THE BEAUTY OF A HOME AUTOMATION SYSTEM is its ability to look, feel and perform precisely the way you want it to. And if you’re unhappy with the way it works, you can alter, adjust and modify it until you’re completely satisfied. This precision tailoring is typically only possible, however, by hiring a custom electronics (CE) professional to design and install a system for your home.
Customization by a pro is what makes your system unique; it’s what ensures that it’s as simple as possible to operate and that it makes you happy for years to come. Automation products available through retail channels and service providers simply can’t match the level of high-style, high-performance and high-satisfaction that a custom-designed and installed turnkey automation system can.
Like anything custom—think cars and home construction—getting an automation system to a state of pure perfection is a process. Depending on the size of your home and the scope of your automation expectations, the process could take as little as a few days or as long as several months. Regardless, it helps to be prepared and understand what you’ll need to bring to the table to keep the project moving smoothly.
In order to effectively design a system that befits your family dynamic, a CE pro needs to understand your family dynamic. He can only do this by asking questions, and lots of them. Do you entertain frequently? Do guests often stay with you? Do you travel extensively? What does your family like to do in its spare time? And this is only the tip of the Q&A iceberg. Although you might initially feel uncomfortable revealing so much about yourself, the more you share with your CE pro (likes, dislikes, apprehensions, etc.), the better off you’ll be in the long run.
The phase of discovery can happen over coffee, at a CE pro’s showroom, during casual telephone conversations … just about anywhere, and it’s ongoing. Even while your home automation system is being installed, your CE pro may glean new tidbits of information that’ll be important to the end result.
Before you start talking with a CE pro, it’s beneficial to sit down with your family to openly discuss the features (see sidebar of popular automation routines, page 16) each of you would like the system to support.
A CE pro will also need to learn about your house—how it’s constructed, its design and layout. This may impact his decision on the type of technologies that will work best. For example, if yours is an existing home with limited access to a basement or attic, your CE pro might suggest a wireless automation system. Or, perhaps your home has yet to be built, and you’ve opted for a modern, contemporary design. This might warrant products that can be easily infused with the architecture.
After gaining a clear understanding of your expectations and of the basic composition of your house, a CE pro’s next step is to design your home automation system. This entails deciding which products to use and where to locate them in your house. Think of it as a blueprint, or map, of all things electronic. A CE pro will often work off blueprints from the architect to create his wiring schematics and product layout. In the case of an existing home, a CE pro’s own measurements and observations will serve as the template. Often during this phase, a CE pro will consult with any builder, architect or interior designer who might also be working on your house, as certain elements in their plans could impact the electronic design and vice versa. For example, additional structural support may need to be added to the walls to safely hold a flat-panel TV and extra space and ventilation allocated in a utility room to accommodate a rack of home automation equipment.
Of course, your involvement will be critical throughout the design, as it’s ultimately your decision on how you’d like the automation system to look and perform. If you see things on the blueprints, renderings or during a walk through that raises concern—like a touchpanel mounted in an awkward spot or a rack of equipment in a closet where you’d prefer to hang coats—mention it to your CE pro now. Once the wiring is in place (see the Prewire phase) and the construction is complete, it may be difficult and costly to change the wiring layout or the locations of certain components.
Chances are your house is going to need some cabling to support the various components that make up your home automation system. Sure, many wireless options are available, but items like speakers, TVs and other equipment are still going to need wire. Plus, many CE pros prefer to use hardwired systems for their reliability and robustness. During the prewire phase, cabling will be fished behind walls, underneath floors and inside closets, cabinets and utility rooms to the planned locations of wall-mounted touchpanels and keypads, loudspeakers, sensors, equipment racks and more. If your CE pro has crossed all his Ts and dotted all his Is, the prewire phase should be a straightforward procedure and move along quickly.
How does your automation system know it’s supposed to turn off every light promptly at midnight? Through the software program that’s written by your CE pro.
An automation system is only as smart as its software, so programming is perhaps the most important part of the installation process. Often, programming happens throughout the project, as the CE pro continually refines his design as he learns more about you, the house and the ongoing work of other subcontractors on the job. For example, based on an interior designer’s decision to add motorized shading to the media room, your CE pro may add the shades to a program he had created to dim the lights and fire up the stereo system at the touch of a button. Much of the programming can occur remotely at the CE pro’s office, and changes later on in the process can usually be downloaded to the system processor from anywhere in the world, saving you the trouble of scheduling an in-house visit.
When you see your CE pro actually mounting TVs to the finished walls, connecting speakers and assembling racks that will hold the home automation processors and other gear, the installation is nearing completion. Based on the design work that was done earlier, everything should fit perfectly inside cabinets, and recess into ceilings and walls flawlessly. Naturally, the CE pro will ensure that any holes that needed to be cut into walls and ceilings to house keypads, speakers and other equipment are “trimmed out” to blend in with the surface.
Before you wave goodbye to your CE pro, expect him to provide a tutorial on how to use the system. If he has done his job, this shouldn’t take long. Be sure to ask for all documentation of the project. Blueprints, wiring diagrams and a detailed list of equipment will prove invaluable should you ever modify or update your system.
Also, because manufacturers continually expand the functionality of their systems, your CE pro will often download updates to your home automation processor as part of a routine maintenance plan (be sure he offers one). The process is transparent and usually happens remotely.