The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
The biggest secret to a successful smart home project is not in the design or the building, but in the documentation. Without exaggeration, I must admit it has taken me many years to learn this simple lesson.
Recently, I decided to do some work on the wiring of the network in my home. I am fortunate to have a relatively modern home which was pre-wired with computer grade cat5 cables running to most rooms of the house.
In the master bedroom closet is an OnQ “structured wiring center” mounted in the wall. That’s contractor speak for a overpriced metal cabinet with custom peg holes that nothing fits.
Over the years, I have re-wired that sucker several times. When we moved in, my first task was to re-configure the wiring so instead of just handling the telephone line, I could route an Ethernet network throughout our home.
I could have wired some jacks for voice and others for data, but being the young nerd I was at the time, I decided to use a standard, but rarely used method to wire each single jack with both telephone and data lines.
“My Kingdom For A Jack”
If you plugged a normal RJ-11 telephone style cord into the RJ-45 wall jack, you got a telephone line. But if you plugged a special splitter pigtail cable into the RJ-45 jack first, you could plug both an RJ-11 telephone cord and an RJ-45 Ethernet cable into the splitter and have both.
This worked great for many years, but eventually I wanted to upgrade my home network from 100mbps Ethernet (so-called “Fast Ethernet”) to the faster 1000mbps or “Gigabit Ethernet”.
Without going into all the technical details, the splitter arrangement would no longer work. This wasn’t a big deal because by then our home phones were using a wireless/cordless system so I only needed one actual “telephone jack”.
The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?
Re-wiring the jacks would be easy. The problem was I didn’t know how I had originally wired them. Home wiring can use one of two standards called T568A or T568B.
Both wiring schemes use the same wires, the same jacks, same wall plates, same everything! The only difference is the order of the wires inside the jack or in the punchdown panel.
Choosing “A” or “B” doesn’t really matter. They both work equally well in almost all circumstances. The important thing is to be consistent or the wiring won’t work.
So this being a side-project, I wanted to take the path of least resistance and just re-wire the minimum number of jacks to whichever wiring scheme was already in use. Should I choose T568A or T568B?
The Happy Ending
A quick search on my computer for “home wiring” and I found an old file that not only contained my original notes when I first made the wiring changes, but even included a diagram I made of the wiring with all the the cables and connectors clearly identified.
The project was completed quicker and without frustration because I had taken a few extra minutes the first time to write down what I was doing.
Documentation Is Not Just for Wires
Every aspect of a smart home project requires decisions and making choices. How do you name your devices?
Do you name them based on the function - “Lamp”, “Switch”, “Lock”? Do you name them based on the location - “Bedroom”, “Family Room”, “Kitchen”? Maybe a combination of both - “Family Room Lamp”, “Kitchen Lamp”, etc.
As you can see, even picking names can get complicated. Documenting your choices, and the reasons for them may seem obvious or redundant at the time, but it can be a lifesaver months or years later.
The Road Not Taken
All products have flaws. Software bugs or hardware bugs can never be fully eliminated. Some problems are insurmountable and when a project encounters them, the only choice is to hit “reset” and start over with something else.
In many cases, the problem or bug is annoying, but not fatal. By doing things slightly differently, or sometimes even in a different order, we can avoid or bypass the problem.
In the urgency of the moment, once a fix or workaround is discovered, it is easy to press on. I strongly advise taking a little time to document what you did. Write down notes on the problem you observed, the unexpected results, and the alternative approach or workaround you created.
In the future, when you come back to the project to make changes, adjustments or upgrades you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder “Why did I do that?” or “Is that patch still needed?”
It’s Not Rocket Science
I’m a strong advocate of documenting your project, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. There is no shame in using pen and paper. An inexpensive notebook, a few sheets of paper, and your favorite writing instrument are more than enough.
Having said that, here’s a few tips if you want to make the job easier, or more fun, by using technology.
A Bird In The Hand…
For actual writing, use whatever software you already have. Every computer or smartphone includes a basic notes app or simple text editor. Remember, you’re not writing a novel or a fancy love letter. Just basic text capturing your thoughts and a description of what you have done is all that is important.
Use what you know - if you use Google Docs or Microsoft Word, or some other word processor normally, than keep using it. It will be more natural and easier to document your project if you don’t have to learn a new app or program first.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
You don’t have to write long winded descriptions when a picture is better. Use your smartphone camera to take photos as much as possible. Just remember to take a “before” photo too!
Hooking up a smart thermostat? Take a photo of all the wires and connections you have now *before* you disconnect the old thermostat. Then take another photo when you are done.
“Could It Be A Faded Rose From Days Gone By?”
Unlike that famous Tanya Tucker song, there is no need to guess. Take all your handwritten notes, especially any drawings or diagrams, and convert them into digital form.
Once again, you don’t need a fancy document scanner (but use it if you have one). The resolution of most smartphone cameras is more than enough to take a photograph of written notes or drawings. Just make sure you have plenty of light.
Don’t forget that a fax machine is still a decent document scanner. If you work in an office or still use a fax machine at home, just fax a copy of the documents to yourself and save them as a digital file.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
The best way to make your smart home project easier is to take the time to document what you are doing. A little extra effort with pen and paper will make a huge difference.
Everything seems obvious when you are knee deep in configuration commands, installation procedures, and trial & error experimentation but trust me, you won’t remember everything for ever.
Document it now and “Future You” will thank you!