Home Automation! What You Need to Know to Not Be DumbS

Every tech freak, rich man and lazy boy wants to be able to control their house like a Bond nemesis controls his volcano. But...where do you start? Right. Here.

What can I even do with home automation?

The phrase "home automation" has been used encompass so much stuff that it's hard for experts to explain exactly what you can do without starting into an hour-long rant that goes off into crazy stuff you don't care about. So here is a short and simple list of what home automation can do.

  • Control your air conditioning and heating
  • Access video cameras inside and outside your house
  • Control your home theater system
  • Control your lights
  • Pipe music, your TV's audio or your voice into different rooms
  • Interface with your home's security system
  • Turn on and off any appliance
  • Open doors, windows, blinds, curtains, and other motorized entry/exit components, like your garage door

..and you can do this all...

  • From your phone
  • From a computer
  • From touchscreen panels or fancy light switches or iPads
  • From outside your house
  • Automatically, based on a schedule
  • Automatically, based on other "events" that happen, like doors opening, or motion sensors being set off
  • One at a time, or all together

So how does it work?

The basics of home automation is that one thing needs to tell another thing to do something, usually without you physically standing up and going over to that second thing. Also, the closer you are to the first thing, the better and more "automated" it is. Eventually you'll just be yelling out random commands in your home, and a system of microphones will pick them up and translate that into actions. But not today.

Today, these pieces need to talk over some kind of network, using some kind of protocol. It can be Bluetooth, it can be through your electrical system (Power Line), over your home's Wi-Fi network or the cell network, for communications while you're outside. It can also be through proprietary protocols that equipment manufacturers have established so that their stuff can talk with other companies' stuff. The most popular protocols that we've seen are ZigBee, Z-Wave and X10. There are, of course, proprietary standards like Lutron's that they use to control their light switches and shades, but, theoretically, with enough adapters, software and time (and money), anything can talk to anything else.

X10

X10 is the cheapest of these solutions, and you've probably seen X10's simpler products sold at Fry's for the DIY market. They can do a decent amount, and you'll see X10-compatible products control lamps, light switches, some AV gear and some alarm systems. The problem with X10 and why it's not used for more things is that the protocol wasn't meant to handle sending a lot of data at a quick speed. Home automation systems can support the X10 protocol, but it's not usually used to do all the heavy lifting.

ZigBee and Z-Wave

ZigBee and Z-Wave are the more popular standards, with integrator/manufacturers Crestron and Control4 and AMX using ZigBee, whereas Z-Wave is mostly supported by component makers like Schlage and iControl and D-Link and a bunch of other companies they have listed on their member page. But here's the thing: It doesn't matter! Just like you wouldn't go to the store and buy a bunch of PS3 games before choosing whether to buy a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox, you wouldn't buy a bunch of disparate components with various standards before you choose which "system" to install it with.

I see! Then which integrators should I go with?

Ah, now there's the question that brings us to the unfortunate talk of money. The short answer is that it depends on how much money you have and how much you want to do. If you're doing very basic light controls and appliance on/off switching, X10 might be enough. This solution emphasizes the "yourself" in the "do it yourself", and you should be prepared to be reading manuals, swapping out components and getting your tools out. Don't be afraid to get a little...er...electrocuted, if this is your first time digging around inside your house.

But if you're more serious—and by that, I mean rich—you have more choices. The biggest name is Crestron, and they have a lot of support from component manufacturers, and in turn, support a lot of components. But it's costly. You're looking at paying people to come over and work with you on your needs, asking you how you live your life and how your entertainment system works, then customizing controls to fit those needs. It's pretty great if you have special needs, either because there are family members with physical disabilities that need things automated just so, or because you have a weirdly structured and built house that needs special accommodations for you.

Keep in mind that just as these installers aren't working for $12 an hour, the components they're installing aren't cheapo, low-end ones sold at Fry's. For a good-sized house and a good-sized system, you're looking at five figures.

You've also got Savant, which are pretty respected for AV as well as lighting and other areas, and AMX, which I'm unfortunately not as familiar with, but is still high end.

However, Control4, which I have more experience with, is meant to be the affordable solution for home automation. Affordable is a relative term in this space, but if you're already set on outfitting your house, low to mid four figures isn't too horrible, especially when you factor in that a guy or two still needs to come over to customize the setup for you and install parts into your house.

It's unfortunate that we're in the year 2010 and there aren't a lot of home automation products made to "just work" that we can buy off the shelf and integrate ourselves as easily as programming a universal remote. In fact, it's still so complicated that installers need to come over and program boxes and set up your system for you, often calling up tech support of each individual component manufacturer for a way to integrate/program them correctly. And their own companies—be it Control4 or Crestron or another brand—needs to write specific drivers for their software to talk to things. It's a mess.

Got it. What now?

Well, now that you're familiar with the basics of home automation, we can go more in depth with specific components, manufacturers and integrators and discussing the yays and nays of each. All these gadgets are really damn cool in a Jetsons sort of way, and it's definitely where things are going in the future. In 100 years, when we're all dead—or alive, but with nano-machines in our bodies—people are going to look back and consider living in a house that's not fully automated to be barbaric.