What is Home Automation?

The formal definition of 'automation' is "the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically".  So, simply put, Home Automation is a way to have things around your home happen automatically.  The first thing that comes to mind when folks think of home automation are robots, flashing lights, complicated electronics and a general feeling that their home is less of a warm home and more of a cold science experiment.  However, in most homes today, you can easily find some simple forms of automation such as:
* Garage door openers
* Remote Controls
* Irrigation / sprinkler control systems
* Motion activated lights
* Security systems
* Programmable thermostats
* Programmable light timers
* VCR / DVR programming

If you want to keep going, you can throw in dishwasher, clothes washers and dryers, ovens, microwaves, cars, lights and switches…. The list goes on and on.  You may not think of a dishwasher or light switch as home automation, but compared to washing dishes by hand and striking a match to light a candle ever time you enter a room, it's defiantly automation.

Most of these things we don't even think of as 'home automation' because we take them for granted and consider them to be 'normal'.  However, each of these things was designed to help us do some complicated, strenuous, unpleasant, or repetitious action automatically.  The term 'Home Automation' today applies to the next level of automating home electronics.

Why automate your home?

The simple answer is just to make life easier.  We invented TV remote controls so we didn't have to get out of the chair to change the channel.  Some people now own complex media systems that require the owner to press 10 different buttons on 5 remotes just to watch Oprah.
!So what's the next step?  You now have all of these 'normal' automation systems listed above, but wouldn't it be nice to have some of your current automation devices work together as a team?  What if you could:
* Press one button on a remote control and have it dim the lights, set the TV to the DVD input, set the volume level, and start playing a movie.
* Not have the sprinklers turn on if it just rained.
* Get emails sent to you at work or on your cell phone if a motion detector or security system is tripped while out of the house.
* Get emails sent to you with the caller ID information of a call received at your house when out.
* Automatically turn the lights on in the house when the garage door goes up and it's after sundown.
* Automatically turn the front porch lights on 1/2 hour before sundown every day (and automatically adjust for daylight savings).
* Have the lights in the kids room gradually brighten at 6:30 on school days.
* Automatically close the garage doors every night.
* Automatically turn on holiday lights at specific times (all at once).

The full list is limited to imagination and a family's lifestyle.  With the current state of technology, all of these things and more are possible.

How to Automate

The first step in determining what is needed to automate a home, is to devise a general plan.  Typically this starts out with one or two goals such as turning on the entertainment system with one button, or turning the pool waterfall on and off automatically at predefined times.  The next step is to ask yourself if this is something you would enjoy learning about and doing yourself, or whether you would rather have a professional do it for you.

Professional Installers

Professionally installed systems are great solutions for folks who don't feel comfortable enough with acquiring, installing, and configuring the technology, or they just don't have the time or interest in doing so.   The nice thing about these systems is that the hardware and general setup is typically rock-solid and will run with little or no maintenance.  The bad thing about them is that they are considerably more expensive to setup, and require the dealer/installer to make any modifications which can also be expensive.
!The leading professionally installed systems are:
* Crestron
* Control4

These systems can not be purchased directly from the suppliers.  Typically companies that specialize in media room or theater design carry these systems and will gladly give you a demonstration and quote.

Do It Yourself (DIY)

DIY solutions are much less expensive and great for folks who are comfortable doing some simple electrical work (typically just switch replacements).  These types of systems are generally more interesting to work with since they allow the homeowner to expand the system without much cost and gives them full gloating rights when they show their neighbors.  Computer costs and software technologies are now to a point where a DIY system can look as professional as any dealer installed system.

It's best to start off with some simple starter projects.  These provide a great introduction into many of the components of an automated home.  If the first projects are successful, new automation ideas will breed and the setup will grow into a more comprehensive system.  For example, the first goal may be to simply automate some under cabinet accent lights to turn on at sundown and turn off at midnight.  Then they can be setup to switch off automatically when leaving the house.  Then they can be setup to flash on school mornings at 7:10 to indicate to the kids that breakfast is over and it's time to brush their teeth.  Then they can be added to a touchscreen to be controlled and monitored from anywhere in the house or even over the Internet.


One of the primary issues that has slowed the adoption of Home Automation is the fact that there is no single technology that provides a comprehensive solution.  Typically multiple technologies are required to service a full range of automation tasks.  Luckily, the incompatibilities between the technologies can be remedied through a software solution for home control (more on this below).

Many people assume that to install any type of home automation system will require extensive rewiring of their home.  However, the majority of the automation hardware that is available today was designed to retrofit existing electrical devices.

The list below is just a brief overview of some of the mainstream technologies for home automation.  Determining the right solution for a particular application requires the proper balance of price, reliability/quality, availability (not all hardware supports all automation needs).
!The primary types of hardware are:

Most of the hardware technologies listed above can be used with simple tabletop controllers or remotes to perform simple automation.  For example you can have a motion detector automatically turn on a light, or press a button on a tabletop controller to turn off all the automated lights.  However, to go beyond very rudimentary control a more complex system controller is needed.  Controllers come in two varieties; hardware or software.

Hardware Controllers

Hardware controllers are typically a combination of a hardware and software solution combined into a single product.  While they offer the convenience of bundling the software with compatible hardware, they are also more limiting if needing to go beyond the support provided by the hardware.  Some of the more common hardware controllers are listed below.
* Ocelot / Leopard - Manufactured by ADI, this is a very inexpensive controller that provides a simple, but powerful, if/else control language to manage the system. The hardware itself can control X10 and IR (The Leopard also has a touch-screen display). The beauty of this system is that it can be easily extended to include control for relays (sensing and control), additional IR, temperature sensing, humidity sensing, RS-232 and more.
* PRO-100 Home Controller - This is really just a bundled Homeseer (see below) and a mini PC into a single product. Homeseer is a very powerful solution that can control most all of the main DIY automation technologies. The price of the bundle is very high considering the cost of the components if assembled individually.
* HAI - HAI provides a broad line of automation products.
* JDS - The JDS Stargate is another full featured automation system.

There are many more hardware based control systems on the market that are not included in this list (please add to the list if you have experience with them).  There are also several security systems that have additional support for X10 and other automation protocols that are not listed here.

Software Controllers

Software Controllers are best suited for the DIY home automation enthusiast.  They require considerably more effort to setup and configure, but can provide more flexibility since they are not tied to specific hardware.  Typically the requirements for setting up your own system are:
* Control Software (see list below)
* Computer - See the requirements for the specific software product for the specifications. However, usually a low-end PC will suffice.
* Hardware Interface - Depending on the technology used for automation, hardware that connects to the PC through the USB, network, or serial port is required. Most software controllers are open to many different technologies and can manage a variety of interfaces simultaneously.
* Automation Devices - Depending on what is being automated, things like automated switches will need to be purchased and installed.
* Configuration - After all of the hardware and software has been installed, the software must be configured to automate the devices. This is very specific to the software solution selected, but generally consists of creating software 'Tasks' that manage the system.

Control Software