Home Automation System Basics
What can you do with a home automation system?
Automating your home means that you can control heating and cooling systems, door locks, surveillance cameras, lighting, appliances, and more from your computer or smartphone. You can also monitor for fire, carbon monoxide leaks, water pipe leaks, and in some cases even extreme weather events.
Different systems and technologies determine exactly what you can do, but here are a few typical scenarios:
- As your garage door goes up when you return from work, interior lights automatically turn on in the areas leading from the garage entry to the living room and kitchen.
- When a family member accidentally gets locked out you unlock the front door remotely using your smartphone.
- You receive a text message at work letting you know that a motion-activated camera recorded activity during a time of day when no one was supposed to be in your house. The text message contains a link to the video clip.
- A water alarm set off by a broken pipe triggers a remotely controlled valve that automatically shuts off water supply, limiting damage.
From home security and disaster monitoring to the "cool factor" of having the lights automatically dim and the surround sound bump up when you turn on your DVD player, home automation satisfies a variety of needs.
Is a home automation system a worthwhile upgrade?
Yes, in part because you can expect to see a lot more of them. Nearly 2 million units will be shipped worldwide this year, and that number is expected to reach 12 million in 2016, according to ABI Research. So whether you want the conveniences they offer or you're just thinking about future resale value, they're worth investigating.
What's involved in getting one?
You can still spend tens of thousands of dollars on an elaborate home automation system, but most people will find their needs met for a far more palatable price. Here are some popular options:
Install your own system, e.g., FrontPoint.
You can buy a complete FrontPoint home automation system and install it yourself for around $1,100 to $1,400, according to this very informative review by MaximumPC.com. FrontPoint provides 24/7 top-level monitoring for $49.99 per month, and does not require you to sign up for a long-term contract.
Have a system installed, e.g., Vivint or ADT.
Vivint is very similar to FrontPoint, but according to the MaximumPC review, the Vivint control panel is superior. Vivint systems are installed by a technician and require a 42-month contract. Top-level monitoring is $68.99 a month when your equipment fee is subsidized (a system similar to the FrontPoint version mentioned above would cost around $350). However, if you pay full price up front for the equipment the top-level monthly monitoring rate drops to $49.99.
ADT also provides home automation and monitoring. All three systems are compared in the MaximumPC article linked to above.
Go completely "do-it-yourself."
Some homeowners buy their own home control equipment, such as the Schlage LiNK system or the MiCasaVerde Vera 2, both under $300. They install it themselves and contract separately with an independent monitoring company such as AlarmRelay, which usually results in a much lower monthly rate. For example, AlarmRelay charges $8.95 a month for 24/7 monitoring.
Wait for Android @ Home.
Earlier this year Google unveiled plans for a framework that lets you control lights, appliances, and more from devices using the Android platform. (So far there has been no mention of a security feature.) More news about this is expected by the end of 2011.
What questions should you ask?
Does the system use powerline or radio frequency (RF)?
Powerline communication uses electrical wiring in your home, whereas RF uses wireless technology. Wireless systems avoid problems with older wiring and are easier to take with you when you move.
Does the control panel use a GSM (mobile) connection?
GSM is preferable because a standard phone line could be cut by an intruder, which would disable the control panel.
Does the control panel have "crash and smash" protection?
There's usually a delay between the time your security alarm sounds and the time an alert is sent to the monitoring company. Without crash and smash protection, if the control panel is destroyed during that interval the monitoring company never gets the alert.
What phones can you use with the system?
ADT systems communicate with the iPhone and Blackberry. FrontPoint and Vivint systems communicate with those two brands and Android phones as well.
What kind of technology does it use?
The primary wireless technologies are Z-wave and Zigbee. FrontPoint, Vivint, and ADT all use Z-wave, which appears to be compatible with more accessories at this time. Insteon and UPB are powerline technologies that are still quite popular.
The bottom line:
Home automation systems are worth considering because they offer big improvements in terms of convenience and safety, they can lower your energy bills and home insurance premiums, and they're far more affordable than many people realize right now.
(In addition, having one in your home just might make you feel a little bit like Captain Kirk strolling around the bridge of the Starship Enterprise - a notable side benefit. :)
Are you thinking of investing in a home automation system or other home improvement project? If so, please feel free to email or call me. I'm always happy to provide you with more information or point you towards a reliable specialist.
By the way, please keep in mind that the point of this information is not to recommend any specific brand or service, but simply to help you know what to consider when it comes to home automation systems. The pricing mentioned here could change in the future.
(What the lawyers make us say: The information in this newsletter is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Please always consult a qualified expert before making decisions based on this content. Nothing in this article is meant to be taken as expert legal, financial, or medical advice.)