A Home Automation Primer
Lee Kauffman , Editor | Aug 19, 2013
Title: Editor
Topic category: Home Automation

There are multiple and competing technologies in forming the basic network for home automation or smart homes. Each group of sensors, lighting, security and healthcare may operate on a different technology. “Hubs” that consolidate information from the various sensors and provide the users with a dashboard may or may not be compatible with a given sensor.

From our perspective the best approach is to network using a hub that functions with multiple communication technologies. The following excerpt provides basic information on the dominant technologies in the marketplace. A note of caution is advised; the article suggests that the INSTEON approach may be the best. While, INSTEON provides a robust network solution that is great for lighting applications, it is not compatible with many of the sensors currently on the market.

From PCMAG.com

Not so long ago, in order to change the channels on your television, you actually had to get up from the couch, walk over to the set, and turn a knob or press a button. Thankfully, the remote control was born in the 50s. (And soon after, the term "couch potato" was coined.) Some consider this and things like garage door openers early examples of home automation (HA).

We've come a long way since then. These days, ideas once deemed "futuristic"—like the ability to control a home's lights, window shades, garage door, thermostat, and music with a simple push of a button (or a voice command)—are now a reality. Cost and the amount of work required for installation remain major stumbling blocks, though. Some things, like setting up a lamp to turn on and off at your command, are simple and relatively inexpensive, but others, like surveillance cameras, may require a more serious investment of both time and money.

So, what exactly are we talking about when it comes to home automation? Here are just some of the things you now have the ability to set up and control, whether you're at home, at the store, or on vacation: thermostat/HVAC controls, surveillance cameras, appliances, sprinklers, door security, lighting, pet feeders, motion sensors, home theater controls, intercoms, and robots.

Imagine monitoring all of the above (and more), using an interface on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. You can even use panels mounted on your house. That's the promise of automating your home, taking your abode from the days of the Clapper to the Starship Enterprise in no time.

Home Automation Technologies
Though not widely implemented, there are an abundance of home-automation products to consider. First, though, you should understand the technologies that could come into play when buying HA products. There are many different types of communication protocols that products use to talk to each other and their controllers. Some are wired, some are wireless, and some are a combination. Try to stick with one protocol when buying products; you'll be better off.

X10: This granddaddy of HA protocols dates back to 1975 and has gone from power line-based to wireless. They're not known for robust speed or great communication between units on the HA network.

ZigBee: That's a name for a wireless 802 standard from the IEEE, which is to say, a bunch of gear-heads come up with it, then an outside group (the ZigBee Alliance) made up of vendors make products to work with it. One of the key elements in IEEE 802.15.4 (its real name) is that it makes a mesh network so that most of the devices communicate equally. It's also very low power.

Z-Wave: Another wireless HA protocol, Z-Wave is owned by one company, Sigma Designs, which makes all the chips for other vendors to make Z-Wave-capable products.

UPB: Universal Powerline Bus does exactly what the name implies; it uses the power lines in your home for HA. It tends to be expensive.

Insteon: This may be the best of all protocols because it combines both wired power line-based protocol with wireless. Both work as a mesh; all nodes on the HA network are peers that can communicate when in proximity. If one fails, the other mesh can take over. You can buy Insteon devices at Smarthome.com, which is run by SmartLabs, the developers of Insteon. It's compatible with X10.

Wi-Fi: This is the networking protocol we're all used to having at home for sharing an Internet connection among laptops, game consoles, and so much more. It's super-fast and ubiquitous. So, of course, it's inevitable that some vendors would make HA products to take advantage of that. The other protocols use less power and bandwidth but Wi-Fi's reach can't be understated, even if it is overkill to use it to turn a lamp on and off.

Android@Home: Don't get too excited about Google's take on HA. The company announced this initiative back in May 2011 and alluded to it as the future for the Android OS. It would let devices like phones control appliances using a Google-developed wireless network similar to ZigBee, but with enough bandwidth to handle video while remaining low-powered. Then Google went on a cleaning binge and we haven't heard much since. Read our report on Android@Home and don't get your hopes up.

Eric Griffith |Oct 17, 2012
Tags: Smart Homes Technology, Zigbee, Z Wave, Insteon, Home automation WI-fi
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