For many years, the long-held consensus in the custom installation community was that without a solid wired framework to build upon, it was difficult to create a smart residence that could be easily controlled. The alternatives were simply nowhere near as effective (or secure) and would usually tie a homeowner down to a small pool of products that inevitably limited the functionality of the finished property.
These fears were not necessarily unfounded. For the majority of larger properties, creating a connected home from the foundations up results in a wider range of intelligent features that can be incorporated into the property, as well as greater scope for customising a solution to meet the homeowner’s needs. Yet there are certainly scenarios when a smart home retrofit would be preferable to opening up the walls and rewiring the entire property.
If, for example, a homeowner only decides to incorporate home automation after the first fix has already been done, or if a family decides they want to convert an existing home into a smart residence, then a retrofit is assuredly the more intelligent solution.
The brains of the operation
A home automation system that runs across a whole house will benefit from a central processing unit that can act as a gateway for – and converse with – each of the sensors, devices and interfaces in the property. For a retrofit solution, these home hubs typically connect to your local area network (LAN) and control all devices in the home over a common wireless communications protocol such as Zigbee or Z-Wave. This also includes third party products that communicate using the same means, rather than simply being limited to products proprietary to the system processing unit.
The operating range of the chosen protocol is crucial when planning a retrofit layout (Z-Wave, for instance, has an effective operating range of 30m) but it worth noting this can be extended by creating a mesh network. This makes use of powered nodes within the system to pass the signal along, allowing device communication to take place across a larger distance than would otherwise be achieved with just the original signal.
Putting the puzzle together
There are a number of devices that can be put in place to add an intelligent layer onto your current fixtures and fittings. A common way of doing this is to integrate smart controllers, such as dimming units, into the existing power points and switches around the house. This makes otherwise ‘dumb’ furnishings such as lighting or blinds into features that can be centrally controlled from a single point.
When fed into a unified network, these smart controllers allow users an enhanced level of control across a whole room – from raising and lowering blinds to making subtle adjustments to lighting levels. Some user interfaces enable these units to be used collaboratively to make ‘whole room’ changes (such as a ‘cinema mode’ with closed blinds and reduced lighting) at the push of a single button.
For items that would normally be quite difficult to automate such as kitchen implements, hairdryers or radios, a smart wall plug can be integrated to add a level of smart capacity.
Through this device, non-intelligent hardware can be switched on and off remotely, while usage data is fed back to the user so that they understand how much energy is being used by the various technology in the home. What’s more, if a device that needs be on constantly, such as a refrigerator, stops working while connected to a smart plug, then a notification can be sent to the homeowner so that they are aware there is a fault and rectify it before the food inside spoils.
Shoring up the home
From a retrofit perspective, there a couple of ways to approach home security. One method is to employ a number of battery-powered reed sensors placed strategically around the home. These can be used to unobtrusively monitor important areas, so if someone should gain access to the property or a certain room without permission (or if someone raids the fridge for a midnight snack), then the homeowner can be informed about this instantaneously. They can also be used to trigger certain behaviours in a room, such as turning on the lights in a storage cupboard or garage when the door is opened.
“Some sensors can measure a number of parameters, which means that a single device is able perform a multitude of tasks,” explains Stephen Griffin, Business Operations Manager at Fibaro UK. “The Motion Sensor from Fibaro, for example, is able to record temperature, light intensity and motion, sending detailed feedback back to the main processor. It can additionally be programmed to trigger certain behaviour, such as turning on the air conditioning when there are people present in a room and the ambient temperature rises above 27°C.”
Establishing a means of disaster prevention is an important part of the connected home set-up process; this is something that can be readily achieved using wireless hardware. There are a number of smoke and flood detectors on the market that fulfil the traditional role of detecting when a leak starts or a room is filling with smoke, but rather than simply emitting a local alarm, they alert the user immediately via an app and, in some cases, even offer a means of actively resolving the issue.
For homes that contain a number of non-smart on/off sensors such as infrared or motion detectors, the introduction of a radio module can give existing hardware a new lease of life. These track the information being gathered by the monitoring devices and pushed it to the home’s central user interface so that the user can view real-time status updates.
By incorporating this information into the smart home network, the homeowner becomes able to communicate with these devices via the central hub. As well as security monitoring, this approach could be applied to third party doorbells or IP cameras, allowing the user to create an intelligent door entry system without needing to fully replace the technology already in place.
The perfect solution (for certain scenarios)
While a completely wire-free system has plenty of benefits, not least in terms of the amount of time it takes to install, there are a few notable caveats. The primary weakness is that these systems offer limited customisability; that is, unless the homeowner is well versed in home technology protocols and is willing to delve into the programming language to code a set of bespoke settings for themselves.
While a battery powered system will inevitably need to have its power sources replaced occasionally, this isn’t quite the drawback it might seem. The low power consumption of most of these units means that their lifespan will usually be counted in years, rather than months, although it is useful to make sure that the system you select has a means of notifying you if a particular device runs out of juice and goes offline.
One danger of a retrofitted system is that it can tie you into a certain set of protocols. While most of these will support a large number of devices, it will cause significant complications if the user decides at a later date that they want to add a product that communicates with other devices using a different communications protocol. It might also tie the user into a specific eco-system, as is the case with Apple’s Homekit, which places very stringent demands on the products that can be integrated into its framework.
Like their hard-wired cousins, it goes without saying that not all retrofit control systems are equal. Some will offer only limited control options, such as an app interface, while others will additionally allow the user to interact with the system via tablets, desktop PCs or even through configurable gesture recognition sensors.
Is retrofit the right solution?
Sometimes electing for a smart home retrofit solution is the only viable option; in other scenarios, particularly in smaller properties, there is a strong argument that it is the most cost-effective option in terms of functionality over price. While a fully retrofitted solution might not be the best option if you’re after an all-singing, all-dancing connected home, there are projects where such an approach can provide a level of smart functionality that would otherwise be unachievable or else prohibitively expensive.