Home Automation has become a hot topic in recent years -- the so called "Internet of Things" as it is often called, includes things like home web cams, thermostat control, lighting and security. There are a lot of ways to begin taking advantage of these new technologies, but how far do you want to go and how much do you wish to spend? If you're like me, maybe you just want to be able to monitor your home (your pets or kids) or be able to adjust your thermostat or put a light on when you're going to be late.
The good news is you can do this without breaking the bank, so let's begin with a basic primer on what's out there.
Some Technologies and Glossary of Terms
X10 - the oldest of the technologies dating back to the 1970's, this simple system consists of various controls, switches, and modules that allow you to turn lights and appliances on or off. It runs over your AC electrical system, was inexpensive, but not super reliable, and not easy to setup to control via the internet or your mobile device.
ZigBee - is a newer wireless mesh network system often used in some commercial systems.
Z-Wave - is also a newer technology that uses a wireless mesh network and a growing number of compatible devices including motion sensors, switches, moisture sensors, thermostats, locks, smoke detectors, etc. Currently, if you've invested in no other technology, this is the way to go to get started. To use Z-Wave, you'll need a Hub (the controller) and some devices to monitor or control.
Insteon - is a technology that combines wired power line protocols and wireless and is primarily sold through smarthome.com. It is compatible with X10 so if you've invested in that older technology this can be a good option.
Wifi - a technology commonly used to connect tablets, phones and laptops to the internet but increasingly is used to connect devices to the internet and together in your internet of things network. An example of this technology would be some Honeywell thermostats and Belkin WeMo home automation products.
Google Nest - the name of Google's products (purchased from Nest) which started with the Nest thermostat and smoke detector. There are a number of products that work with Nest.
Apple HomeKit - the name of Apple's push into home automation and very is a software framework to get varioius devices to work together and to be controlled by an IOS 8/9 device and/or Siri. If you're invested heavily into Apple products, this may be worth waiting for -- products are coming to market now or in Summer/Fall 2015.
Amazon Echo - technically Echo is not home automation, but a digital assistant for the home (like Siri, Google Now, or Cortana on the smartphone) but recently Amazon has added support for home automation devices from Belkin (wemo), Philips Hue, and Wink hub. This allows voice control over devices ("Alexa, turn on the porch lights") and we expect this to be a major player due to the convenience within the home to have voice-control over your devices without having to be tied to your smartphone -- unless it NEVER leaves your side!
IFTTT - is an anacronym that stands for "if this then that" and many devices support this standard to allow you to create automation. In essence it is a form of programming for your devices; if motion is detected, turn on this group of lights, etc. If your system supports IFTTT, you'll need an account with ifttt.com, then you integrate your automation products with this account where you can then use one of the many existing "recipes" for automation or create a series of instructions to perform. This is a little more advanced than what most users will start with.
If you want a few simple controls, Belkin WeMo can be an easy way to start and they are expanding. If you only want control of a thermostat, look into Honeywell's very fine WiFi Thermostat series. The Google-backed Nest incorporates a Thermostat, Smoke Detector, and other future devices. There are many individual products that can be controlled by internet or your smart phone in this way. But the most complete system right now is Z-Wave based products and SmartThings is one of the early leaders.
As I mentioned, you'll first need a controller Hub to which all your devices links. Currently if you have no significant investment in any of the above technologies, I recommend the SmartThings product because it is the easiest to setup and still very flexible and expanding rapidly and are backed now by Samsung. They have active development and support Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Wifi protocols so it can work with SmartThings compatible products or even Belking Wemo wifi-based products as well, which in turn can work with Amazon Echo devices for voice control. Be prepared to spend about $100 for the Hub, and about $30-$80 per device (switch, sensor, camera, lock).
Get started by picking up the SmartThings hub
then grab a motion sensor or light switch to start your venture into home automation.