Home Smart Home

12/19/2012 9:31:09 AM

Lots of new tools exist to help you take control of your home and monitor it 24/7 from your laptop, tablet, or phone. Here are the basics to get you started.

Not so long ago, in order to change the channel 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 1950s. Some consider this and things like garage door openers early examples of home automation.

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. Unfortunately, cost and the amount of work required for installation remain major stumbling blocks. Some things, like setting up a lamp to turn on or off at your command, are simple and relatively inexpensive; others, like configuring a system of surveillance cameras, may require a more serious investment of both time and money.

Home smart home

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 or HVAC controls, surveillance cameras, appliances, sprinklers, door security, lighting, pet feeders, motion sensors, home theater controls, intercoms, and robots.

Imagine monitoring all of these things (and more), using an interface on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop or even panels mounted in your home: taking your adobe 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 them. 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 better off.


This granddaddy of home automation protocols dates back to 1975 and has gone from power line based to wireless. X10 devices are not known for robust speed or great communication between units on the network.



Zigbee is a name for a wireless 802 standard from the IEEE – which is to say, a bunch of gearheads 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. Another benefit: It consumes very little power.


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


Universal Powerline Bus does exactly what its name implies: It uses the power lines in your home for home automation. It tends to be expensive, however.


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


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 home automation products that take advantage of it. 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.


Don’t get too excited about Google’s take on home automation. 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.

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