10 Key Features in a Home Automation System
Manufacturers and custom electronics pros reveal what’s most important.
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June 05, 2009 by Lisa Montgomery

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 custom electronics professional to provide all the benefits you desire, but there are some key features that will make his job easier and your interaction with your system more enjoyable.

We asked both manufacturers of home automation systems and the professionals that program and install them for their recommendations. In no order of importance, here’s what they had to say:

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 shades and other electronics to communicate with each other. A good example of interoperability is having the lights turn off, 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, Home Automation Inc. has partnered with 40 other companies to ensure that its Omni line of automation products can communicate seamlessly with a wide variety of other systems—from architectural lighting and irrigation, to multiroom audio.

Another way automation manufacturers are fostering interoperability is through adherence to technology standards. Control4, for example, has embedded Zigbee wireless control technology into automation products so those products can network easily with other Zigbee-enabled products.

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 custom electronics pro Bill Charney with Advanced Home Audio in Shelton, Conn., “It allows installers to select the best suite products for their clients.” 

2. Remote Access
“Automation is all about being able to control things in your home,” says Jay McClellan, president of Home Automation Inc., “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 those changes with your home automation system remotely 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 if necessary all from your laptop, cellphone or iTouch. McClellan believes that remote monitoring should be a service manufacturers and installers 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 installer 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 the way you live in your home 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 off 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 both 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 with a home’s existing network of wired products.

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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

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