What is home automation and how do I get started?

Part 1 of a two part series on how to get started with home automation

smart home 1 graph

From flicking a light switch to opening your garage door with a remote control, our homes have been automated for decades. The concept goes as far back as the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago where the “home of the future” was unveiled. In the last 80 years, however, the automated home has morphed into the smart home, courtesy of the Internet, sensors and connectivity. The modern automated home can do more than turn on our heating and our lights—it can actually think for us.

In this guide, we’ll explain what smart home automation is, how it can help you, and explore the latest and greatest technologies, products and services in the Home Automation field.

The terms “Home Automation,” “Connected Devices” and “Internet of Things” are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct parts of the Smart Home concept:

* Home automation: This is where a home’s electrical devices are connected to a central system that automates those devices based on user input. For example, you push a button and your shades go up, or you give a voice command and your lights turn on.

* Connected devices: These are electrical devices that are intelligent, courtesy of a connection to the Internet and sensors. These devices know or are able to anticipate what a user needs. At first, this intelligence comes from user programing, but with time the device can learn and adapt to patterns and interact with its users.

* Internet of Things: IoT is the magic dust that turns the automated home into the smart home. With a combination of sensors, smarts and systems, IoT connects everyday objects to a network, enabling those objects to complete tasks and communicate with each other, with no user input.

When you combine home automation, connected devices and IoT you get a Smart Home. And a modern smart home can be easily controlled through a smartphone, tablet or computer.

wink smart home

With a Smart Home you can run your home from the palm of your hand, with apps such as this one from Wink.

Why do you need a smart home?

At first glance, some of the most talked-about home automation devices appear gimmicky and expensive: $200 for a set of light bulbs that change color, or $250 for a thermostat that saves you the trouble of programming it may seem fun, but ultimately, isn’t it frivolous?

Not at all. The color changing and self-programming features are simply icing on the cake. The real goodness is buried in the sensors and smarts. The more connected devices in your home, the more of these sensors and smarts you integrate, and the stronger and smarter your home becomes.

Eventually, a truly smart home will know who you are, where you are and what you want, all without us having to tell it anything. That is when the self-programming thermostat’s ability to communicate with those gimmicky lights—and tell it you’ve left so they can turn off, or to flash red to indicate high carbon monoxide in the house—suddenly doesn’t seem so frivolous after all.

What are the benefits of a smart home?

  • Savings: Connected devices such as learning thermostats, smart sprinklers, Wi-Fi enabled lights, electricity monitoring outlets and water heater modules cut down on energy and water use.
  • Control: Many things inside the home, from ovens and fridges to deadbolts and garage doors, can be controlled remotely via apps on smartphones and tablets. In most cases, this control also works when you are out of the home, meaning you can close the garage door from the airport, check on the cat from Costa Rica, or confirm that you switched off your stove from the grocery store.
  • Convenience: Having your living room lights turn on as you arrive home, the stereo playing your favorite song and the door opening as you approach with a bagful of groceries is perhaps the ultimate luxury of the smart home. But convenience isn’t all about luxury. Smart locks can allow you to grant access to certain individuals at certain times, so you don’t have to stay home or give out a key. Likewise, a sensor can tell you when your fridge is out of milk, and a Wi-Fi enabled doorbell can let you “answer” your door from anywhere in the world.
  • Security: There are many simple, connected security solutions for the smart home that are inexpensive alternatives to 24/7 monitored security systems. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras, connected motion sensors and smart smoke alarms can all be monitored from inside or outside a home via live video feed, email and text alerts.
  • Safety: Smart sensors that can detect water leaks, humidity levels, carbon monoxide, motion, heat and every environmental concern imaginable help prevent accidents from turning into disasters because they can communicate with you directly, wherever you are.
  • Senior independence: Automated audible reminders and voice activated alert systems are just a few of the features of home automation that can help seniors lead independent lives for longer. Additionally, Wi-Fi connected cameras with two-way communication can help loved ones keep an eye on the elderly when they can’t physically check on them. 

Security is a large part of the smart home. Small, Wi-Fi cameras can connect you to your home when you can’t be there. This version from Dropcam will even let you talk through it.

How do I keep my smart home secure?

The biggest concern for many considering installing connected devices is security. The idea of someone hacking into your Internet-connected thermostat and controlling the temperature of your home is disturbing, but so is the idea of someone breaking your front door and rifling through your drawers. That doesn’t stop us from buying door locks.

It’s worth remembering that it requires a lot more skill and intelligence than most thieves possess to break into a smart home. Strong passwords, changed regularly, plus encrypting your Wi-Fi network, will keep all but the most determined hackers out. (This article lays out the steps to take to make sure your home network is safe and secure.)

How do I get started with home automation?

Before the advent of microprocessors and smartphones, home automation was a whole home installation project involving electricians, specialized installers and a monthly maintenance fee, meaning it was typically reserved for the wealthy. Now all you need is a good Wi-Fi connection, a wireless router, a smartphone or tablet, and possibly a central controller—also known as a hub.

First, identify what your primary goal is for automating your home. If it’s security, you’ll want cameras and sensors; if it’s smart lighting, you’ll want Wi-Fi connected LED bulbs; if it’s convenience, smart door locks and connected audio systems should be on your list. The beauty of smart home automation is the move away from whole home integration and toward the bit-by-bit approach. You no longer need a complicated system just to turn your lights on remotely. If that’s all you want to do, you can do it with one simple gadget.

Additionally, there’s no need to worry about re-wiring your home. In almost every case, you can replace your existing product with a smart one. In one afternoon, you can switch out your old light bulbs for GE Link bulbs, replace your non-programmable thermostat with a Nest Thermostat, put an August Smart Lock on top of your existing deadbolt and, voila! You can now control your lighting, climate and entry and exit to your home through your smartphone or tablet.

Once you have multiple devices in your home, however, you don’t want to be opening a different app every time you need to turn your lights off and the heat down. This is when you might consider investing in a single smart home controller, also known as a hub.

A hub acts as a central controller of a smart home. It helps all the devices, which are often using different protocols, communicate with each other. Courtesy of the hub’s software, normally accessed through an app, some hubs have the capability to act intelligently, receiving information from one device and using that to trigger another device into action. For example, your smart home controller could tell your door locks to activate when all the lights in the house shut off.

wink hub in room

A hub, like this one from Wink, acts as a central smart home controller. 

What to look for in a smart home controller

  • Wireless connectivity: A Wi-Fi enabled hub that doesn’t need to be physically connected to your router is a good bet, as this gives you more options as to where you place it in your home.
  • Expansion capability: The higher the number of products/devices it can support, the better.
  • Protocol compatibility: A hub that can communicate with the major home automation protocols—Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE—is important, but what’s more important is making sure it communicates with the devices you already have in your home, so check for compatibility.
  • App control: While a website interface is nice to have, make sure your hub has an app that is compatible with your smartphone. An automated home works far more smoothly from the palm of your hand than from behind a computer screen.
  • Scheduling /Automation System: The hub’s software should be able to set up schedules for your devices and create actions to connect different devices, such as an action that turns your lights off when you leave the house.
  • Alerts/Messaging: The software should be able to send you alerts when chosen actions are completed, such as an alert when your daughter opens your front door with her unique code.

Many home automation companies sell their hubs in starter kits to get you going with a certain sub-section of home automation at a discounted price. This is a great way to dip your toes into some seriously smart home automation.

Read Part Two of The Homeowners guide to building an automated smart home: What can I do with home automation? which will take you through the various scenarios in which you might want to automate your home and discuss some of the products that will help you do that.

Connect with the author, Jennifer Tuohy, on Google+ 

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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