How Home Automation Works

In the 90s, we were anxiously awaiting the day when our homes could be controlled from one central location or even a remote. Those days have come and gone, and as soon as the year 2000 came along, only the richest of the rich could afford such systems. However, the advent of smartphones presents many more possibilities for people without deep pockets, some in the most unlikely of places. But how do these systems work? Where does the smartphone come in?

By using the term “home automation,” you may come to the conclusion that I am speaking of a holistic system where everything in the home can be controlled by a central location. Yes, those kinds of systems exist, but they don’t paint the full picture. Home automation involves anything (or everything) in the home, from a vacuum robot to the fridge, talking to a conveniently-placed device.

Now that we have that out of the way, there are two distinct ways you can approach home automation: A centralized approach or a decentralized multi-platform approach. Let’s talk about the centralized approach first, since it’s the easiest to understand.

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With a centralized home automation system, you have tons of power! Your air conditioning system, fridge, vacuum cleaner, washing machines, food delivery, and even your telephone system all report to one single device. This device is often a console attached to a wall or appliance in your home. The console may or may not communicate with your smartphone to make checking on the status of your appliances and controlling them easier.

There’s a problem with this approach, though: it seldom accounts for future developments.

So, you want to get a new washing machine. The old one’s either busted or inefficient. Either way, you’re no longer happy with it. Since you want your new washing machine to connect with your automation system, your choices are limited to whatever is compatible with that system. If you buy a regular washing machine, it won’t communicate with the system. What if the manufacturer of your console only offers that same old machine? And what if that machine is discontinued? This can really put you in a pinch.

Also, there are new types of household appliances appearing on the market. fifty years ago, washing machines were a novelty. What is going to appear fifty years from now? If you don’t know the answer, don’t worry. Your home automation system doesn’t know it, either!

Added to this, having a central console is prohibitively expensive. Leviton, a home automation and security firm, says that it costs between $3-5 per square foot (24-38€, or £20-33 per square meter) to install everything. This means that for a 2,000 square-foot (~186 sq. m.) home, you’d end up paying between $6,000-10,000 (4400-7300 €, or £3550-5920) to wire it all up.

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One of the first things you do when you get a smartphone is look around for apps. The entire mobile ecosystem revolves around these little pieces of code that allow us to control more aspects of our lives in ways we never could have imagined a few decades ago. What if you didn’t have to have one single home automation system where the appliances you run in your home have to be compatible with an arbitrary platform? This is exactly what a decentralized home automation system looks like.

Using a decentralized system, you can have a Whirlpool fridge, a Bosch washer, a Roomba vacuum, and a Siemens dishwasher hooked up to your phone provided they have such connectivity. They’ll send messages through Wi-Fi to a server that later relays the message to your app. This way, you can quickly check on the status of your appliances just like you would check your email.

The advantages are plenty. First of all, you can get that new washing machine you wanted! Second of all, new types of household appliances don’t require any retrofitting. You just need to download the right app to your phone. Everything is fluid and interchangeable, sometimes even allowing you to get two devices to communicate with each other (e.g. your washing machine can tell your dryer to open its front door once it’s done).

Want to hop into home automation through your smartphone? Bertel has some great advice for this!

If you know of some other appliances that can be controlled from your phone, write a comment below with the model number and firm. You’re also welcome to add your input and thoughts about what you’ve just read!

8 comments

  1. How is the security for all of this? If we can’t prevent one PC from getting hacked, how can we prevent an entire house with multiple devices from getting hacked?

    While the idea of having intelligent appliances sounds “oh, so kewl and bleeding edge”, there is something to be said for a dumb vacuum cleaner that cannot be programmed to attack you, or house lights that cannot be programmed to blink on and off in the middle of the night. And then there is the Google plan of displaying ads on every device with a screen or window. A dumb refrigerrator will not make you watch a commercial before letting you get the beer out.

    What is the critical mass of devices before their agglomeration can pass the Turing Test? What is the critical mass of devices before the house becomes sentient and refuses to perform its programming?

    • As long as your Wi-Fi network is secure, you have nothing to worry about.

      Centralized home systems? Those are very arbitrary. The security will depend on the competence of the manufacturer and developer of the component.

      • “As long as your Wi-Fi network is secure”
        Aye, there’s the rub! WiFi networks are notoriously hard to keep secure.

        • Correct. Most non-savvy people will eventually end up with issues. If only Wi-Fi devices were able to automatically configure themselves and upgrade firmware.

          But even then, there would be errors, and those errors need to be fixed.

          • I am certified in Control4 which is REAL home automation and not just device control like most. It uses Linux servers for the controller boxes and light switches and other smaller things run off of zigbee. Look in to Control4 if you want the most secure home automation that I’ve been able to find. And just so you know I’m not getting paid to promote them. I actually like it, and had to pay (well, the company I work for had to agree to a specific amount of product purchases) to become certified. Control4 is the best I’ve found for home automation.

    • “And then there is the Google plan of displaying ads on every device with a screen or window. A dumb refrigerrator will not make you watch a commercial before letting you get the beer out.”

      This made me laugh! I will seriously punch my refrigerator screen if I see one single commercial. Ever. Ever ever.

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