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Cracking Into the Mainstream: Smart House & Home Automation

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by Allison Gunkel

Everyone has those days when it’s pouring down rain, your arms are loaded with groceries, and if you could just get the key in the door and turn the knob with your elbow–well, you look like you belong in the circus but at least you make it inside! Of course no one left a light on, so you gingerly work your way across the darkened kitchen to the switch ... and in one fell swoop you find yourself on the floor, sitting on the “delicate” groceries. Who wants eggs and toast in the morning anyway?

Home Automation

At times we have all found ourselves caught in blinding frustration, wondering if our homes secretly scheme to make our lives complicated: It is so cold in there! It is so hot in here! How long has that been leaking!? The microwave burned the popcorn again! But what if your home could anticipate these situations before they became problems? Home automation is gradually becoming the solution to more of life’s little inconveniences, as well as troubleshooting some more complicated concerns.

In the early 1980’s The Smart House Project was launched by the National Research Center of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), with the idea to develop one centralized system that controlled all communication and distribution devices and signals within a home. In essence, they wanted to give the home a “brain” that would be responsible for the safety, comfort, and overall efficiency of everything inside. Welcome to home automation!

Home automation (also referred to as domotics or smart house technology) is becoming more mainstream with each passing technological advance. The basic set up of a home automation system begins with a home computer and structured wiring. Due to the wiring constraints of older homes, many people choose to install a home automation system when they build. Structured wiring is becoming the new standard in home building, and includes a single multi-conductor cable that includes electric power wires, telephone and video communication cables, and other conductors controlling supply and switching of power among various home appliances. For example, with structured wiring your home could be programmed to turn on the hall light when the garage door opens in the evening. Occupants can use wall mounted keypads, a remote, a laptop, and even cell phones to program and monitor their unusually smart homes. One of these methods can be specified for your system, or you can use a variety of means–the smart home is truly unique to each and every home.

Before you get too excited about showing off to the neighbors, you need to consider what aspects of your home you want to control by home automation. If you are not an avid music lover, do you really want your intercom to pipe satellite radio throughout every room in the house? If you don’t want your family to eat dinner in front of the television, is it really necessary to have that LCD television in the door of the fridge? The market is bursting with impressive gadgets and must-have technology that can overwhelm even the most technologically conscientious consumer. So ask yourself:

  • What will make my home safer?
  • What will help me save time?
  • What will make my daily routine more comfortable?

Safety is a great place to start when installing home automation. A person can rest peacefully knowing that automated curtains and lights simulate presence in your home when you are away. What about fire alarms that can alert emergency personnel, flash lights, and open doors when heat or smoke is detected? Other safety components that can be included in a smart home:

  • Home awareness systems: Your home can detect when there is a water or gas leak and take the necessary precautions of shutting down that utility, as well as alert you to the problem immediately by sending a message to your cell phone or sounding an alarm.
  • Selective outlets: Power can only be provided to outlets with appliances plugged in and turned ON.
  • Monitored circuits: Power can be cut automatically at any sign of a short circuit or failure and you will be alerted immediately.
  • Entryway status: You can be alerted when doors and windows are left open, as well as close and lock all doors and windows at the push of a button.

After discussing safety, efficiency is an important consideration. Some of your simple daily tasks are also the most tedious. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dishwasher, wash machine, and dryer could determine for themselves when it was most cost effective to run? Lower utility costs are a huge benefit of smart homes. Automated homes can monitor themselves for ineffective insulation and inform you of needed repair. They provide varying power levels to electrical outlets so the numerous small adapters for each appliance can be eliminated. Smart homes can turn off appliances that are wasting electricity and run the heating and cooling to the occupant’s preferred setting.

This brings us to what many consider the most important aspect of home automation–comfort. Having a home that can adapt to your preferences as it gets to know you is a luxury many homeowners never imagined possible. With smart homes, occupants can automate almost anything to their personal whim. Sophisticated home automation systems can take command by voice, can determine occupants from one another and retain each person’s preferences, and will subsequently adjust individual room settings to that person’s taste the moment they step in the room. Those settings include lighting, temperature, humidity, and even favorite television channel or music style. The household pet also gets a part of the preferred treatment with electronic dog doors that open specifically for the animal wearing the special collar. There is very little limitation on what creature comforts your smart home can provide.

Along with comfort is the idea of easy accessibility. Many smart homes are products of universal design. Universal design is taking a new look at products, services and environments and altering them to provide easy accessibility to anyone regardless of age, ability or circumstance. More people are able to live on their own with home automation systems instead of relying on others for assistance with everyday tasks. With smart home designs, sensors can be placed to monitor movement and detect a fall. Your home can even alert emergency personnel if necessary. Counters, sinks and cupboards can be automated to lower themselves for those using wheelchair assistance, then can return to the previous height for use by other household members.

There are many home automation options that can be applied to universal design, reiterating that every smart home is unique to the people living in it.

Once you have determined what you want from your home automation, add these considerations to your list:

  • If your system has a meltdown, who handles repairs?
  • Technology is always changing, what does this mean for your system? (upgrades, compatibility, etc.)
  • Will you be able to reprogram your system if you find that your dream home is, in fact, more than you can handle?
  • Is the system going to be user-friendly for the entire family?

When you have compiled all your desires and questions, it is highly advised that you seek an expert to purchase and install your home automation system. Home automation can be as complex or as simple as you desire, and collaborating with an expert will keep you from being overwhelmed by the possibilities. This way you find the best system for your preferences. Then sit back and enjoy how well you and your home communicate.

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