
So then I added automations. I already had automations (in lua) so I didn’t need to define the logic, just had to code it in YAML. So that meant I had to learn YAML. I don’t really like it but it works. I had to add template devices, helpers etc. All was well documented, lots of examples an pretty easy.

One of my automations involved presence detection for which I had previously created my own iBeacon based detection. I researched and found that HA has many presence options. I chose to use three: iPhone app, HomeKit and nmap and use the Bayesian to combine them. Lots of good docs and messages on this and in the end I found that nmap is terrible, iPhone is OK and HomeKit is excellent. Note I still use and iBeacon (supported by HK) and the presence detect is way better than it has ever been. Presence is a backbone of many useful automations.

Next was Alexa. Wanted to do it without cloud. Whoa. Lots of reading. Lots. Many different ways. I researched (on amazon) about the Amazon Home Skill architecture and the lambda function and finally found that Haaska works but the “matt” lambda function was rewritten from scratch and is the best one to use (much simpler without loss of functionality). I made two very small changes to it to use a custom port on my machine and to allow intents. My only issue was when I wanted to add a garage door cover device and it wouldn’t allow me because my amazon account was not US based. Took me more reading but I figured that out and a simple change made it work perfectly. Voice commands is a second thing (presence was the first) that is a very, very important part of home automation. It goes a long way toward WAF as well. Just name your devices well!

Move to new platform
So I know the limitations of RPi and the risk of powerfail at a critical time (corrupt SD card). I have an ESXi machine running 24/7 on UPS and it is underutilized. Time to migrate to a VM! More reading (are you getting the message yet?). Seems the best option is to continue to use the Home Assistant (still terrible name for the install) install by image. Caution, however, it is for Workstation. So I had to convert the file to ESXi. Also it is an IDE disk format. Almost all my reading said the critical step was to change the VMs disk to be IDE. I wasn’t satisfied so I read some more. I would have posted a message but this is a VMWare concern and their community is nothing like HAs! So I considered the “why” of everything and decided to try modifying the disk image to SCSI and not modifying the VM. Right answer!!! I did, however, have an issue trying to change to EFI boot as that choice was greyed out. On a whim (reading didn’t help!) I changed from “Other linux (x64)” to “CentOS 5/6/7/8 (x64)” and it ungreyed the option. Booted up and I chose “load from backup” since I had backed up my RPi a few minutes earlier. It started up very well, but not perfectly. It was missing File Editor and Mosquitto MQTT (both are add-ons). Perhaps it was the platform difference (arm vs intel). I also had to move the z-wave stick and attach it to my VM. Two reboots and everything was up and running.

Read a lot. Ask if you aren’t sure. The community is awesome. The product is very good and getting better every release. Still a few rough edges (too many releases to stay up to date all the time, releases often break things though at least they tell you, naming of the install methods is terrible…) but I would recommend it willingly.

I started at the beginning of September and had it fully replacing my Vera within a couple of weeks. Since then I’ve added a FAR better presence system and voice commands. I’ve also added my AppleTV but I haven’t yet figured out how to get the most out of it. Only 4 months in now and I’m looking to add my Plex to it as well as numerous other things. The voice interface being key. I should have done this a long time ago, but then again, HA had been progressing all that while. I think I was lucky to get in at a very stable time (especially re z-wave) though I’m sure HA will have many more amazing things in the future.

If I can help ANYONE who is just starting, or looking to add Alexa without cloud, or maybe just with a question out of the blue, I will certainly do my best and tell you if I’m not sure. (That last one is important).

Many, many thanks to all of the wonderful people in the community and to the developers who have created a product they should be proud of.