Many people have heard the terms “automation” or “home automation”, but few fully understand what they mean. Webster’s defines automation as “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically”. This can apply to a variety of different things, but in this example, the system is your home and the apparatus are the various electronic systems inside your home. The intent of this article is to provide a very basic overview of home automation, with the hope of helping you wade through the hundreds of options you have when you consider whether to “automate” your own home.
What can be Controlled?
In general, home automation is all about making the various electrical and electronic systems in your home easier to operate and control. These systems include some obvious things, like audio, video and lighting, and even some not-so-obvious things like your drip system or your garage door opener. Other things that fit somewhere in-between include motorized shades/window coverings, security systems, surveillance systems, thermostats and more. Just about anything can be automated if you really want it to be.
Federated vs. Integrated
Automation products are common these days. If you go to your neighborhood home-improvement store, you’ll see dozens of options for automating your lights or your doorbell or your surveillance system. Even the Apple Store sells a large variety of these products. Most are very inexpensive and function with an app that you can download to your phone. These systems are designed for the “DIYer” - the person who likes to install and set up things themselves. They work well as a whole, are relatively easy to install and set up, and they don’t cost much. The only major drawback is that they create a “federated” system vs. an “integrated” system. In other words, they all are designed to work on their own, but they are generally not designed to work together. You may buy a couple lighting controls that allow you to turn on and off one or two lights, but that probably requires a different app than the system that controls your thermostat. And neither of those necessarily work with your TV remote. They simply aren’t designed to work together as an integrated system.
If you’re not a DIYer and prefer to let someone else deal with the technical issues, then there are several other options you can consider. These include automation brand names like Control4, Crestron, URC and Savant. These systems tend to be more expensive and generally require an expert for installation and programming. Their big advantage over the other systems, however, is that they are designed to form an integrated system. In other words, the remote that controls your TV also can control your lights and your thermostat. The phone app that puts your shades up and down also can lower your garage door and turn off your lights. Furthermore, an integrated system also offers the ability to control multiple systems at the same time. For example, you can have a single button-push turn on your audio system and TV, lower the lights and the shades, turn down the thermostat, and switch the cable box to ESPN, just in time to watch the big game. Now that’s true home automation!
So, you may be asking, what about voice control through Amazon Alexa or Google Home or even Apple Siri. “Can’t I automate my home using these devices?” The good news is that the answer is “yes” for both federated and integrated systems. There are some limitations on both sides of the automation spectrum, though, so we’ll leave that discussion for another time…
Whether you choose a simple, federated system with a couple devices, or a sophisticated whole-home system, adding automation can provide an enormous improvement in your quality of life. Something as simple as being able to ensure all the lights are off and the garage door is down, from anywhere in the world, brings a piece of mind that is hard to gain from any other source! I encourage everyone to automate their life, accordingly!