We frequently receive questions from readers, either through our Ask A Pro system or direct emails, requesting advice on their home theater, control systems etc. One question I get almost every week is some variation of “what control/automation system should I buy?”
Here’s the latest, which just came in from reader Dan, and my response.
Dan: What do you feel is the best home control system that will control heating, lighting, security, video of all the rooms, etc?
ME: Hi Dan,
I get questions like this all the time, and the answer is usually something like “all of them.”
All of the major players in home control, and by this I mean the custom installed and custom programmed systems (including companies like Control4, Crestron, AMX, BitWise, RTI, Savant, Elan g!, Total Control and a few others) are able to do all of the things you’re asking about. The reason I can’t just give you a simple answer and say “go with xyz system” is because it’s not merely about the hardware components, it’s about the installation, the programming (and the skill of the programmer), the home’s design and infrastructure and the homeowner him/herself.
With each system, there are differences in communication protocols, human interfaces, installation methods, costs, personalization, not to mention customer support networks. Some installers are also better than others, and the programmer’s expertise and creativity plays a large role in the features and operation of a system.
It also depends on the components (outside of the control system itself) that will be integrated. Some control systems play well with some components and not others—a lot of that depends on the drivers designed to operate the components, and that varies SKU by SKU sometimes.
I know this sounds like I’m evading the answer. The truth is, you will probably be very satisfied with any number of the systems mentioned above if you find an experienced installer, sit down with that person/company, and have a thorough conversation about your wants, your home, your timeline and your budget. Then together you’ll be able to figure out what the best system for your situation is.
To help you and anyone else reading this, here are 10 Steps to Getting the Best Home Automation System for You
1. Think about your daily activities.
What do you do, repeatedly, though out the day or week? Shut off lights, check to see if your doors are locked, open and close the drapes, start a TV show in the living room and finish it in the bedroom, listen to music in the backyard, adjust thermostat, throw big parties… All of those things can be done better or enhanced with an automation/control system.
Don’t think that automation is for lazy people. An automation system doesn’t empower a person to sit around on the sofa while robots do things for them. It allows you to live your life more efficiently by automating and monitoring some of the more mundane and routine activities, freeing you up for more important and valuable activities.
2. Know what’s available.
If you want your breakfast cooked and waiting for you on the kitchen table when you wake up, then hire a cook. If you want to be able to intelligently manage your movie and music collection, enable easier access to your lights, or always know when your kids come home from school, then get an automation system. Often people are surprised at some of the options available, or if they’ve heard about them, they’re surprised at how useful they can be. We hear all the time that automated lighting is one of those things that once you’ve tried it, you don’t know how you managed without it.
3. Think about what your time is worth and what you’re willing to invest to get more out of it.
While there are many DIY options in this market (see 25 Lesser-known Automation Systems), most of those require time, as well as differing levels of networking or construction know-how. Do you want to put that time into learning and installing or do you want to come home from work and find it all finished?
4. Read Electronic House articles.
Well, of course. Our Learning Center articles offer lots of advice and tips on systems, designs and issues, while our home profiles can offer inspiration for your home project.
5. Visit one or more professionals to explain your needs and learn about their offerings.
This is important. Have the integrator show you the systems offered (some integrators use their own homes for client demonstrations, which is really useful to see how these systems actually function in a house) and explain the process. Find out how the integrator can make your dream house come true.
6. Consider remote access.
Do you want to be able to check in on your house when you’re away? Do you want to be able to open the front door from another city? These are great new features available with many control systems.
7. Think about the future—expansion options.
Be sure to discuss scalability with your integrator. Most home control clients end up going back to their integrator at some time with additional projects, so make sure the system you select is one that can be built upon.
8. Select the products and services with your installer.
This where it starts to get fun—picking out what you want.
9. Get out of the way.
When that truck rolls up in your driveway, it’s best to get out of the way. Don’t be that person who leans over the installer’s shoulder all day long.
10. Learn the system and enjoy.
When the work is finished, and the installer puts the remote, touchpad, iPad… in your hand, pay attention to how the system operates. Make sure everyone in the family can use it, then sit back, press some buttons and enjoy.
Feel free to mix up the order of those steps. The internet won’t break.
Here are some additional articles (see step 4) that will also help you along the way.
Home Automation FAQs for Beginners
What Can Your Lights Do?
6 Common Automation Pitfalls to Avoid
Contact Sensors are the Secret Sauce in Many Home Control Systems
The Kitchen is the Center of the Connected Home
Basic Installation Options for Whole House Audio/Video
If you’ve got a great home automation project you want to brag about, drop me a line, send me some pictures or find me on Twitter.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.