Converting to a Smart Home: Where to Start

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You are looking at converting to a smart home, but what is it and what does it really entail?

Smart home and home automation are terms you hear everywhere these days, but what does it really mean and what can all of these gizmos and gadgets do for you? Smart home and home automation have become catch phrases that can cover everything from a simple wall switch to a complete computer security system.

Home Automation Simplifies Things

What it boils down to is that these are all (supposed to be) devices that make your life easier by automating something. It doesn’t have to be difficult to install or operate, and it certainly shouldn’t make your life more difficult. Do you remember the Clapper, it was a simple device that went between your wall plug and a lamp to turn a light on and off with a clap of your hands. That could be seen as the first, relatively common home automation device. It made lives easier by automating a process.

You Already Automate Your Home!

You’ve probably done other things to automate your home without even thinking about it. Have you ever set a timer for your lights when you go on vacation? What about setting the coffee pot for the morning so you have fresh brewed coffee when you wake up? Even setting up the Christmas lights to turn on at dusk are variations on home automation.

Take It to the Next Level

Now that you have looked around and realized that it really isn’t as difficult as you thought you can probably take things up a notch. You could go to the store and start looking at home automation devices, but with the plethora of items out there you will be quickly overwhelmed.

Start with something simple by figuring out what common everyday simple chose you would like to make simpler or more cost effective.

What to Automate

Create a list of what you would like to automate in your home, a few of the more simple examples include:
Control your air conditioning and heating

  • Access video cameras inside and outside your home
  • Control your audio/video system
  • Control your lights
  • Interface with your home security system
  • Turn appliances on and off
  • Open doors, windows, blinds, or curtains

How to Control It

The next thing you need to do is think about how you want to control all of these features. Do you want to use your smart phone or tablet, call in from a computer, or maybe have a control panel on the wall. You could even program most of these functions to a basic remote control.

You also need to ask yourself if you want to control it from just inside your home, have it all occur automatically on a timer or operate it yourself remotely from anywhere?

Research

Now that you have thought about what you want to do, you need to do some research to find the best system for your needs. Once you decide on a system, you can not mix them without a lot of work on your part as they won’t communicate properly. There are currently three popular communication standards out there: X10, ZigBee and Z-Wave.

X10 is currently the cheapest on the market. Various companies make simple items that comply to the X10 standard. You can find light switches, lamps, alarms and even some stereo equipment that is X10 compatible, however the problem with X10 is that it tends to be slow and it can’t handle a lot of data at once. This will probably work great if you aren’t planning to do more than automate a few lights or a thermostat.

Zigbee and Z-Wave are the two popular communications standards. Different component manufacturers go with the different standards. It doesn’t really matter which of the two communications systems you go with, what matters more is sticking with the protocol that you chose.

If you are interested in the differences between the standards, then check out this article.

How to Choose

Common brands that use Zigbee are Crestron, Control4 and AMX, Schlage, iControl and D-Link prefer Z-Wave. There are big names on both sides of the communications band.

Each manufacturer has their strengths and weaknesses and to figure out what is best for you, you have to break it down by component. Think of it like buying a game machine, do you want an X-box, Playstation or Wii? You usually start by looking at the games that are offered, once you find the games you like then you buy the console that goes with it. Home automation systems are similar.

Figure out what the main thing you want to do is. If you want to be able to control your thermostat when you are out of town, then start looking at the thermostats offered by various manufacturers and once you find the one you want, then look at the other components offered by the same manufacturer.

Converting to a smart home isn’t as hard as you thought, at least for the simple stuff, in fact you are probably already there. Now you just need to take the next step.

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