Reader's Voice: An Introduction To Home Automation

Many of us have seen sci-fi movies where the characters come home, walk in the front door, and their lights turn on for them. Perhaps they tell the house to switch on the TV or bring up the video phone with its wall-sized screen to call a friend.

Unfortunately, we're not quite "there" yet with regard to commercially-available home automation technology. But you might be surprised at how much can be achieved by the enthusiast looking to advance his home into the 21st century. Let me show you some of the shipping protocols and options. Then, we'll walk through the purchase process and installation to see what it takes to turn a house into a modern-day electronic toy.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, lets talk a little about what home automation is, exactly. HA, short for home automation, is a technology class that enables automatic and/or remote control of household electronics. The most commonly connected devices in an HA implementation are usually lamps/over-head lighting, heating/air conditioning, lawn and garden irrigation, and security systems.

One of the vendors we looked at, SmartHome, seems fairly biased by their near-exclusive offering of Insteon products. But the company does have some convenient information on HA, including a chart of the available technologies. You can check that out right here.

We'll dig into more of the differences, considerations and available options later.

Interview with George Hanover

First, we wanted to talk to an expert in the field and find out why home automation isn't more popular among computing enthusiasts than it is today. We exchanged emails with George Hanover, a fellow and membership chair of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society, to find out more.

Tom's Hardware: Why isn't home automation more pervasive today?

George: Well it is catching on, albeit slowly. “Buying” home automation is not like buying an appliance or even a home theater system. A customer can be shown a new refrigerator or TV set, but how does a salesman effectively demonstrate home automation? Also, all of the user devices must be compatible with each other and with the HA system so that they can talk to each other.

So, when a customer buys in to a particular system, he/she is really making a long-term commitment.

Tom's Hardware: We'd think that a basic home automation setup could be deployed for less than the price of a mid-grade computer. Many households have two or more computers these days. Is it the installation process scaring most folks off?

George: Also, there’s the matter of retrofitting into the existing housing inventory. Each year, only a tiny percentage of the housing stock is new, which means the biggest market for HA is in existing homes, and some of them have been around for 40+ years.

Tom's Hardware: Most people don't install irrigation systems themselves. Instead, they hire a contractor to perform the installation. Are there home automation installers, and are they difficult to find?

George: Yes, there are, and no they’re not.

Check the Customer Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) Web site at You will see an installer locater and also find that CEDIA has a certification program for installers and holds an annual expo. Also, I think the level of expertise needed to install a first-rate HA system is much higher than needed to install an irrigation system.

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  • Gin Fushicho
    Sounds like a lot of fun, though my Grandpa wouldnt like it , he likes to work too much. =/ He might like setting it up though.
  • Twoboxer
    IMO, the problem with "Home Automation" is that

    (a) it's fragmented

    (b) most applications can be accomplished in most homes with less expensive, individual systems than with any integrated system - even if one existed.

    HVAC: Unless you have a large home requiring multiple HVAC zones/thermostats, and unless parts of the home are unoccupied for varying amounts of time, a programmable thermostat is an adequate solution. Setbacks (eg while you are at work) don't seem to save much money with modern HVAC systems in most US climates.

    Lighting: If "security" means cycling lights so the house looks occupied, again simple timers are adequate. Unless you have a large, multi-source lighted home, few need automated lighting and "scenes".

    Irrigation: If you have any sprinkler system, once again timers and rain sensors do the job well enough.

    And so on.

    FYI, I have a large primary residence with a networked security system that also controls multiple thermostats. A dedicated PC has replaced a stand-alone DVR to monitor security cameras. A low-voltage, microprocessor controlled system controls lighting.

    If these 8-year old systems talked to each other well, maybe I could use the motion detectors to automatically turn lights on and off. And maybe I wouldn't be better off using standard internet cameras to monitor security as I travel between homes.

    Its all cool technology, but as a substantial user and tech-lover, I just don't see significant, practical application in most homes.
  • Twoboxer
    Please forgive the double-post, but I couldn't resist pointing out one savings I learned about from all of this.

    I use a lot of 130V bulbs in the fixtures controlled by microprocessor controlled lighting system. Most of these bulbs are also oversized for their purpose, and are therefore set to run at, eg, 60% or 75% of maximum voltage when turned on.

    I don't know whether I've saved any electricity or not - I doubt it lol - but I have saved a tremendous amount of money on bulbs. EG, there are 11 such bulbs in my kitchen ceiling and they run a minimum of 12 hours per day. I have not replaced a bulb in that set since they were installed over 8 years ago.
  • mrubermonkey
    Buying proprietary systems is bad. Go with equipment that goes by industry standards and the whole issue with home automaton being a long-term investment goes away for the most part. Unless some company's proprietary technology always leads industry standards by leaps and bounds, but this is rare.
  • Twoboxer
    What industry standards? HAI's? Lutron's? X10's? Standards from what era?
  • sorusbay
    I suggest you to use KNX
  • pratik77
    If you want the real deal, go for Crestron.
    Sure it costs money but so does liquid nitrogen cooled overclocked gaming rigs.
  • Anonymous
    On the life of light bulbs . . . .
    Lamp life is very sensitive to operating voltage - for 120 volts Ge quotes 125 volts as shortening the lamp life to 1/2 and 130 volts to 1/3. The inverse is true - if you put a 130 volt lamp in a 120 volt circuit you can expect over double the lamp life, and if you have a dimmer to soft start then it can last a way lot longer.
  • Anonymous
    How can you not mention, the largest DIY home automation site out there.
  • sublifer
    cocoonerHow can you not mention, the largest DIY home automation site out there.

    It was mentioned on page 3:
    Many of the searches for further guidance landed me at, and reading other people's guides and questions helped me through the process.
  • pkellmey
    I researched HA a couple of years ago, but I found that my house is really not large enough to justify it, the standards and the equipment are subpar, and it's very expensive (which again can't justify it). Unless if the components and system are completely "plug in and play" with complete across-the-board industry standards, HA will never become mainstream. After reading the efforts involved in this article, I see it is still in that condition.
  • Anonymous
    Sadly, I think there are two, very basic, problems with "home automation"...

    First - With no set "standard" to work with, we (the consumers) are left to piece together a system from a hodge-poge of available components. By definition then, an "integrated" system is all but impossible to create, unless you have a fair amount of money to permit not only hardware modifications to be done (and paid for), but also programming / software writing. A "expensive" proposition...

    Second - The "industry", for all our "talk" does NOT think home automation is even remotely a priority for the "masses". A "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer.

    Without the second, you will not get the first.

    Sadly... The second (to me) is the simple result of no one really outlining what the REAL benefits could be. Sure, we see a bit here or there, but it is about as disjointed as it can be. Until someone decides to truely invest in the idea of HA and promote it accordingly, it will not take root, to any appreciable amount.

    As consumers, we need to be told what this will do for us in a way that we can understand and see real benefits from. Not "off the wall" concepts of futuristic homes, but down to earth, realities that we could feel, today...or even tomorrow (short term). Not to mention, at a price point which is do-able for the majority.

    There are also "some" issues with using existing wiring, etc., that need to be addressed... ie., for this sort of thing to take hold, it has to be available, not only for new construction, but also to be retrofitted into existing buildings, without having to rip out walls, etc. It's there, in other forms, it just needs to be adapted for this type of use.

    Could any of it be done? I believe so, but I think, at this moment, there is no one company, no group of companies, who will bother. The ROI just is not there.
  • Anonymous
    sublifer, I somehow missed that reference, my apologies.
  • Anonymous
    I have been Home Automated for quite a few years now and really can't live without it. Just the lighting control saves time turning this and that on for all times of day (Morning and Evening). Also supplies passive security and with newer motion detectors and nice jump up in performance.
    Getting the right hardware/software combination is critical. I have gone from X-10 to the latest "Insteon" products and reliability has improved 90%.
  • sublifer
    jbierrieA "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer

    I've enjoyed my system greatly so far. Yes, I'm a tech geek and not an avg consumer... you hit the nail on the head with that BUT that is how innovation starts. Enough people jump on board or get involved, even just making suggestions to the companies that are involved, and that is how it will grow into commonplace. Do you think the future homes, as are portrayed in the movies, will come about without prevalent HA technology? Nope. Its just gonna take baby steps to get there.
  • candide08
    Insteon is FAR superior to X10.

    I ran X10 for years and had reliability and interference issues.
    99% of these are gone with Insteon, the appearance of the devices is much nicer and the programmability is superior - using the ISY99 from Universal Devices.
  • Anonymous
    No mention of LinuxMCE which brings all these protocols together as well as your network, home cinema _and_ much more? As far as I've heard they're even coming out with a beta very soon for the new version.
  • cldebuhr

    The author should seriously refrain from giving electrical advice:
    ... White is neutral (hot) and is ...
    I really hope this was a typo, because it kind of suggests that the author doesn't know (very basic!) difference between hot (black) and neutral (white).

    In the name of not having any Tom's readers electrocute themselves, I'd reccomed saying nothing more than "installs like standard electrical hardware." and leave it at that. If they have to ask, they either need to hire someone, or at least get a good book and spend some serious study time! By the way anytime you see a red wire comming out of a box, if you KNOW its a 3-way lighting circut, thats fine, but also be aware that red is also used as "hot" in split-phase 220v wiring, so that you've got ground (bare or green), neutral (still white), and TWO hots (black and red), each at 110v AC with respect to neutral, bat out of phase with each other to give a combined 220 v AC. 110v hurts ... 220v is a lot more likely to kill.
  • Anonymous
    Also, perhaps only relevant to Europe I dunno but cable color codes have changed through time and older houses might provide you with installed runs of cables that do not match the current standard at all.

    Sometimes you'll happen upon different colors used for the same thing just because an older standard wasn't specifying a color for certain things at all, or the technician ran out of white and didn't care...
  • sublifer
    cldebuhrSAFTEY WARNING!!

    Good point, neutral is not hot, its the return (completes the circuit) but not really a safety issue. People afraid of touching the neutral won't hurt anything, besides, the author already covered making sure that power was removed from the circuit.