To Automate or not to Automate, that is the question...
Home Automation is quite a large subject and often misinterpreted. Some people's automation is as simple as Amazon Alexa or Phillips Hue lighting, other's is fully blown customised systems that incorporate Music, Video, Intercoms, security, underfloor heating, air conditioning, lighting, shutters, timers, video calling and many more features - all cotrolled from a touch screen
Automation is often described as 'Smart House' or 'Smart Home'. This can be misleading for many reasons. Many vendors (DIY stores etc..) call anything that is controled using an App, Smart. Well its probably easier to use, whether its smart or not is debatable.
Another advantage is reducing the number of remotes that you have to deal with
So, kind of, this....
or this ... on a touch screen
True Automation is about simplicity and interaction between devices, using technology to complete tasks or taking the daily grind out of doing tasks by having something with an electronic brain do it for you. It's also about using the intelligence available to take data from one product and using it to make decisions about what happens with other products.
A good automation system has multiple sensors, has control over multiple system and has good programming to link them all together., effectively mimicking a human brain.
The key thing that a good automation system has, is a SIMPLE interface for the user to interact with.
Another key feature is linking systems together to react to events that happen. This can only happen if your system is able to 'read' information from devices (such as status of doors and windows in an alarm system, smoke detection, room occupation, temperatures from heating/cooling systems, warnings from devices that are faulty etc..)
So, for instance. if you have an access control system that electroncially opens your doors when the user users a card; Specific users cards could be detected so that when they swipe the card, it disables the alarm, turns on welcome lights at specific periods of the day, turns on the Air conditioning and underfloor heating and turns on the external water features.
This can only be done if you have systems that you are able to interface to, effectively having a two conversation - requesting status from the device and it answers back. The programming then does all of the complicated bit of working out what to do with it.
Many Apps on the market that only run one system(Underfloor heating thermostats, Streaming music) are extremely complicated, for what they are. Their authors make constant redesigns which they consider improvements, when in reality they confuse users who have just got use to the last version. The theme of a a user interface should be pretty much consistent throughout and making radical interface changes, when users have got used to something, is a mistake...in our opinion.
On Premise or Cloud
Many people do not understand what 'the Cloud' is and get frustrated when systems do not work.
The Cloud is basically a set of PC servers in a data centre, located on the internet, that acts as a middleman between your equipment (say, thermostats for your 'Hive' underfloor heating system) and your mobile device. Your thermostats all connect to a gateway in your home(connected to the internet) and update the software in the data centre via the internet, your mobile device connects to a server in the data centre over 4G or Wi-Fi.
This all works great as long as your mobile device, the data centre and your home has an internet connection. If any of these break down, there is no way of the control working.
Most people assume that your mobile device is directly connected to the devices that you are controlling, and that is simply not true. Even when you are in your home, your connection is routed via the cloud in most cases. Some apps are able to distinguish you being at hone or on a mobile connection and switch to suit. These are, however, few and far between.
With our Home Automation systems, we ensure that our control is based 'on premise' ensuring that control is always possible within your home when you are in it. Our App for mobile devices requires you to obviously have an internet connection to your home and to your device, there is no middle man. This ensures that when you are at home, everythng is directly controlled.
Types of Automation/Control System
Automation systems come in multiple types some more flexible than others. Some end up costing the cutomer less, because the manufacturer has pre-programmed it to control specific devices with specific functions. Where these fall down is that they are a one size fits all solution, with a pretty much fixed user interface. Sometimes, because of how these system are designed, the project ends up being designed around what the control system is able to control - effectlively the tail wagging the dog. Examples of this type of system are 'Control4' and 'Savant'.
A higher level of control system is one that is programmed in a high level language (Similar to 'C' or Python). This allows the programmer to control any device(that has an interface that allows it) and make it all function in exactly the way the customer would like. Also, an interface can be ammended to look how the customer wants it to. Examples of these kinds of control system are 'AMX' and 'Crestron'
So, automation is viable in any type or size of property, obviously cost is a key point and in smaller properties may be cost prohibitive. Not every situation NEEDS automation and sometimes systems are simpler without, this is extremely subjective. Automation involves technology and technology can go wrong, but in our opinion the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In some cases, a couple of remotes or Apps on your phone is far cheaper and simpler than having an automation system.
However, the larger the property the more it makes sense as it makes managing systems across the property (and possibly outbuildings) simpler. Large properties can almost be considered a commercial building that requires environmental systems to be managed as well as media systems.
In larger properties, even systems such as intruder alarm require something more than a normal alarm panel where there are multiple areas and many zones. If the alarm will not set, a graphical reference makes it easy to see which zones have issues.
The screen shot below is from a Satel Alarm system, which we created a user interface & Device driver for using AMX control. It makes figuring out if doors and windows are closed, very simple. It makes arming/disarming simple and, if the alarm is triggered, which zone flagged the alarm.
There is easy access to a page with faults, a zone list divided by floors and easy bypass if you really need to.
Whilst Satel keypads are, like most Alarm system, reasonably simple. Its still a bit of a chore to figure out where there is any problem as you are working with a couple of lines of text in a window.
We write all of our own software(providing that the manufacters are willing to provide product information - some do, some don't) as this allows us to make our software truly adaptable to any requests from customers.
In smaller properties, probably systems by Control 4 and Savant make sense, or even to stick with manufacturer supplied apps on a mobile device. Larger properties that have a specific requirement are more suited to AMX or Crestron.