Home Automation Trends

Find out what's new in smart home technology.

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Home Automation Logo

Home Automation logo. Today's home automation goes beyond simple programmable thermostats to systems that tell you when your carpets need cleaning or when the wine is a bit too cool. Computers can program the bedside alarm, turn on the stereo, warm the bathroom floors and remind you to take out the trash.

By: John Riha

When’s the last time you had a good heart-to-heart talk with your house? I mean a real soul-searching, tell-it-like-it-is discussion about your needs and desires?

Too many homeowners neglect these meaningful tete-a-tetes, and as a result, they and their homes both fall into what can best be described as 20th-century ennui or, the not-so-smart home syndrome.

Chillax, help’s on the way. Today’s latest home automation systems enable your house to do everything it can to please you, from announcing that your carpets need cleaning to letting you know if your wine cellar temperature is a tad too high for your Boudreaux.

Welcome to home automation

Home automation has been around since Joseph Henry pioneered the electric doorbell in 1831. Ever since, we’ve loved the idea of having our houses do things for us, making our home environment safer, cheaper to maintain, and hopefully saving us time that could be put to good use just goofing off.

Today’s smart homes do that — and more. Technology is moving rapidly past the programmable thermostat into an era that’s best described as Jetsonian. Here’s a taste:

Morning brings a graduated alarm that plays some of your favorite music. The volume builds slowly and the bedroom curtains gently part until you react and tell the alarm, “I’m snoozing!” In which case, the alarm quiets down for another 10 minutes of shut-eye. Meanwhile, the bathroom floors are already warming in anticipation of your arrival, and the coffee-maker starts brewing up some Italian roast. When you finally get down to breakfast, the voice of the automated home controller comes on the house speaker system to remind you to put bottles and newspapers at the end of the driveway because today is recycling pick-up.

Later, as you leave work for the day, you press a single “coming home” keypad button on your iPhone. In response, your house turns on the outdoor lights, brings up the indoor temperature from an energy-saving 65 degrees to a welcome-home 72, powers up the spa in similar energy-wise fashion, closes the living room and bedroom drapes, feeds the Susan Tedeschi channel from your Pandora account to the outdoor speakers, and tunes the bedroom TV to the Colbert Report so you can have some laughs as you ready for the hot tub.

Other functionality? Only limited by the imagination:

  • Your home emails you when your daughter gets home from school.
  • While on vacation, you check your home’s security cameras via iPhone.
  • Your sprinklers shut off when they sense rain.
  • Your home announces — in a commanding voice — that someone has left the gate open to the pool.
  • Your home knows which rooms are empty and powers off lights, music and turns down the HVAC to that area to save energy.

You are the controls; the controls are you

Systems Gateway

Gateway Control Touch Pad

Image courtesy of HAI.

Certainly there’s no shortage of excellent gadgets and gizmos designed to keep you safe, happy, and entertained at home. But the current evolution in home automation is about integrating all of a home’s systems into a centralized control that can be accessed from multiple entry points — home-based touch pads, computer screens, land-line telephones, cell phones, and mobile devices, such as iPads.

“Homes have their various systems,” says Mark Colegrove, Director of Sales and Marketing for Homeseer Technologies. “Lighting, entertainment, security. However, most of these systems don’t talk to each other. We’ve focused on integrating these systems, building a personalized experience based on your preferences, then automating everything so it works seamlessly, without any intervention.”

Leading the integration revolution are two components — switches that respond to automated signals, and easy-to-use software that allows a computer or dedicated controller to broadcast signals to its family of controls via wireless, infrared, radio waves, and hardwired connections.

Many types of switches are of the plug-and-play variety, making them off-the-shelf ready for the tech-savvy DIYer. For $30 to $100, you can plug a smart switch into a wall outlet or change an existing wall toggle switch to a smart switch that has a variety of capabilities, such as turning on and off devices and appliances:

  • at certain times of the day.
  • at sunset, sunrise, or any programmable time.
  • when motion is sensed or when a signal is detected, such as the sound of a doorbell.
  • in response to voice recognition.
  • in response to temperature variations.

Settling into the software interface, a homeowner can set up and direct the switches to accomplish any number of tasks. Your individualized program is then available via the internet from anywhere in the world, and can be adjusted with the click of a mouse or the tap of a smart phone screen. The result is a highly personalized environment — a house that reacts to individual needs and wants, and even anticipates changes.

Controlling your home with app-titude

Smartphone and Tablets Apps

Apps Control Home Systems

Image courtesy of Homeseer.

Most manufacturers of whole-house automation systems have jumped on the app bandwagon with programs that allow you to adjust appliances, review surveillance footage, tweak temperature and humidity settings, lock (or unlock) your front door, and a host of other controls — all from any remote location.

Unfortunately, most apps are proprietary for that manufacturer’s controls and devices. Fortunately, that’s changing, and the home automation industry is moving toward system controls that are brand agnostic. In the mobile department, apps for Windows®, Windows CE, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad are leading the way, and the open-sourced Android market is starting to heat up.

An app sampling:

Control4 My House: Whole house audio, video, lighting & HVAC control from your iPhone or iPod Touch. The app requires a Control4 home automation system. The app is free, but Control4 requires you to buy a Mobile Navigator’s license for $300.

iPhone for Homeseer: A free app that offers full control over systems installed by Homeseer.

CF iViewer: A free app with full control and feedback from your home automation system onyour iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, including live status information about your home’s temp, lights and energy consumption.

HMControl: iPhone-based control of your Z-wave home systems.

HAI Snap-Link Mobile: Mac iOS-based app that offers full system control over automated devices from HAI. Price: $49.99 (HAI also has apps for Windows Smartphones).

Green, automatically

Energy management is another hot home automation topic. With a full array of energy consumption data available via touchscreen, energy-aware homeowners can keep tabs on hot water usage, solar gain, HVAC output, and temperatures throughout the house. Control functions let the owner adjust temps and other variables to lower energy use.

“It’s the Toyota Prius dashboard effect,” says Greg Rhoades, Assistant Director of Marketing for home automation giant HAI. “If you can see how much energy you’re using you’re probably more likely to reduce that energy consumption.”

Manufacturers like HAI are already moving toward the next step, which is to work with utility companies so that residential energy-management software and hardware can work with real-time cost data to automate home systems for maximum efficiency. For example, if your local utility signals that energy costs for certain off-peak hours are the lowest available, the home system can respond by adjusting heating appliances, such as a high-capacity hot water heater, to power up at that specific time. Similarly, air conditioning might power down during peak pricing, if only for a few minutes, to trim costs.

Bells and whistles? Sure—imagine your console screen can run graphs comparing your energy usage this month to last month’s, or last year’s. Or that you can chart your energy consumption versus national averages, or use the data to display your personal carbon footprint. The engagement possibilities alone are a gateway toward better energy management.

Security meets health care

Home Control Touch Pad

Home Security/Health Controller

On the home front, a system can offer a friendly, easy-to-use touchscreen interface for email, photos and music that also provides both email and voice reminders for doctor’s appointments and medicines. Video chats allow family members, doctors and other caregivers to check in on a regular basis.

While web cam monitoring has been around since way before Robert DeNiro snuck a video cam into Ben Stiller’s bedroom in Meet the Parents, current home systems can employ multiple tactics to keep your home safe. For example, motion detector technology allows you to keep tabs on everyone’s movements inside and outside your home, and radio frequency I.D. tags can even let your system know who belongs there — and who might not.

On the practical side, imagine your housekeeper is due to come over every other Tuesday between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. You can program the system to allow entry at that time, and for your video cam to flash footage of your housekeeper via iPhone for positive I.D. Your system can confirm that the housekeeper has vacated the premises on schedule, and that the house is again locked and secure. Parents can apply a version of this scenario to confirm that young kids are home from school safely, on-time, and without any boyfriends tagging along.

Variants of security systems — easily monitored from remote locations — are a boon to the care of the elderly and infirm. On the home front, a system can offer a friendly, easy-to-use touchscreen interface for email, photos and music that also provides both email and voice reminders for doctor’s appointments and medicines. Video chats allow family members, doctors and other caregivers to check in on a regular basis.

More sophisticated tools are making their way to market, too. Motion-sensors imbedded in flooring can be programmed to “remember” the footfalls of the inhabitants, and to send out a warning signal to caregivers if an abnormality occurs, such as might happen if someone suffers a stroke. The sensors also send alarms for falls, and at the absence of normal everyday movement and activity.

“The grand idea of automation,” says Greg Rhoades, “is that while the individual control is great, what you’re really after is an eased lifestyle with less worry.”

Geeks not required

Thankfully, understanding modern home automation doesn’t require a degree in geekology. Nevertheless, before you plunge into the wild world of home automation, here’s a few techno-terms for the types of home automation systems you’re likely to encounter:

Zig bee and Z-wave are wireless home networking standards that let compatible devices share data, such as on/off commands for light switches, security sensors, smoke detectors and thermostats. They have extremely low power requirements and an effective range of up to 300 feet, making them ideal for household management.

X-10 is a protocol that carries control signals across standard electrical wire that already exists in the walls of your house. X-10-enabled devices are used for simple controls, such as turning lights and appliances off or on. The wired connections make the signals extremely reliable. Most X-10 products are reasonably priced, and the fact that they communicate using existing wiring means costly rewiring is unnecessary.

Insteon uses existing wires (power line) and radio-frequency communications to control automated devices. Insteon helped pioneer reliability for automation—a command sent through an Insteon controller is instantly confirmed; if something interrupts the transmission, the system immediately sends a back-up command.

Need help with home automation terminology? Check out this handy glossary from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB):

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