The term "smart home" has become very common these days, but nobody has really nailed down specifically what it means. What one person considers a very sophisticated, smart home might be overly simple and pedestrian to another. I see builders who label their homes "smart" simply because they prewire them with ethernet cables. At the other extreme, I have a friend whose home is so smart that it can tell whether it's him or his wife getting out of bed at night, and it lights up the appropriate pathway and performs different functions depending on who got up!
In general, though, a smart home is one that has some degree of automation and control associated with it. The house electronics – TVs, speakers, lights, shades, thermostats, garage doors, and maybe even appliances are considered "smart," meaning that they can be remotely controlled by some sort of automated system or app. This is usually accomplished with your phone or a handheld remote control, but it can also often be done with an iPad/tablet, a wall-mounted touch screen, or even your own voice control. The number of intelligent devices and systems that one has to possess before one's home can officially be considered smart remains unclear. But one thing is sure - there are many levels of home automation and control – of home "smartness," if you will. So, the big question is: how much smartness do you really need or want in your home?
As mentioned above, one of the first things to consider if you're thinking of setting up a smart home is how you are going to control the various smart electronics. For most things, a simple app on your phone is probably the ideal solution. Modern phones have large touch screens, and we take them everywhere we go, so they're always available when we need to control our smart electronics. However, you may not always be carrying your phone around with you in the house, and apps can sometimes take a while to come up, so you may want to consider some additional supplemental control options. A wall-mounted touch screen or iPad/tablet can offer a convenient control point that is always there waiting for you and never gets misplaced. Even simpler is a dedicated keypad button. If you have a more sophisticated automation system, you can install a "hard button" (i.e., not a touch screen, but a switch with actual buttons that you click) keypad next to your light switches and program it to do whatever command or commands that you like. But do you really need or want a sophisticated automation system? Maybe or maybe not – more on that later! Finally, we all probably need at least one handheld remote control for watching TV. Flipping channels and fast-forwarding through commercials with your smartphone or tablet just doesn't work well. An old-fashioned remote control is still the best tool for this job. Similarly, while voice control can be great for some things, like turning on the lights when you can't see anything in the room, it can be lousy for others, like constantly yelling at your voice assistant while watching the game!
When you're talking to your systems integrator (i.e., the person who's going to help you put your smart home together), they will probably ask you about how many zones and sources you have. Huh? It's not as confusing as it may seem. A zone is a discrete location, such as a bedroom, the living room, or the back patio. An independent zone is how many of these areas/zones you want to be able to control independently of each other. To determine that, you will want to consider how you will use these areas. Do you have six people living in the house, and thus, you'll need six different music sources going on in six different zones at the same time? Or, maybe it's just the two of you, and you'll never need more than two different things going on at the same time. Again, each area where you want to have independent control of your lights, shades, music, TV, thermostat, etc., is called a "zone."
The more independent zones you have, the more sophisticated (and expensive) your system will need to be. For example, just consider your house music and music sources. If you want music in eight different rooms in the house, but it's just for parties, and you're okay if each room always plays exactly the same thing, that is easy. You can accomplish that with some very basic equipment. However, if you want all eight of those zones to be able to play any combination of up to eight different sources, then you need what they call a "matrix amplifier." This is a device normally associated with sophisticated home automation systems that allows a full "matrix" of source and zone choices. If you want the game to play in Zones 1 through 5, but the three kids each want to listen to their Spotify playlists on Zones 6, 7, and 8, then you can do that. Or you can do any combination that you can think of.
So, the key here is to determine how many independent zones of audio, video, lighting, shades, thermostat control, and security/surveillance you need. This will help you and your system integrator design the rest of your system.
After you decide how many independent zones you need, you'll next have to consider how many different sources you have. A source is just like it sounds – a source of audio and/or video information or programming. A source could be a Blu-ray player, a DirecTV box, or even an Apple TV media player. Sometimes, you may have more than one of the same source, such as Apple TVs. We have some clients who have three or four Apple TVs in their systems. Another, perhaps more obscure source, is your smart TV. Modern TVs are essentially set up just like media streamers, so they can be considered both a display and a source in a system.
Once you decide how many sources you need and what zones need to receive/play/listen to them, that helps determine the extent of your system. In a big, integrated automation system, most, if not all, of the sources will be in the equipment closet, in the equipment rack. In a federated or distributed (i.e., non-integrated) system, you may have sources in each of your zone rooms. (You may have an Apple TV or a Roku box in your bedroom, for example. Or you may only need or want the smart TV as your source in your bedroom.)
In a sophisticated automation system, you will probably have a large audio matrix switch in addition to a similar video matrix switch. In an ideal situation, this will allow you to send any audio source or any video source to any of the zones in the house. For example, if I have 8 zones and 8 video sources, and I have an "8x8" video matrix switch, I can send any of the 8 video sources to any of the eight zones in any combination. This allows for shared resources in a central location. For example, you may have 8 locations where you could watch DirecTV, but you will only ever watch two DirecTV programs at the same time. This allows you to only buy 2 DirecTV boxes rather than one for each TV in the eight zones.
What to Control
Okay, so now you've decided how many zones and sources you need. The next point of consideration in your smart home design is what you want to control with your automation system. Audio and video equipment are the standard things to control, but what about lights, shades, locks, garage doors, thermostats, pool equipment, fireplaces, and fans? Each of these things – and more – can be controlled with a smart home automation system. In most homes, however, you probably aren't concerned with controlling every light and every shade, for example. There may be a few things that you just leave for good old-fashioned manual control. So, a good idea is to go through the house and carefully assess which things you really want to control with automation and which things can be left to manual control.
Big Automation System vs. Local Systems
As noted above, there are many reasons why you may want a fully integrated home automation system. In a properly designed system of this type, all of your electronic equipment is housed in a central equipment rack (or two), ideally in a dedicated, air-conditioned room or large closet. All of your zones are tied together such that you can listen to or watch anything in any zone. Your systems are grouped together such that you can control the lights, shades, audio, video, etc., in one zone all together. Everything is controlled by a single app that you can use on your phone, handheld, or tablet. This is definitely the ideal way to go.
However, all of this integration and sophistication comes at the price of complexity and expense. When there are many different systems tied together over a large area, it can take a few weeks (or even a few months) to iron out and synchronize the control of everything. Usually, glitches due to network errors or copyright protection will pop up early in a system's life. They can always be fixed, but the quirkiness of the system until then can be frustrating. If you're the type of person who doesn't have the patience to work through these types of issues, you may want to consider going with a less-sophisticated "federated" type of system.
In a federated system, most of the zones are fully independent from one another, and they cannot communicate with each other. Some of the equipment can still be housed in a centralized location, but most of it is more likely in the zones in which it is supporting. You may have a local sound bar and Apple TV in the bedroom, for example, which doesn't communicate with the rest of the house.
Federated vs. Integrated
Whether you take the federated or the integrated approach to your system depends on several factors: a) your desire for control of the system as a whole, b) the space and aesthetics of storing equipment throughout the house, c) whether your home is large enough that it just makes more sense to house and utilize the equipment in one central area, and d) your overall system budget. Automation systems and matrix switches, not to mention baluns (the things that allow you to send audio and video signals across the house over Ethernet cable), can add thousands of dollars to the overall cost of a system. Whether that is worth it to you depends on the factors listed above and more. I suggest you work with your systems integration consultant to run some rough budgetary numbers on a couple of different scenarios. (It doesn't necessarily need to be all one way or the other, either. You can set up a hybrid system where most systems are integrated, but there are a few federated/distributed systems throughout the house.)
Apps and Macros
One of the main advantages of a fully integrated automation system is that everything is typically run with a single app. The app is the same on the phone, tablet, touch screen, and handheld remote control. This gives consistency and uniformity to how the system is operated. If you elect to go with a more federated or localized system, then most likely, you will have multiple apps on your phone for controlling the various systems. In my own home, for example, I am slowly migrating to a fully integrated automation system. But, in the meantime, I have two different apps for both of my different thermostat brands, another app for my garage door opener and yet another app for some of my lights. It's a bit of a pain in the you-know-what, but it's one of the prices you must pay for a lower-cost, less-integrated system.
In addition to the number of apps required to run a distributed/federated system, another point of consideration is macros. If all of your systems are controlled by the same automation system, this affords tremendous opportunities for creating macros or what are more commonly called "scenes" or "actions" these days. For example, if everything I have is controlled by one system, I can create a button called "Goodnight" by my nightstand that turns off all the lights in the house, locks all the doors, puts all the garage doors down, turns up the thermostat a couple of degrees and automatically turns off the TV in 30 minutes (presumably after I've fallen asleep!). This type of series of commands simply can't be done if you have multiple apps and systems controlling each type of electronics that you own.
Having a smart home is a great thing for a lot of reasons. Once everything is properly set up and working, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it! In our previous showroom, for example, I had a single button that turned off 79 different lights at the same time. Talk about a time saver! In our current NW showroom, we have a single button that raises or lowers 22 different shades. This alone would take quite some time to do manually!
However, how smart your home needs to be or should be depends on multiple factors that I unfortunately can't answer for you. Hopefully, this article has given you some things to consider and work with when you talk to your systems integrator about designing your smart home system. No two homes are exactly alike, so the more you know ahead of time, the more your integrator can create a custom space that works within your needs and budget.