June 15, 2009
| by Lisa Montgomery
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It’s an old cliche, but it still holds true today, especially if you’re thinking of having an automation system installed into your home.
Automation systems, by nature, are able to perform some pretty amazing (and unusual) feats. They can regulate the temperature of fish tanks and hot tubs, snap on the lights when you step through the door and open the window shades precisely at 9 a.m. It’s this kind of magic that makes automation so gosh darn appealing—and expensive.
“Inevitably, home automation will involve a mix of different brands of products,” says custom electronics professional Gordon van Zuiden of cyberManor in Los Gatos, Calif. “Whenever you try to get products from different companies to work well together it becomes costly.”
While you still want to cover as many of the key features of an automation system as you can, there are ways to save on costs. For starters, stay away from fancy setups like having a hot tub turn on when a sensor notices that your car has pulled into the driveway. “Any time you add processing intelligence to the system, it drives up the price,” says van Zuiden. “Having a simple off button on a keypad that you push to turn off all the lights in the house will cost significantly less than automating the lights to turn off whenever the security system triggers them, for example.”
You can also tighten the purse strings by limiting the number of products and systems your automation system controls. Any time one system—like security—communicates with another system—like lighting, costs can escalate. Integrate even more systems—like audio/video distribution, motorized window shades and HVAC— into your automation routines and you’ll pay even more. For CE pros like van Zuiden, programming a system to sync the operation of the lights, thermostats and other devices takes time—sometimes a lot of time.
CE pros charge a pretty penny for this programming labor, so it’s important to determine whether it’s worth it to have those lights dim and window shades close at a certain time of the day or if you’d be satisfied just pressing a couple of buttons to make it happen.
Programming isn’t the only expense you’ll incur when you roll in lot of products. The more you automate, the more hardware you’ll likely have to buy. While you could have gotten by just using a programmable thermostat to adjust the heating and cooling automatically, you’ll need more processing power (automation software), more equipment (processors, sensors and the like), and a more sophisticated interface (likely a touchpanel)—cha-ching—to make that stat adjust whenever you walk into your home theater arm the security system, open the draperies, or when you modify the settings from the screen of your TV.
Some tips to help keep costs down:
Be Realistic. Do you really need a sensor by the driveway to trigger on the lights on the front porch? Probably not. Focus on what you need, rather than what you want, and a good place to start is with security. Many security systems can not only protect your home, but can also control your home’s thermostats and lights.
Think ROI. Choose features that offer a good return on investment—like heating and cooling control. “Automating their HVAC system is one of the last things homeowners often think about doing, but it has the highest payback of all systems, especially in areas where energy costs are high,” says CE pro Robert Ridenour of Connected Technologies in Colorado Springs, Colo. Automating the lights is can also curb your energy use.
DIY. Do some of the installation yourself. Some pros offer consulting services so you can pick their brains for ideas, installation advice and some programming pointers. Ridenour charges about $100 a hour for the service, but you’ll pay nothing for labor.
Common Interface. Use a system that’ll let you control devices with something you already own—like an iPod or iTouch.
Don’t be Oversold. “Often it’s the subsystems you connect to your automation system that drives up the price,” says Steve Cashman, chief strategy officer at Exceptional Innovation, a manufacturer of home automation systems. “So choose them wisely.” For example, one brand of distributed audio system might play at 15 watts per channel and cost $200 per room, while another plays at 150 watts and costs $2,000 per room. Be sure to understand what you’re getting for your money before choosing your subsystems.
Ask for Less. There is more than one way to skin a cat in the world of home automation. Always ask your custom installer if there’s a different, more economical way to get the features you want.
Go Lite. In an effort to make their systems more marketable, many home automation companies offer “lite” versions of their flagship automation systems. Usually, they offer the same basic features as the expensive version, but on a smaller scale and without the bells and whistles.
Line It Up. Ask your installer to break down everything you want to do and show you line by line what each item will cost. “Anything can be done if you have the time and money,” says Cashman, “so it’s important to ask exactly how much time and money each feature will add to your bottom line.”
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.