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INTEGRATING SMART HOME DEVICES

by George McKechnie

The ads make it sound so simple: just download an app or two to your phone or tablet, plug in the widgets, then sit back and enjoy the wonderful benefits of a smart home—one that will respond to your every command.   The reality, it turns out, is a bit more complicated.

Getting the most out of smart home technology involves more than just purchasing a device or two, popping them in your home, and installing the apps.  For most households, the real value of smart home technology is achieved when they are interconnected.  To accomplish this, smart homes must have a system processor which can coordinate the technologies you want—such as security, surveillance cameras, lighting & shade control, home entertainment, and HVAC thermostats—into systems that can be programmed to support important lifestyle patterns.  For example: programming the systems to creating a vacation mode, which lets you activate and set the appropriate smart home features with the push of a single button as you walk out the door for an extended trip; or a movie mode, which automatically closes all the window shades and dims the lights, then turns on your home theater and cues up the latest blockbuster release or a favorite classic movie.

This coordination of features can be taken a step further, and custom-tailored to the specific preferences and lifestyle needs of your household.  Example:  for daytime movie watching, close the shades and turn off the lights, but for nighttime watching, dim the lights but leave the shades open to enjoy the view—unless the weather is bad.  Creating this final step, called smart home integration, involves a process of:

  • Learning about and critically evaluating the products and services available
  • Determining which of these make sense for you and your family
  • Deciding how you want them tailored to your home and lifestyle
  • Selecting products that meet your needs and budget, and will work together seamlessly
  • Installing and programming them to create easy-to-use systems that reliably meet your goals.

More basic approaches (including a handful of self-installed widgets) can make sense for some consumers, depending on their specific needs, ability to learn and remember sometimes complex sequences of commands, ability to trouble-shoot digital devices when things don’t work as planned, and tolerance for frustration.

Creating a smart home you can use and enjoy with confidence involves several important decision areas:

  • The level of monitoring, control and integration that fits your home and family
  • The types of products and services you choose
  • Your comfort with complexity, frustration, and risk

Let’s begin by looking at basic control functions, and see how they can be combined into more intelligent systems.  Then we’ll look at the options currently available for purchasing products and services, along with the strengths and limitations of the different business models that support them.  Finally, we’ll consider the benefits, costs, and risks associated with these choices.

LEVELS OF CONTROL  

Who isn’t attracted to the idea of remote control—adjusting home lighting with a hand-held device, for example, or using a smart phone while travelling to adjust your lawn sprinkling schedule to a change in the weather.   Anyone who grew up with remotes understands and appreciates this most basic level of automation.  In these simple applications, the remote is simply an extension of our hands and legs, relieving us of having to get up, walk across the room (or down the hall) to flip a light switch, adjust the heating thermostat, or change the volume or channel on the TV.

A second, more powerful level of control is remote monitoring: using the remote to confirm (via a visual indicator on the remote screen, or even an actual camera feed) that the garage lights are in fact off, for example, without having to walk there to find out.  How does this work?  Some remote control systems are capable of two-way communication: in addition to sending out commands to smart home devices (“turn off the garage lights”), they can also receive information from the device (“garage lights are off”), or provide a visual camera image (showing a darkened garage) confirming that the command was received and the requested task was accomplished.  Other smart home monitoring data that can make your life easier, more enjoyable, and safer include:

  • The temperature inside your cabin at the lake.
  • The name of the song you’re listening to.
  • The status of the pool access gate (“ALERT: it’s unlocked and wide open!”)
  • The status of a garden faucet (“ALERT: it is leaking one gallon per hour.”)

By adding the powerful monitoring function to the remote control, two way devices can confirm the status of a device, and receive and display relevant data—even real-time photographic images.  In doing so, they set the stage for true home automation.  See Adapt the Controller to Your Needs; Very Smart Remote Control Systems; Advanced Remote Control Features.

The third level of control brings us into the realm of smart home automation.  This involves programming the system to combine features which are otherwise controlled—or monitored—one feature at a time, and to do things automatically: like closing the drapes when the sun goes down, or watering the lawn when the moisture in the ground drops too low.   Automation frees the user from having to remember lists of recurring tasks, from having to perform multiple operations on the system controller in a particular sequence, or from manually checking to confirm that each intended command was successfully carried out.  In an automated system, a dedicated remote control can be programmed to perform all of these tasks with a single keystroke.

Example: Your smart home system is programmed to include a vacation mode.   On your way out the door, you activate this sequence by simply pressing the vacation button, which has been pre-programmed to perform the following tasks:

  • Intrusion Alarm. Activate the alarm system, confirm the status of all windows and doors, and alert you if everything is not secured
  • Surveillance. Activate the inside and outside cameras, and set them to record whenever motion is detected
  • Drapes & Shades. Open at dawn, then close at dusk (sequentially– not all at once– over a 20 minute period)
  • Lighting. Turn on a few selected lights at 7:00 am and off at 10:00 pm – or a random pattern.

You might also choose to have a simple away mode configured into your system, which activates only the intrusion alarm and surveillance systems, during weekdays only, when everyone is headed to work or at school.  Both away and vacation modes save time and frustration—especially important when you are in a hurry.  They also avoid human error, by vastly simplifying your family’s interaction with multiple smart home devices.

The fourth level, smart home integration, provides the ultimate degree of control.  This strategy involves programming home automation features based on established lifestyle patterns and preferences of the family, while also allowing for specific adjustments or temporary exceptions.  House cleaners come on Thursdays?  Program the system to accept their assigned alarm code on that day only, from 8-5, and to alert you on your smartphone if anyone tries to gain access to your home using that code at other times.  If your plans change and you arrange for them to come this week on Friday, you simply make a one-time exception to the normal settings.

Concerned about when—and with whom—your teenager arrives home after school?  Program the front door camera to send you an image on your smartphone when he uses his unique code to let himself in.  That way, you can keep an eye on things.

PRODUCTS AND SERVICES  

With all of the smart home devices and features pouring onto the market—and the different types and levels of services now becoming available—deciding how to get started can be a bit daunting.  Here are the questions you’ll want to consider.  The Gallery, Smart Home Planner, and Find an Expert tools will help, too:

  • Which smart home features make sense for my home and family?
  • Which devices do we want to be integrated together?
  • To what extent do we want the system tailored to our specific lifestyle?
  • Which brands and models of products should we purchase?
  • Should we try to do the project ourselves?
  • If not, who are the right experts to help us decide which features make sense for our home and lifestyle, then design the system, and install and program it?

These are important questions.  Your answers will have a big impact on the final design of your smart home project, and your long-term satisfaction with the system you’ve chosen.  Here are some reference points for products and services.

Do-It-Yourself   There’s been a lot of press coverage lately about the Internet of Things (IoT)—individual internet-enabled products which consumers select, install and program themselves.  In spite of all the hype, many consumers remain unclear about what IoT-grade products can actually do for their family, how easy they are to install, program and use, and what role this category will play in the future of smart homes.

Many electronics manufacturers have begun to develop wireless stand-alone technologies (light dimmers, thermostats, or simple on/off switches) that will allow these products to be controlled (and in some cases monitored) over the internet.  One major manufacturer, for example, recently announced plans to internet-enable their entire line of consumer electronics products within the next few years.  Other electronics and internet giants have also jumped into the IoT arena, in some cases by acquiring startup companies that have already developed a particular widget or two to perform specific tasks—like remotely activating an alarm system or turning living room lights on and off.

These products and apps are a part of the digital hub concept, in which a personal digital device (smart phone, tablet, or even a laptop) is used to run the app that controls the widget. This approach allows the user to collect smart home apps on a phone or tablet as needed, and thereby control a potentially limitless collection of individual solutions which target specific everyday home automation needs.  At this level of service, consumers themselves select and purchase the devices that they feel will meet these needs, then download the apps, and install and configure the device(s) themselves.

The promise of IoT smart home products includes low product cost (based on expected huge consumer adoption rates plus a limited need for customer support services), low or zero installation cost (if the installation is done by the consumer), and a potentially high level of convenience (as the device is operated from an app on a smartphone).   Unfortunately, the experience of early-adopters suggests that these stand-alone products may be too complicated for many consumers to install, configure, and use successfully—unless they’re young digit-heads with lots of experience in the digital world.  See The Analog Brain in a Digital World.

Preliminary industry results with IoT devices indicate they have caused significant frustration and disappointment, leading consumers to return them, stop using them, or avoid them in the first place.  As a result, sales of these highly-touted solutions have begun to slow just when industry observers predicted they would take off like a rocket. These issues may be resolved with further product development aimed at refining and simplifying installation procedures and improving reliability.

A second major concern is internet security.  Many of the IoT devices that have been released to date have inadequate password protection.  When installed on your home network, they can provide hackers with a convenient—if unintended and poorly protected—back door, posing a significant risk to the security of your home and family which extends well beyond the use of the simple product installed.   See Protect Your Network from Hackers (coming soon)

A third concern is service.  Since IoT devices are sold as retail products with no in-home installation or service component and often limited or no phone-in customer support, it’s unclear how the consumer can get timely and effective in-home assistance in the event of an intrusion, a false alarm, or a system shut-down following a power outage.

Mini-Automation Platforms

Some consumer electronics manufacturers have begun to develop and market modest dedicated systems that guarantee the compatibility of the automation products they sell, and even allow limited integration across these features.  Examples include Google’s Nest thermostat suite, Apple’s HomeKit, and other similar devices.

If carefully planned and executed, these systems may well provide some advantages over a handful of unmatched  IoT widgets in allowing easy integration across technologies.  Hopefully, these manufacturers will have learned from the mistakes of the first generation of IoT devices regarding internet security.

But unless their business model embraces a 24/7/365 service component to handle DIY installation snags, help reset false alarms, resolve component failures, and respond to lock-outs, for example, the mini-automation platforms will wind up leaving many of their customers on their own in emergencies to solve frustrating and even potentially dangerous situations.  This may limit their effectiveness and popularity to applications in which the safety and security of the users are not critical—like entertainment and general internet connectivity.

Provider-Based Platforms

Electronic service providers like Verizon and Comcast entered the home automation sector a few years ago, by developing or acquiring mini-tech platforms which allow them to sell basic services for intrusion alarms, security cameras, lighting, and a few other smart home features to their residential customers on a monthly fee basis.  These developments promise to provide consumers with cost-effective solutions for simple, limited tasks.  See Experts.

The advantages of choosing automation solutions from an electronic service provider include low initial cost, installation of the smart home devices by the provider, (hopefully) timely and competent in-home service, and (presumably) protection of their equipment from hackers.  But the monthly service fees do add up over the life of the contract, and can exceed the full purchase price of a consumer-owned system.   And it is unclear at this point to what extent these communications/IT giants will provide services that allow for the coordination and customization of tasks—which are the hallmarks of smart home integration.

Another concern is compatibility with existing systems.  To what extent will their control apps  be able to communicate and integrate with smart home devices (especially lighting control, home theater products, and surveillance cameras) from established manufacturers, many of which have been in wide use for decades?

Full Home Integration

Want to control all of the lights in your home, plus set “scenes” with multiple sources of light?  Need to monitor and control all of the doors and windows in your home on your smartphone?  How about optimizing solar gain to cut your heating and cooling costs—by automatically opening the window shades or drapes at dawn and closing them at dusk during winter days, and do the reverse for hot summer days?

For these kinds of tasks and many more, established manufacturers of smart home integration systems—like Control4, Total Control by URC, Savant Systems, Crestron, and AMX—offer automation and integration features and systems that go well beyond the capability of IoT-based digital hubs, mini-platforms offered by consumer electronics manufacturers, and the mini-systems currently offered by the giant electronic service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and ATT.

Full-scale integration systems can be custom-tailored to meet the specific lifestyle needs of your household, freeing you from having to remember complex tasks: the correct sequence of commands to turn on your home theater and stream a movie, the correct settings to optimize solar gain, or any custom security, surveillance, or lighting configurations that are critical to the safety and well-being of your family.  In fact, they can be designed and programmed to monitor and control almost any task around the home.

Smart home integration systems are designed, installed, and programmed by specialists in security, home entertainment, broadband connectivity and residential networking, energy conservation, and even the special needs of family members.  They offer integration platforms and products that provide a high degree of internet security.  They can provide 24/7/365 monitoring of security and surveillance systems.  And they install world-class entertainment systems, including home theaters, whole house music, multi-room video streaming—and much more.

Not every custom home integrator is expert in all of these areas.  More often, they find and work closely with local associates who have complementary specialties, which may overlap.  For example, most audio/video experts also specialize in remote control systems, home networks, lighting, shade and HVAC control, and surveillance cameras—but often not in security systems.  Most security experts, on the other hand, are also experienced with surveillance systems, but few venture into home entertainment.  And solar system installers are usually associated with residential builders or electrical contractors.  To find a smart home integration specialist in your area, See Find an Expert

The smart home concept evolved within the audio/video sector—which is the most technologically complex and rapidly evolving of the smart home specialties.  For this reason, home entertainment experts are typically the ones who take the lead in designing smart homes, providing and programming the all-important control system, and overseeing the installation of the project.  They are trained in the major technology platforms that form the basis of a smart home, and are usually involved in all phases of the smart home project: educating the client regarding available features and services, clarifying their needs and desires, specifying the equipment that best meets these needs, designing and engineering the systems, installation, custom programming, and finally training the client on their custom system.

The livelihood of these specialists depends on their local reputation for quality design, fair pricing, and responsive service.  Most are seasoned experts and licensed contractors, having been involved with the home electronics and construction industries for many years.

Historically, custom smart homes have not been inexpensive.  After all, it took time to clarify and understand the client’s needs, design and engineer the systems, professionally install them, and then custom-tailor the programming to meet these needs.  Also, the integration hardware that was needed to pull everything together and make it simple to operate was highly specialized and expensive, and the programming very time-consuming.

But disruptive innovation over the last decade has revolutionized the field of smart home integration.  New products and streamlined programming procedures have cut the cost of smart home systems by more than half—in some cases by 60% or more.  Moreover, the free  consumer-friendly tools on this website—the Gallery, Lifestyle Planner, Find an Expert, and these INSIGHTS reports—were specifically designed to help consumers be more informed and savvy shoppers, and to help dealers reduce the “front end” labor costs associated with educating and qualifying clients, plus planning and designing smart home systems.

SOME FINAL ADVICE  

A Smart Home can add immeasurably to the daily enjoyment of your home.  And your family can also benefit from the convenience, safety, energy conservation, connectivity, and adaptive features that a smart home can provide.   But creating a smart home does involve a significant investment of time and money.  So please do your homework, before you make decisions about which features you want, what sort of system will be required to support these features, and who will you trust to turn these plans into reality.

If you have not already done so, please review the 26 technologies and applications in the Smart Home Gallery.  Then complete the Smart Home Planner, and study your own Personal Profile.   And feel free to browse through the 7 Sections of the INSIGHTS reports to find and learn more on topics that are relevant to your home and your lifestyle.

This may sound like a lot of work—and it can be.  But you will be amply rewarded for your efforts—with the relevant features, a superior level of integration, and the kinds of provider services that will make your life simpler, more enjoyable, and safer.  Isn’t it worth spending a little extra time and effort to get it right—a smart home that is tailored to your home and lifestyle?

 

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