Those who follow my blog know that I love automation, especially things that can be done in the home. I most especially love when something is quick and easy to install. It’s not a lazy side of me, but it’s something that proves to me that the product manufacturer is trying to really make it possible for anyone to do; this is key.
At least a year ago, I had threatened to write an article about a couple of home automation companies. My position in the article – which I got as far as drafting – was to get information from each of the companies about their decisions to use specific development technologies for their solutions. I thought that this would be, well, informative – for the geek and the possible “user.” Well, needless to say I think I disappointed both companies by never releasing the article, but I do want to talk about it now. But not before I cover the more general topic of Home Automation.
I believe that, even after a year, there’s still plenty to understand about the differences in implementation, but moreover, what might make more sense for your own implementation. So, here’s the deal: The companies I’m reviewing are:
But that’s not all I’m going to tell you. Part One of this article will deal with the possibilities of Home Automation products (both software and hardware), and then Part Two will more deeply cover the technology solutions I just mentioned, but from more of a software engineer/developer’s point of view.
What’s good for the goose…
There are tremendous features for home automation solutions; it’s definitely out of the scope of this article for me to describe them all. The same could be said for the supported features of each of the above software products. They both support so many Power Line Interfaces (PLIs), and other peripherals that it would take up pages and pages to describe the details. That’s not quite what I’m out to do, though I’ll try to talk about a few things along the way.
Everyone purchasing, or even just considering, a home automation system needs to know, and decide, a few simple things:
- How do you plan on using your automation system?
- Which platform will you use (i.e. a Windows PC)?
- Do you currently have an investment in automation hardware?
These are obvious fundamental questions that need to be resolved before selecting a solution. So, in this “Part One” of the article, we’re going to focus on those items.
What Am I Going To Do With An Automation System?
Well, that’s definitely question number one, in my opinion. If you don’t know how you want to use it, then you shouldn’t even consider it. Stop here. Come back when you’re ready to answer that question.
OK, it looks like you’re ready, or you’re just defiant! Either way, let’s begin. My first automation use was simple: controlling lights. Most people start out this way and they make use of the benefits for a few different reasons. I think convenience is the number one reason; and really, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Face it, we’re all lazy; even those of us whom exercise and visit the gym. Honestly, ask yourself, do you really want to hop out of your nice cozy bed after a long day, just to go down a flight (maybe two!) of stairs to turn off that light in the living room? Of course not! …and given the option, I’d rather stay in bed. This is where automation is so great, to me. With something as simple as a device that you only have to plug into an outlet, then plug your lamp into it, and one little button keypad, you’re automating your home. Really, it doesn’t get much simpler than that. So, then you go crazy, you now buy these little plug-in modules for every lamp in your house, and you’ve got these little button pads all over the place so you can turn those lights on and off from pretty much anywhere.
Now you discover that you love this. It’s the holiday season and you plug in your window candles, your tree, or whatever else you have. You can turn on and off all of this stuff from your bedside table. How cool is that? But wait… what about the light switches to your overhead lighting? I keep forgetting to turn off that one in the kitchen, and the one outside… darn! Well, you can do those too! But, you need to feel OK with playing with actual wiring. Available are these simple switches that replace the ones currently behind your wall plate. If you don’t think you can do it yourself, call a friend or an electrician who’s more comfortable with playing with powerline wiring. Once you’ve installed that, now you can turn on and off the outside lights, the laundry room, the garage lights… everything! Wow, you’re set, right?! No way! There’s tons more you can do!
By this point, you’ve realized, “this helps me control my stuff, but this doesn’t really feel like ‘automation’ to me.” That’s how I felt the first time I had my stuff set up, too. Sure, it’s great to be able to control this stuff from a comfortable location, but what happens when you’re so comfortable that you fall asleep and forget to turn them off, or maybe you’re on vacation? You know the answer: Timers!
Timers and Automation
How about we put something in to turn this stuff on and off at a predetermined time? At least, let’s turn it off. You remember the old-school timers, the ones with the little plastic pins that you put on the wheel to make the lights click on and off when the timer spun around. Well, imagine that on Steroids! Not only can you turn them on and off at a certain time, you can do it a zillion times a day, if you want (that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but you get what I’m sayin’!). Beyond that, most, if not all, of the automation products on the market support something really nifty called a “security setting.” What that means is you can tell the software to turn something on or off around a certain time. Basically, if I want it turned on at 5:00pm and I turn on the “security” setting, then it tells the lights to turn on some time – within about an hour – around 5:00pm. That way, it looks like you’re home, even when you’re not. Pretty slick, huh?
Which Platform Will You Use?
Here’s something that is important to decide very early in this process. Before you can do something like the cool “Timers and Automation” functions, you need to figure out on what hardware platform (like Windows, Mac OS, or Linux system) you’re planning to run your automation software. This is truly the key to the comfort of what you’re doing. If you’re planning on doing this yourself, obviously, you have the choice. If you’re asking to have an installer do this work, you will be at their mercy. Granted, it’s their problem, not yours!
Again, for scope, I’m only covering a couple of solutions. Homeseer runs on Windows and uses .NET, and Homehub is a Java application. Both run in a browser. Homeseer requires a local installation of it’s full product and .NET 2.0, and Homehub (last I checked) worked with Java requiring a local install of the Java client. Now, a more recent review of the Myion website indicates that their solution only runs on Windows (unless you purchase their embedded “PRO” version). Homeseer also offers a PRO version of their product which is a standalone piece of hardware. So, I think you can assume both products run on Windows, only.
The cost is another part of selecting your solution. Again, for my purposes (and for this article) my intention was to discuss the different development platforms as well as the feature set and functionality. So, sticking with one operating system was more important… that, and I’m a little bit of a Windows bigot probably only because I’ve written so much software on that platform – not that I honestly think one platform is better than another; they all have benefits. Anyway, back to cost…
The last I looked, there was kind of a “pricing plan” for Homehub (and Myion may continue that – I’d love for them to contact me). Homeseer is a flat-out cost for the base solution; software plug-ins are always extra, but sometimes free. Now, I had been using Homeseer way back since it cost somewhere around $40USD. If you purchase it from such great automation retailers like SmartHome (and I’ve been doing this so long I remember when they were ‘Home Automation Systems’ and just their web domain was SMARTHOME.COM), the product is going to cost you somewhere around $200USD (as much as $230USD). I feel lucky to have been onboard for so long.
One of the nicest parts about these software packages (and some of the hardware ones) is the ability to use them through a browser over the net. If you’re a geek like me, you’ll want access to your system from pretty much everywhere. One of the greatest things to make that happen is a PDA with WiFi and/or Cellular Broadband connectivity. You have to expose your system to the Internet, but password protection keeps it safe and you can usually turn off certain functionality (like changing the status of something) if you just want the ability to see what’s going on when you’re not home, or if this is a vacation property. I actually really enjoy being able to see the status of my home (including the security system and HVAC) when I’m away. Controlling it from a web interface makes it easy, since all you need is a browser and access to the system.
Do you currently have an investment in automation hardware?
Here’s a question if you’ve already started out using some kind of automation product: What kind of hardware investment do you already have? If you’re using the most popular (and oldest) X10 hardware, you’re pretty safe. If you started out more recently with something like INSTEON (from SmartHome), then you might want to research an automation software/hardware product kind of carefully. I would have to say that most solutions – if not all – handle this hardware, but it does matter. There are others, too, but these are the most common and available. In fact, you can still buy X10 compatible (OEM’d) hardware at places like Radio Shack and Home Depot, in the US.
My investment had started way back in the early 90′s when I first purchased a home. So, much of my lingering hardware is X10. The good news is you can use combinations of these products with most – again, if not all – software-based automation products.
Your automation doesn’t have to stop at lighting, of course. You can automate anything that can be controlled by a relay – like a garage door or a sprinkler/irrigation system. You can also very nicely control HVAC systems with specialized automation thermostats. This is one of those really handy things like “Gee, it’s too hot in here honey; turn up the A.C!” If you’re married, you know what I’m talkin’ about. Controlling the temperature right from your bed, is awesome. But it doesn’t stop there, either. You can control music libraries, and audio systems, too. You can have motion sensors that watch motion as well as light levels to figure out what to do. You know those days when the clouds roll in and it’s darker earlier? Well, make it look like you’re in your house then, too. You’d turn on the lights if it got darker in the house, so make it look natural.
If you haven’t picked a solution yet, pick one now. I suggest a combination of stuff if you’re just trying to save money. X10 is currently a lot cheaper – since it’s an older technology. Just understand that with old technology come “older problems” which have been mostly resolved in newer technology like INSTEON.
Now what do I do?
Well, you can either wait until I finish writing part two, or you can start looking at what’s available, now. Here are my quick suggestions:
- If you haven’t picked a type of automation hardware, go with INSTEON unless you want to do this cheaper, then use X10.
- If you’re ready to purchase a software product, take a close look at what is supported out-of-the-box, and what it’s going to cost you to add that “Windows Media Center Edition” plug-in so you can control your house through your TV, or whatever.
Whatever you decide to do now, take your time. You’re looking at a very robust area of technology and there are tremendous twists and turns (as well as bumps) for you to navigate. But the biggest thing is it can be a very expensive are of technology. Unless you have a very understanding and patient wife (as I do), or and endless budget (which I don’t), you’ll need to do this in bits and pieces and build up your full solution.
Part One Conclusion
There are plenty of other things I can cover, but you can always email, Skype, or whatever, me — or wait for part two. In part two, I’ll cover my original intent. We’ll talk about the companies and what the details of the technology architecture and design are. I’ll probably get into more details on how you can use your automation system, as well, but I may hold some of that off for a more focused article.