In the same way that a smartphone compiles a wide range of technology and communication platforms into a single device, home automation integrates a number of systems that can help boost safety and cost-effectiveness around the home. With most systems now controlled via smartphone apps, the technology is increasingly convenient.
Forget your keys or lock yourself out? Need to adjust the temperature of your home while sitting in rush hour traffic? Want to receive an alert when your kids come home from school? Home automation leverages a combination of unique technology and equipment to monitor and manage the basic functions of your home. Whether they’re controlled automatically or remotely is up to you.
The technology requires two specific components: hardware and software. The hardware is the physical equipment that’s installed in your home. Controlled by the software platform, the switches and other accessories respond to signals delivered wirelessly or through infrared, radio, or hardwired connections.
Depending on the switches and software you select, home automation elements can be controlled by:
- Automated schedules
- Remote manual signals
- Motion sensors
- Voice recognition
- Temperature fluctuations and alarms
This BuyerZone Home Automation Buyer’s Guide takes you through the basics, including available options, what to look for in a system, and how to choose the best options when trying to enhance your home while cutting energy costs. We can also put you in touch with a number of qualified sellers in your area who can provide free price quotes on an entire system or individual components.
The first step is to familiarize yourself with the core equipment. Most of the following are essential to a quality home automation system, enabling it to immediately start saving you on heating and energy. Get started by pairing your needs with the list of equipment below.
In general, most systems are made up of at least one computer with a propriety software platform, an internal network of hardwired cables or wireless hubs, a backup power source (in case of emergency), motion sensors and related devices being controlled, and the equipment within your home system.
Though not always required, a high speed Internet connection is also recommended as it allows the system to communicate quickly and reliably with you, if accessing remotely, or emergency personnel in case of alarm.
The primary goals of home automation are to save you time through automation and money by cutting your energy, water, and natural gas consumption. Connecting you with primary systems via any web-enabled device anywhere in the world, common examples for automation include:
- Window shades, blinds, and similar coverings
- Sprinkler systems
- Interior and exterior lighting
- Telephone, voicemail, and related communications gear
Home automation is a combination of hardware and technology that’s designed to simplify and safeguard your family and property. With an idea of the basic equipment involved, the next step is to learn how they’re put to use.
Home automation systems like those provided by HomeSeer, INSTEON, Control4, Vera, mControl, Iris, and JDS offer ever-increasing levels of automation and control. More importantly, they combine elements that include HVAC systems, security monitoring services, home entertainment, and even music platforms like iTunes and Windows Media.
Most platforms are fully customizable, enabling them to be tailored to the specific needs of each room and area of your home and surrounding property. To achieve this broad level of personalization, home automation peripherals, sometimes known generically as accessories, have been designed for a variety of automated tasks.
Common equipment includes:
- Electronic door locks
- Lighting (interior and exterior)
- Motion detectors
- Motorized shades and blinds
- Security equipment (cameras, keypads, sirens)
- Touchscreen panels
- Usage meters (water, energy)
- Water controls
- Weather and temperature sensors (wind, rain, light, humidity)
Home automation equipment and the needs they represent often fall into four major categories: lighting, climate, security, and home entertainment. They can be integrated into the system selectively, depending on your needs, or as one complete package. Let’s start by looking at lighting.
Lighting components within a home automation setup serve two purposes: (1) they maintain comfortable, pre-established light levels around the home and yard while (2) avoiding any unnecessary energy expenditures, turning the lights off when not in use.
The controls typically operate as a stand-alone automated system with timed events or as a manual setup that includes advanced scheduling and remote operation. These varying levels of control can provide one-touch operation for the lighting of an entire room, as well as some appliances.
Though some lighting schemes are easier to install with new buildings, most home automation systems are modular and have been engineered for existing construction, easily retrofitted within any room or structure. Lighting packages are no different than your current switches or plugs – they run off of standard residential wiring (120/240V). This enables you to add components as you go, automating one room at a time as your needs change simply by replacing your existing electrical components with automated upgrades.
Popular lighting peripherals include:
- Switches and receptacles
- Fan controls
- Color change kits
But not every form of light requires energy. Harnessing natural light is one of the most cost-effective ways to save on energy bills. So home automation systems are designed with weather and light sensors that can easily dim or brighten a room through the use of shades or blinds. Controlled via automated sensors or one-touch operation, shades are extremely energy efficient – capable of cutting energy costs while saving heat in the winter.
Automated blinds offer silent operation, extended motor life, and an attractive dressing on any window or glass door. Plus, they’re also commonly incorporated into home theatres and similar rooms used for entertaining or presentations, dimming the lights with the push of a single button.
But energy savings aren’t exclusive to just lighting adjustments. Climate and humidity control also play a huge part in the cost-effectiveness of the system. Here’s how.
Smart thermostats help keep the temperature of your home comfortable while avoiding the unnecessary use of heat and air conditioning. They are critical components of home automation, not to mention significant contributors to energy savings.
Like all other equipment within this niche, smart thermostats can be setup as an automated system or controlled manually on any web-enabled device. This allows you to turn on the heat or air conditioning while driving home from work or boarding a plane, often with voice recognition and auditory commands. It provides exact digital temperature for every room in the house through your HVAC system.
A smart thermostat works by controlling the usage of your specific energy sources, including gas, oil, forced air, radiant, electric, and heat pumps. Easily installed into new construction as well as existing retrofits, common features include:
- Wireless networking, connecting all components into a single system, including HVAC, pool/jacuzzi pump, and a variety of other motors and fans around the home
- Future programming that shuts down all unnecessary systems when you’re gone for the weekend or allows you to tailor a different temperature, humidity, and climate setting for each day of the week
- Data and history, reporting on the external temperature and detailing energy use for a given time period
- Automatic heat/cool changeover, controlling the exact temperature of a room without manual intervention
- Fan cycle that promotes continued air flow through the room to ensure consistent temperature
Saving on your monthly utility bill is a big plus. But home automation also adds a considerable level of protection when coupled with a security monitoring component – and for two groups in particular.
In general, security components are designed to detect burglary and intrusion, smoke and fire, flooding and water leaks, and common toxic gases. When an alarm is triggered, the appropriate emergency personnel are notified and you receive a phone call, text message, or email notifying you of the event.
Home automated security uses sensors that are either hardwired, wireless, or both to alert you and emergency personnel when an alarm is tripped. And the burglar component often includes HD video surveillance at 1080p as part of the system as well, monitoring doorways, garages, and the surrounding property.
While home automated security provides a wealth of safety to everyone, there are a couple of specific groups that tend to benefit more than others: parents and the elderly.
- Parents. Home automation systems can be configured to notify you, without triggering an emergency alarm, when your kids enter and leave the house. Access control is often paired with video surveillance, enabling you to see them coming and going and know they’re home safe, even when you’re not there. When you are there, security features can help monitor activity in nurseries as well as pool and play areas, allowing you to essentially be two places at once through surveillance cameras and intercoms.
- Elderly and people with disabilities. Dramatically improving quality of life by providing enhanced safety on a variety of levels, security features guarantee a lifeline to emergency personnel, accessed by any touchpad, mobile device, or even voice commands. But home automation for seniors does a lot more than just call for help. Modern systems are often customizable to the specific health needs of the individual, providing reminders for things like medication and daily blood testing. They also enable relatives or medical staff to monitor individuals remotely and in real-time while offering the potential for remote medical consultations.
If you invest in a decent home theater system, home automation is a high-end upgrade that can help you make the most of it. With the integration of many of the components detailed in the sections above – light and temperature being two primary examples – entertainment modules work seamlessly with the automated system to establish the exact mood of the room based on your pre-determined settings. But there’s one technology detailed in the following section that provides a little more freedom than the others.
Automated home entertainment setups are often installed throughout the home, enabling the control of music and programming through a central system. Within these setups, it’s common to find an 8 zone, 8 source system as the standard. Smaller systems like a 4 zone, 4 source system and larger systems like the 16 zone, 8 source system are also available. In short, this type of setup allows you to expand your entertainment center to any room of the house, garage, or surrounding property… all at once.
For example, if you’re having a Super Bowl party, the game can be displayed on every television in the house and heard on patio speakers or similar external audio components – all with the touch of a single button.
The diversity of the zone-based system also allows anyone in another room of your home to enjoy different programming or music at a volume they choose, operated by the central control touchpad or web-enabled device. Plus, they can listen to whatever they want!
With wireless connectivity, home entertainment systems give multiple users complete freedom to select their own entertainment through remote input modules (iPod Touch and iPad are a couple of popular examples), streaming audio and video content via the web.
- BUYING TIP: Depending on the provider you select, some specialize in this branch of home automation and offer acoustical treatments for every room in the house to achieve the highest quality sound. It’s worth comparing a number of sellers to find the best fit for your needs and expectations.
With a good understanding of what goes into a home automation system, it helps to have an estimated budget in mind before talking with a seller. Here’s a quick rundown on popular home automation hardware and a price range for each.
Hardware & pricing
When working with a home automation seller, remember the technology is designed to address your specific needs, not force you to adjust them. So don’t be afraid to compare a number of different options until you find the one that does exactly what you need it to.
That said, there is a variety of hardware components that contribute to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of the system, including:
Central control hardware
Centralized control is the cornerstone of home automation. By integrating all of your automated systems into a single control point, you have the freedom to access the functions of the entire system from multiple access points and even remotely. Most leading models include a built-in dual-band modem and infrared (IR) capability, support around 1,000 devices, and are compatible with iOS and Android apps. Some don’t even require a PC for operation. Estimated cost: $100 – $400.
Range extenders are another popular accessory for large properties. They allow automated commands to reach every area of your home by extending the reach of the automated system. Commonly used in quantities of two or more, range extenders are dual-band devices that couple electrical phases within two-phase wiring setups. When planning your system, a good starting point is to allow for a dual-band component or signal extender for every 750 to 1,000 square feet. Estimated cost: $40 each.
Popular mechanisms for accessing the central control module include laptop computers, smartphones, iPads and similar web-enabled tablet devices, and wall-mounted touchscreens. While many homes take advantage of the convenience of mobile connectivity, many also include at least one touchscreen that provides access to the entire system.
Touchscreens are programmed on a PC but operate on their own as part of the system. They include an LCD screen that provides easy navigation through programming and subsequent menus (often using graphic icons) and come in a variety of finishes to match your home décor. Depending on the type and model, some will be powered by an AC plug while others require batteries. Estimated cost: $130 – $500.
Home automation utility components are where much of the cost savings can be found. Designed primarily to reduce the amount of electricity and natural gas required, they’re easily evaluated by their level of consumption savings.
Two of the most popular items include:
- Panelized and configurable lighting solutions – Using LED technology, panel lights are available in recessed lighting and lighting fixtures. They use a mirrored design that enables them to reflect and maximize the amount of light emitted. In doing so, they provide an energy savings of up to 70%. Estimated cost: $160 – $300 for a 4-tube panel.
- Smart thermostats – Now manufactured by leading name brands like Honeywell, smart thermostats are controlled via wall-mounted touchscreen or any mobile device with the appropriate iOS or Android app installed. They offer a variety of programming, customizable to individual days of the week and times of day and often include a color LED screen that simplifies operation through a variety of display options. Some models are even able to learn the specifics of your home, in particular how long it takes to warm up and cool down, to further reduce unnecessary energy usage. Estimated cost: $100 – $340.
Enhanced security is another benefit of home automation. And the real benefit is often found in Wi-Fi connectivity, providing access through your iOS or Android device. Two components that make the most of this technology are:
- Smart locks – Offering three different means to unlock the door, smart locks include a backlit numerical keypad and keyed deadbolt as well as connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. This allows you to unlock the doors from the car or let someone in remotely when you’re not home. When tied into your home automation system, most models provide text or email alerts when the access codes are used for entry and allow for the storage of hundreds of unique PIN numbers, tracking everyone that enters any of the locked rooms in your home. Estimated cost: $100 – $300.
- Door station video intercoms – Adding extra security by preventing you from having to open the door without knowing who’s on the other side, door station video intercom systems are capable of handling multiple monitors and door stations, allowing you to position them conveniently throughout your home and cover every entryway. They come with a color LCD screen and often as many as 20 built-in chimes. Some models even feature night vision for darker areas. Estimated cost: $350 – $400 per kit.
Home entertainment hardware
Entertainment components encompass an extremely wide range of options. The process usually begins by selecting the specific components you want included in your system – including receivers, MP3 and music players, Blu-Ray players, and related electronic equipment.
After tying each of these into your home automation system, you can take that initial investment and expand it to every room of your home with wireless components that include:
- Audio systems – Audio components for a home automation system are almost exclusively wireless, allowing you to install them in any room of your home as long as you have a power outlet. They’re available as tiny systems no bigger than a large soda can as well as larger shelf-mounted systems that are magnetically shielded and include a subwoofer with up to 32 watts of bass. All components typically connect via Bluetooth with any wireless device, including iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone, and Android equipment (within a range of about 30 feet), allowing anyone to stream and control their music in any room. Estimated cost: $130 – $540 per system.
- Video systems – Tying your home theater into your automated system allows you to install additional monitors throughout your home and never miss a single moment of your favorite shows. Options range from standard HD LCD monitors to extravagant Mirror TVs often installed in the bathroom or bedroom. Each individual monitor is connected to your home automation hub, enabling them to broadcast the same content or select individual programming. Estimated cost: $250 – $340 for a 32” LCD TV and $3,900 to $5,800 for a Mirror TV.
Also before speaking with a seller (and cementing your list of desired equipment and features), it may help to know what’s on the horizon with the home automation industry. Here are a few of the biggest trends identified by leading BuyerZone sellers.
Given the labor and costs involved, you’ll get more out of a home automation system in the long run if you invest in the latest, most applicable technology up front. This foresight will save you from immediately having to upgrade or reinstall components in the months and years that follow.
With that in mind, which of the following could benefit you?
With an app for just about everything these days, the real strength of home automation is that it allows you to monitor the activity within your home from anywhere in the world on a web-enabled device. Available through almost every quality home automation provider, mobile apps enable you to remotely control surveillance and security, thermostat, door locks, and even certain appliances.
The catch is that, traditionally, many of these apps are proprietary to the provider you select and may not work with certain third-party equipment you add to the system yourself – though that is trending toward a more universal level of compatibility.
Mobile apps are currently designed primarily for operating systems that include Windows and iOS, with open-sourced platforms slowly emerging for Android-based devices. A few popular apps include:
- INSTEON®Hub (iOS and Windows 8) – Connects all aspects of home automation to your smartphone or tablet device, including lights, switches, and outlets, as well as temperature and humidity. It also sends alerts via text or email when alarms are triggered.
- MobiLinc (iOS) – Connecting your mobile device via cellular signal when away or through your local Wi-Fi network when you’re home, MobiLinc’s strength lies in its monitoring capability through push messages that are sent to iOS devices in real-time. Plus, it offers Siri support, with voice command suggestions for accessories.
- Conductor (Android OS) – Tapping into INSTEON hardware, Conductor provides real-time updates on every aspect of your home automation system. It also allows you to setup quick access for specific or active devices while organizing the system by device, scene, or program.
With home automation, setting the mood makes romance a breeze. Accessories allow you to control the temperature, humidity, lighting (internal and external), and entertainment center. These mood settings can often be programmed to a single button that adjusts everything in the room to your pre-selected settings.
Close the blinds and adjust the lights to watch a movie, read, or set the evening’s ambiance. Drapes and blinds can also be programmed to respond to changes in light level as well as wind and rain. Plus, depending on the seasons, mood setting controls allow you to fine-tune the temperature for each room of the house, providing continuously comfortable rooms that account for the sun (or lack of it).
LEED and energy efficiency
Convenience aside, one of the true strengths of a home automation system is that it has the potential to cut your energy costs. This is amplified by environmentally-friendly designs on specific components that leverage occupancy and solar sensors to maximize their energy use.
Common examples include:
- Audio and video components that control the power for always-on devices, like a DVR, and shut all others off when not in use
- Monitoring accessories that keep tabs on critical utilities, irrigation, and pools and send an alert when leaks are detected
- Lighting components (both internal and external) that can be dimmed or shut off on a set schedule to reduce energy consumption while extending the life of bulbs
If you’ve made it this far, you’re well on your way to finding a home automation system. The final step is to choose the best seller. As mentioned above, some may specialize in one area more than another. But for the most part, a professional home automation seller will be able to provide a complete system that addresses your specific needs and desired performance. Here’s how to find the one best suited to you.
Choosing a seller
One of the easiest ways to find the right system is to contract a professional home automation seller. While the functionalities of the system itself are pretty easy to use, installation and setup are not. Plus, an experienced seller will be able to advise you on the particular aspects that will benefit you most, based on your needs and budget.
Before you pick up the phone, sit down and make a list of all the rooms and primary systems you want automated, including the devices and equipment within each that will need to be controlled. With this list in hand, talking to a seller will be a lot easier.
Questions to ask a home automation seller
When comparing sellers, it’s a good idea to ask for a list of references. They’ll probably give you a sheet with the names of their best customers, but this can still provide some insight into the level of service they provide.
When speaking with the references, ask:
- Why did you choose this provider over others?
- Was there a particular area of expertise that made them stand out?
- Was there any part of the sale or installation where you experienced problems?
- How long have you had your home automation system installed? In that time, have there been any problems with malfunctioning equipment or glitches with the central control or any of the accessories?
- If there were problems, how did the seller handle them? And how long did it take from the time you first called?
- How were they on cost compared to other providers you evaluated? If more expensive, was it worthwhile and why?
Comparing costs, terms, and warranties
Another easy way to choose between sellers is to compare some of the costs involved with installation and the level of post-sale support they provide. For example:
- Installation costs – On the whole, plan to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 for professional installation, on average, and as much as $10,000 to $15,000 for large homes or complex rewiring and retrofitting. Keep in mind: you’re paying for someone who has working knowledge of electrical and other critical systems in a home. So while this added expense may seem like a hefty chunk, having the job done correctly will more than make up for the cost.
- Contract terms – Often tied into a major security monitoring service, contract terms are usually 36 months at the minimum. Fees are usually around $50 per month depending on the level of monitoring.
- Product warranties – While each seller may provide additional warranties on installation and even extend the warranties on certain components for an extra fee, all equipment in a home automation system should come backed by some type of warranty. On the low end, some systems and their components may only be guaranteed for as little as 120 days. More common examples include 2 to 3 years from installation or 30 to 40 months after manufacture for central control systems and 2 years from installation or 30 months from manufacture for thermostats and accessories. Even rechargeable batteries installed into wall-mounted touchscreens and other equipment are covered, but usually only for a period of 90 days.
- Financing options – Though financing may be limited to some of the larger sellers and will vary widely from seller to seller, in general, terms may include $0 down and an APR of around 10% with a 10-year agreement.
The upside to a quality seller doesn’t end with installation. Most sellers also provide a combination of post-sale service often in the form of 24-hour phone support and web-based resources, as well as warranties and routine maintenance packages that service the components of the system to ensure everything remains in working order.
Compare home automation sellers in your area by completing our free quote request tool. We’ll put you in touch with a number of professionals that can help you find the best system and get it up and running quickly and easily.