As anyone who follows this blog knows, we are trying to raise awareness about the fact that home automation is not just for millionaires any more, and it is no longer science fiction – it’s here right now and available to a much wider market than ever before.
That’s the good news. For many years, people thought home automation was just for The Jetsons. They’ve seen prototypes of refrigerators that write their own grocery lists and send the order to the store, robots that feed your pets and clean their litterboxes and all sorts of other fanciful devices that probably weren’t needed in the first place. Now the industry is maturing and looking to become part of everyone’s home by offering really useful devices, simple interfaces and prices that continue to fall every year.
So that probably means that just like Blu-ray, DVD and pdf’s, the industry has now gotten together and come up with a set of standards that will allow any device by any manufacturer to talk to each other, be used together and use the same programming language to operate it, right? Well, that’s the not-so-good news. As much sense as that might make to you, the truth is that the different manufacturers of home automation products don’t play well together.
At present, it’s a lot less like blu-ray and a lot more like the early days of home video. You went to buy a camcorder, and you found Beta, VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, L-Cassette – none of which played on each other’s machines. Eventually the market declared a winner and lots of formats vanished.
It looks like that is the approach the home automation industry is taking. While there were more home automation players than ever at this years Consumer Electronics show, very few were talking about universal standards.
So with all the different standards and systems out there, how do you make a decision about which one is right for you? Well, the first thing to do is to educate yourself about the different choices. Here are some of the major options you are going to encounter:
Z-wave: A fairly simple system that used a bank of four billion unique codes. Essentially, you pick the device in your home, assign it a code, program that code into the controller and control its basic functions. It sends signals by radio frequency. A cheap and cheerful solution that some people find adequate.
X-10: X-10 components “talk” to one other using your home’s existing wiring. A transmitter, like a motion sensor, located in one part of a house or building sends an X10 Power Line Carrier (PLC) signal through the existing wires in your walls to a transceiver in another location. Then the transceiver responds to the information by telling another component – attached to your light for instance – to do one of four things: turn on, off, dim or brighten. The technology goes back to the 1970’s and it still in use, largely because of the its low price.
Zigbee: Not so much a device as a set of standards that allow devices to be controlled on a system that is very much like wireless internet. Many manufacturers make devices for this system. These devices are usually described at “Zigbee Enabled.”
AMX – Now you’re playing with the big boys. AMX offers a huge selection of home and commercial products that can be controlled by hard-wired cable, radio frequency or infra-red. They use a unique programming language that many programmers feel is the friendliest to learn. It is also possible for another programmer to come in after the fact and change and update the system. In spite of the fact that the programming may be easy by industry standards, it is not something a homeowner should attempt themselves.
Crestron: The largest company in the market, they have a full line of automation products and another programming system that doesn’t work with anyone else’s. Crestron programs are loaded into the device fully compiled. Unless you have the source codes and passwords, it is almost impossible for a new programmer to update or change.
On top of that there are other companies like Phillips and Lutron that bring their own standards and systems into play.
While there are some interface boxes made that make it possible for some of these systems to talk to each other, the manufacturers’ aim is to keep you inside their product line. Some people think they will get around this by downloading different apps to control each device with a smartphone, but once there are fifty or more apps available for different devices, that will not be a solution, just another headache.
The only company really concentrating on a completely open system is SmartThings. A small start-up with a lot of ambition, they intend to make all their source codes open and will encourage third parties to write programs and manufacture devices that use their code. They are a couple of years away from seeing if anyone will get on board with their solution.
In the meantime, what is a homeowner to do? Here are some suggestions. First, don’t say “I’ll just wait for all this confusion in the market to settle down.” It won’t. The nature of the new market is innovation and confusion. If you wait for the latest thing, you will never own anything.
Second, invest your money in products from a company that has a good chance of staying around for a while. While there are no guarantees, companies like AMX and Creston have been in the business for decades and are far more likely to be there to support you over the years.
Third, it is important to find the right integration partner. You have a busy life, and you can’t be expected to keep up with all the twists and turns of this area of technology. An integrator who is experienced and committed to the field will make sure you system works now and is also ready to adapt as products and standards change. They will make sure you get what you really need – results: a low maintenance home control system that does what you want, when you want it.
You can relax when you let the pros at OneTouch Automation help you navigate the sometimes confusing world of automation and create the home environment you’ve always dreamed of.