Home Technology : Smart Home
Questions When Considering Home Automation
Home control systems have been on the market for decades, but thanks to the growing sophistication of both the technology and consumers themselves, the idea is finally gaining critical mass. The convenience of automated and/or remote control of your home’s electronic devices and systems — entertainment, climate, security, lighting — is now accessible for any household. But what’s the best way to get started?
Here are 10 questions worth asking as you explore the possibility of a home control system for your own house:
1. What are you looking to accomplish?
Home control can be as elementary as being able to shut off a downstairs light from upstairs, but it can also be a sophisticated command center for virtually anything that runs on electricity in your house. Tasks like multi-room audio and basic lighting control can be practically plug and play these days, while more elaborate schemes that integrate with your thermostats and security systems are best specified and installed by a professional. Qualify your own goals before starting to shop.
2. How much scalability do you need?
In part, the answer here relates to the previous question about your overall interests. Some systems are designed for basic tasks and not much else. Other systems are capable of sending not just control commands, but also data-intensive media like video and audio throughout the house. You want the flexibility to be able to build on today’s purchases tomorrow. Brands and technical platforms aren’t necessarily compatible with each other, so it pays to consider the future when you begin to assemble the system.
3.How remote do you need your remote control to be?
Many of today’s home control systems are capable of connecting to the Internet, which allows you to monitor and control your connected devices even when you’re not at home. This is useful when you’re away from home a lot for business or vacation travel, and also for getting the house ready for you when you come home from work or the kids arrive from school.
4. Which control medium is right for you?
Home control systems send commands through a transmission medium. Some, like Zigbee and Z-Wave, use radio waves and are wireless. Others use your already-installed home electrical or phone wiring. The most elaborate (and reliable) systems use Ethernet cable installed throughout the house. If you’re building a new home, consider structured Ethernet wiring for your home control. If you want the easiest way into the game, think a wireless or power/phone line medium.
5. How much complexity will your family tolerate?
Basic control systems use familiar (and proprietary) push-button remote controls that are easy enough for anyone to operate, so long as you don’t mind another clicker or two on the coffee table. In many (not all) cases you can program the codes from these yourself into a universal remote, such as the ones that control your A/V system. More elaborate control systems use custom hand-held or in-wall keypads, sometimes substituting iPhones and iPads. It all sounds cool, but even the prettiest interface can’t make complex ideas completely simple. Before you pick a system, try to see it through the eyes of the least technically oriented member of the household who will use it. Will they be able to work things when you’re not home?
6. Proprietary or open protocol?
Some systems work only with their own brand-specific control components. Other systems have their own branded components, but also interface with many other brands and technologies. Still other systems use widely-adopted technologies that work with almost any brand’s components. As you consider your system, think about all the different devices you’d want to control in the home, and determine the compatibilities and possible incompatibilities in advance.
7. Installer only or user configurable?
There’s obviously great attraction to a control system you can simply plug in and work with minutes later. But realistically speaking that’s only going to work with a few control tasks and a few brands. Perhaps that’s all you need. Some systems work with familiar browser-based interfaces and other user-oriented programming tools. If you’re relatively IT savvy and want to take the time, you really can program many of these systems yourself. But for an elaborate whole-house system, you’ll want an experienced integrator who can help you plan the system, as well as program it and support it.
8. Wired or wireless?
Wireless systems like Zigbee, Z-Wave and conventional Wi-Fi are easy and inexpensive, but they’re subject to roadblocks throughout the house that can impede their signals. Older homes with plaster walls are a particular challenge for wireless systems, as are larger homes with serious distances between floors and rooms. A wired system is always going to work more reliably, which is is goal #1 for a control system. If you haven’t built your home yet, consider structured wiring, not only for your IT needs but for expandability into home control. If whole-home wiring isn’t practical, check into powerline and/or phone line based systems.
For most people, cost is a priority consideration. Basic control modules for lights and small devices can start under $100. A simple system for multi-room audio can be had for under $1000. A full-blown whole-home controls system that incorporates entertainment, climate and security will cost four or five figures by the end of the day. Keep in mind that you don’t have to buy everything all at once. The better systems will let you build over time, buying only the capabilities that you need, when you need them.
10. Is there any other way?
Home control is a wonderful addition to almost any home, but for many, it’s overkill. Ask yourself if it wouldn’t be just as easy to put another small sound system in an upstairs bedroom, instead of installing new speakers and control panels tied to the sound system downstairs. If all you want to do is control lighting from your easy chair, there are lots of inexpensive ways to do it without going the whole nine yards into home control. And for many home control tasks, service providers like your local cable or phone company, and your home security company will be glad to talk to you about what they offer and what’s possible.
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