Trends In Affordable Home Automation Systems

Home automation for everyone


Users of a Nexia Home Intelligence system can set vacation modes so lights and other devices come on to make the house look occupied--all from a Trane ComfortLink II thermostat and touchscreen controller.

HAI by Leviton president Jay McLellan whips out his smart-phone, summons his company’s Snap-Link mobile app, and starts controlling his own home thousands of miles away. Impressive to some, but to others it’s no biggie. Home control companies have been doing this for some time now.

The problem, McLellan says, pointing to big service providers like ADT and Comcast that are selling similar “connected” and “smart” home services, is that “everyone wants to make home automation a $50 charge—on top of security. We want to make home automation available without a monthly charge,” he says.

A basic HAI system can cost $4,000 to $5,000 professionally installed, although McLellan expects that HAI’s new marriage to lighting and control company Leviton will bring the price of his company’s automation systems down to the $1,000-to-$3,000 range.

A new $576 HAI by Leviton LTe controller may help do that. And that’s a good thing, because the days of affordable home automation are already here.

Some homeowners are ordering systems from big service providers like ADT, Comcast, Verizon, Vivint, and others. These systems typically feature connected security cameras, a few window and door sensors, plug-in modules for lighting and other device control, digital locks, wireless thermostats and more—for a one-time fee plus that pesky monthly charge of $10 to $50 or more. But there’s also a slew of affordably installed and doit-yourself home automation products that allow you to control your lights, security system, thermostats, and see video from surveillance cameras. And most of these, like the systems from ADT and Comcast—can be operated from a smartphone.

“People are excited about the integration of things like lighting and thermostats with alarm systems, so your lights go off when you leave the house,” says Mark Walters, chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance, which promotes the wireless Z-Wave technology used by many of the service provider and DIY systems. “People are thrilled to death that they can open a garage door and more than the one light comes on, and they love the novelty of locking and unlocking doors with their phones.”

“Controlling your house with a smartphone or tablet has become huge,” echoes Mark Colegrove, director of sales for home automation supplier HomeSeer. Colegrove says HomeSeer has taken a lot more calls recently from people saying the Comcast guy has been out to their house selling an Xfinity Home system. “The awareness of home automation has gone up, for sure.”

Even an interest in the boring home thermostat has surged, thanks in part to the high-profile Nest Learning Thermostat that can be controlled from a smartphone. Home automation company Insteon, whose products work over both a home’s electrical powerline and wireless radio frequency (RF), reports that its thermostats are among its hottest sellers, because people want to control them with their phones. And this leads to the control of light switches.

Younger people are also driving the demand for affordable automation, as Insteon’s Isaac Sanz says. “People are used to being connected. They have social media on a smartphone that keeps all of their calendar events, so why not have your house on the smartphone as well?Alot of people have grown up around this.”

The biggest hurdle, Sanz reports, is people being intimidated by replacing light switches. “If you can replace a wall switch, you can automate your home,” he says.

What we’re seeing, says M. Greg McLochlin of Honeywell, is home automation for the masses. He points to the company’s new Tuxedo Touch touchscreen, which serves as a control system that can operate wireless Z-Wave devices as well as existing Honeywell Vista-based security systems.

“If a security system lock syour doors, it can turn off a [Z-Wave enabled power] outlet so you never have to worry about leaving the iron on. Did you lock the door? Did you turn everything off? These systems allow the masses to forget about forgetting,” he says.

For the Beginner or Hobbyist

The age of DIY home automation is no longer just for the serious electronics hobbyist. Affordable home automation today is a very doable do-it-yourself project for almost anyone. DIY systems often require some degree of configuration, but today’s setup software removes most of the pain from the process. And for those who don’t want to bother or still find the setup intimidating, many of these systems can also be installed by custom electronics (CE) pros.

A startup called G2i, for example, is enlisting CE pros to install home control and mobile connectivity systems similar to the ones offered by ADT, Comcast and others; like those systems, you’ll pay a monthly fee.

Many affordable automation systems today use plug-in modules to control lamps and devices around your home. Door and window sensors are offered for security, IP (Internet-connected) cameras for surveillance, and wireless or connected thermostats for climate control. These components often communicate with a hub or bridge that is connected to your home’s Internet router, allowing you to control the system and program events, such as lights turning on and off at certain times, from a secure web page. Also available are light switches, smart and connected power outlets, electronic door locks, garage door openers, even exterior roller shutters. And yes, virtually all of these systems today make it easy to control your home via a smartphone or tablet.

Communication among the networked components in your home can take place via wireless radio frequency technologies like Wi-Fi and short-range Bluetooth, wireless mesh networks like Z-Wave and ZigBee, and over a home’s existing electrical wiring. Networking systems with a home’s coaxial cable—yes, the same cable used to connect your TV—is possible as well via Wi3’s WipNet products. And with the addition of Global Caché’s iTach devices, you can convert a Wi-Fi signal to infrared (IR) or bridge between other communications protocols to control devices.

Wireless Z-Wave is used predominantly in these systems and has 700 interoperable products. However, be sure to check what Z-Wave products are compatible with the system you choose to use. Many companies provide lists on their web sites.

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