Home Automation–Where to Begin?

In my last column for The Content Wrangler, Home Automation—Is It Time To Dive In?, I provided a brief overview of the home automation landscape. This time around, I tackle the question: “Where do you begin?”

Perhaps you already have a device or two—maybe a Nest Thermostat or a DropCam camera and you’d like to start connecting the devices together. How do you make that happen?

This is the time to pause and look at your options. You can buy a lot of individual internet-connected smart devices from a lot of different manufacturers. Most of them will come with their own apps. In no time, you’ll have an app to unlock the door, another to turn on the lights, another to open the garage door, another to turn on the air conditioner. And that’s absolutely fine, if that’s what you want.

But, if you want the lights to come on in the house when the front door opens or if you want an alarm to go off if there’s a water leak in the middle of the night, you’re going to need an app that ties everything together instead of just having a bunch of individual devices you control individually.

Image: Home automation system and smart devices
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In order to get devices from different manufacturers to talk to each other, you’ll need to purchase one extra piece of hardware. This “hub” will allow a motion sensor from Aeon to turn on a light from Phillips, for example. The combination of the hub, the app, and the smart devices connected to the web make up your home automation “system.”

There are several systems to choose from. Some support only their own devices. I don’t like that approach—you may feel stuck with their system because of the investment you’ve made even if someone else develops a better system in the future (and I can easily imagine that happening).

Instead, I prefer companies that take an “open system” approach to home automation. This means they write their software to work with a wide range of products from a variety of manufacturers. If, one day, that company goes out of business or another company develops better features, your devices will very likely work with another system. You want a system that’s easy to configure and will continue to grow with time (because the company continues to develop new functionality or because there’s an active user community developing new options). Of course, price might be a consideration too—these systems range from $99 to several thousands of dollars.

My choice in SmartThings. You can get started for very little money ($99 for the hub, the app is free, and the cost of individual devices), grow your system at your own pace, and there are new features being added constantly. SmartThings started out as a successful Kickstarter campaign before being acquired by Samsung. They have a long and growing list of supported products from several manufacturers. Their app is a little confusing to set up, but easy to use once it is configured. While you can turn individual devices on and off from the app, they really expect that you’ll be able to set up routines with your various devices so you rarely need to open the app—things will just happen automatically around the house for you.

SmartThings’ best feature may be their user community. The app allows people to add additional programs (written in Groovy, a Java-like language) and there are a LOT of people doing just that. Those programs are available for free to you. And, of course, you can write your own programs too (I’m NOT a software engineer, but I’ve been able to modify some of their sample code to create my own custom programs).

Image: House at dusk; lights are programmed to come when the sun goes down
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Now, when I go to bed the house makes sure the doors are locked, the lights are off, and the temperature is turned down. The outdoor lights turn themselves off shortly before sunrise and back on at sunset. When you walk into a room, the lights come on automatically. If you move from upstairs to downstairs, the temperature adjusts to keep you comfortable. And lots more!

Other highly-rated systems include:

  • Home Seer – Open source system, $200-$900 for the system plus the cost of devices
  • Crestron — Proprietary system, $900-$6,000 including 17 devices (you’ll likely outgrow that and want more for additional cost)
  • Staples Connect — The office supply company is a relatively new supplier of home automation devices. Open source, $80
  • Wink – Open source system, $89

Next time, I’ll tell you about some specific devices you might want to check out.