It is perfectly possible to have a connected home without a unified control system that ties everything together; that is, if you don’t mind having fifteen sets of switches on each wall and an abundance of remotes in your living room to sort through when you want to turn the TV on. Unless you only have a couple of smart bulbs that you’re happy to control from the manufacturer’s app, a smart home without a unified control system will likely end up as a quagmire of technology, with the homeowner forced to wade through a number of disparate interfaces in order to access a particular function.
Essentially, it’s a matter of numbers: the more systems you need to control, the more useful it becomes to be able to handle them through a single interface. Typically, a home control system will manage, command and regulate a whole host of systems including (but not limited to) lighting, video, audio, heating, window treatment, CCTV and other monitoring devices.
A smart home control system sits at the centre of an intelligent home and acts as a gateway between all of the technology in the property and the homeowner. Often this will manifest itself in the form of switches, remotes, touchscreens and a tablet or phone app, each offering much more functionality than a single system app or switch will be able to perform.
For example, keypads might control all of the lighting and all of the shades in a room, or a smart remote could be used to control all of the entertainment and environmental systems in a room, rather than simply changing the channel and content source on your television. These will be tied together using the same software, so the user benefits from a consistent interface throughout every interaction in the house.
Simply put, there is almost nothing that cannot be integrated into a home control system, although how this is done will dictate what system functionality is retained. As with most technological decisions, the more you are willing to spend on your control system, the more control you will be able to achieve.
What level of control will I need for my home?
“For God’s sake, let us be men – not monkeys minding machines.”
– DH Lawrence
There are many different levels of integration, but these can be grouped under three key ‘stepping stones’: control only, feedback only and full integration.
With control only, you can have a simple contact that will turn an air conditioning device on and off, but the only way you will know if it is functioning is by feeling the cool air blowing out of the unit. Another weakness with a simple contact is that you will be unable to specify a setpoint and leave the device to automatically ensure the room remains at a steady temperature. With the likes of IR control you are able to send a setpoint, but you won’t receive confirmation back to the interface that this has been set.
Feedback only is the polar opposite: for example, you might receive a phone alert from your alarm system telling you that a particular device has been triggered. While useful, the downside of this type of system is that this information cannot be immediately acted upon.
The last – and most extensive option – is full integration. While a system with both control and feedback fulfils the basic requirements for this, this set-up will more usually require a control protocol (Such as RS422, TCP/IP or a protocol proprietary to a manufacturer) along with some kind of network gateway device. While used extensively in today’s connected homes, many of the aforementioned examples are slowly beginning to make way for network or WiFi integration, or indeed other wireless protocols such as Z-Wave or Zigbee. Wireless protocols, however, tend to lend themselves to the lower end of the market where distances are less, devices are fewer and a small reduction in reliability is acceptable for the relative reduction in budget.
A high-end system will integrate multiple interfaces, protocols and networks into a single touch point, controlling screens using IR or IP codes and then interacting with your BACnet-based air conditioning through the same interface.
Can I set this up myself, or should I get the smart home specialists in?
As with any home project, this is a question of size and scope; for small flats an IoT-based solution such as Fibaro might be appropriate but, for larger properties or multifaceted technological solutions, you will want to contract a connected home expert to plan and implement your control system.
That said, even supposedly off-the-shelf solutions will come with their own complexities. If you plan to use technology from two or more manufacturers, then you will need to ascertain if they will work together. Likewise, it is important to check that your building can support a wireless set-up, or whether something like mesh networking will be needed to ensure all devices can be controlled.
For anything that requires a level of customisation, it is vital to bring in a professional familiar with coding home automation devices. While an electrician might have taken an accreditation course to become a certified installer of a certain IoT product line, adding personalised functionality is likely to be beyond their specific knowledge.
What will my control interface look like?
There several ways that a homeowner can interact with their home; depending on how they would prefer to engage, an interface can reside on a handheld device such as a smartphone, tablet or smart remote, as well as on wall-based devices such as touchscreens or keypads.
For those willing to embrace a more adventurous set-up, the likes of motion sensing, voice command and even presence detection could be implemented to create fluid interface that reflect – and reacts to – your movements around the home. With the latter option, the likes of Crestron Pinpoint or Andrew Lucas Follow can play music or video content that follows you as you move between rooms in the house.
Voice recognition has been massively hyped in the past year but, as a control interface, it still has a way to go; if implemented, it should be as a secondary interface, rather than the primary means for a homeowner to communicate with their home technology. A few companies – such as Singlecue – have developed gesture control interfaces, although it is still early days for this technology in terms of whole house control.
Augmented or mixed reality might also be a viable means of system control at some point in the future. Online demos of Microsoft’s Hololens being used to control a simple lighting system prove that the concept is sound; whether homeowners would want to put on a headset to control their home is another matter.
How do I decide which connected home control system to go with?
It’s important to recognise that not all control systems are equal. They come with an incredibly wide range of functions, compatibility, design and customisation options. There is no clear frontrunner here, as the optimum control solution will be the one that most closely serves the specific needs of the household.
Crestron or RTI, for example, will offer extensive customisation options, while Savant 8.0 is an elegant option that works beautifully on Apple devices yet its interface has less scope to be tweaked to suit the specific needs of a homeowner. Slightly less expensive options include the likes of Control4, which will offer a reasonable level of control and an attractive price point, but will deliver a less flexible user experience. Generally speaking, a high end control system will offer you complete customisability, whereas if you elect for a less expensive option then you should expect a more generic experience that might not have the exact functionality that you desire.
One of the recent phenomena in the connected home is the introduction of the off-the-shelf home automation hub. As well as units dedicated solely to control – such as Samsung’s SmartThings Hub and Logitech’s Harmony Home Hub – several companies are exploring their own versions of Amazon’s speaker/control interface Echo. These relative newcomers to the connected home space certainly garner plenty of column inches in tech blogs and the national media, but they won’t come close in terms of the functionality and flexibility that a dedicated control system with a central processor can provide.
A prime example of this is Apple’s recently upgraded HomeKit. While it looks very similar in terms of design ethos to Savant, it is dependent on a closed ecosystem of Apple-approved products (which must include the HomeKit chipset). The restrictive nature of the platform – particularly the hardware requirements – means that HomeKit offers far less third-party interaction compared to other home automation interfaces.
Admittedly, a couple of connected home manufacturers, including Lutron, have managed to find a work-around for this by creating gateway devices that enable some of their systems to be controlled using Apple’s new Home app. While this is likely to be expanded on eventually, the timeframe for this is unclear; it depends completely on each manufacturer to willingly release their own gateway device to enable this to happen – so it’s probably still too soon for this type of technology to make a useful contribution to anything more than very small, DIY solutions.
Does my preferred smart home system play well with others?
It is a shame, yet hardly surprising, that there is not a panacea product in terms of control systems. Due to the fractured nature of connected home technology, it is all but impossible for one set-up to control everything else. Compatibility with your chosen control system should be a key consideration when it comes to choosing which home automation systems to integrate, in order to avoid costly purchases that require a separate means of managing them. A control system is only as good as the equipment it is integrating with so, if something only has IR control available then you could spend a significant amount on a Crestron set-up and still only be able to control your device with an IR remote.
For larger projects, this can quickly become a complicated set of decisions; at this point, the expertise of a connected home specialist can be invaluable in helping you to understand what will work with which system.
Does my chosen installer understand the control system I want to use?
Most installers will be experts in one or more systems; they will inevitably have a better understanding of how to gain maximum benefit from a system that they already work with on a regular basis. A key indication as to whether your connected home specialist will be in their ability to walk you through the different features they are planning to implement, and whether they can offer suggestions for tailoring the system to suit the specific requirements of the property (this is particularly the case with a highly customisable solution such as Crestron).
While you should take steps to reassure yourself as to a connected home expert’s knowledge of the control system they intend to install, it is arguably more important to find out what they can offer in terms of audio and lighting systems, as each will have their own strengths and weaknesses in this regard, too.
Can my control system be future-proofed?
The short – if slightly misleading – answer is no. Home technology that lasts forever simply doesn’t exist; that said, there are products that offer a certain level of future-readiness that extends their useful lifetimes. It’s a cliché, but you do get what you pay for – a more expensive, dedicated home control system will generally be more capable at adapting to various technologies as they evolve.
Is my chosen solution the best option for my family?
One final thought before choosing your configuration should be who exactly will use it. It is important to ascertain the needs of your family now, and also what they are likely to be in five years’ time. Will your children be teenagers by then, and therefore need different solutions for their rooms? If an elderly relative moves in, will the interface be simple enough for them to use it without confusion? Can the proposed system cope, or will it need to be replaced at this point? It is wise to consider all of the above while still in the design and planning stage of a project; otherwise, you might face unexpected expense further down the line.
No two homeowners are the same
The options might seem to be a veritable constellation but, in a way, that is a good thing. Just as every property will have its own quirks, so each household will need something slightly different from their control system. By having a clear plan of the technology you plan to implement, along with a control system that is built to be adaptable as product lines evolve, you can save yourself from a multitude of complications and expense at a later date.