10 Key Features of a Home Automation System

THE ABILITY TO MANAGE your home’s electronic systems from one main control system can make your household run smoother, feel better, and save energy. The trick is to find a system that will meet all the demands of your household, now and in the future. Most systems can be tailored by a home systems integrator to provide all the benefits you desire, but there are some key features to look for in a home automation system that will make his job easier and your interaction with it more enjoyable and useful.

1.  INTEROPERABILITY The beauty of an automation system is its ability to tie diverse electronic devices together so they can perform as one unified system. Getting these devices to work cohesively can be simple or complex, depending on the “openness” of the automation system. The more open a system is, the easier it will be for the lights, thermostats, audio/video equipment, security devices, motorized window shades, and other electronics to communicate with each other. A good example of interoperability is having the lights turn of and the thermostats set back when you press a “goodbye” button on a keypad or when a motion sensor notices that you have exited a room. To support interoperability between multiple electronic devices, manufacturers of home automation systems often form connectivity partnerships with other manufacturers. For example, Control4 has partnered with more than 60 other companies to ensure its line of automation products can communicate seamlessly with a wide variety of other systems—from architectural lighting and lawn irrigation, to multi-room audio. Another way automation manufacturers are fostering interoperability is through adherence to technology standards. For example, many manufacturers have embedded Z-Wave wireless control technology into their automation products so those products can network easily with other Z-Wave enabled products. In addition to Z-Wave, other popular communications technologies being embedded into smart home products include ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Apple HomeKit. The more connectivity partners a manufacturer has formed and standards it has adopted, the more choices you’ll have as a consumer. More importantly, says home systems integrator Bill Charney of Advanced Home Audio, Shelton, Conn., “It allows installers to select the best suite of products for their clients.”

2.  REMOTE ACCESS “Automation is all about being able to control things in your home,” says Jay McClellan, president of Leviton Security & Automation, “and part of that is being able to change the settings quickly and easily if your plans change.” More often than not, plans change when you’re not at home, so being able to communicate this remotely to the electronic devices in your home is one of the most revered features of an automation system. Remote access capabilities allow you to monitor your home’s environment and alter the settings of the lights, thermostats, and other gear, all from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer. McClellan believes that remote monitoring should be a service that manufacturers and home systems integrators provide free of charge. “Why should you pay $30 a month to access your automation system when you’re already paying for broadband access?” he suggests. Remote access also allows your integrator to tweak your system without having to make a house call, which is always cheaper and more convenient.

3.  EXPANDABILITY The way you live in your home five years from now will probably be much different than how you live in it today. Moreover, technology will continue to evolve, introducing a completely new generation of products to the marketplace. In the future, you may also want to add new rooms—like a recently finished basement or an addition of the back—to your automation network. Or, you may simply want to start out with just a few features when you first put in your system then add new capabilities later as you have the money. For these reasons, it’s important that a home automation system can be easily expanded vertically, to incorporate additional products, and horizontally to support additional rooms. Manufacturers can support vertical and horizontal expandability by designing their systems to speak a common network language, like IP (Internet Protocol), and by offering wireless, retrofittable products that can communicate via a home’s existing network.

4.  UPGRADEABILITY Those in-wall touchpanels and black boxes may look impressive, but it’s what you don’t see that holds the true power of an automation system. Software is the driving force of an automation system, and the more sophisticated that software is, the more the system can do. As technology changes so must the software. Before you buy any system, be sure the manufacturer (or your home systems integrator) will be able to unlock and download software updates automatically.

5.  VARIETY OF USER INTERFACES There are a number of different ways you can control the electronic systems in your home: by pressing the buttons of a handheld remote or wallmounted keypad; by touching colorful icons on a portable touchpanel; or by sliding your finger across your iTouch. Depending on your family dynamic, budget, and preferences, you might like to utilize a variety of different controllers (most people do, says McClellan), so make sure the automation manufacturer offers a wide selection of user interfaces.

6.  TIME-TESTED No one, except for serious early-adopters, likes to be a guinea pig. So choose an automation system with a proven track record. The same goes for the person who installs the system into your home. You should be able to gather some historical background about manufacturers and home systems integrators from their company websites.

7.  STRONG DEALER NETWORK “You can have great equipment,” says Jeff Singer, of automation system manufacturer Crestron, “but you’ll need a highly trained and certified installer in order to get your money’s worth.” Good home automation manufacturers go above and beyond to create a strong dealer network, by offering continual education and training, and by supporting multiple dealers in a single geographic area. For consumers, having more than one dealer to choose from is important. When more than one dealer carries a particular product in your area, pricing is more competitive. And should one dealer go out of business, there’s someone else you can call to pick up the pieces. To protect yourself from the possibility of your initial dealer closing up shop, demand that he provide access to your project file. You’ll have all the documentation you need should you ever need to hire someone else.

8.  COMMITMENT TO ENERGY SAVINGS One of the hottest topics in the consumer media is energy conservation. Automation systems can help save energy by turning of electronic devices automatically, and some do this better than others. Be sure to check out the energy-saving features of a system before you buy.

9.  LAYER OF PROTECTION Everyone always wonders what happens to an automated house when the power goes out. Does the system forget how to operate the lights when power is restored? If an automation system has the appropriate back-up protection, you won’t have to worry about that.

10.  CAN-DO ATTITUDE This goes both for the installer and the manufacturer. Automation is only beneficial and practical if it fits your lifestyle. Since everyone’s lifestyle is different, the manufacturer should provide its dealers with the tools to customize the system to your specific needs. If there’s something that you want your system to do and your installer says it’s impossible, either he or the manufacturer has failed you. Keep looking.

Lisa Montgomery  •  March 2015  •  electronichouse.com

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