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Your home is dumb, but making it smart is cheaper than you think

home automation header“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Home automation. Smart house. Advanced home control. If those words conjure images of lights mysteriously flashing on and off at random times, fat piles of cash, and sweaty technicians huddled over their laptops programming for weeks at a time, then you need to read on. The truth about home automation today is that technology, competition and innovation have all ravaged its high-priced visage, putting it within virtually anyone’s grasp.

Unless you’re Amish and out on your once-in-a-life Rumspringa (if you are out on Rumspringa and you’ve decided to read this site instead of snorting crank off the bellies of strippers and washing it down with bottles of Jack, then, bless you), then you already have some form of automation in your life.

Whether it is a garage door opener, an alarm clock, or a glorious pile of remote controls strewn pell-mell across your couch, automation has probably already crept into your home. You’ve got some automation, even if it is just that yellowing, old-ass thermostat hanging on the wall (you know, the one with the lethal ball of mercury that is just dying to one day shatter and burst free from its glass cocoon and slowly poison you).

We all live with automation. We all use it every day. And even as jaded as we have all become about tech – carrying the entire world around in our pockets and then complaining bitterly on Twitter when the latest episode of Mad Men has too much buffering because we’re just out of a 4G hotspot – when you have multiple automation systems working together it is still pretty frickin’ magic.

And yet as much as we know about it and are surrounded by it, very few of you really have home automation. If that’s because you think it’s expensive and can’t afford it, you’re not alone. You’re mistaken, but not alone.

When you couple in the energy savings and lifestyle improvements, it makes investing in a smart home a pretty smart idea.

It’s true that, in the past, automating a home was costly. Not quite Bill Gates or I-hit-the-super-lotto costly, but maybe “I vacation in the Hamptons, wear a Rolex and drive a Jag” costly. Systems by companies like Crestron and AMX could do almost anything you could imagine: sense when you walk into a room and then automatically adjust the thermostat, fix the lights, kick on the stereo, fire up the hot tub and send a message to your “special friend” that you’re home and ready to party. All with literally no interaction from you, short of lumbering past a sensor in meatspace. And if walking sounds like too much effort, you could do it from the comfort of anywhere in the world with a button press. It’s your dime, you get to DJ the party.

But these systems relied on proprietary and expensive hardware and complex “How many weeks are you going to be in my house setting this up?” programming to work. (A true industry irony is that Crestron’s programming software is called “SMPL,” and I can assure you that it is many, many things, but simple is not any of them.)

Further, with the introduction of the iPhone, iTouch and iPad (not to mention the many lower-priced Android-based tablets,) nearly everyone has some form of touchscreen already in their possession. No need to purchase the often outrageously expensive proprietary touchpanels offered by manufacturers, shaving many thousands of dollars off the price of admission. We also live in an increasingly app-based world with ubiquitous Wi-Fi, meaning that many of the things that previously could only be done by a trained professional with proprietary hardware and software are now totally DIY with just a few clicks.

home automation ube 86937When it comes to a fully automated home, there are subsystems – HVAC, lighting, security, A/V, irrigation, shading, etc. – that are all tied together by a central controller. These devices seldom come from the same manufacturer. For instance, you might have a thermostat from Aprilaire, a lighting system by Lutron, and a GE security panel, which all are content to do their own thing and run their own world. However they are also monitored and controlled by a separate, main processor that quarterbacks the entire system. This processor runs watch over everything and allows you to interact with multiple sub-systems with a single button press like, “Party,” “Dinner,” or “Sexy Fun Time.”

While button presses are nice (who doesn’t love pressing a good, quality button?) they also require, you know, effort. All that finger pushing… and, being near a button. But there are tons of ways to interface with an automation system that don’t involve lifting a finger. A motion sensor, for instance, could trigger an event, like lighting a room. A pressure sensor at the front door could send you an e-mail or text that you have a visitor. A contact closure could turn the alarm off when you open the garage door.

But some of the coolest and most awesome parts of automation (I’m totally claiming dibs to the term “awesome-mation” by the way) is when the system carries out those mundane, repetitive tasks all on its own. For instance, you could be sent an e-mail if your home’s temperature ever rose above 85 degrees. Something like, “Dear Master. You are slowly killing us in this sweltering Sahara. Please pay someone to fix the HVAC system. Love, Your Pets and Wine Collection.”

Most automation processors can automatically perform events at specific times each day, based around the varying time of sunrise and sunset or just on specific days or times of the year. For instance, the home can automatically lock all the doors, set the alarm, turn off all the interior lights, turn on the exterior lights and lower the thermostat every night at 11 p.m. Unlike a feeble carbon mind, the processor never forgets, never gets busy doing something else, and never elects to skip it out of spite because you got drunk and stayed out too late with the boys. Nothing says “Totally gonna get lucky, awesome-mation stud!” like surprising your spouse with an announcement of, “I TOTALLY DIDN’T FORGET! HAPPY ANNIVERSARY AND I LOVE YOU! NOW LET’S DO IT!” that blares through all the speakers in the house at 12:01 on any special day.

home automation nest

You can also couple the programming with advanced Boolean logic programming variables to create an even more advanced and customized environment. For instance, lights could turn on at different levels at different times of the day, perfect when you don’t want to shock yourself awake during a 4 a.m. trip to the bathroom. It could also restrict access codes to working during specific times of the day, thus letting your housekeeper in on Monday between 3 and 5, but at no other time.

A good example of DIY automation includes updating to a programmable thermostat. You can easily set home and away settings that will not only save you green, but maybe keep the planet from melting for at least one more second. Instead of just any thermostat though, you could step up to Nest’s way-cool thermostat. This is literally the iPod of thermostats, installs in about 15 minutes, and then does all kinds of smart stuff, like learning your usage patterns (SkyNet style) and monitoring energy usage. You can also control or check in on it from anywhere in the world.

Lighting control is another great opportunity for some DIY automation. Once you get past the initial “Holy crap! Electricity could actually kill me!” fear, changing out a switch isn’t really too tough. For example, Lutron makes a system called Spacer that sells for under $100 and is easily controlled via infra-red remote; perfect for an oooh-ahhh moment when you press “Watch Movie” on your remote and all the lights automatically dim. Then there’s Philips Hue, a smart LED lighting product that you control from you iOS device, changing colors or selecting just the right shade of white somewhere between romantic and interrogation. Another new cool lighting option is from start-up company, Ube (pronounced “you-be” and, yes, I totally think it’s a lame name too). It plans on offering smart dimmers, plugs and outlets for $79 each. Once multiple lights are installed, you can create lighting “scenes” where you control many lights at once, all of them coming on (or switching off) to the perfect level at your every whim. Other than the Ube system – whose integration with other automation products remains to be seen – going to a larger, whole-home lighting system that can integrate with other control systems will mean going with a system by the likes of Lutron (RadioRA2) or Control4.

home automation hue starter pack

Want to control the biggest source of light of them all: the sun? Get some automated shades. Lutron released its Wireless Insulating Honeycomb Shades a couple of years ago that run on batteries and literally install in about 10 minutes (15 if you just suck at using “complex” tools like a level, tape measure and drill). When controlled by a Lutron (or other) processor, these shades can automatically draw in the morning to let in natural light, and close at night for privacy. I have a lot of tech in my house – like a lot – and the Lutron shades automatically going up and down in a synchronized ballet of automation prowess is one of the things that impresses guests the most. Shade pricing varies based on window size and fabric and your control method, but ranges from about $300 to over $1000 per window.

While you might think that a door lock is the very height of uncool, you would probably be surprised what new “smart” door locks from the likes of Yale, Kwikset and Baldwin can do. With keypads, these locks can ensure that you never get locked out of the house again, and can share a code with someone to give them access to your house. Perfect for those times when you’re, say, at Disney World and your wife suddenly panics that she left the oven on and your house is going up in flames. Not that that ever happened to me. An upcoming Yale lock will feature NFC (near-field communication) tech that will allow you to open it by waving your smart phone over it Jedi-style. And these locks can also come in wireless versions that integrate with automation systems like Control4 to become part of your home’s system, triggering events like disarming security and turning on lights and music if you like. Also, assuming the hardware lines up correctly, you can swap out your old, lame lock for a new fancy one in like 30 minutes. Yes, you. The person reading this right now. OK, I’m assuming you own a screwdriver.

When you want to graduate past individual systems working apart from one another, you’re going to voyage beyond the realm of doing it yourself. But this still doesn’t mean you’ll need to take out a second (or third?) mortgage on your home or start siphoning off blood at the Red Cross. One incredibly affordable option is Control4’s HC250 processor. This small black box sells for $750 and understands that with great power comes great responsibility, featuring the automation chops necessary to run most mid-sized homes.

home automation yale 3110 front

What can it do? Besides being a smart remote to control your entire A/V system, it can handle a virtually unlimited amount of lighting devices, interfaces with a variety of HVAC systems, security panels and irrigation controllers, and will probably handle pretty much anything else your twisted mind can think up. It also includes an astronomic timeclock, can e-mail or text you around specific events or triggers, can stream music from your network or Rhapsody or TuneIn, and is also the fanciest, most customizable alarm clock you’ve ever experienced.

Now, this kind of automation is going to require some professional programming, but it is usually measured in hours, not days, is mostly pretty painless and, from my experience, modern programmers are generally a safe lot.

For around $2,000 bucks, you could equip yourself with a Control4 processor, a smart thermostat, a smart door lock, and six light dimmers. Chuck in another $500 for programming and installation and you’ve now got a home that you can control with your smartphone from anywhere in the world. And, seriously, isn’t being able to unlock your door, check your home’s temp and turn on some light at the bar to impress/shame your bros what life’s all about?

Technology advancements have made it far more affordable to make home automation a reality for nearly everyone. When you couple in the energy savings and lifestyle improvements, it makes investing in a smart home a pretty smart idea.

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John Sciacca
Former Digital Trends Contributor
John Sciacca is a full-time custom installer/designer and an a-lot-of-the-time writer whose groundbreaking columns, reviews…
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