Thirty years ago, if you conducted a survey about what technological advancements people expected to see in 2016, answers would have likely included flying cars, computer-controlled homes and colonization of other planets. Well…at least one of these futuristic forecasts has come to pass: home automation. The “smart home” is here, and it’s revolutionizing the mode of modern domestic life.
But what exactly is a smart home? According to Micah Brown, owner of Avid Home Theater, a smart home is defined by two key terms: integration (multiple systems are tied together into a single control system) and automation (the systems are programmed to function autonomously of the user). Utilizing these two principles, a smart home provides three big advantages: convenience, energy efficiency and security.
Everyone likes being able to do things with the mere touch of a button, and the smart home expands upon this concept. Using a single device (universal remote, laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.), homeowners can control everything from their TVs and stereo systems to their thermostats and light switches, from any location in the home. Furthermore, to ensure maximum ease of use, home automation systems utilize apps that allow users to control home functions by simply tapping icons on their screen devices.
Not only that, certain functions can be programmed to occur automatically when triggered by specific circumstances or user actions. Eliseo “Tito” Pabon, owner of High Definition Designs, offers an example: “Say you’re watching TV and the doorbell rings. A message pops up on your TV letting you know someone is at the door. When you hit ‘pause,’ the overhead lights come on in the room so you’re able to see as you exit. When you hit ‘play’ upon returning, the lights dim again.”
Having complete control of your home at your fingertips is amazing, but it’s just the beginning. An even more impressive function of home automation is its ability to function independently of user involvement. This is where the term “smart home” truly applies, as the home’s various systems interact and intuitively make adjustments in accordance with the circumstances.
As Mr. Brown explains, one of the main advantages of this is improved home energy efficiency. “Most energy wastage occurs accidentally, such as forgetting to turn off a light or lower the thermostat before leaving the house,” he says. “A smart home minimizes these inadvertent wastages in a couple of ways. One is motion detection: if the home doesn’t think a particular area is occupied, it will turn off a light or adjust the thermostat accordingly. Additionally, the home adapts to your daily routine. ‘Smart’ products like the Nest thermostat store data on your usage patterns throughout the day and ‘learn’ your habits in order to minimize energy consumed in heating and cooling the home.”
Convenience and energy efficiency are great advantages, but what if your smart home could prevent a break-in or even save your life? As Mr. Pabon explains, it potentially can. “Besides lighting and audio/video, home automation integrates security aspects like the smoke detector and burglar alarm,” he says. “In the event of a fire, an automated smoke detector will tell the thermostat to shut off the fan so the smoke doesn’t get circulated. The system can also be programmed to have all the lights in the home flash on and off, making it easier for firefighters to find your house. If the flames don’t get their attention, the flashing lights will.”
Another way home automation improves security is by independently monitoring your alarm system. “How many people have alarms in their home and never set them because they forget or because it’s inconvenient?” asks Mr. Brown. “With a smart home, you don’t even have to think about it because the alarm is set automatically when you leave the house for the day, which increases security.”
The idea of having a home that thinks and functions autonomously may rub some people the wrong way, and perhaps even evoke nightmarish science fiction scenarios (think HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Mr. Brown assures there’s no such cause for concern. “Don’t worry—your home isn’t going to go rogue and turn the heater up to 75 degrees,” he says. “I generally answer skeptics’ questions of reliability with a question: ‘Do you own a laptop or smartphone?’ These are computers. Your phone is a computer, your laptop is a computer—even your car is controlled and monitored by computerized systems. And yet you rely on these things every day. The fact is, technology doesn’t work right 100 percent of the time, but that’s what tech support is for. When one of our clients has a problem with their home automation system, they just call us and we fix it for them.”
Mr. Pabon points out that although a smart home is automated, it’s still manually operable if the system goes down. “If I were to lose my controller, I could simply walk up to the light switch or thermostat and turn it off,” he affirms. “So, worst case scenario, if your system was on the fritz, you’d just continue to operate things like you did before.”
Not just for the mega-rich
Besides the fear of a hostile technological takeover, many people assume home automation is prohibitively expensive. While this may have been the case a decade ago, Mr. Brown says the financial barrier is rapidly eroding. “What we’re able to do hasn’t changed a great deal in the last five years, but who we can do it for is changing dramatically. As the technology becomes more widespread, it’s becoming more affordable for a larger number of homeowners.” Mr. Pabon concurs, citing economical options like Control4, which enables homeowners to automate their lighting, HVAC and audio/video systems without breaking the bank.
Looking to the horizon
Considering how rapidly the home automation field has developed during the last decade, you might wonder what kind of changes we can expect in the future. Mr. Pabon forecasts that things will extend to the automotive realm. “We’re already starting to see this technology approach the automotive sector, with devices that automatically open your garage door and turn things on as you approach your home.”
Mr. Brown predicts that automated features will gradually be incorporated into building code legislation. “Ten years from now, no home will be built that isn’t completely laden with smart technology, and it may even become the law,” he says. “With California being a progressive trailblazer in regard to environmental awareness, I wouldn’t be surprised to see home automation become part of the building code. It would certainly have an impact on our energy consumption—after all, turning off an unused light in one house may not be significant, but if you apply that over 40 million people throughout the state, you’re looking at some pretty major power savings.”