2015 Smart Home Systems
Smart Home Systems
2015 Smart Home Systems
2015 Smart Home Systems
By Rebecca Day and Lisa Montgomery
HOME AUTOMATION isn’t what it used to be. A market that once divided between budgetminded do-it-yourself techies who liked to tinker, and wealthy homeowners who wanted a doit-for-me custom system to control lighting, music, temperature, and more, home automation
has evolved into an industry with a range of options for any wallet. Just ask Martin Plaehn,
CEO of Control4, a home automation manufacturer that launched 10 years ago with an aim to
broaden the market.
“When we started in 2005, we started in the “rich” category,” says Plaehn, recalling the narrow
slice of the population that could afford the six-figure investment for a customized control
system at the time. Today, the average Control4 starter system costs less than $3,000, Plaehn
says, and comes with a smartphone app that allows homeowners “to control everything.” Some
13 percent of Control4 customers have an annual household income of $100,000 and nearly half
have household incomes between $100,000 and $250,000.
Control4, along with other companies including Savant Systems and Universal Remote Control
(URC), sits in the middle of smart home offerings, between the inexpensive off-the-shelf kits you
can buy from Home Depot and Lowe’s, and wired, high-end systems at the top of the pyramid
that companies such as Crestron and AMX have long ruled. Wired systems still offer the most
customization, since you’re not limited by the reaches of a wireless signal or the number of
controllable devices. But Wi-Fi is poised to become the foundation of the next-gen smart home.
Higher-end systems are available, for now, through professional integrators only. “We
feel that the customized integrator experience is key to homeowner satisfaction,” says Tim
McInerney, director of product marketing at Savant. McInerney noted there are DIY options for
installing light switches and other connected home devices, but for many consumers who don’t
have the time or inclination to tackle connected device setup, having a professionally installed
HVAC or lighting control system “makes a huge difference in user satisfaction." That user
satisfaction comes at the cost of installation. Labor rates vary according to region but generally
run from $75-$150 an hour.
So which approach is best: DIY or professionally installed? It depends on what you expect
your system to do, how you expect to interact with it, and how much you want to spend. In
our Smart Home Systems Buying Guide, we’ll walk you through the options, point you toward
the features the matter most, and reveal some of the best smart home systems on the market
today. —R.D.
Smart Home Systems
Key Features of a Home
Automation System
THE ABILITY TO MANAGE your home’s electronic systems from
one main control system can make your household run
smoother, feel better, and save energy. The trick is to find
a system that will meet all the demands of your household,
now and in the future. Most systems can be tailored by a
home systems integrator to provide all the benefits you
desire, but there are some key features to look for in a
home automation system that will make his job easier and
your interaction with it more enjoyable and useful.
The beauty of an automation system is its ability to
tie diverse electronic devices together so they can
perform as one unified system. Getting these devices
to work cohesively can be simple or complex, depending on
the “openness” of the automation system. The more open a
system is, the easier it will be for the lights, thermostats, audio/
video equipment, security devices, motorized window shades,
and other electronics to communicate with each other. A good
example of interoperability is having the lights turn off and
the thermostats set back when you press a “goodbye” button
on a keypad or when a motion sensor notices that you have
exited a room. To support interoperability between multiple
electronic devices, manufacturers of home automation
systems often form connectivity partnerships with other
manufacturers. For example, Control4 has partnered with
more than 60 other companies to ensure its line of automation
products can communicate seamlessly with a wide variety of
other systems—from architectural lighting and lawn irrigation,
to multi-room audio.
Another way automation manufacturers are fostering
interoperability is through adherence to technology standards.
For example, many manufacturers have embedded Z-Wave
wireless control technology into their automation products
so those products can network easily with other Z-Wave
enabled products. In addition to Z-Wave, other popular
communications technologies being embedded into smart
home products include ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Apple HomeKit.
The more connectivity partners a manufacturer has
formed and standards it has adopted, the more choices
you’ll have as a consumer. More importantly, says home
systems integrator Bill Charney of Advanced Home Audio,
Shelton, Conn., “It allows installers to select the best suite of
products for their clients.”
“Automation is all about being able to control things
in your home,” says Jay McClellan, president of
Leviton Security & Automation, “and part of that is
being able to change the settings quickly and easily if your
plans change.” More often than not, plans change when you’re
not at home, so being able to communicate this remotely
to the electronic devices in your home is one of the most
revered features of an automation system. Remote access
capabilities allow you to monitor your home’s environment
and alter the settings of the lights, thermostats, and other
gear, all from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer.
McClellan believes that remote monitoring should be a service
that manufacturers and home systems integrators provide
free of charge. “Why should you pay $30 a month to access
your automation system when you’re already paying for
broadband access?” he suggests. Remote access also allows
your integrator to tweak your system without having to make a
house call, which is always cheaper and more convenient.
The way you live in your home five years from
now will probably be much different than
how you live in it today. Moreover, technology
will continue to evolve, introducing a completely new
generation of products to the marketplace. In the future,
you may also want to add new rooms—like a recently
finished basement or an addition off the back—to your
automation network. Or, you may simply want to start out
with just a few features when you first put in your system
then add new capabilities later as you have the money.
For these reasons, it’s important that a home automation
system can be easily expanded vertically, to incorporate
additional products, and horizontally to support additional
Manufacturers can support vertical and horizontal
expandability by designing their systems to speak a
common network language, like IP (Internet Protocol),
and by offering wireless, retrofittable products that can
communicate via a home’s existing network.
Those in-wall touchpanels and black boxes may
look impressive, but it’s what you don’t see that
holds the true power of an automation system.
Software is the driving force of an automation system,
and the more sophisticated that software is, the more the
system can do. As technology changes so must the software.
Before you buy any system, be sure the manufacturer (or
your home systems integrator) will be able to unlock and
download software updates automatically.
There are a number of different ways you can
control the electronic systems in your home: by
pressing the buttons of a handheld remote or wallmounted keypad; by touching colorful icons on a portable
March 2015 touchpanel; or by sliding your finger across your iTouch.
Depending on your family dynamic, budget, and preferences,
you might like to utilize a variety of different controllers (most
people do, says McClellan), so make sure the automation
manufacturer offers a wide selection of user interfaces.
No one, except for serious early-adopters, likes to
be a guinea pig. So choose an automation system
with a proven track record. The same goes for
the person who installs the system into your home. You
should be able to gather some historical background about
manufacturers and home systems integrators from their
company websites.
“You can have great equipment,” says Jeff Singer,
of automation system manufacturer Crestron,
“but you’ll need a highly trained and certified
installer in order to get your money’s worth.” Good home
automation manufacturers go above and beyond to create
a strong dealer network, by offering continual education
and training, and by supporting multiple dealers in a single
geographic area. For consumers, having more than one
dealer to choose from is important. When more than one
dealer carries a particular product in your area, pricing
is more competitive. And should one dealer go out of
business, there’s someone else you can call to pick up the
pieces. To protect yourself from the possibility of your initial
dealer closing up shop, demand that he provide access to
your project file. You’ll have all the documentation you need
should you ever need to hire someone else.
One of the hottest topics in the consumer media
is energy conservation. Automation systems can
help save energy by turning off electronic devices
automatically, and some do this better than others. Be sure
to check out the energy-saving features of a system before
you buy.
Everyone always wonders what happens to an
automated house when the power goes out. Does the
system forget how to operate the lights when power is
restored? If an automation system has the appropriate back-up
protection, you won’t have to worry about that.
This goes both for the installer and the
manufacturer. Automation is only beneficial
and practical if it fits your lifestyle. Since
everyone’s lifestyle is different, the manufacturer should
provide its dealers with the tools to customize the system to
your specific needs. If there’s something that you want your
system to do and your installer says it’s impossible, either
he or the manufacturer has failed you. Keep looking.—L.M.
Smart Home Systems
that Make Sense
for Your Smart Home
ON ITS OWN, a home automation system has the dexterity to
juggle a variety of different tasks. Meticulously engineered
and designed by the manufacturer and installed by a home
systems integrator, it’s able to dim and brighten light fixtures,
adjust the settings of thermostats, provide status reports of
household electricity usage, and choreograph the operation
of complex home entertainment systems. These, and a wide
assortment of other tasks completed by controllable devices,
are what the home automation industry refers to as “subsystems.” Without subsystems, a home automation processor’s
many talents can go sorely underutilized.
To realize the full benefit of living in an automated home,
it’s essential that at least a few subsystems be integrated with
a home automation system. Integration usually involves the
addition of special hardware and professionally programmed
software. But don’t worry. These extra pieces of technology
won’t clash with your home’s design or complicate your lifestyle. Their system smarts, which may take the form of a black
box or panel that mounts to the wall, or reside alongside the
automation processor in a utility room or closet, are able to
maintain a low profile. After receiving a signal from a handheld
remote, touchpanel, smartphone, tablet, motion sensor, or
some other trigger device, an automation system communicates its instructions, like “turn foyer and kitchen lights on at 6
p.m.” to the processor of the subsystem, which in turn carries
out the command. In other cases, a light switch, thermostat,
and other individual devices may contain the smarts to be controlled directly from the automation system without any help
from a subsystem processor. The communication between an
automation system and subsystems can happen over cabling
or wirelessly via standards like Z-Wave, ZigBee, or Wi-Fi.
March 2015
Regardless of the signal path or communications protocol,
subsystems are an essential component of an automation
system. Take the time to consider what types of products and
devices you’d like to be able to actively monitor, control, and
automate. Maybe you’re interested in automating only the motorized window shades and lights; perhaps you’d like to weave
in the control of the swimming pool system and electronic
door locks. This will help determine the type of automation
system you should use, as they vary in their level of integration
capabilities. You’ll want to know which subsystems an automation system has been designed and engineered to handle out
of the box, and what upgrade options are available.
It’s also important to understand that, just because an automation system has been crafted to work with heating and
cooling systems, for example, it may not be able to control
all makes and models of heating and cooling systems. Most
home automation systems are very brand-specific when it
comes to the types of subsystems they can control.
The following list explains the different types of subsystems commonly integrated with automation systems. If you
have any questions or concerns about a system’s integration
capabilities, manufacturers are happy to share this information with you and your home systems integrator.
Architectural Lighting Control System
Probably the most popular and practical of all automation
subsystems, an architectural lighting control system enables
all types of light sources, including incandescent, compact
fluorescent, halogen, and LED to be dimmed and brightened
to prescribed levels to achieve greater energy savings, provide
visual interest, enhance security, and set the mood for certain
occasions. When managed by a home automation system, the
operation of a home’s lights can be synchronized with other
subsystems. This provides even greater benefits; for instance,
the lights can turn on and off according to the settings of a
security system or the position of motorized draperies.
Security System
Protecting your home and family is well handled by a residential security system, and many can now also control lights and
thermostats. Still, there are good reasons to integrate security
with a home automation system, convenience being one major
benefit. From the same device you use to control various other
electronic subsystems in your house, you’ll be able to view the
status of the security system, arm and disarm sensors, and even
view real-time images captured by surveillance cameras. Moreover, the same security sensors that monitor your house can be
also used to enact certain automation routines. For example,
sensors that are intended to trigger an alarm when they detect
motion can also trigger a pathway of lights to turn on.
Heating and Cooling System
Manufacturers of thermostats have improved the usability of
their products over the years, making them vastly easier to
program. As a result, your house temperature can adjust automatically and in sync with your daily routine. It’s even easier to
schedule thermostat adjustments, though, by integrating your
heating and cooling system with an automation system. This
is particularly true for homes that have multiple thermostats.
Rather than program each thermostat individually, a home
automation system lets you set up them all from the screen of
a tablet, touchpanel, or some other user interface. Once they’re
programmed, you can monitor the temperature of each heating and cooling zone and adjust as necessary from this single
control device. Another perk: The temperature can adjust automatically based on certain conditions like when the garage door
opens, the home theater system activates, or the motorized
window shades close.
A security system pairs nicely with a home automation system.
From one device, like this Tuxedo Touch from Honeywell, you can
monitor the status of the security system as well as control the
lights and thermostats.
electronic subsystems in your house. A few taps of a finger
activates the audio or video and instructs it where to play. If
there’s a particular room where you often watch movies, an
automation system can set up the equipment and the room
environment in one fell swoop. On command, the room lights
dim, the shades close, and the appropriate equipment revs
up. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy.
Other Subsystems Worth Automating
The aforementioned subsystems are the most popular to
place under the aegis of an automation system, but just about
any product or system that derives electrical or battery power
can be integrated. When working with a home systems professional to design and install an automation system, also consider these integration-worthy components: swimming pool
and spa system, motorized gates, electronic door locks, garage
doors, motorized equipment (for drapes, TVs, home theater
screens, and video projectors), irrigation system, and decorative fountains.—L.M.
Audio and Video System
Imagine having your favorite song greet you as you enter
the house after work or waking up to see the
morning news displayed on your bathroom TV.
It’s possible when a home’s audio and video
components are managed and controlled by an
automation system. On cue from an automation
system, music can travel from equipment in a
media room to speakers throughout the house.
Ditto for video to TVs. And your home’s lights
can adjust in concert with the music if they’re
programmed via the automation system.
One touch of a button can create the perfect
ambiance for a dinner party, a romantic evening at home, or a festive gathering of friends
on the back patio. And you’ll have no trouble
finding the music or video you want to enjoy
when your A/V equipment is managed by a
home automation system. You’ll be able to peruse your entire library of media conveniently
When tied to an automation system, subsystems that manage a home's lights,
from the screen of the same tablet, phone,
motorized shades, and video equipment, can by synchronized to activate in unison.
or touchpanel that is used to operate the other
Photo courtesy of Crestron
Smart Home Systems
The surge in broadband households with Wi-Fi has
opened up the possibilities for smart homes in ways
not possible before. No longer do you need a wiring
infrastructure running from a central controller to
switches and keypads throughout the house to enjoy
a more connected home. Wireless control via Wi-Fi,
Z-Wave, and other communications standards makes
it possible to start building a DIY system for a couple
of hundred dollars. They’re modular, too, so you can
expand your system as budget allows.
Staples Connect
Staples bills itself as a “uniter.” Its $79
hub connects to a home’s router and
through its Connect app, allowing
you to control smart devices from
different manufacturers. These could
include light switches/dimmers from
Lutron and Philips, smart locks from
Schlage and Yale, a thermostat from
Honeywell, smoke alarms from First
Alert, and cameras from D-Link. Motion
and window sensors and appliance
modules are available to create
activities controllable from the app. Kits are available for lighting
($149) and home monitoring ($249). Service fee: None
The collection of
remote controls
required for a home
theater system is
reason alone for
home automation.
The cloud-based
iRule system can
handle the operation of a modest single-room A/V system or
a complex whole-home automation system at a significantly
lower price than other systems, and lets you interact with your
A/V products from the comfort of a smartphone or tablet.
The customizable platform allows families to create unique
experiences for each member. For example, a fantasy football
player might want a stats page embedded in his user interface,
while another family member may just want a simple page
with basic functions. A trial version of iRule is available from the
company website, where you can design your own interface
down to the “finish” of your app-based virtual remote. The free
app, for iOS and Android devices, has a software license fee of $50
for enabling you to control network-controllable devices in your
home. iRule also has a network of professional integrators if you'd
rather let a pro install the system for you.
March 2015
Belkin WeMo
Belkin wants you to start your
connected home journey “wherever
you want,” says senior product
manager Peter Taylor. That could be
lights or even a crockpot or coffee
maker. How many times have you
wished your cup of morning java was
waiting for you when you walked into
the kitchen? The Mr. Coffee WeMoenabled smart coffee maker ($125)
can do that with a direction from a
smartphone app. With a WeMo-based
CrockPot ($129) you can change
settings or turn off the cooker from a smartphone app at the
office. The company is eyeing 25 WeMo-enabled products
within the year. Wi-Fi, but no hub is required. Service fee: None
Lutron Caseta
At Lutron, dimmed
lighting scenes once
available only through
expensive control systems
are now sold in stores under the Lutron Caseta Wireless line.
At the simplest level, you can control Lutron Serena shades
and Pico light switches from a dedicated remote control ($59
for remote and lamp dimmer). Add a Caseta Wireless Bridge
($119) and you can extend that control to an app that works
over the Internet. You can create scenes and schedules not
only for Caseta dimmer switches but for Lutron’s Serena
electronic shades and select Honeywell thermostats. Caseta
products can be controlled by third-party control systems from
Control4, Savant, URC, Staples, and Wink, too. Service fee: None
Lowe's IRIS
Lowe’s identified the smart home
opportunity early on and now
has more than 50 products on its
roster of connectable products
in its IRIS platform. The IRIS hub
speaks several languages and can
control products from Schlage, Kwikset, GE, and Honeywell. A
basic Lowe’s service plan is free, allowing homeowners
to manage home security and energy consumption from
a smartphone, tablet, or computer. For $10 per month,
users can receive text, email, or phone alerts if an alarm
is triggered, along with live streaming and recording of
feeds from a connected video camera. Can connect to smart
products through various communications languages. Service
fee: $10/month for text/email/phone notifications.
Smart Home Systems
Face it, not everyone is cut out for a do-it-yourself project. A
professionally installed home automation system—from a
service provider or a custom integrator—saves time, brings
peace of mind, and provides the kind of reliability that comes
from a professional with training and experience. Higherend installed systems enable a more sophisticated level of
customization, including the ability to work with a broader
field of products and systems. Most importantly, if something
goes wrong, there’s someone to call who knows your system
inside and out. For customers who want broader, more
customize control options than a DIY smart home system can
offer, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best higher-end
professionally installed systems on the market.
Control4 sees itself as the glue that brings connected devices
together in an integrated home control system. While more
smart devices today can be controlled by an app, Control4
goes a step further, enabling lights to come on and the
heat to kick in when the door lock opens, for example. “Our
products can listen to products and events that happen in
a connected home and tell other things what to do, based
on the preferences of the homeowner,” says company CEO
Martin Plaehn. You may want your lights to illuminate a path
from the hallway to the kitchen after a door unlocks, but
only if it’s after dark, and a Control4 integrator can make
that happen. The same system could turn off all the lights
in a home with a single button while locking all the smart
door locks in the process. Customers with second homes can
monitor and control their vacation home when they’re not
there. Control4 has had customers close the shutters on a
beach home in advance of a coming storm.
March 2015
Elan Home Systems
ELAN Home Systems has been designing innovative, awardwinning multi-room audio/video and home control systems
since 1989. The ELAN g! Entertainment and Control System
puts homeowners in control of entertainment, security,
climate, lighting, and more—with elegant keypads and
touchpanels or from any location with their favorite Apple
or Android mobile device. Automation systems start with
the $800 g1 controller and scale up from there. “ELAN has a
long history of industry firsts, including the first mobile app
for home control, and today we are continuing that tradition
and giving our users greater choice and our integrators
increased selling power,” said Core Brands director of business
development Joe Lautner. “We’ve designed it to be the easiest
and most user-friendly control system around, and the easiest
to install and configure as well. Your world, made simple.”
Over the past couple of years, service providers (cable/
satellite/Internet providers, as well residential security
installation firms) have moved into home automation
as a way to increase their monthly revenue streams.
Systems including AT&T’s Digital Life, ADT Pulse, and
Comcast Xfinity are installed by the providers and sold in
packages of prescribed products. Users pay up front for
the hardware and a monthly service fee for monitoring is
billed as part of a service contract.
For example: AT&T’s Digital Life, available in 82 markets,
includes packages for door control, video cameras, water
detection, and energy management. The video camera
package ($99 plus $9.99 per month with a 2-year contract)
includes one camera. Subscribers can choose to have the
camera capture video or take a snapshot when motion is
detected, and then view live feeds or previously recorded
video via an app on a smartphone. The energy package
($199, plus $4.99 per month) comes with a light switch,
thermostat, and smart plug, allowing you to manage lights
and temperature—and set schedules—from a smartphone,
tablet, or computer.
Crestron Pyng
Crestron, known for its robust and expensive wired control
systems with corporate-grade reliability, has come out with an
affordable wireless system that starts at $3,000. “Technology
has evolved,” says Delia Hansen, senior residential marketing
manager, and “wireless home systems can be much stronger
and more reliable than ever before.” A $3,000 Crestron Pyng
starter system for one or two rooms comes with four in-wall
dimmers, wall-mounted wireless keypad, two battery-powered
keypads, a thermostat, and a hub. Crestron offers app control
through a smartphone but recommends a dedicated keypad
or touchscreen controller for a smart home system because
smartphones and tablets tend to “walk away” when family
members use the devices for other things. And, Hansen says,
when homeowners are talking on the phone or reading an
article on a tablet, they have to exit that screen to open the
control app, which can be an annoyance when you just want to
turn up the temperature. A keypad, on the other hand, is “always connected,” she says. An advanced Pyng system ($6,500) includes
eight in-wall dimmers, five lamp dimmers, two in-wall keypads, one thermostat, three battery-powered keypads, a Yale wireless
deadbolt lock, an occupancy sensor, and a hub.
Savant Systems
Savant Systems launched 10 years ago using an operating
system based on Apple’s Mac mini, and familiarity with the
Apple OS makes it a logical starting place for home automation
for those with iOS devices. Personalization and simplicity are
hallmarks of the Savant experience. Homeowners can add their
own photos of people or rooms “or anything they identify with”
to customize the app for their own use, says Tim McInerney,
director of product marketing. Savant systems tie together
modern “smart” devices and legacy “non-smart” devices through
a combination of IP- and Wi-Fi-based products and controllers.
A Savant installer can design a system that manages products
such as a window shade, a gas fireplace, and a universal remote
control for a home theater—and
make them all controllable from
an app. Savant systems start with
the $799 Smart Host for control of
up to 12 rooms of IP-based or Wi-Fi
devices, with control modules for
non-IP devices starting at $250 per
device. Systems are expandable to
include control of video and audio
sources, thermostats, lighting, and
HVAC systems. The more powerful
Savant Pro line ($4,000 and up)
controls larger systems, including
music for up to 144 rooms or a
video tiling system in which nine
video feeds can be shown at once
on a single large-screen TV.
March 2015 Universal Remote Control (URC)
URC began in the audio/video world where it consolidated
a coffee table full of remotes into one. Now, it owns the
largest code database for control of audio and video gear.
URC has branched out to offer broader control of other
products in the home—its own and those from other
companies—that homeowners can control through a
keypad or app: lights, shades, security systems, thermostats,
door locks, network cameras, and more. All of the systems
can be viewed and controlled by URC’s remote controls,
keypads, and touchscreens, and via apps on mobile devices.
A URC remote paired with a controller starts at $899 in
the Total Control line that’s sold through home systems
Smart Home Systems
Where to Buy an
Automation System
NOW THAT HOME AUTOMATION has hit the mainstream, you can
find systems at your local big box electronics store, online at
popular sites like Amazon.com, and from a variety of professional installation firms. Given the range of automation providers and the assortment of products available, you’ll have
no problem finding a place to purchase a system. The question is, from whom or where you should buy? The answer will
depend largely on your budget and your expectations. Here
are the pros and cons of each shopping option:
Retail and Online Stores
While running errands, you can swing by Staples, Lowe’s,
Best Buy, and other superstores and pick up a complete
home automation system. You likely won’t spend more than
a couple hundred dollars and will be able to take it home
with you that day. According to these suppliers, you can
have it up and running in your house in a couple of hours.
And because most DIY systems are wireless, you won’t need
to fish any cabling behind the walls or under the floor.
Automation systems available at retail stores offer DIY
consumers a fun, affordable way to implement automation
technology into their homes. Most DIY systems are modular, which means you can start with a few basic pieces, like
a control “hub” and a couple of light switches, then visit the
store or website again to buy additional components. You
can tinker with the system to determine what you like and
what else you might need, and know that you’ll be able to
afford just about anything in the product lineup.
However, rarely is anything as easy as it seems. Although DIY automation systems are touted by retailers
and manufacturers as being simple to set up and install,
for some, the process could end up being more complicated and confusing than expected. Although most of these
systems are wireless, which often simplifies the installation of the components, sometimes, the wireless technology itself presents challenges and issues. In order for the
devices in a wireless automation system to function flawlessly, your home needs a rock-solid wireless networking
system. Establishing this network can often be as difficult
as pulling wire through a wall, not to mention unreliable.
Also, no matter how careful and diligent you were during set-up and installation, there may be times when a DIY
automation system experiences difficulties, which may make
it harder for you to control and enjoy. It’s not that the system
is shoddy; it might just need more TLC and patience that you
are willing to give to make it perform up to your standards.
March 2015
Multi-Service Providers
You get your Internet service from them, possibly even
your cable or satellite TV programming. It’s quite possible
that this same company can bundle a home automation
system into your service contract. With a phone call, you
can have the automation system delivered to your doorstep and installed by a company technician. It’s a quick,
convenient, and affordable way to add automation to
your home. In a few hours, the system is usually up and
running, and its cost is rolled into your monthly bill.
The downside to this model is that little thing called
customer service. You’re probably all too familiar with the
frustration that ensues when weaving your way through the
maze of help line extension numbers to contact your service provider with a question or concern. You’ll likely get this
same level of attention should you experience hiccups with
your automation system. Although this may not be a deal
breaker, the fact that systems sold through these channels
are fairly basic in their capabilities might be. Don’t expect
a high level of customization or personalization of a home
automation system that comes from your service provider.
Also, if you’re interested in controlling things beyond a few
lights and thermostats, look elsewhere.
Security Companies
Security systems have matured tremendously over the
past few years. In addition to providing reliable and robust home protection, manufacturers have engineered
their systems to also control lights, thermostatsm and
other electronic devices. In essence, residential security
systems have morphed into a respectable contingency
of home automation systems. At their core, these
security-turned-automation systems still focus most of
their smarts on keeping your home and family safe and
secure. The automation features are nice perks that can
enhance the level of home protection. For example, when
the system is armed, not only will the door and window
sensors activate, but the lights will turn off. Disarming the
system can engage a completely new scene where lights
illuminate a pathway from the garage to the front door
and from the foyer to the kitchen. And where the partnership between lighting and security can really have an
impact is in the event of an emergency. In this situation,
lights can lead your family from their bedrooms to the
front door and turn off the heating and cooling system to
prevent the spread of smoke.
About the only feature missing from these types of
systems is the ability to easily integrate audio and video
equipment. And unless the security dealer is a superstar,
you likely won’t be using this type of system to manage and
control motorized window shades, swimming pool pumps,
or some other electronic components. Moreover, with a
security-based system, it’ll be tough to incorporate elaborate mood settings scenes—the kind that at a touch of the
button fills a room with romantic music while the lights dim
and the shades close. This level of integration and customization is only possible with home automation systems sold
by professional home systems integrators.
Home Systems Integrators
Like an architect who coordinates the design and construction of a house, a home systems integrator creates and executes a plan for the installation of various
low-voltage systems, including an automation system,
in homes. The types of automation systems offered by
home systems integrators are typically very sophisticated,
can control a wide assortment of products, and can be
March 2015 programmed to do just about anything you want. You’ll
pay a premium for the system’s extensive capabilities and
the expertise of a professional to design and install the
components, but it’s worth it if you want a home automation system that’s reliable, easy to use, and functions as a
natural extension of your home.
In addition to offering top-quality automation systems,
these professionals are known for offering a high level of
customer service. They’ll guide you through the process
of integrating a system into your home, will manage the
work flow among other trades that might be involved,
and ensure that your system functions exactly the way
you expected it to. And if it doesn’t, a home systems professional will tweak it until you’re absolutely thrilled. Be
advised: Depending on the scope of your system, the size
and structure of your house, and the level of customization required, it may take a home systems professional a
few weeks, or even months, to engineer, design, program,
and install a home automation system, and at a cost
that’s usually much higher than systems offered by other
Smart Home Systems
Ready to Network with
Home Automation Systems
SMART APPLIANCES are making headway this year, as several
leading manufacturers exhibited Internet-connected and
app-enabled washers, dryers, dishwashers, and refrigerators at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las
Vegas a few months ago. LG, Whirlpool, Samsung, Bosch,
and others demonstrated smartphone-based control over
washing and drying cycles, the ability to monitor these
cycles remotely, and receive activation cues from other
products like the Nest thermostat.
Whirlpool Smart Top Load Washer/Dryer
These concepts have been tossed around for years, and
while it’s exciting to see them finally come to fruition, Whirlpool has taken Internet-connectivity a step further by enabling owners of its new Smart Top Load Washer and Dryer
to opt into the company’s new Connect to Care program via
a mobile app, which makes a donation to Habitat for Humanity every time they do a load of laundry.
As the washer and dryer give back to the community,
they also get increasingly smarter. A host of downloadable
cycles are available that have been optimized by Whirlpool
engineers for very specific types of laundry: high-performance athletic wear, comforters, baby clothes, and more. A
user simply taps the cycle of choice on his or her Whirlpool
app-enabled smartphone and the washing and drying duo
set-up. In an effort to make laundry time even more interactive and efficient, Whirlpool will be continually adding new
cycles to the app throughout the year.
March 2015
LG TWIN Wash System
Generating the biggest buzz at the LG smart appliances section
of its massive CES booth was a TWIN Wash system. As the name
suggests, you can do two—yes, two—loads of laundry at the
same time. It’s akin to a double oven in concept, effectively allowing you to minimize the time you spend doing laundry. The
top of the unit is a regular-size top-loading washing machine;
the bottom mini washer is ideally suited for delicate items that
require special attention or unique wash settings. LG would be
remiss not to include some kind of connected technology in this
unique washing machine, and this one communicates through
both Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication). Via Wi-Fi, custom cycles can be uploaded to the washer, cycle statuses can
be monitored via an LG smartphone app, and alerts can be sent
via Wi-Fi when the cycle is complete. Using NFC tagging technology, users can download preprogrammed wash cycles to their
smartphones and then activate those cycles by simply touching
the smartphone to the washing machine’s NFC Tag On symbol.
Whirlpool Magnetic Skins
As appliances continue to get smarter, they are also getting
more attractive. And it’s not just about stainless steel and
compact footprints. Whirlpool, for one, may soon offer magnetized “skins” that can be attached to the front of a washer
and dryer. Available in a variety of designs and colors, it will
offer consumers a way to instantly alter their style. Considering the average lifespan of a washer and dryer is around 14
years, it’s an easy, affordable way spruce up your laundry
room when you redecorate your house.
Bosch Home Connect
Imagine trekking to the grocery store only to realize that you left
your list at home. Or, on your way to work you remember that
you had left wet towels in the dryer. Bosch envisions a day when
all you’ll need to do is check your smartphone to inspect the
current contents of your refrigerator or to activate the clothes
dryer. That day, at least for homeowners in Germany and Austria, is now, as Bosch unveiled a series of smart appliances a
few months ago for this market. In addition to the refrigerator
and dryer, the Home Connect line includes a smart dishwasher,
washing machine, and oven. The most compelling of the group,
the refrigerator, is fitted with two small IP cameras, which snap a
shot of the inside of the refrigerator every time the door opens.
As many as 20 photos can be stored and accessed via a smartphone app. The idea, explains a Bosch spokesperson, is to provide an instant visual status report of the current stock inside so
that users can see if they need milk, orange juice, or some other
item while running errands. “Or maybe after work you decide to
host an impromptu cocktail party at your house,” she offers. You
can click on the app and see if you should swing by the store to
pick up some beer and wine.”
The app controls for the smart appliances leverage the
convenience of having remote access to household appliances
by allowing users to select specific cooking and cleaning settings, schedule activation times and be notified when the cycle
is complete. Other offerings include recipes and cooking tips,
operation instructions and videos, and remote diagnostics.
Making the connection even more convenient is the fact
the all of the appliances can be monitored and
managed via a single app rather than multiple
individual apps.
Home Connect is currently available in Germany
and Austria and will be introduced into a growing
number of countries, including the United States,
over the next several years.—L.M.
Opposite page: Whirlpool's Smart Top Load Washer and
Dryer and LG's TWIN Wash System can receive washing
instructions from an app-enabled smartphone. This page: The
Home Connect line of appliances from Bosch, which includes
a dishwasher, can be monitored and controlled remotely from
a smartphone.
Smart Home Systems
Automation Ideas for Every
System of Your House
YOUR HOME IS COMPRISED of many different electronic "subsystems": heating and cooling, lighting, audio and video, security,
and more. A home automation system unifies these various
systems so that they work as one. One command from an
automation system can instruct several of these subsystems
to adjust to certain predetermined (as by you and your home
systems integrator) settings, levels, and inputs.
It’s a much more efficient way to manage your household
than to manually manipulate each dimmer switch, thermostat,
and piece of audio and video equipment. The automation system, in essence, becomes your point of contact to, and interaction with, all things electronic in your house. To realize what’s
possible from each subsystem when it’s tied to an automation
system, we’ve compiled the following ideas. They’ve been tried
and tested by home systems integrators, so consider implementing them as you start to design your own home automation system.
1. Lighting
The lights in your home affect almost every aspect of your
household: convenience, comfort, efficiency, and safety.
Needless to say, they are critical components to integrate
with your automation system.
PATHWAYS. Lights can be programmed via the automation system to illuminate pathways in and around your house,
making travel to the bathroom in the middle of the night, from
garage to the house, and up and down stairways a lot safer.
EFFICIENCY. You can save money on your utility bills by
having an automation system turn off the lights at certain
times of the day. If you forget, the system still remembers.
CONVENIENCE. You can save time and manage your
household better by pressing a button on an automation keypad, touchpanel, or mobile device to turn lights on and off.
AESTHETICS. Your house will look more beautiful when
the lights are automated to accentuate the decor, artwork,
or architecture.
SAFETY. Lights can be set to switch on and off in a random
pattern to make your house look occupied when you’re away.
March 2015
2. Audio and Video Equipment
An automation system can enhance the performance of
your entertainment systems by making them easier to operate and become an important part of the overall home
MACROS. A macro is a command that’s been programmed into an automation system to launch a series of
signals to a variety of different components. So, instead
of having to press a button on a remote to turn on the TV,
another to activate the surround-sound system, and so
on, an automation system can singlehandedly get the A/V
equipment ready to play a movie. The same command—
which home systems integrators often label Movie Time—
can also dim the lights.
AMBIANCE. You’ll likely want some background music
playing during a house party; an automation system can tell
a whole-house audio system to broadcast a certain playlist
to speakers within certain rooms (or throughout the entire
house) simultaneously as it arranges the intensity levels of
the lights. Instant party atmosphere.
ROUTINES. If music and video are part of your everyday
routine, you can use your automation system to play what
you want where you want it at certain times of the day or
when you touch a button on your iPhone or some other
control device. So, as part of your morning routine, you can
wake up to the morning news and exercise to Pandora.
3. Security System
So much of what an automation system does revolves
around the same types of settings you’d typically expect
from a security system. Home, Away, Goodnight, and Vacation are common commands issued by security systems, as
well as from automation systems, which make security and
home automation a natural partnership.
LIVED IN LOOK. If your house will be empty for an extended period of time, a Vacation command sent from your
automation system can arm the security system, plus turn
the lights on and off and move the shades up and down.
playing a log of activity in and around your house during your
absence. You’ll be able to track who entered the house and
when, where they went, and when they left—a great feature for
parents of latchkey kids or those who have landscapers, pool
maintenance crews, and cleaning people visiting the house.
VISUAL INSPECTION. Before you leave for work or vacation, your automation system can show you if a window is
still open or a TV is still on. You’ll be able to lock up and turn
off right from the touchpanel, tablet, or smartphone.
However, unlike predictable timer-based on and off settings,
an automation system can record a household’s random usage patterns over the previous few weeks and mimic those
settings to make your house look truly lived in.
AUTOMATED FIX-ITS. When tied to an automation system,
the sensors that watch over the conditions of your house can do
more than just text you when there’s a problem. They can signal
the automation system to do something about it. For example,
should a water sensor detect moisture on the laundry room
floor, the automation system could respond by cutting power to
the washing machine and turning off the main water line.
WARNINGS. A security system can detect when someone
has entered your property or home and sound an alarm. An
automation system can add flashing lights and verbal warnings (played over the home’s stereo speakers) to the mix. If this
reaction seems too extreme, the automation system can send
images captured by surveillance cameras to your smartphone.
MONITORING. Sometimes just knowing the status of the
systems in your house can provide valuable peace of mind.
The user interface (touchpanel or tablet) of a home automation can show you which windows and doors might be open,
which room the kids are in, and other helpful information.
ACTIVITY TRACKING. What happened while you were away
from home? Again, an automation system can show you by dis-
4. Motorized Window Treatments
Like a lighting control subsystem, motorized window shades
are operated by wall switches and handheld remotes. This
approach is basic, simple, and convenient, but you’ll realize
more benefits when the motorized shades are tied to an
automation system.
DAYLIGHT HARVESTING. Why turn on all the lamps when
you can use some of the natural sunlight to illuminate a space?
Through the intelligence of an automation system, motorized
shades can roll up when it’s sunny to supplement your home’s
artificial lighting. The automation system can keep some of the
lights off and at a lower intensity level, saving electricity.
TEMPERATURE CONTROL. Just as you can use the sunlight
for supplemental illumination, you can use it to warm parts
of your house. When the conditions are right, the automation
system can lift the shades and set back the thermostats.
UV PROTECTION. On the other hand, the sun can be
very damaging to upholstery, artwork, and other decorative
elements. An automation system can instruct the shades to
lower to protect your investments.
CUT THE GLARE. As part of a Movie macro the shades
can lower as the lights dim and the A/V equipment revs up
for a night of movie watching.
PRIVACY. The same Good Night command that shuts
off the lights and arms the security system can tell the bedroom shades to lower.
Your home's lights and window shades are two common amenities
that can be automated to provide benefits like energy efficiency,
comfort, and aesthetic value.
March 2015 5. Heating and Cooling System
Of all the electronic devices in your home, the most difficult
to program is probably the thermostat. It’s also a device that’s
often skipped over when you prep the house for bedtime and
your departure. An automation system can both simplify the
programming process and adjust the settings of the thermostats automatically, based on certain predefined conditions.
SMOKE SIGNALS. In the event of a fire (signaled by the
smoke detector of a security system) your home’s heating,
cooling, and ventilation system can shut down to prevent
smoke from spreading.
COMFORT KEEPER. During parties, movie nights, and other
activities that involve a lot of people, body heat will naturally
cause certain rooms to feel too warm. A Party command issued by an automation system can adjust the appropriate
thermostats to a cooler setting, as it alters the intensity of the
lights and activates certain audio and video components.
QUICK SETTINGS. If your home has multiple thermostats, a home automation system allows you to adjust them
all from one user interface, like the screen of a touchpanel,
iPhone, or iPad.
Smart Home Systems
Great Home Automation
Ideas for Beginners
SMART HOME SYSTEMS, or home automation systems, once were expensive luxuries (and professionally
installed and custom programed
systems still can be), but today many DIY (do-it-yourself)
products are very practical and
reasonably affordable. If you’re
ready to add some smarts to
your home, here are five simple
projects that can provide big benefits. Most require little-to-no experience with smart home products, can
be completed in a couple hours or less,
and cost under $300.
Smart Light Bulbs
Lighting is one of the easiest smart home projects
to tackle, and will allow you to operate your home’s lights
from an app on your smartphone. In addition to downloading the app, it involves replacing your old light bulbs with
wireless LED bulbs (and then following the setup instructions). Some systems will require the addition of a main
smart home hub or gateway that connects to your home
network, while other smart light bulbs can be operated via
Bluetooth from your phone or tablet. More advanced lighting control can be achieved by replacing traditional switches and dimmers with smart dimmers and wireless switches
that you can control with your phone’s smart home app.
Try the Philips Hue, Lutron Caseta Wireless, or Quirky Wink
(with GE smart bulbs) systems.
Energy Saving Devices
The Nest (shown) smart wireless thermostat inspired many
people to start saving energy by adding a smart wireless
thermostat to their home (although there are plenty of
others on the market). You can minimize your household
energy consumption even more by installing wireless motorized blinds to some of the windows as a way to regulate
heat gain and loss. Also easy to install are motion sensors
that can turn lights on and off automatically. And if you’re
in the market for a ceiling fan, why not use one from Big
Ass Fan (yes, that’s really what it’s called) that can adjust
March 2015
itself based on the current temperature and
occupancy of a room.
Mood Setting
A home automation system create
instant ambiance
in a home. Smart
dimmable LED bulbs
(especially coloradjustable bulbs like
the Philips Hue and others) can create completely
new looks in any room
with simple commands issued
from a smartphone app. You can
integrate music with your smart home
system as well. Create custom scenes that automatically adjust the lights and turn on music to suit your mood.
The SmartThings system (see sidebar) is compatible with Sonos
wireless speakers, making this kind of mood integration easy.
Monitoring Devices
One of the most appealing features of a home automation
system is its ability to notify you with a text message when
something “unusual” happens at home. This might be the
opening of the front door while you’re in the backyard or a
water leak in the basement while you’re on vacation. Various types of wireless security sensors are available that can
monitor the conditions of your home, and most are very
easy to install and link to a do-it-yourself home automation
system. In fact, many do-it-yourself systems come with at
least a few sensors.
Want more peace of mind? A wireless security camera,
like the Piper from iControl, can provide visual assurance
that all is well at home. You can access the camera remotely
from your smartphone to see if the kids made it home from
school okay and check out the weather conditions before
your plane lands after a long business trip. Some cameras
feature built-in sensors, so they can push an alert to your
phone should they notice motion, and follow up by sending
a snapshot of the activity.
Media Center/Entertainment Control
Home entertainment and home automation often overlap.
Most custom designed home theater systems are almost
always integrated with a professional home automation
system. But on a smaller and less expensive level, even
moderate media room systems and home entertainment
systems can benefit from some integration. DIY smart home
systems of the sort discussed above, don’t usually integrate
with your TV, A/V receiver, or Blu-ray player (the Logitech
Harmony Smart Control is one exception, among others),
but there are several affordable DIY systems designed
DIY Home Automation Under $400
Getting started in smart home automation is easier and
cheaper than ever, especially if you’re looking for a DIY
home automation system. Today, many smart home communications systems begin with a gateway or hub, which
includes all the smart home technology such as Z-Wave,
ZigBee, and Wi-Fi radios for communicating to the various
devices around your house. A good smart home system
usually includes more than one kind of wireless communications protocol, and most of the home automation
software for configuring your smart home system lives
in the app downloaded to your mobile device (a smartphone or tablet), so the process of integrating devices
and linking systems is easier than ever.
Check out these smart home starter kits and hubs designed to get you on your way to a more integrated home.
This Smart Home Starter Kit from
SmartThings includes a SmartThings hub, which communicates
via Z-Wave, Zigbee, and IP (for
networked systems like Sonos).
There are tons of devices you
can add to the system, and lots of creative ways to integrate them. In addition to the hub, this kit includes two
door/window sensors, one wall outlet adaptor, one motion
sensor, and one presence sensor. With these devices you
can monitor doors or windows, be alerted if motion is detected, and turn on a lamp. $299.
Wink is a new smart home system
from the IoT company, Quirky. Wink
is sold at Home Depot and other
places, including online. This A19 GE
Lighting Kit includes a wall or table
mounted Wink Relay hub ($300 when
purchased by itself) with a color touchscreen display. Also in
the kit are four standard A19 style LED light bulbs (around
$15 each when purchased individually) that communicate
wirelessly to the Wink hub. The kit is $288, so it looks like a
pretty decent deal. If this package is still too expensive, you
can get the standard Wink Hub (about $50) and buy the GE
Link bulbs separately.
March 2015 specifically for home theater gear. iRule’s app-based system,
for example, allows you to put the control of all your media
room components into one app that can control multiple
devices at one time. For things that can’t be controlled via
an IP connection, bridge devices are available to control
components wirelessly. Instead of picking up the TV remote,
turning it to input 1, turning on the Blu-ray player, and using
another remote to turn that on the receiver and switch
inputs, you could simply press “watch movie.” DIY systems
such as this can take some time to program, but they’re
surprisingly affordable.
The new $150 Lutron Smart Bridge
and companion smartphone app
connects to a home’s existing WiFi router and sets up in less than
30 minutes. The mobile app turns
your smartphone into a control
device, from which you can operate a variety of Lutron products
and systems, including Caseta Wireless dimmers, Pico remote
controls, Serena motorized window shades, as well as other
third-party products like some Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostats.
The Piper is a pretty cool device because, on the surface, it’s a very good
DIY security camera. Also built into
the Piper is a Z-Wave radio, making
it a Z-Wave controller for your smart
home system. You can then add other Z-Wave devices, such as window
and door sensors or light controllers
to turn the security camera into the
foundation of a whole-house automation system. The app is
pretty easy to use, too. The Piper+Z-Wave pack includes the
camera plus your choice of three Z-Wave accessories for $339.
The Insteon smart home system has been
around longer than any of the other companies
listed here, but this HomeKit-enabled Insteon
Hub (and the Insteon iPhone app) is new. This
single hub brings Insteon switches, outlets,
thermostats, and light bulbs into the HomeKit
ecosystem. Plus, the app will work with all
HomeKit-enabled products from various manufacturers and protocols, providing a simple, singular method
for consumers to control connected devices. The Insteon Hub
is also compatible with some of the hottest technologies on
the market, like the Nest thermostat. You can use the Hub’s
companion smartphone app to create automation routines,
schedules, and scenes for connected devices—and even issue
commands via Apple’s Siri personal voice assistant. Commands travel from the Hub to accessory devices over a combination of Wi-Fi and your home’s electrical power lines. The
HomeKit-enabled hub retails for $149.
Smart Home Systems
Home Automation
Systems and Mobile Apps
MOBILE APPS HAVE TAKEN THE home automation market by
storm, offering consumers a more convenient way to interact
with the electronic systems in their homes. They’ve also afforded home systems integrators an easier and faster way
to program the operation of those systems. Goodbye laptop
computers as the primary means of monitoring, managing,
and programming control systems; hello app-enabled smartphones and tablets as the main user interfaces of our home
As mobiles apps have taken hold, manufacturers have continued to refine their offerings. One of the most notable trends
among app-enabled systems: the ability for homeowners to
easily create their own automation routines for their electronic
devices to follow. In the past, this has been a task only to be
handled by a professional home systems integrator, but thanks
to an industry-wide shift in thinking, manufacturers are now
putting the power of programming into the hands of the consumer. Home systems integrators, meanwhile, reap the benefit
of having to make fewer visits to clients’ homes for system
The Crestron Pyng is a great example of an app that facilitates configuration of a home control system by the consumer. This app proves that just because the components of
a home control system may be sophisticated, the interface
used to set up, monitor, and manage them can be extremely
simple. The Pyng app and companion hub pairs with Crestron’s reputable line of accessories, including wireless lighting
controls, security systems, motorized shading, thermostats,
and electronic door locks. By contrast, many other home
control apps focus on one type of component and offer
limited functionality. “With Pyng, you’re not adding an app to
an automation system; the app IS your automation system,”
says Crestron technology manager, Evan Ackmann. Configuration involves a five-step process that, during a demonstration, took only a few minutes to complete.
After initial setup of the Pyng by a home systems integrator, a homeowner is free to modify the settings and create
new scenes by themselves, directly from the Pyng app. For
example, if a user decides to add lights or adjust their intensity levels for a Good Night scenes, the Pyng app guides him
or her through the process. Adding new iPhones and iPads
to the system is easy, too, and all this functionality precludes
the need for homeowners to pay a home systems integrator
March 2015
Crestron's new Pyng system was developed to enable homeowners to set up simple automation routines themselves.
for minor system modifications. All settings are stored in the
Cloud, so in the event of mistakes, the initial settings of the
system can be restored.
Building off the success of its Clare Controls App, Clare
Controls has added new administration features and capabilities to the app, giving consumers even greater control
over their home automation experiences. The new app,
called MyClareHome, invites users to create schedules for
lights, window shades, thermostats, security devices, and
A/V equipment to follow. They can modify these routines at
any time and add new products to them. The MyClareHome
app is also helpful to end-users, thanks to its ability to synch
new mobile devices to the system, such as a houseguest’s
iPhone. After the houseguest leaves, the iPhone access can
be omittted. “Homeowners want luxury performance with
some DIY features, like the ability to make simple system
changes without a service call,” says Clare Controls vice
president of marketing Brigitte McCarthy.
Another company branching out by offering a do-ityourself or pro-installed system is Lutron Electronics. A few
months ago the company launched its DIY-installable Caseta
Wireless lighting system; it now follows up with technology to
enable users to program the operation of Caseta dimmers,
as well as Lutron Serena battery-operated motorized shades,
Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostats, and GE LED light bulbs.
Lutron’s new Smart Bridge product and its companion
mobile app, which can be installed and set up in less than 30
minutes by a homeowner, provides on-the-spot control of
the aforementioned devices from any iOS or Android-based
smartphone or tablet. A user can also automate the operation of the devices by using the app to program scenes and
schedules. The price of both the Caseta system and the Smart
Bridge are DIY-friendly, too, at $80 and $150, respectively.
Smart Home Systems
Smart Home
on a Budget
NO MATTER HOW YOU SLICE IT, a professionally installed home
automation system rarely comes cheaply. But that’s all
about to change, thanks to new scaled-down systems introduced by companies including Savant, Elan, Clare Controls,
and Crestron. And if they’re not paring down the capabilities
of their systems to the basics, they’ve refined their programming software to make it faster for integrators to get automation systems up and running. All of this results in technology that’s priced attractively for mainstream consumers.
But don’t worry. These entry-level systems offer plenty of
practical features that’ll add greater convenience, comfort,
and value to your home; plus, they can be easily expanded
to incorporate additional functionality.
Here are some of the forerunners offering solid, reliable,
automation systems that can
be professionally installed for
less than $2,000.
When Savant hit the
automation scene nearly a
decade ago with its sophisticated Apple-based home
automation system, the
company catered exclusively
to the owners of mansions.
The system was robust and
intuitive, and way out of the
reach of the vast majority
of homeowners. But times
have changed, and software
March 2015
that used to require a powerful piece of processing hardware to run it can now be handled by more affordable
processors. “This has afforded us the opportunity to take
our software that’s proven to work well in big homes and
put it in a piece of hardware that’s much less expensive,”
says Savant director of product marketing Tim McInerney.
The result is a system that starts at around $1,599 (plus
installation labor). The new Smart Series System maxes
out at about 12 rooms of control, which is usually plenty
for most consumers, McInerney states. With support for
more than 5,000 different devices, including a variety of
thermostats, A/V equipment, security products, lighting
controls, and more, it’s a system that can be expanded
over time—and with more efficiency than before, thanks
to the system’s ability to communicate wirelessly with
devices as well as a new app, Single App Home, that enables homeowners to set up some of their own automation routines.
Embraced by production homebuilders, the CLIQ.
express from Clare Controls costs about 70 percent less
than the company’s flagship host product (Clare requested
no MSRPs be published). The CLIQ.express puts Clare in
the unique position of catering to both the luxury and
production home markets. As the most stripped-down
product in its lineup, the CLIQ.express is able to handle the
automation needs of smaller homes where, for instance,
owners may need to control only a couple of thermostats
and 10 circuits of lights (among a few other things). By
comparison, Clare’s full-featured system offers unlimited
control over an unlimited number of devices. Missing,
too, from the CLIQ.express, are ports for the control of
A/V equipment. Like many other manufacturers who’ve
morphed their big, upscale systems into modest starter
automation packages, Clare’s entry-level systems (which
also includes CLIQ.lite) can be upgraded and expanded by
home systems integrators by “unlocking”—at an additional
charge—the system’s internal software restrictions.
Also reaching into the mass market is Elan, a company
known for its robust professionally installed g! home automation system. With its new g1 system, the company
plants itself firmly as a provider of automation that “average” homeowners can afford. Priced at $799 MSRP, the g1
remarkably still boasts an impressive roster of features, and
Elan, Clare Controls, Crestron, and Control4 are making professionally installed home automation systems more affordable with
pared down versions of their more expensive flagship systems.
it still requires installation by a home systems professional.
Integrated can be up to 16 zones of security; two door locks;
the control of up to 32 displays; up to 24 lighting devices;
three thermostats; three surveillance cameras; and an irrigation system. It also comes with a handheld remote that
can be used to access and navigate an onscreen display of
the g1 user interface. Like Clare, Elan is targeting production
builders and owners of smaller homes with this scaleddown offering.
Savant, Clare, Elan, and others are following a path initially blazed several years ago by Control4. This company’s
HC-250 controller ($750 MSRP) is designed for the control
of devices within a single room, and has been one of Control4’s best sellers. To cut costs even further, Control4 has
launched a configuration tool that promises to dramatically simplify and accelerate the set-up process of its line
of home automation systems. With the Composer Express
app, a home systems integrator can set up a system—even
a very complex one—in just a few hours by using a Wi-Fi-en-
March 2015 abled tablet or smartphone. In the past, the process may
have taken an integrator several days to complete, so consumers should realize a reduction in labor charges.
The real muscle behind Composer Express is its embedded Simple Device Discovery Protocol (SDDP), which enables
the programming app to automatically discover all SDDPenabled devices in a home and allows professionals to
integrate them into the Control4 platform with just a touch
of a button. Companies including Crestron and Clare also
offer streamlined programming tools, a sign that the home
automation industry is committed to providing consumers
with more affordable solutions on both the hardware and
software side of an installation.
Add these attractively priced, professionally installed
automation systems to the scads of DIY systems currently
on the market, and consumers can find a system to fit into
even the tightest of budgets. And when you’re ready to
incorporate new features, the systems can be expanded
quickly and easily — and without breaking the bank.
Smart Home Systems
install home automation solutions for consumers.
It’s an industry that’s booming. According to analysts at
Research and Markets, the IoT, where devices talk to each
other via the Internet and/or short-range wireless networking, will represent a $7 billion market by 2020. If IoT devices
and wireless networking isn’t on your radar, it should be.
Here’s a look at some of the protocols poised to change the
way we interact with our home’s lights, thermostats, A/V
equipment, and more—and in some very positive ways.
Arguably two of the most popular and mature networking standards are Z-Wave and ZigBee. However, newcomers like the Thread Group, Apple HomeKit, and and the
IF YOU HAVE A ROUTER in your house, you’re familiar with
AllSeen Alliance (AllJoyn) are bringing additional choices
Wi-Fi, the communications protocol that enables your
to the table. Although Z-Wave, ZigBee, Thread, HomeKit,
smartphone to stream music from the backyard,
and AllJoyn differ in their technological design
and your laptop to access email from the living
and approach to the smart home market,
room couch—or wherever you happen to be in
the goal among all is to enable devices
your house. This wireless networking standard
that share a like networking protocol
has untethered us from cabling for our commuto communicate seamlessly with each
nications needs, and has become so pervasive
other and with minimal configuration,
in American homes that manufacturers have
which means a complete system can be
implemented the technology into all kinds of
pieced together by a homeowner afdevices. With a Wi-Fi chip embedded in it, a light
fordably and easily.
switch can be controlled from an app on your
The basic concept is this: A networksmartphone, for example. But as most people
enabled home automation hub will
have likely experienced, Wi-Fi can be finicky.
be able to instantly recognize, sync up
Connections can drop unexpectedly, products
with, and monitor and control other
located far away from the router might lose sigproducts that communicate via the
nal, and as more and more devices join a Wi-Fi
same protocol, such as light switches,
network, the communications highway becomes
thermostats, and electronic door locks.
increasingly congested and slow.
These devices will be able to send
While Wi-Fi works, and is still a favored
messages to each other with ease,
communications protocol of many manucreating a networking backbone to
facturers due to its low cost (your existing
support a complete home automarouter does the job of traffic cop instead of
tion system.
a completely new hub), several other wireSo if all of the networking protocols
This ZigBee module enables anything
less “mesh” networking protocols have
are positioned to offer similar benefits,
that's plugged into it to join a home's Zigbeen developed over the past few years
which one should you choose? Is there
Bee wireless communications network.
to work around some of the inherent
a right or wrong way to connect the
limitations of Wi-Fi. “Try communicating with a smart washdevices in your home?
ing machine that’s in the basement from a smartphone in
If you asked these questions a year ago, you’d likely hear
the upstairs bedroom,” offers Insteon’s Joe Gerber as an
each networking organization championing its own respecexample. “Distance combined with the metal of the washing
tive solution. Today, it’s a different story. While each protomachine can kill the signal.”
col is designed to address a certain need or solve a particuAdds Ryan Maley, director of strategic marketing, ZigBee
lar problem, “there is no clear-cut winner,” says Gerber. “BaAlliance: “Wi-Fi connects point-to-point, so when an acsically, there’s a lot of uncertainty over which protocol will
cess point fails, your laptop must be manually switched to
reign supreme. The result: confusion among consumers,”
some other access point. In a mesh network, every device
adds Mark Walters, chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance.
automatically connects to every other device near it. Single
But at least for a while, you may not have to commit to
points of failure are therefore eliminated. Even if one conone particular protocol. To ensure that their devices will
nection goes down, the device can automatically use the
work with the broadest range of products—regardless of
other connection and the network still works. The mesh also
protocol — manufacturers have begun to embed their prodextends range since messages can be passed along bucket
ucts with multiple types of chipsets. “We try to be protocol
brigade-style throughout the network.”
agonist and work with any radio frequency technology,” says
Insteon is just one of many manufacturers of smart home
Kevin Kraus, director of product development at Yale. “Our
devices incorporating networking chipsets into their products
electronic door locks have a combination of both Z-Wave
as a way to establish simple, reliable, affordable, and easy-toand ZigBee radios.” Ostensibly, this means that this lock can
March 2015
talk with both a Z-Wave and a ZigBee home control hub and
link with both Z-Wave and ZigBee light switches, thermostats, and more.
Where you’ll see the widest adoption of multiple communications standards is with manufacturers of home automation hubs, such as the Iris from Lowe’s and the Connect from
Staples. “Companies like these want their hubs to be able to
talk to as many products as possible and most importantly
hot products like the Nest thermostat and the Philips Hue
light bulb,” says Walters. “While this approach makes sense
now, the more chips you put into a product the more expensive that product becomes. As the market matures, we’ll see
manufacturers begin to remove some of the chips from their
product to opt for one standard or another.”
There are currently
more than 1,100
products that talk via
ZigBee, and although
it was adopted initially
by utilities to smarten
up their meters, it’s
finding a foothold
in the smart home
sector. ZigBee chips
are developed by a
variety of semiconductor companies. This
gives manufacturers
of smart devices more
choice, and therefore
keeps costs competitive. The result is that
ZigBee comes in many
different flavors to
support specific applications, like lighting, energy management, etc. Combine two
different types of ZigBee chips and you might need extra
bridging hardware or software to establish communication.
(Note: The ZigBee Alliance recently announced ZigBee 3.0,
which will unify diverse standards to eliminate the need for
different flavors to support different applications.)
Core applications: Smart lighting, with support from
Philips, Osram, Sylvania, and GE
Major supporters: Staples, Lowe’s, Logitech, Belkin
There are
1,200 products
on the market currently
with a Z-Wave
chip. From the
get-go, the ZWave Alliance
focused on home
automation, and
that continues to be
its strength, along
with support from
many leading manufacturers of security
systems, including
ADT, Honeywell, and
Alarm.com. There is
one manufacturer
of Z-Wave chip, and
that chip is embedded universally, regardless of product type. In other words,
a thermostat gets the same chip as a light switch or an
electronic door lock. This approach has made it easier and
quicker for manufacturers to develop products that work
together, but sometimes requires fine-tuning to ensure everything works together seamlessly.
Core applications: Home control and security
Major supporters: ADT, AT&T, Verizon, Honeywell, LG
Established in July 2014, the Thread Group is working on
a networking standard that’s IP (Internet Protocol)-based
and designed to work with Wi-Fi, but with some significant
improvements. One of the most notable, according to
Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical
product marketing manager at Nest Labs, is “extremely low
power consumption,” which means a battery that powers a
wireless product could last for several years.” When batteries last longer, concerns about the network going down are
mitigated, and for security-based products like electronic
door locks, maintaining constant, and reliable communications is critical. “With a lock, you want no latency in operation,” Yale's Kevin explains. (Yale is a member company of
the Thread alliance.) “And, if the network is ever jeopardized, the lock has to keep trying to establish network connectivity, which sucks the battery life, and nobody wants a
dead door lock.”
Currently under the certification process, Thread has
been incorporated into few products other than Nest
thermostats, but has support from Yale, Tyco, and Somfy,
among others. Boross expects 2015 to be a banner year of
product announcements, due to Thread’s ability to be easily
augmented into a home’s current Wi-Fi network.
Core applications: To be determined
Major supporters: Tyco, NEST Labs, Samsung Electronics, Yale
Apple HomeKit
Thread, Z-Wave, Zigbee ... Apple doesn’t care. It’s recently
released HomeKit “platform” was designed not as a communications standard, but as a way to tie all products, regardless of protocol, together in one cohesive unit. Naturally,
these devices must go through Apple certification, which
is currently in its infancy with limited availability of Home-
Smart Home Systems
Kit products. However (and this is the really good part), a
HomeKit-enabled hub, such as a new hub
offered by Insteon, is able to act as a bridge
so that any device that’s tied to it can be
part of HomeKit ecosystem.
All that’s left
for the consumer
to do is download
the appropriate
apps from the
Apple App Store; iOS 8 framework allows the user to control
HomeKit chip-enabled devices via a smartphone, through
Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Unlike most app-based control today, in
which each product is controlled via is own individual app,
HomeKit enables users to operate multiple devices with a
single app, regardless of the native networking protocol.
Core applications: To be deterimined
Major supporters: Insteon, Schlage, Chamberlain
AllJoyn, like Apple HomeKit, is a technology designed to link
smart home devices together, regardless of communicating
March 2015
platform. But unlike HomeKit, which is more of a “closed
community of products, AllJoyn is an open source software
framework, like Linux, that offers manufacturers unlimited
choice in terms of communication transport and platform,
which leads to brand-agnostic interoperable products that
are able to communicate and interact with each other
freely,” explains AllSeen Alliance senior director of IoT, Philip
DesAutels. “Manufacturers can use whichever networking
protocol they want, be it Wi-Fi, Thread, or something else;
AllJoyn creates a network on top of the networks that are already in place.” Security is a big focus of the AllSeen Alliance,
too. Homeowners communicate with AllJoyn products not
through the Cloud, but directly, which minimizes their home
network’s exposure to hackers. There are currently about
100 different types of AllJoyn-enabled products on the market, most of which are available at retail stores.
Core applications: open source code freely available
to product developers; secure communications, protocolagnostic
Major supporters: Electrolux, LG, Microsoft (All-Joyn is
expected to be in every Windows 10 product), Panasonic
Product Reviews and Introductions
New Automation Systems:
HOME AUTOMATION SYSTEMS are entering the marketplace from
all avenues, and from places that you might not expect. Traditional channels made up of manufacturers that focus solely
on developing home automation solutions are being joined
by door and window manufacturers, TV manufacturers, and
home improvement retailers. For homeowners, this means
you can now buy home automation from the same company
from which you bought your new home’s windows, for example. Or you might be able to roll in automation when you
Insynctive System
Pella Windows and Doors, the name recognized since 1966
as a leading provider of quality windows and doors for new
construction, remodeling and replacement applications, has
branched off into totally new territory: home automation. It’s
a big move for a company with strong roots in the construction industry, but one that it's entering with gusto by fully
embracing the natural synergy between technology and architecture with its new Pella Insynctive product line.
As one of the first manufacturers in its category to develop smart home products for windows and doors, Pella’s
wireless Z-Wave-based line of products includes window
and door sensors, garage door sensors, deadbolt entry door
sensor, status indicator, bridge and
motorized blinds
and shades.
Unlike many of
the DIY home automation systems
available today,
Pella’s system is
intended to be
integrated into professionally installed
home automation systems. Pella currently has partnerships
with Wink, Nexia Home Intelligence, Crestron and Savant—
with additional partnerships coming in 2015. An Insynctive
hub connects the various door and window sensors, and motorized window treatments to a homeowner’s choice of automation system, enabling products to be included in various
scenes and modes that a professional installer creates.
Using Insynctive technology, homeowners can know at
a glance if windows, doors and garage doors are opened or
closed and if the entry door is locked or unlocked. Insynctive
also allows homeowners to control motorized blinds and window shades. The integrated system of sensors and motorized
blinds and shades can be controlled while at home simply by
using the status indicator or remote control, or while away by
March 2015
buy your satellite dish.
When new, diverse companies join the bandwagon, it’s
also a fairly good indication that automation is becoming an
increasingly important element of the home and is here to
stay. It’s become an amenity that’s well supported by all types
of industries, even those with no history in the electronics
industry. In the following product descriptions and reviews by
the editors at Electronic House, you’ll see how untraditional
automation providers are staking a claim in the marketplace
with solutions that are solid and broaden your options.
integrating with a compatible home automation system.
Insynctive products are sold separately and give homeowners the ability to choose the products they need to get
the level of home management they want, whether a single
sensor on the front door or outfitting the entire home with
sensors and Insynctive blinds and shades.
Products available include:
• Insynctive Window, Door and Garage Door Sensors
wirelessly relay information via the Bridge to the Insynctive Status Indicator so, while at home, users know at
a glance whether windows and doors are opened or
• Insynctive Window and Door Sensors mount easily to
most any brand of window or door—no tools required.
The Insynctive Garage Door Sensor mounts to most
types of tilting or lifting garage doors.
•Insynctive Entry Door Deadbolt Sensor can be installed
with a new Pella entry door and will indicate if the door is
closed and locked.
ella’s Designer Series snap-in between-the-glass blinds
and shades and Pella room-side blinds and shades are
available with motorized Insynctive technology. While
at home, homeowners can control all the blinds and
shades in a room using the remote control.
dditionally, Pella blinds and shades with Insynctive
technology can be programmed to a compatible home
automation system via the Insynctive bridge and operated from a smart device.
omeowners can choose between cellular shades, roller
shades, wood blinds and between-the-glass blinds or
shades with Insynctive technology.
Iris System
◆ By Grant Clauser
If you believe installing your own home security system is too difficult, there’s a good
chance that newer systems on the market
will prove you wrong. I’ve been using the
Iris system by Lowe’s for a few weeks for a
new home automation review, and above all
what strikes me about this package is how
easy it was to install and how easy it is to
customize the programing. If you can set up
a Facebook page you can do this.
What exactly is this? The Iris system
offers basic home security and automation products that all work together with
a smartphone/tablet app that integrates
any of the various smart modules. Most
people will begin with one of the Iris starter kits. The Safe
and Secure kit includes door and motion sensors plus a
keypad. The Comfort and Control kit includes a thermostat
and smart plug, and the Smart Kit is a combination of the
other two. All of them include the Iris hub which is necessary for any Iris system installation.
Iris works with both wireless Z-Wave and Wi-Fi devices
(the hub also supports Zigbee), and while these are fairly
universal protocols, not all wireless devices are made alike.
That’s why Iris has its own line of products (only sold at
Lowe’s and Lowes.com), which cover most devices a basic
security or control system buyer would need. There are door
and window contact sensors, motion detectors, surveillance
cameras (indoor and outdoor), smoke and carbon monoxide
detectors, door locks, water leak detector, garage door openers, light switches… you get it.
I started with the Smart Kit ($299), which combines temperature control and basic home security. In the box is the
Iris hub, a smart thermostat, two door/window contact sensors, one motion sensor, a Z-Wave extender and a smart outlet plug. If you start with this kit, you’ll probably want to pick
up a few more contact sensors right away for $20 each.
The first thing you set up is the hub. It gets connected
directly to your network Wi-Fi router. It sends and receives
Wi-Fi commands through your router and receives Z-Wave
commands directly. The hub also has a speaker that plays
announcements and alarms. Setting up the hub took just a
few minutes, which involves calling in a pin number to Lowe’s
to activate it. You’ll also need a credit card. While basic operation of the system requires no monthly fee, a Premium service costs $10 a month (free for your first month).
Part of the setup process involves selecting a user name
and password to access and configure different aspects of
your system from a computer. The easiest thing to do is to
keep a laptop with you as you’re setting everything up.
The hub’s volume is adjustable, but not adjustable
enough. Alerts and simple message are all the same volume.
I’d want the alarm beeps at full volume when an intruder
alert is triggered, but much quieter when the system is simply
confirming that I’ve armed it for the night.
The next most important part of the Iris system is the
home control app, which works both on iOS and Android
smartphones and tablets. With the app you can adjust, set,
March 2015 arm, and monitor most features of the system, though some
of the more involved automation features (Iris calls this Magic) can only be done at a computer.
After connecting the hub, I installed the thermostat. That
went in about as easy as any other thermostat, which is to
say that there are a lot of little colored wires, so make sure
you get the right ones pointed to the right place. Setup of the
thermostat will vary depending on the kind of heating and
cooling system you have.
The Iris touchscreen thermostat allows temperature
controls both at the device itself or through the app or web
interface on a computer. The thermostat isn’t as cool to look
at as something like the Nest, but it’s fairly thin (thinner than
the old Honeywell I replaced) and doesn’t look bad. You can
schedule Home, Away, Night and Vacation modes, and other
standard temperature adjustments. I set mine up with very
basic day and night modes. If my family gets too warm or too
cold, we just pull up the app and make the change.
Adding the additional devices (contact sensors, motion detector and smart plug) all was completed in just a few minutes.
The Z-Wave extender didn’t want to connect at first, but was fine
after a second try. It wasn’t really necessary in my setup anyway
since all the devices were installed on the same floor and close
enough that they connected directly to the hub without a problem (you can check signal strength on your Iris home page).
Since this system was primarily about security, the keypad
was, well, key. That product requires you to select a personal
pin number for disarming the system. You can also arm and
disarm it with your smartphone without the pin—that’s a nice
feature in case you forgot to arm it when you left the house
or want to disarm it remotely so someone can enter without
triggering the system.
In addition to the numerical keypad, there’s a panic button, which sends alerts to everyone on your alert list.
Placement of the keypad is important. You’ll want it next to
the door you enter and exit most frequently. For many people
that’s the front door, but in my house we come in through the
garage most of the time, so I put the keypad next to the door
leading to the garage. Ideally I’d have two keypads, one for that
garage entrance and one for the front door.
Arming and disarming the system requires you to key in
your pin number and then press On, Off or Partial. Partial only
arms the door/window contact sensors but not the motion
Product Reviews and Introductions
sensors. You’d likely want to use this setting at night so people
can still walk around the house without setting off the system.
When you arm the system it makes an announcement
and then gives you 15 seconds to get out of the house and
close the door before all the sensors are active.
In the weeks I’ve been using it the system has been pretty
reliable. I never received a false alarm, and all my test alarms
were triggered properly. If anything, the motion detector is
too sensitive, so place where it’s not looking out a window.
When an activity is detected, alerts are sent to the contacts
you entered during the setup process (you can add or delete
contacts later). If you add a camera (the Smart Kit doesn’t
come with one, but you can add a camera for $130), you can
program it to start recording as soon as motion is detected
or another sensor is triggered. If you get an alert that something’s going on you can either rush home to see what’s up
or view the video on your phone to look for yourself (I didn’t
install a camera so I can’t say how good the image is).
Unlike some professionally monitored systems, Iris does
not alert the police or fire department when triggered. It’s
not actually monitored by live people—the phone and text
messages are all automated. If you think an alert is due to an
actual crime it’s up to you to get in touch with the authorities.
One of the fun bits about Iris is voice control. Using your
smartphone you can deliver simple voice commands (“set
alarm to on,” “turn porch light on,” “set thermostat to 70”).
Are voice commands really easier or faster than tapping the
phone? No, but it looks cool when showing off to your neighbor. Note, you can pin protect the Iris app so someone can’t
steal your phone and turn off your alarm.
As a basic security system Iris seems competent and will add
peace of mind when you leave the house. You can turn it into
more of an automation system by adding Z-Wave light switches
and other devices. Iris makes managing and linking devices
simple in the Magic part of the home page. For instance, you
can have certain lights programmed to turn on when an alarm is
triggered. There you’ll see a number of scenarios for connecting
devices in a sort of if-this-then-that process, but it’s not nearly as
customizable as a professional automation system. The devices
it can control are also limited compared to some other systems,
but the list of Iris-compatible products is growing.
Remote operation with the app can sometimes be slow,
very slow. There were more than a few times when I was trying to adjust the temperature remotely and the app eventually gave up after several minutes. This could be due to my
cellphone’s connection. I really don’t have any way of knowing, but it would be frustrating if I was trying to do something
more important than turning the temp down (like unlocking
the front door for a guest.)
The Iris system also isn’t as attractive or invisible as professionally nstalled systems. The keypad is bulky and the contact
sensors are also fairly large, but that’s what you get for a
system this inexpensive. You also can’t program personalized
scenes, such as lighting scenes, which professional systems offer. Also it isn’t compatible with any audio/video equipment.
Back to that $10 a month I mentioned earlier. There are
several control or security products that require no monthly
fee, and many others that charge a lot more than $10 a month.
With the free plan from Iris you get basic on/off arming and
March 2015
individual control of all the devices you installed. You also get
email, text and voice alerts to only one contact name whenever
an alarm is triggered. When you add the premium service you
get access to the Magic—the automation part of the package
where multiple devices are linked together. You also can add
up to 20 contacts for alarm alerts (very useful when you’re out
of town), plus extended video storage for your security cameras. While some control systems (such as the Staples Connect)
don’t charge for similar functionality, Lowe’s does. Is it worth it?
If you buy the Iris system, then yes, it absolutely is.
The Iris Smart Kit or Safe and Secure Kit ($179) would
be good systems for apartment dwellers who want a little
security but don’t want to make a big investment. Owners of
single-family homes or people with more complex needs will
need to budget for add-on devices or opt for a professionally
installed system.
Samsung SmartThings
◆ By Grant Clauser
There are a lot of smart things in this review. Unfortunately,
I’m not one of them. In the case of this review I was probably
the dumbest thing in the room.
I’ve set up a number of smart home hubs, programmed
my own Control4 system (somewhat), and confused countless universal learning remotes, so I decided to give myself a
challenge with this review of a SmartThings system—I wanted
to see how fast I could get it setup and running.
SmartThings, which was recently acquired by Samsung,
is one of several recent entries into the do-it-yourself home
automation market. Similar to many other DIY solutions, the
SmartThings system begins with a hub product that connects
to your network router. The hub then connects wirelessly via
ZigBee and Z-Wave to other devices to create a mesh network of connected smart things such as motion sensors, door
sensors, smart locks, etc. and which you then access and operate all through an iOS or Android app.
SmartThings offers its own line of accessories or you can
use compatible third-party devices like Kwikset smart locks,
Philips Hue lights or Sonos wireless speakers (Note: use of
third-party devices like Hue still requires the original device’s
hub or gateway, so make sure you have plenty of ports on
your router.) Recently the company added several more device makers to the list of products it works with, and that list
is likely to keep growing.
So, back to my setup. Hooking up the SmartThings hub
started off smoothly. I plugged it into my router, launched
the app, entered the unique ID number that came with the
system and filled in a little more user information. Then I got
cocky. In a rush to get it done, I didn’t write down the password I’d just made up (Rule #1: don’t forget your home automation password). This little oversight came back to haunt
me when I wanted to add the app to my Android tablet.
Next, I neglected to properly look at the very clear directions—the directions that were actually so simple I really
didn’t need to look at them at all. Unfortunately, I must have
had one eye closed, so I skipped Step 1 and went straight to
Step 2. The result is that I spent 10 wasted minutes opening
up the back of a motion sensor and repeatedly pressed a
pairing button for a product that had already automatically
paired itself. (Rule #2: don’t underestimate the power of
user error.)
After that, things went pretty well. In addition to the motion sensor, SmartThings sent me a number of door/window
contact sensors, and an outlet adaptor for connecting to a
lamp, all of which paired up with the system easily. I also had
two presence sensors. These are little devices that fit on a
keychain and can be configured to make certain actions occur
based on their presence in the house. For instance, when the
system detects that the presence sensor has left the house
it can turn off all the connected lights. For a test I put one on
my dog’s collar and configured (with a Smart App called “The
Flasher") a light to flash when he left the yard.
Once all of the devices synced with the hub, you’re going
to want to do something with them. Within the SmartThings
phone or tablet app you can configure devices to trigger
activities. For example, I configured a door sensor to trigger
a light to turn on when the door is opened. Unfortunately,
when the door was closed again the light turned back off. It
took a little tweaking to correct that. Within a section of the
app there’s a collection of “SmartApps,” which are additional
activities you can incorporate. One called “Notify Me When
It Opens” can be used to send a push notification to your
phone when a particular sensor is triggered. This might me
a good one to use on your liquor cabinet or beer fridge if
you have suspicious teenagers in the house. SmartApps get
a lot fancier than that. Some are more for fun than anything
else, such as the “Undead Early Warning” app (SmartThings
does not offer a sensor which tells the difference between a
zombie and an ordinary boring person).
Home security is one of the main areas of interest for
devices like this, and SmartThings can be set up for basic
security features. You can add notifications for when various sensors are triggered, add an ear-piercing alarm and
configure a camera to snap a picture of an intruder. I set up
a motion sensor in the garage and programmed it to send
alerts when it detected motion. For a while this was useful
in letting me know that my wife had come home (I often
have headphones on and can’t hear the garage door). Then
for three nights in a row I’d get motion alerts around 3 a.m.
Having seen all the Paranormal movies I instantly assumed
I had ghosts. Setting up a wireless camera in the garage re-
March 2015 vealed that the ghost was just a curtain being blown by wind
because I had left a window open (maybe I should have put
a contact sensor on that window).
Anyway, all the devices I connected worked as planned.
The real trick to a system like this is in the app, specifically in
how easy it is to configure activities and activate devices. The
main screen, called the Dashboard, gives you an at-a-glance
view of everything in your system. It will tell you if the doors
are locked, the windows open, the lights on, or ghosts (or
curtains) moving in your garage. The Things view shows you
all the devices. Depending on the device, some can be activated (like a light switch) or configured (like a motion sensor)
by pressing the button of that particular device.
The app is comprehensive, in that it allows a wide variety
of activities to be configured. If this is your first experience
with a smart home system, navigating the interface will take
some getting used to. The system doesn’t come with particularly thorough printed instructions, so it’s pretty easy to forget
how you set up an action or mode if you want to go back
and change it. On the other hand, there’s actually a support
feature built into the app that includes very good instructions
(you get to this section from the Dashboard). Within the Support section you’ll find several “How to” entries and even a
live text chat area to connect with a support person.
So how does SmartThings compare with similar devices?
Pretty well. The large variety of “Smart Apps” makes it possible to deeply personalize your system. The large variety can
also seem a little overwhelming if you’re new to the whole
process. The Lowe’s Iris system, for example, makes programming (or personalizing) a little easier; however some of the
Iris’ programming options require a monthly fee of $10. With
SmartThings you only pay for the devices. There’s no service
charge. In fact, it’s the depth that these Smart Apps go that
really gives SmartThings its strength. There’s a wealth of creativity in these options, and they’ll most likely give you some
ideas on how to use your system that you would never have
thought of on your own.
The library of devices that SmartThings works with also
makes it attractive. There are door locks, thermostats, leak
detectors, a variety of light switches (including WeMo) and
lights (including Hue) and even the Sonos wireless music
So back to my challenge–how long did it take me to set up
SmartThings? Not counting my errors, the entire hardware
setup for the hub and seven devices was about 25 minutes.
Setting up the activities, likewise, is a process of a couple
minutes each, but realistically it may take you several days or
longer as you learn the potential of the system and modify
it to fit your lifestyle. Someone who is into tweaking gadgets
may never finish this process.
As with any DIY home control system, there will be some
trial and error involved in the process, but if you’re a curious
and tech-savvy person, SmartThings can not only add a high
level of functionality to your home, it can also be a lot of fun.
We expect that with the help of Samsung’s deep pockets, this
platform will continue to expand.
Product Reviews and Introductions
GE Z-Wave Remote Control
◆ By Grant Clauser
Home automation systems using the wireless mesh network
protocol Z-Wave to control and communicate with smart devices and sensors are proliferating at a dizzying rate. The majority of Z-Wave products are controllable via tablet or smartphone apps, and that’s great for people who never let their
iPhone or Android devices leave
their side, but what if you don’t
have your smartphone attached to
you at all times? That’s where the
GE Z-Wave remote comes in.
Jasco’s GE Z-Wave remote is a
remote control for your home. Think
of it as a secondary control interface
for your smart home system, and
it’s one you don’t have tap to wake
up or enter an unlock code to use
first—there are physical buttons for
controlling your devices or automation scenes. Sure, a remote seems
so old-school, but look at it this
way—a remote that sits on the coffee table is easier to access
when you want to turn off the lights or adjust the temperature,
than a tablet or cellphone (which needs to be recharged every
night). It also makes a lot of sense as a nightstand remote next
to your bed so you can easily activate a Goodnight scene to
turn off all the home’s Z-Wave lights.
The $99 GE Z-Wave remote can control up to 18 individual
lights or 18 groups of lights, and 18 different lighting scenes
(based on your preprogrammed lighting scenes). Not only will it
turn on and off (and dim) lights, it will control up to four Z-Wave
smart thermostats and six Z-Wave smart locks for your doors.
You can create scenes in your smart home system to link those
devices together, so you can adjust lighting, heat and door locks
all with one button. The remote includes an LCD screen so you
know what mode you’re in and what you’re controlling.
With any smart home system, the control app will give you the
most flexibility and deep control, but often it’s not convenient on
a day-to-day basis. We always recommend supplementing the
app control with connected keypads, wall switches and dimmers.
This is especially important if you have family members who don’t
use smartphones or if you have guests who don’t have access
to your smart home app. The Z-Wave remote would be another
smart addition to a Z-Wave home automation system.
Sage Home Automation System
By Rachel Cericola and Julie Jacobson
We’ve seen a lot of service providers deliver options for home
automation. Comcast has XFINITY Home, AT&T has Digital Life,
and even Time Warner has its own system. Now EchoStar, the
company known for spawning and spinning off DISH Network,
offers its subscribers (and everyone else) Sage.
Sage is EchoStar’s newly announced security and home
automation solution. However, it’s not exclusive to DISH
Network subscribers. The company plans to make this system for the masses, with access to everything from cameras
and locks to lights, thermostats, sensors and more. EchoStar
says that since Sage is completely wireless, it’s very easy for
anyone to install—and even easier to use. In fact, the sys-
March 2015
tem is accessible right on your TV, as well as through your
favorite iOS and Android portables.
The Sage home automation system makes good use of
the TV as a graphic user interface and could be a serious contender in the increasingly crowded smart-home space.
The system starts with a box that includes ZigBee, Z-Wave,
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (and can support Thread through a
download). It has one HDMI and two USB ports, plus a remote control for quick access to functions like rules, cameras
and temperature.
What sets it apart is a slick TV interface, with graphic
overlays and/or a picture-in-picture function that lets users
continue to watch the on-screen action even during automation events.
Here is an automation routine that’s commonly set up by
home systems integrators: The doorbell rings and an image
from the front-door camera pops up as a picture-in-picture
on the TV screen.
“Yeah, but I can get this on my cellphone,” you say? Sure, if
you want to take your eyes off the Big Game while you search
for the phone and pull up the image.
A more useful scenario is to keep your eye on the kids at all
times while you’re watching TV. Easy, just arrange the video images on one side of the screen. Or open your Sage control dashboard in full-screen mode while your TV show plays in the corner.
But back to the doorbell scenario. Even products that integrate doorbells with home automation systems have an issue.
The existing doorbell must be replaced by something more
expensive, possibly trickier to install, and certainly more attractive to vandals.
EchoStar wasn’t content with that, so they built a clever
product that lets users
keep their existing buttons intact. The doorbell
module connects between
the doorbell and chime,
passing signals along from
there to the Sage system.
And that’s not the only
pesky-product issue that
EchoStar has solved. It also
has an answer to outdoor
cameras. So here’s the
problem: Unless you have
a very strong Wi-Fi signal and your camera has very big batteries,
you’re going to have to run wire outside for power and/or signal. Total drag for the do-it-yourselfer.
EchoStar’s answer is a camera that connects with a cable
so flat you can shove it through the side of your window. The
cable, which carries data and power, runs to a module that
plugs into an A/C outlet inside. The module delivers video
signals wirelessly to the Sage system.
This camera (plus other cameras) are leveraged by Echostar’s
Local 911 app, which enables remote monitoring of the cameras, and with the touch of one button, call 911 to personally
provide details of the nature of the emergency.
Pricing has yet to be disclosed, but Echostar will offer a
certain amount of video storage for free, as well as a premium service.
Smart Home Systems
Start with
to decline and become easier to install and use,
they’re becoming an increasingly popular amenity.
However, some homeowners may not be ready
to bite off such a large chunk of technology. For
them, a solid security system can serve as a nice
springboard into home automation, providing a chance to get
the feet wet without completely diving in. In fact, the main processor or hub for a security system usually can be upgraded
easily to also automate a home’s lights, thermostats, and other
devices. Other common parts of residential security system
pave the way to complete home automation, as well:
Sensors That Multitask
Security systems always include sensors—contact sensors
for windows and doors, motion sensors, gyroscopic sensors,
heat sensors, noise sensors. In a security system, these sensors help detect activity when there should be no activity, and
then alert you when there’s a problem. In a home automation
setup, many of these same sensors can be configured to trigger other devices, such as lights and smart thermostats or
even your home music system. For example, a motion sensor
in the kitchen can be programmed to tune in your favorite
Pandora station when it knows you’re home from work.
Locks That Cue Other Devices
Electronic door locks and garage door openers can complement a security system by prohibiting access into your home
and reporting to you whenever someone unlocks and opens
the door. As the main access points of your house, they can
also function as terrific signaling devices. For example, whenever the door is unlocked or a garage door lifts, it can signal
certain lights to turn on. These conditions could cue other
devices, too, such as thermostats, ceiling fans, and motorized
window shades.
Settings Revolve Around Your Lifestyle
One of the biggest learning curves in any home automation
system is getting adjusted to using the interface, whether
that’s a touchpanel, keypad or app on your smartphone.
When you start with a security system, you’ll have to interact
with it a couple of times a day to arm and disarm it, which
serves as an easy way to get comfortable with the look and
feel of the onscreen features, especially if you’re new to this
kind of technology.
March 2015
Security devices like this Honeywell touchpanel, Fibaro motion
sensor and Alarm.com app can
also function as part of a fully
automated home.
Security Provides
A Solid Backbone
The devices that make up
a security system are not
very expensive; nor are the
systems themselves. When
you’re ready to implement
automation features, you can
add one device or one room
at a time. Add a room’s worth
of lighting control for the cost
of a couple of wireless dimmers—the security system
can act as your control device. Add your front porch light to
the system by installing a wireless LED light bulb. If you’re
handling the project yourself, you can slowly work your way
up to an entire home system. If you’re working with a professional, set a budget and work with your installer to upgrade
your system at your pace.
To simplify your search for a home automation system, we’ve created a comprehensive
directory of solutions available today. Each system in the directory has been placed into its
most appropriate category, so whether you want something that’s professionally installed
or would like to tackle the project yourself, you’ll be able to find the right automation solution. Be sure to visit the company websites for more detailed information.
Years in business: 32
Specialty: enterprise-grade automation systems
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $25,000
Crestron Electronics
Years in business: 30+ years
Specialty: video distribution and scaling
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): Starts at
March 2015
Savant Systems, LLC
Years in business: 8
Specialty: Apple integration
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $1,500 $1 million
Years in business: 26
Specialty: Lighting control and user interfaces
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $125
per lighting load
Clare Controls
Years in business: 4
Specialty: intuitive, engaging multi-room audio
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $4,000
Years in business: 10
Specialty: lighting control, A/V distribution,
security monitoring and surveillance, climate
control, remote monitoring
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $1,000$1,500
Elan Home Systems
Years in business: 25
Specialty: A/V distribution
Typical cost (equipment only): starts at $2,000
Key Digital
Years in business: 15
System: Compass Control System
Specialty: A/V distribution
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $1,500$150,000
Leviton Security & Automation
Years in business: 29
Specialty: security, automation and control of lighting, thermostats and entertainment equipment
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $2,500$5,000
On Controls
Years in business: 6
Specialty: cloud-based for easy updates and
programming modifications
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
$475 for a single-room
March 2015 Pro Control
Years in business: 2 (parent company RTI has
been in business for 22 years)
Specialty: home control via iPad and iPhone
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $250$900
Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI)
Years in business: 22
Specialty: control, automation, audio distribution
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): a few
hundred to several thousand
Schneider Electric
Years in business: 3
System: Wiser
Specialty: energy management; smart grid; utility connectivity where applicable
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $320$495
Somfy Systems
Years in business: 3
Specialty: manufacture and control of motorized window treatments
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $2,500
TiO Home Automation & Control
Years in business: 1
Specialty: control over third-party subsystems
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $2,000$7,000
Years in business: 23
Specialty: A/V and home theater control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $1,100
Smart Home Systems
Years in business: 10+
Specialty: interactive security
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): N/A
Elk Products, Inc.
Years in business: 14
Specialty: integrated control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): N/A
Fibar Group
Years in business: 3
System: FIBARO System
Specialty: smart home
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $1,200$2,000
Years in business: 15
Specialty: whole-house control via Android or
Apple devices
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
Years in business: 25
Specialty: security, video and Z-Wave integration
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
Years in business: 9
Specialty: lighting control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $100-$200
Linear LLC
Years in business: 52
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): For a basic
system, hardware and installation can be free;
monthly monitoring fees start at about $30
iRule LLC
Years in business: 4
Specialty: affordable customizable control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $250 for
one room
Qolsys (Quality of Life Systems)
Years in business: 4
Specialty: security via integration with Alarm.com
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): N/A
JDS Technologies
Years in business: 26
Specialty: control and automation of lighting,
A/V and HVAC
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): under
BitWise Controls, LLC
Years in business: 5
Specialty: integrated controls
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $549$1,549
March 2015
Roomie Remote, Inc.
Years in business: 3
Specialty: Home theater control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $200
Belkin WeMo
Years in business: 3
Specialty: automation of everyday devices
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
$29.99 for single WeMo LED bulb
Icontrol Networks
Years in business: 2
Specialty: remote video monitoring of your home
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $239
EchoStar SAGE
Specialty: security
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): to be
Years in business: 2 years
Specialty: unifies the control of products from a
variety of manufacturers
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $299
Neurona ConnectedLife
Years in business: 1
Specialty: robust networking on products
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
Years in business: 6
Specialty: app-based home control; thermostat
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
$67 plus $9.99 monthly subscription
March 2015 Webee
Years in business: 1
Specialty: cloud-based, the system employs
algorithms to learn user’s behaviors and offer
suggestions on how to operate devices in the
home more efficiently.
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $129$599
Years on business: 2
Specialty: good starter system for lighting control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
about $50
Years in business: 3
System: Staples Connect
Specialty: integrated home control
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
ADT Security Services
Years in business: 140 years
System: ADT Pulse
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
$99 (after typical promotions)
Years in business: 1
System: AT&T Digital Life
Specialty: all-digital, fully integrated wireless
management of surveillance cameras, door
locks, lights, thermostats, small appliances and
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
$149.99 plus $29.99 a month
Smart Home Systems
Years in business: 4
System: Xfinity Home
Specialty: energy savings
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): starts at
March 2015
Vivint, Inc.
Years in business: 4
System: Vivint Home Automation
Specialty: security, automation and energy management
Typical cost (equipment only; no labor): $199
activation fee; $68.99 monthly monitoring fee
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