How Smart Homes Function

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Home Renovation

Can a remote control operate your entire house?
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When you’re away from home, you may have nagging doubts about whether you turned off the coffee maker, set the security alarm, or if the children are doing their homework or watching TV.

With a smart home, you can eliminate all these concerns with a quick glance at your smartphone or tablet. You can connect all the devices and appliances in your home so they can communicate with you and with each other.

Any electrical device in your home can be placed on your home network and at your disposal. The home responds whether you give the command by voice, remote control, tablet, or smartphone. The majority of applications are related to lighting, home security, home theater and entertainment, and thermostat regulation.

The concept of a smart home may remind you of George Jetson and his futuristic home or, perhaps, Bill Gates, who spent more than $100 million constructing his smart home [source: Lev-Ram]. Once attractive to the tech-savvy or wealthy, smart homes and home automation are becoming increasingly popular.

What used to be an industry that produced difficult-to-use and frivolous products has now become a full-fledged consumer trend. Instead of start-up companies, more established technology firms are releasing new smart home products. Automation system sales could increase to nearly $9.5 billion by 2015 [source: Berg Insight]. By 2017, that number could skyrocket to $44 billion [source: CNN].

Most of this is due to the stunning success of smartphones and tablet computers. These ultra-portable computers are ubiquitous, and their constant internet connections allow them to communicate with a plethora of other online devices. It’s all about the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things refers to interconnected and identifiable objects and products through digital networks. This web-like spread of products is constantly expanding. All electronics in your home are fair game for this tech revolution, from your refrigerator to your furnace.

On the following page, we’ll delve into the technology behind a smart home.

Smart Home Software and Technology

Home automation has a lengthy and tumultuous history. For many years, tech innovations have come and gone, but one of the first companies to achieve success is still in operation today.

The origin of many smart home products dates back to 1975 when a Scottish firm developed X10. X10 enables compatible products to communicate with one another through the pre-existing electrical wires in a home. All appliances and devices are receivers, and transmitters, such as remote controls or keypads, are the means of controlling the system. If you want to switch off a lamp in another room, the transmitter sends a message in numerical code that contains:

  • An alert to the system that it’s issuing a command,
  • An identifying unit number for the device that should receive the command, and
  • A code that contains the actual command, such as “turn off.”

All of this is intended to occur in less than a second, but X10 has certain restrictions. Communication through electrical lines is not always dependable since the lines may become “noisy” from powering other devices. An X10 device can interpret electronic interference as a command and respond, or it may not receive the command at all.

New technologies have emerged to compete with X10 devices for home networking. These systems use radio waves to communicate, like BlueTooth, WiFi, and cell phone signals. Two of the most prominent radio networks in home automation are ZigBee and Z-Wave, both of which are mesh networks. Z-Wave uses a Source Routing Algorithm to determine the fastest route for messages, while ZigBee’s messages zigzag like bees, looking for the best path to the receiver. Insteon offers a dual-mesh network that communicates over electrical wires and radio waves, making it more flexible for placing devices. The more Insteon devices installed on a network, the stronger the message will be. Bill Gates’ home is a famous example of a smart home, where everyone is pinned with an electronic tracking chip that makes adjustments based on individual preferences.

How to Set Up a Smart Home

This keypad can send instructions to your lamp.
Don Farrall/Photodisc/Getty Images

The protocols X10, Insteon, ZigBee, and Z-Wave provide the basic technology for smart home communication. Electronics manufacturers have joined forces with these protocols to create the end-user devices. Here are some examples of smart home products and their functions:

  • Cameras that can track your home’s exterior even in pitch-black darkness
  • Thermostats that can be controlled from your bed, airport, or anywhere you have a signal on your smartphone
  • LED lights that allow you to program color and brightness from your smartphone
  • Motion sensors that send alerts when there’s motion around your house and can differentiate between pets and burglars
  • Smartphone integration that allows you to turn lights and appliances on or off from your mobile device
  • Door locks and garage doors that can open automatically as your smartphone approaches
  • Security system alerts that go directly to your smartphone, so you know immediately if there’s a problem at home
  • Many devices come with built-in web servers that allow access to their information online

You can buy these products at home improvement stores, electronics stores, from installation technicians, or online. Before buying, check the technology associated with the product. Products using the same technology should work together despite different manufacturers. However, connecting an X10 and a Z-Wave product requires a bridging device and some technical skills on your part.

When designing a smart home, you can automate as much or as little as you want. For starters, think of tasks you already do and find a way to automate them. You could begin with a lighting starter kit and add security devices later. If you want to start with a more expansive system with many features, it’s a good idea to carefully design how the home will work, particularly if rewiring or renovation will be required. Additionally, you’ll want to strategically place the nodes of the wireless networks so that they have a good routing range.

About 60 percent of home builders who have installed home automation devices hired professional help. If you’re looking for a technician, check if they have CEA-CompTIA certification. This certification 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. If you build the smart home gradually, starting with a basic lighting system, it might only cost a few hundred dollars. A more sophisticated system will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and home theater systems add another 50 percent to the cost of a system.

Smart appliances are also becoming more common in homes.

The benefits of smart homes are vast and varied. They offer convenience and ease of use, with the ability to control lighting, entertainment and temperature from a single location. Smart homes can also provide added security, with built-in alarm systems that can alert residents to emergencies and even unlock doors and call for help. Other cool smart home features include lighting paths for nighttime bathroom trips, automatically unlocking doors and feeding pets on a schedule. Smart homes can also help reduce energy bills by automatically turning off lights and adjusting heating and cooling based on occupancy. For elderly or disabled residents, smart homes can provide added safety and independence by reminding them to take medication, alerting hospitals in case of falls and performing tasks like turning off the oven if the cook has wandered away. While smart homes may require some technical know-how, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets make them easier to use than ever before.

The Nest thermostat has WiFi built-in, which allows you to adjust and track the temperature of your home from anywhere. The thermostat learns your habits and adjusts its settings to optimize efficiency and comfort. It also provides information on energy usage, reminds you to change filters, and adapts to different heating systems. Philips’ Hue lights offer a variety of color options and can be programmed for different brightness levels. The accompanying app allows you to control up to 50 lights on one bridge. Belkin’s WeMo switches allow you to control electronics remotely using a smartphone app. The WeMo switch and motion detector cost around $100. IFTTT is a free internet service that allows you to automate tasks by creating triggers that result in specific actions. WeMo is compatible with IFTTT, allowing for even more automation possibilities. The Revolv WiFi hub is a $299 device that connects to all of your other wireless home automation products, unifying them under one app and allowing for pre-programmed capabilities. The biggest challenge with home automation products is managing multiple proprietary apps.

Revolv’s central app enables users to control all their gadgets once they are connected. Currently, the app works best with Z-Wave, Insteon, and WiFi products and is only available for iPhone users. However, the company plans to expand its compatibility to hundreds of other products and add Android compatibility. Other consolidation hubs are also available from companies like Insteon and SmartThings. Moving forward, there are several challenges associated with home automation that need to be considered.

One of the biggest challenges is balancing the complexity of the system against its usability. For instance, a smart home system may be exasperating and make life harder instead of easier. Before installing a system, it’s important to consider the system’s components, how intuitive it is to a non-user, whether it’s fulfilling a need or just a fancy toy, how many people will be required to use it, who will know how to operate and maintain it, and how easy it is to make changes to the interface.

Smart homes require a significant investment of cash and time to keep up, so it’s easier to start with a basic home network and expand as enhancements are needed or desired. Before buying, consumers should check product reviews and avoid those that draw the ire of users. Smart homes also come with security concerns since hackers who find a way to access the network may have the ability to turn off alarm systems and lights, leaving the home vulnerable to a break-in.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are ramping up their product lines in the hope that home automation hits the mainstream. Thanks to smartphones and tablets and the many home automation apps now available, there’s a chance the trend will catch on. However, a full-on Jetson’s-style home may still be years or decades away.

Despite numerous technological advancements, there is still no universal system for automating all the gadgets in our homes, leaving many consumers concerned about the longevity and functionality of their purchases. Additionally, there is a debate on whether we truly need all this technology, or if it simply promotes laziness. However, with the time saved from home automation, we can focus on other pursuits. To learn more about smart homes, check out the links on the next page. Smart homes utilize smart devices that connect to a Wi-Fi network and can be controlled remotely via an app on your phone. There are various smart home devices that are compatible with Alexa, including light bulbs, thermostats, and doorbells. Popular smart home automation apps include Samsung Smart Things and Amazon’s Alexa App. A full home automation system can cost up to $15,000, while a more modest upgrade averages around $730. Despite the excitement surrounding home automation products, their high cost often makes them a luxury item that doesn’t necessarily fill a need.

Articles on Related Topics

  • How Home Networks Function
  • Explanation of WiFi Technology
  • Insight into the Working of Routers
  • How Radios Transmit Signals
  • The Mechanism behind Remote Controls
  • Can You Construct a House with Found Objects?
  • How House Construction Operates

Additional Useful Links

  • Smart Home: Home Automation Superstore
  • Digital Home Online
  • Insteon
  • ZigBee Alliance
  • Z-Wave

Sources Cited

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  • Atwell, Cabe. “Smart Home Systems are on the Rise.” Dec. 31, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2014),industry_consumer,aid_270692&dfpLayout=blog
  • Atwell, Cabe. “Smart Power Strip Automates Appliances.” Dec. 4, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Burns, Matt. “Meet Revolv, the Missing Link to the Modern Smart Home.” Dec. 10, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Cipriani. Jason. “Belkin WeMo Switch and Motion.” Mar. 12, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Covert, Adrian. “The Smart Home is a Pipe Dream.” CNN Money. Jan. 2, 2014. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Gates, Bill. “The Road Ahead.” Penguin Books. 1996.
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  • McGlaun, Shane. “Lowe’s Iris Smart Home Solution Aims for Simple Home Automation.” Jan. 6, 2014. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • McKay, Hollie. “Home, Sweet Home: How to Talk to Your House.” Fox News. Oct. 23, 2006. (Jan. 9, 2014),2933,224060,00.html
  • Prindle, Drew. “Archos Spills the Beans on its Upcoming Lineup of Smart Home Devices Ahead of CES.” Dec. 30, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Ravindranath, Mohana. “Washington Area Tech Companies Join the ‘Internet of Things’ to Automate Homes.” Jan. 6, 2014. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Regan, Keith. “Ten Scary Things About Home Networks, Part 1.” TechNewsWorld. Feb. 22, 2007. (Jan. 9, 2014)
  • Schory, Guy. “Smart Homes, the Human Aspect.” Home Toys. April 2004. (Jan. 9, 2014)
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1. What is a smart home?

A smart home is a house equipped with devices that can be controlled remotely through a smartphone, tablet, or computer. These devices can include everything from smart thermostats and lighting to security cameras and appliances. The goal of a smart home is to make life more convenient, comfortable, and energy-efficient by automating various tasks and allowing you to control your home from anywhere.

2. How do smart homes work?

Smart homes work by connecting various devices to a central hub or control system. This can be done using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other wireless technologies. The hub then communicates with the devices and allows you to control them remotely using a mobile app or voice commands. Smart homes can also be programmed to perform certain tasks automatically, such as turning off lights when you leave the room or adjusting the temperature based on your schedule.

3. What are the benefits of a smart home?

The benefits of a smart home are numerous. They can help you save money on energy bills by reducing waste, provide greater security through smart locks and cameras, and make life more convenient by allowing you to control your home with your voice or smartphone. Smart homes can also be customized to fit your specific needs, whether that means adjusting the lighting to create a certain ambiance or setting the temperature to your preferred level.

4. Is it safe to have a smart home?

While there are some security risks associated with having a smart home, these risks can be minimized with proper precautions. For example, you can ensure that your devices are always up-to-date with the latest software and security patches, use strong passwords and two-factor authentication, and limit access to your network. Additionally, many smart home devices come with built-in security features such as encryption and firewalls.

5. How much does it cost to turn your home into a smart home?

The cost of turning your home into a smart home can vary widely depending on the devices you choose and how many you need. Some devices, such as smart thermostats and lighting, can be relatively inexpensive, while others, such as smart appliances and security systems, can be quite costly. However, the long-term savings on energy bills and increased convenience may make the initial investment worthwhile for many homeowners.

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