Home Automation

Home Automation 101

Home Automation 101This Spring, Google announced its foray into the world of home automation, introducing a framework for controlling household devices from your phone or tablet—including a new generation of household LED lightbulbs. Home automation isn’t a new concept, but it’s seen little adoption outside of hobbyists and high-end custom installations. Now with Google talking about controlling your home with Android devices, suddenly it’s mainstream news.

So what’s all the buzz? Is it convenience? Savings? Coolness? It’s a mixture of all of these and more. Over the coming months at The Digital Media Zone, we’ll be looking more closely at home automation technologies and techniques, examining the whats, whys, and hows of turning your home into a smart home. But before we get too deep into anything specific, let’s go over some of the basics.

What is Home Automation?

Home automationsmart homehome control—these terms all refer to the idea of household devices acting systematically, in response to your actions, behaviors, and events. Imagine your lights, sprinklers, and consumer electronics reacting to environmental factors like the time of day, ambient light, temperature, or precipitation. Or maybe appliances, climate controls, and doors responding to your touch, your command, or your presence. This isn’t the home of the future—this is all possible today.

“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”

Home automation technology makes it possible to control any number of devices in your home individually or as part of an integrated network. Programmable timers have been around for decades to turn lights on and off at specific times or time intervals. Similarly, commonly-available occupancy sensor switches can illuminate a room or closet as you enter and turn the lights off again when you leave. This is home automation in its simplest form, providing independent control of lights, appliances, and other home electronics.

The real power comes from control devices that can form a network by communicating with each other and reacting to any number of events. These, too, have existed for a long time, but the technology has evolved considerably over the years, offering improved function and reliability. A network of plug-in, hard-wired, and wireless devices can control lights, appliances, irrigation, climate control, and security systems in and around your home based on occupancy, local sunrise/sunset, and many other factors.

Home Automation 101A typical smart home network can turn on the porch light at dusk, turn on path lighting if it’s dark out when you pull into the driveway, turn off interior lights around the house when you go to bed, and turn on the coffee pot before you wake up in the morning. And at the higher end of the spectrum, complex integrated systems can control multiple devices based on any number of events. Such a system could dim the lights, lower the blinds, and send incoming calls to voicemail when you start a movie, then open a picture-in-picture view of the front porch when the doorbell rings.

Reap the Benefits

While all of this may sound pretty great, you may still be trying to justify investing in home automation technology—to either yourself or a less tech-savvy partner. Smart home devices and systems can offer many advantages; here are a few to get you started:

  • Convenience. There’s no denying the convenience of automatically illuminating a room when entering or turning off multiple lights at once with a single switch.
  • Ambiance. Most home control systems let you create “scenes” that set individual lamps and fixtures to a level of your choosing for different activities or moods.
  • Safety. Lighting triggered by motion can illuminate steps, entries, or rooms when your hands are full or when it’s dark, ensuring you’ll see where you’re stepping or reaching.
  • Security. Timed programs can switch lights on and off with enough variance that nobody will know whether you’re home or not. Automatically illuminate the entry when someone approaches the door, or turn on all the lights in your home with a single “panic” button.
  • Energy efficiency. Lighting controllers make it easy to dim lamps and fixtures by default, using less energy throughout your home. Forget to switch off the garage light or outside sprinklers? Don’t worry about it—they’ll go off on their own.
  • Savings. Saving energy saves money, but there’s more to it than that. Ramping halogen and incandescent lights on and off gradually—and dimming them during daily use—extends bulb life.
  • Geek-cred. Who can’t get excited about turning on the porch lights from your phone or controlling devices throughout the home from a computer or tablet in the kitchen? Your circle of techie friends won’t help but be impressed!

Getting Started

Whether you want to control just one lamp or nearly every device in your home, there are many products available to help you get started on home automation projects of your own. You can set up wireless control of your lamps and appliances for as little as $20. With more of an investment, you can create an integrated system with scenes and timers. And if you’re a wealthy technophile with a boat-load of cash to spend on a custom system, there are many consumer electronics integrators out there that specialize in automating high-end homes.

It’s up to you how much to spend or how to approach your home automation project. And if Google brings home automation technology to the masses, that could make it even easier for everyone to acquire, install, and configure a network of smart home products. However you go about it—DIY or custom install job—check back at The Digital Media Zone for information and ideas on how to get started.

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.