In previous discussions, I’ve described what constitutes a “smart home” or a “home automation system”, but today I’d like to discuss the levels, grades, and relative pricing of several of the most popular automation systems out there right now. There are multiple tiers when it comes to employing an automation system in your home, from the basic DIY (do-it-yourself) systems you can get on Amazon or at Home Depot, all the way up to a fully customized system that requires a software programmer to complete. This article will hopefully help you make an informed decision on which one is right for you.
There are many DIY options out there right now, including but not limited to: Apple Home Kit, Ring Networks, Nest, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Arlo, SmartThings, and more. These systems provide by far the best bang for your automation buck. Most components in the system (thermostats, cameras, light switches, etc.) can be purchased online in the range of $50 to $200, and there generally isn’t a requirement for a master controller, i.e. a main “brain” that controls everything. The downside to these systems, as I’ve mentioned in other articles, is that it is difficult to use just one of these brands. You will most likely end up with multiple brands and 3 to 5 apps on your phone to control the various electronics in your home. The other drawback is that most of these systems are designed to only work on your home’s Wi-Fi network. (i.e. not hard-wired) If you don’t have a really strong Wi-Fi signal across all areas of your home, you will constantly fight dropouts and bad connections. However, automating your entire home this way is the most cost-effective approach and will only set you back in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,000 for a whole home, depending on how many devices and lights you want to control.
Entry-Level Professional Options
The next level up from the DIY options brings you into the entry-level of professionally installed systems. These systems include, but are not limited to URC (Universal Remote Control), RTI, and Elan. Although these systems usually require installation and setup by a professional system integration company, they can also be optionally installed and programmed by a highly technically inclined homeowner. These systems are not quite as sophisticated as the more expensive professional options, but unlike the DIY approach, they are more inclusive. The advantage is that one system controls everything. In other words, you won’t have a bunch of apps on your phone controlling various systems and parts of your house. Because these systems are entry-level and slightly less sophisticated and capable professional options, they tend to cost a bit less than the other professional options. Expect a system to cost in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000 for an entry-level system.
The Big-3 Professional Options
At this level, there are essentially only 3 players: Control4, Savant, and Crestron Home. (Crestron actually has 2 levels, which we’ll discuss more later.) These are the top fully integrated home automation systems in the industry. If you’re not a DIY person and you want something that is reliable and easy to use, this is your best bet. Unlike the previous options, these must be professionally installed and programmed by a system integration company. Once they are fully installed and set up, you won’t be able to make any changes yourself, other than adjusting your own lighting and shades scenes and schedules. But the goals of these systems are to integrate all of your electronic systems into a single app that can be controlled by your phone, touch screen, or handheld remote control. Furthermore, this allows cascading of multiple commands, such as a single “Goodnight” button that turns off all the lights in the house, closes all the shades, turns off all the TVs, and arms the alarm in “stay” mode. Without a fully integrated system, this kind of automation is difficult, if not impossible. Expect to pay in the range of $10,000 to $25,000 for a professionally installed system of this level. This is for the automation equipment only and doesn’t factor in the price of TVs, cameras, speakers, etc. Plus, for this level of a system, the integrator will want to hardwire as many of the connections as possible. (It’s just much more stable and reliable to hardwire vs. Wi-Fi.) For this reason, you will probably be required to upgrade to an enterprise-grade home network. This will cost you an additional $2,000 to $4,000, depending on your existing equipment.
Which of the Big-3 you should go with really depends on your personal tastes. I suggest you arrange a demonstration of each of them – try them out and see which one you like the best. They are all very similar but have slightly different looks and feels. Fortunately, they are all excellent, though, and you really can’t make a wrong choice. The key is that once you commit to one of them, you’re probably going to be stuck with that system as long as you’re in that house. You generally can’t mix and match systems, except for Lutron, as we’ll discuss next…
The Friendly Option - Lutron
The other option in automation systems is Lutron. They are a bit of an anomaly because they only control lighting and shades, although they do seem to be getting more and more into whole home automation and control as well, so who knows what the future holds. Like Control4, Savant, and Crestron, Lutron is generally only installed by professional system integrators. But they can be programmed by a very experienced homeowner if that is a desire. Perhaps the best aspect of Lutron is that they generally “work and play with anyone”. In other words, whether you have a URC, Control4, Savant, or Crestron Home system, the chances are good that you can also control your Lutron lighting and shades with those systems. So, Lutron can make a lot of sense for a lot of different systems.
The Best Option – Crestron Custom
As I alluded to earlier, there is also a second Crestron option called Crestron Custom. Those who have been in the industry for a while know this as the “old” Crestron or the “traditional” Crestron. This is arguably the most comprehensive and sophisticated home automation system in the industry. Everything is 100% customized to the look and feel that the homeowner wants. Every screen, every page of the app – they are all custom-programmed by a highly-trained Crestron programmer. The advantages of this are that you will get exactly what you want, and it will look exactly like you want. Things that can’t be done by other systems can by Crestron Custom. The disadvantages of this approach are that it will be very expensive and very time-consuming to get right. Software programming is truly an art form, and it takes multiple iterations of a customized program to get everything just the way you want it. For large systems, this could take weeks or even months. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t have the patience for this kind of iteration, Crestron Custom is definitely not for you. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $200,000 for a Crestron Custom automation system, including programming.
Homes continue to get smarter and smarter, and the range of options we have for controlling our lights, shades, cameras, thermostats, and other electronics keeps getting wider and wider. If you’re a technically-minded DIY type, you can save a ton of money by doing it yourself. Yes, you will frequently be tweaking your system since things in this range tend to drop out and need adjusting from time to time. But if you’re this personality type, you really don’t mind at all. However, if you’re not technically minded, or maybe you just don’t have the time to install your own system, going with one of the professionally installed systems like Control4, Savant or Crestron Home makes more sense. Which one you go with really depends on what looks and feels best to you. But as long as you work with a reputable systems integrator, they can make any of the major brands work and feel the way you want. Plus, they’ll make your life a lot easier once the system is complete – and that is really the end goal: making complex electronic systems easier and more enjoyable to use!