Setting Up a Smart Home

X10, Insteon, ZigBee and Z-Wave just provide the technology for smart home communication. Manufacturers have made alliances with these systems to create the products that use the technology. Here are some examples of smart home products and their functions.

  • Cameras will track your home's exterior even if it's pitch-black outside.
  • Plug your tabletop lamp into a dimmer instead of the wall socket, and you can brighten and dim at the push of a button.
  • video door phone provides more than a doorbell -- you get a picture of who's at the door.
  • Motion sensors will send an alert when there's motion around your house, and they can even tell the difference between pets and burglars.
  • Door handles can open with scanned fingerprints or a four-digit code, eliminating the need to fumble for house keys.
  • Audio systems distribute the music from your stereo to any room with connected speakers.
  • Channel modulators take any video signal -- from a security camera to your favorite televisionstation -- and make it viewable on every television in the house.
  • Remote controlskeypads and tabletop controllers are the means of activating the smart home applications. Devices also come with built-in web servers that allow you to access their information online.
This keypad will send a message to your lamp.­These products are available at home improvement stores, electronics stores, from technicians or o­nline. Before buying, check to see what technology is associated with the product. Products using the same technology should work together despite different manufacturers, but joining up an X10 and a Z-Wave product requires a bridging device.In designing a smart home, you can do as much or as little home automation as you want. You could begin with a lighting starter kit and add on security devices later. If you want to start with a bigger system, it's a good idea to design carefully how the home will work, particularly if rewiring or renovation will be required. In addition, you'll want to place strategically the nodes of the wireless networks so that they have a good routing range.

While the networks claim that the products are easy to program and use, about 60 percent of homebuilders who have installed home automation devices hired professional help [source: Regan]. If you're looking for a technician, check if they have CEA-CompTIA certification. This certification is the result of a partnership between the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), and it represents proficiency in installing, maintaining and troubleshooting any vendor's home networking equipment.

The cost of a smart home varies depending on how smart the home is. One builder estimates that his clients spend between $10,000 and $250,000 for sophisticated systems [source: McKay]. If you build the smart home gradually, starting with a basic lighting system, it might only be a few hundred dollars. A more sophisticated system will be tens of thousands of dollars, and elements of home theater systems raise the cost of a system about 50 percent [source: Gloede].

Smart homes obviously have the ability to make life easier and more convenient. Who wouldn't love being able to control lighting, entertainment and temperature from their couch? Home networking can also provide peace of mind. Whether you're at work or on vacation, the smart home will alert you to what's going on, and security systems can be built to provide an immense amount of help in an emergency. For example, not only would a resident be woken with notification of a fire alarm, the smart home would also unlock doors, dial the firedepartment and light the path to safety.
Here are a few more examples of cool smart home tricks:

  • Light a path for nighttime bathroom trips
  • Instantly create mood lighting for time with that special someone
  • Program your television so that your children can watch only at certain times
  • Access all your favorite DVDs from any television in the home
  • Have your thermostat start warming the bedroom before you get out of bed so that it's nice and toasty when you get up
  • Turn on the coffee maker from bed 
Smart homes also provide some energy efficiency savings. Because systems like Z-Wave and ZigBee put some devices at a reduced level of functionality, they can go to "sleep" and wake up when commands are given. Electric bills go down when lights are automatically turned off when a person leaves the room, and rooms can be heated or cooled based on who's there at any given moment. One smart homeowner boasted her heating bill was about one-third less than a same-sized normal home [source: Kassim]. Some devices can track how much energy each appliance is using and command it to use less.

Smart home technology promises tremendous benefits for an elderly person living alone. Smart homes could notify the resident when it was time to take medicine, alert the hospital if the resident fell and track how much the resident was eating. If the elderly person was a little forgetful, the smart home would perform tasks such as shutting off the water before a tub overflowed or turning off the oven if the cook had wandered away. One builder estimates that this system could cost $20,000, which is less expensive than a full-time nursing home [source:Venkatesh]. It also allows adult children who might live elsewhere to participate in the care of their aging parent. Easy-to-control automated systems would provide similar benefits to those with disabilities or a limited range of movement.
Smart homes look great on paper, but are they for everyone? On the next page, we'll look at some of the disadvantages of this technology.
A smart home probably sounds like a nightmare to those people not comfortable with computers. Those who routinely fumble around with a remote control just trying to change the television channel might have stopped reading by now.It may be your fear that if you try to turn on the television in your smart home, lights will start flashing, and this does happen occasionally. (Power outages, however, activate backup battery and safe mode, which means you can still perform tasks like unlocking a door manually). One of the challenges of installing a smart home system is balancing the complexity of the system against the usability of the system. When planning the system, it's important to consider a few factors:

  • How large will the system be?
  • What kinds of components are part of the system? Are they basic, such a light dimmer, or more imposing, like an alarm system or a video camera?
  • How intuitive will the system be to a non-user?
  • How many people will be required to use the system?
  • Who will know how to operate the system? Who will know how to maintain the system and address failures? How often will people who can only operate the system be left alone in the home?
  • How easy is it to make changes to the interface? For example, if your house is programmed to wake you up at 7 a.m., how will you let it know that you're away overnight on business or sleeping in on a Saturday?

For these reasons, it may be easier to start with a very basic home networkand expand as enhancements are needed or desired. However, there's some concern that with the market so new, technologies are developing all the time, sometimes leaving old versions of products useless. If you invest too soon, you may end up with a model that has impossible-to-find components and spare parts. Like many new technologies, smart homes require a significant investment to keep up.Smart homes also come with some security concerns. Hackers who access the network will have the ability to turn off alarm systems and lights, leaving the home vulnerable to a break-in, or the theft could be more electronic. If music is saved on a hard drive so that it can be played around the house, make sure that sensitive information, such as passwords or identifying numbers, are saved elsewhere.

Some smart home devices also raise ethical questions about privacy, or evoke an Orwellian feeling of "Big Brother." It's great to be able to check in on a four-year-old in his room while you're cooking dinner in the kitchen, but how will that child feel when he's constantly monitored through puberty? The information that a smart home collects might start to feel like a weapon to a teenager who gets caught sneaking in after a late-night party. When setting up a smart home, it's a good idea to discuss it with the whole family first.

Of course, there's also the question of whether an individual needs all this technology. Is our society really so lazy that we can't turn flip a light switch? It's an interesting argument, but smart homes are coming. The good news is that with all the time we save from home automation, we'll have time to work on other pursuits. Like developing robot maids.