There are a handful of technology platforms used in home automation. Which one should you choose? How do they differ? Can you use more than one technology in your home? These are all good questions.
Home automation or domotics is building automation for a home, called a smart home or smart house. It involves the control and automation of lighting, heating (such as smart thermostats), ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), and security, as well as home appliances such as washer/dryers, ovens or refrigerators/freezers. Wi-Fi is often used for remote monitoring and control. Home devices, when remotely monitored and controlled via the Internet, are an important constituent of the Internet of Things. Modern systems generally consist of switches and sensors connected to a central hub sometimes called a “gateway” from which the system is controlled with a user interface that is interacted either with a wall-mounted terminal, mobile phone software, tablet computer or a web interface, often but not always via Internet cloud services.
The beauty of an automation system is its ability to tie diverse electronic devices together so they can perform as one unified system. Getting these devices to work cohesively can be simple or complex, depending on the “openness” of the automation system. The more open a system is, the easier it will be for the lights, thermostats, audio/video equipment, security devices, motorized shades and other electronics to communicate with each other. A good example of interoperability is having the lights turn off, the thermostats set back when you press a “goodbye” button on a keypad or when a motion sensor notices that you have exited a room.
To support interoperability between multiple electronic devices, manufacturers of home automation systems often form connectivity partnerships with other manufacturers. For example, Home Automation Inc. has partnered with 40 other companies to ensure that its Omni line of automation products can communicate seamlessly with a wide variety of other systems—from architectural lighting and irrigation, to multiroom audio.
Another way automation manufacturers are fostering interoperability is through adherence to technology standards. Control4, for example, has embedded Zigbee wireless control technology into automation products so those products can network easily with other Zigbee-enabled products.
The more connectivity partners a manufacturer has formed and standards it has adopted, the more choices you’ll have as a consumer. More importantly, says custom electronics pro Bill Charney with Advanced Home Audio in Shelton, Conn., “It allows installers to select the best suite products for their clients.”
“Automation is all about being able to control things in your home,” says Jay McClellan, president of Home Automation Inc., “and part of that is being able to change the settings quickly and easily if your plans change.” More often than not, plans change when you’re not at home, so being able to communicate those changes with your home automation system remotely is one of the most revered features of an automation system. Remote access capabilities allow you to monitor your home’s environment and alter the settings of the lights, thermostats and other gear if necessary all from your laptop, cellphone or iTouch. McClellan believes that remote monitoring should be a service manufacturers and installers provide free of charge. “Why should you pay $30 a month to access your automation system when you’re already paying for broadband access?” he suggests.
Remote access also allows your installer to tweak your system without having to make a house call, which is always cheaper and more convenient.
The way you live in your home five years from now will probably be much different than the way you live in your home today. Moreover, technology will continue to evolve, introducing a completely new generation of products to the marketplace. In the future, you may also want to add new rooms—like a recently finished basement or an addition off the back—to your automation network. Or, you may simply want to start out with just a few features when you first put in your system then add new capabilities later as you have the money. For these reasons, it’s important that a home automation system can be easily expanded both vertically to incorporate additional products and horizontally to support additional rooms.
Manufacturers can support vertical and horizontal expandability by designing their systems to speak a common network language, like IP (Internet Protocol), and by offering wireless retrofittable products that can communicate with a home’s existing network of wired products.
Those touchscreens and black boxes may look impressive, but it’s what you don’t see that holds the true power of an automation system. Software is the driving force of an automation system. The more sophisticated that software is, the more the system can do. As technology changes, so must the software. Before you buy any system, be sure the manufacturer (or your installer) will be able to unlock and download software updates automatically.
There are a number of different ways you can control the electronic systems in your home: by pressing the buttons of a handheld remote or wall-mounted keypad, by touching colorful icons on a portable touchpanel or by sliding your finger across your iTouch. Depending on your family dynamic, budget and preferences, you might like to utilize a variety of different controllers (most people do, says McClellan), so make sure the automation manufacturer offers a wide selection of interfaces.
No one, except for serious early-adopters, likes to be the guinea pig, so choose an automation system with a proven track record. Same goes for the person who installs the system into your home. “Look for an installer who’s been installing the same systems for a number of years,” suggests Derek Cowburn of Distinct AV in McCordsville, Ind. You should be able to gather some historical background about manufacturers and installers from their company websites.
“You can have great equipment,” says Jeff Singer of automation system manufacturer Crestron, “but you’ll need a highly trained and certified installer in order to get your money’s worth.” Good home automation manufacturers go above and beyond to create a strong dealer network, by offering continual education and training and by supporting multiple dealers in a single geographic area. For consumers, having more than one dealer to choose from is important. When more than one dealer carries a particular product in your area, pricing is more competitive and should one dealer go out of business, there’s someone else you can call to pick up the pieces. (To protect yourself should your dealer close up shop, demand that he provide access to your project file, advises Eric Smith of home automation manufacturer Control4. You’ll have all the documentation you need should you ever need to hire someone else)
One of the hottest topics in the consumer media is energy conservation. Automation systems can help save energy by turning off electronics devices automatically, and some do this better than others. Be sure to check out the energy-saving features of a system before you buy.
Everyone always wonders what happens to an automated house when the power goes out. Does the system forget how to operate the lights when power is restored? If an automation system has the appropriate back-up protection, you won’t have to worry about that.
This goes both for the installer and the manufacturer. Automation is only beneficial and practical if it fits your lifestyle. Since everyone’s lifestyle is different, the manufacturer should provide its installers with the tools to customize the system to your specific needs. If there’s something that you want your system to do and your installer says it’s impossible, either he or the manufacturer has failed you. Keep looking.