Home automation gives you access to control devices in your home from a mobile device anywhere in the world. The term may be used for isolated programmable devices, like thermostats and sprinkler systems, but home automation more accurately describes homes in which nearly everything -- lights, appliances, electrical outlets, heating and cooling systems -- are hooked up to a remotely controllable network. From a home security perspective, this also includes your alarm system, and all of the doors, windows, locks, smoke detectors, surveillance cameras and any other sensors that are linked to it.
Home Automation Developments
Until fairly recently, automated central control of building-wide systems was found only in larger commercial buildings and expensive homes. Typically involving only lighting, heating and cooling systems, building automation rarely provided more than basic control, monitoring and scheduling functions and was accessible only from specific control points within the building itself.
Home automation is a step toward what is referred to as the "Internet of Things," in which everything has an assigned IP address, and can be monitored and accessed remotely.
The first and most obvious beneficiaries of this approach are "smart" devices and appliances that can be connected to a local area network, via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. However, electrical systems and even individual points, like light switches and electrical outlets, were also integrated into home automation networks, and businesses have even explored the potential of IP-based inventory tracking. Although the day is still far off when you'll be able to use your mobile browser to track down a lost sock, home networks are capable of including an increasing number of devices and systems.
Automation is, unsurprisingly, one of the two main characteristics of home automation. Automation refers to the ability to program and schedule events for the devices on the network. The programming may include time-related commands, such as having your lights turn on or off at specific times each day. It can also include non-scheduled events, such as turning on all the lights in your home when your security system alarm is triggered.
Once you start to understand the possibilities of home automation scheduling, you can come up with any number of useful and creative solutions to make your life better. Is that west-facing window letting in too much light? Plug your motorized blinds into a "smart" outlet and program it to close at noon each day. Do you have someone come by at the same time each day to walk the dog? Program your home automation system to unlock the front door for them, and lock it up again when they're done.
The other main characteristic of cutting-edge home automation is remote monitoring and access. While a limited amount of one-way remote monitoring has been possible for some time, it's only since the rise in smartphones and tablets that we've had the ability to truly connect to our home networks while we're away. With the right home automation system, you can use any Internet-connected device to view and control the system itself and any attached devices.
Monitoring apps can provide a wealth of information about your home, from the status of the current moment to a detailed history of what has happened up to now. You can check your security system's status, whether the lights are on, whether the doors are locked, what the current temperature of your home is and much more. With cameras as part of your home automation system, you can even pull up real-time video feeds and literally see what's going on in your home while you're away.
Even simple notifications can be used to perform many important tasks. You can program your system to send you a text message or email whenever your security system registers a potential problem, from severe weather alerts to motion detector warnings to fire alarms. You can also get notified for more mundane events, such as programming your "smart" front door lock to let you know when your child returns home from school.
The real hands-on control comes in when you start interacting with the home automation system from your remote app. In addition to arming and disarming your security system, you can reprogram the scheduling, lock and unlock doors, reset the thermostat and adjust the lights all from your phone, from anywhere in the world. As manufacturers are creating more and more "smart" devices and appliances all the time, the possibilities for home automation are virtually limitless.
Home Automation Components
What kinds of things can be part of a home automation system? Ideally, anything that can be connected to a network can be automated and controlled remotely. In the real world (outside of research labs and the homes of the rich and famous), home automation most commonly connects simple binary devices. This includes "on and off" devices such as lights, power outlets and electronic locks, but also devices such as security sensors which have only two states, open and closed.
Where home automation becomes truly "smart" is in the Internet-enabled devices that attach to this network and control it. The classic control unit is the home computer, for which many of the earlier home automation systems were designed. Today's home automation systems are more likely to distribute programming and monitoring control between a dedicated device in the home, like the control panel of a security system, and a user-friendly app interface that can be accessed via an Internet-enabled PC, smartphone or tablet.
Manufacturers have produced a wide variety of "smart" devices, many of which are full of innovative features but few of which offer the kind of integration needed to be part of a complete home automation system. Much of the problem has been that each manufacturer has a different idea of how these devices should be connected and controlled. So while you may have a "smart" TV, washing machine, refrigerator, thermostat, coffee maker or any of the other Internet-ready household devices on the market, the end result is usually a separate control scheme for each device.
In the near future, home automation may be standardized to let us truly take advantage of all of these additional possibilities. For the time being, the home security providers that specialize in home automation have focused on the most critical and useful parts of a connected home. At a basic level, this means the doors and windows and environmental devices (thermostat, smoke detectors, temperature, humidity, fire and carbon dioxide sensors) that keep you safe and comfortable. For additional real-time security, convenience and control, home automation systems from security providers should also include options for video cameras. With the best systems, you'll also be able to include lights and individual electrical outlets into your home automation package.
One clear advantage of home automation is the unmatched potential for energy savings, and therefore cost savings. Your thermostat is already "smart" in the sense that it uses a temperature threshold to govern the home's heating and cooling system. In most cases, thermostats can also be programmed with different target temperatures in order to keep energy usage at a minimum during the hours when you're least likely to benefit from the heating and cooling.
At the most basic level, home automation extends that scheduled programmability to lighting, so that you can suit your energy usage to your usual daily schedule. With more flexible home automation systems, electrical outlets or even individual devices can also be automatically powered down during hours of the day when they're not needed. As with isolated devices like thermostats and sprinkler systems, the scheduling can be further broken down to distinguish between weekends and even seasons of the year, in some cases.
Set schedules are helpful, but many of us keep different hours from day to day. Energy costs can be even further reduced by programming "macros" into the system and controlling it remotely whenever needed. In other words, you could set up a "coming home" event that turns on lights and heating as you're driving home after work, for example, and activate it all with one tap on your smartphone. An opposite "leaving home" event could save you from wasting energy on forgotten lights and appliances once you've left for the day.