A short guide to the smart home

25/03/2020

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Most people today will live somewhere that is capable of becoming a smart home. This shows how far processing power has developed in the last two decades, giving the public access to products that were at one time only available to the super-rich. 

‘Intelligent households’ have been in development since the late 1960s and the idea of ‘home control systems’ can even be traced back to the turn of the last century with the emergence of the first household appliances.

The smart home’s humble beginnings

As some installers will remember, today’s smart home has its roots in X10. Released in 1975, X10 was the first general purpose communication protocol for home technology. Owners could dial in pre-set commands via an interface which were then sent across existing household wiring. With X10 installed, users could turn devices on or off and control their lighting. 

Though prone to radio-band interference and reliability issues, X10 gave users revolutionary control of their household for the first time. Further down the line two-way communication was developed, giving users more powerful commands and the ability to request status updates from certain devices. While outmoded when compared to today, X10’s pioneering work laid the foundations for more powerful protocols to come. It was so ahead of its time, in fact, that it continues to be used to this day.

At this point, you may be looking around your own home and questioning how it has the capability to be ‘smart’. There’s probably a television, a home cinema or stereo, light switches and a thermostat or two – hardly futuristic. Granted, all required the brightest minds to design, develop and bring to market, yet they are still products of a different era. With some small changes, however, these commonplace items can be brought firmly into the 21st century.

What was once seen as ‘the future’ is now a reality. We may still be some way off what was imagined by writers like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, yet technology that was once confined to the pages of science fiction is now a part of everyday life. This has been made possible with advances in home networking and high-speed internet.   

Smarter than your average home  

What makes today’s home ‘smart’ is its ability to be managed and monitored remotely. This is the key difference that takes older ‘conventional’ technology and pushes it to the cutting edge.

There are many different ways to create a smart home. The installation of smart devices is one way, whereas a Zigbee networked property or a wired home automation system are other examples.

What are smart devices?

Smart devices can be controlled via a phone, computer or any other network-enabled piece of equipment. Installation is often a straightforward process requiring only basic knowledge of networking and electronics.

Companies that make smart devices will often develop and maintain their own standalone apps for each product, allowing people to better control certain aspects of their lives in their own home. Some common examples include: 

  • Smart TVs or internet-connected television sets are sold by a wide range of different manufacturers. Smart TVs will give users access to on-demand content from conventional broadcasters through the BBC iPlayer, ITV HUB and All 4, as well as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Newer models will have voice control and the ability to connect with other wireless devices. 
  • Smart lighting, such as Philips Hue, which typically uses ‘mesh networking’ to control a set of LED lamps/ bulbs. These lamps communicate with their nearest neighbour, forming a chain connected to the main hub which is then plugged directly into a conventional router. This process allows people to control their lighting via a smartphone or tablet. Different ‘palettes’ can then be designed to suit different times and events, such as returning home from work or watching a film. Smart lightning can also be controlled remotely, which is useful for security purposes.
  • Smart speakers, such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and the Apple HomePod, earn the term ‘smart’ due to the use of voice commands to activate AI-powered assistants. Owners of the Echo, for example, will wake their device by saying ‘Alexa turn the lights on’. Voice control technology has come a long way since it was first introduced in the early 1990s and can now be used to play music, get news updates and set calendar reminders.  
  • Smart heating systems allow users to control their heating or air conditioning remotely via a smartphone or tablet. Google’s Nest thermostat is a good example of this. Smart thermostats will be able to detect when you leave or return home and will set heating around these schedules. More control over heating allows users to monitor what they use and how much they spend. New products are constantly being introduced to the smart heating market. Netatmo, for example, is improving energy efficiency by using intelligent algorithms that continually learn a home’s thermal characteristics and adjust accordingly.
  • Smart security cameras, like those from Nest, Hive, Netatmo and Canary, allow users to monitor their home via a phone, tablet or personal computer. Most companies produce a range of both indoor and weather-resistant cameras or sensors that can be placed around a property. As soon as the system detects motion it will alert the home owner. Some, like Yale’s products, will require control panels to be installed (but will also be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, for example) while others will be solely app-based. 
  • Smart plugs are sold by many different manufacturers. A smart plug fits into a standard socket allowing unconnected devices to join a home network. This means any device, like a coffee machine, iron or set of hair straighteners are seemingly ‘smart’ but ultimately are controlled by the mains power switch.  

What are Zigbee and Z Wave?

Tablets, laptops and smartphones will usually connect using Wi-Fi. But there are now a growing number of smart products that operate on different types of networking.

Zigbee and Z Wave are wireless communication protocols that create personal area networks using low-powered digital radio technology. These devices are great for retrofit installations as they are battery powered and have a long life due to the short transmission range and low data rate. They are designed to carry very small amounts of data over short distances, and are suitable for things like smart lighting, thermostats and where only battery powered applications exist i.e. no structured cabling. 

Both protocols use mesh networking to transfer data, meaning each point or ‘node’ in a network is able to connect with other nearby nodes (smart lamps/bulbs are a good example of a node). Products supported by Zigbee or Z Wave will often reach parts of a home that Wi-Fi is unable to, as they do not require direct connection with a main router. They will also free up bandwidth as they run independently of a home’s broadband connection. 

What is home automation? 

The term ‘home automation’ broadly describes a means of optimising technology found in the home. It aims to coordinate each smart product so they work automatically, responding to a person’s preferences with little or no intervention.

Home automation has the ability to control simple on/off devices such as lighting circuits and heating valves as well as optimise for the surroundings i.e. as it gets darker, the blinds automatically close and the lights come on. A system that devices can be connected to, as opposed to a series of devices connected via the home’s Wi-Fi network.  

Home automation – sometimes referred to as a ‘smart home system’, ‘smart home control panel / touch screen’ or ‘smart home hub’ – ultimately allows for better control. General smart home living might see a resident opening an app and manually changing their lights to suit a particular situation. Smart home automation, on the other hand, would mean creating a rule that automatically changes the lights whenever an activity is detected. For example, a user arriving home would trigger the heating and external lighting as the temperature has fallen outside and there is a heavy fog.

Of course, lighting automation is just one possibility. If a feature or appliance is able to be controlled electronically then it can also be automated. Homeowners can program a wide range of combinations to suit a different time or day of the week. Monday mornings during winter, for example, might see the heating turn on at 5.30am, the kettle firing up at 6am, and the garage opening at 7.15am.

Personalisation, though, is just one benefit. There are now hundreds of smart devices on the market that use different protocols, meaning some will be unable to ‘talk’ to each other. Many will also only work via a dedicated app, making it difficult for a user to easily coordinate their home from a single point. The best home automation systems will act as an interpreter for these disparate products and take away the hassle of having to manually edit settings in a standalone app. A home automation system has the potential to adapt to surroundings, so when it’s cold the heating comes on and when it’s dark or the weather changes, the lights come on. The ability to adapt and learn is what differentiates a system from a device and is ultimately the future of home automation technology – bringing increased comfort, security and energy efficiency to the consumer.

The benefits of a home automation system

  • Robust – a home automation system eliminates reliance on different manufacturers and the hassle of ensuring devices work with one another
  • Featuring multiple dedicated wired-in switches and controls, the sole reliance on an app or control device can be minimised, reducing the risk of failure due to Wi-Fi or connectivity issues
  • Centralised – an automation system gives users dedicated control of key amenities, helping to simplify and optimise the home experience
  • Simplicity – automation means easy-to-use controls and the option to control devices via a single point  
  • Personalisation – home automation systems allow users to create rules that suit their habits and schedules  

Companies behind the development of home automation should strive for simplicity. This means interoperability and scalability are essential. Legrand’s MyHOME_Up, for example, has been designed with these two key features in mind.

Technology is developing at such a rate that it’s now difficult to say what will be the next big thing. With advances in predictive analytics and AI, it’s safe to assume that systems will continue to analyse user data and suggest rules or adjustments to existing schedules, to better suit a person’s routine.