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Intelligent home or dumbo system with a nice remote?

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Our two companies make their living from both installing hardware for automation and writing software to control products within Residential, Commercial, Educational, Super Yacht and assisted living environments.

Home Automation comes under many guises, some good and some bad...some truly awful. Due to the latter, it has got itself a bad reputation. However, its a little like people installing uPVC windows or Solar panels. There are professionals, who have worked at it for years and know the pitfalls, know what works and what doesn't, can advise clients what to use to have a sensible robust system.....then there are people who have been on a training course for an automation system, have good sales patter and manage to sell the client something that is both way above their ability to deliver and what the customer needs.

The resultant disaster make the customer lose faith in automation, which, instead of making their life easier - causes frustration and loss of faith in the product and these kind of systems, based on their bad experience - which is understandable.

In reality, in most cases, it's not the product - it is lack of planning, knowledge and ability...and to add to this, the mistake of the dealer trying to make a fast buck. Please bear in mind that this is not a reflection of what goes on here in Portugal, it is everywhere. We have acted as consultants in many countries - some where we supervise the specification of the system on behalf of one of our customers. A lot of companies take advantage of the fact that the customer does not have enough knowledge to ask questions about what is being specified.

For example. One company wanted to charge the customer for writing some software to allow them to change the lighting scenes for Lutron Homeworks. We simply pointed out that the Lutron App can do this and it is free. Again, the customer would never have known and would probably have taken the bait.

Home automation is known under different names. Domotica, Smart Home, Domotic Systems, Intelligent Controls, Intelligent Home, Home Controls, Home Control system .... all are the same. Some companies regard that they are giving you a "Smart Home" if they replace your TV and underfloor heating controls with an iPad, this is not really the case.

A true "Smart Home" monitors multiple systems within your home and makes decisions, automatically, to both make your life simpler and also to provide a benefit - such as Energy Management, to help you save on Energy Usage. Other examples are not allowing the Air Conditioning to be in cool mode when the underfloor heating is on, not allowing irrigation to turn on when it is too hot, not allowing access to certain gates at certain times of day, ensuring that garden and outside lights are not turned on in the day, monitoring rooms to see if there is no one in them and turning off systems when there is no room occupancy, and turning off air conditioning if doors to outside are left open for a period of time.

You could ask, why do I need one?

This is THE question. If you have a medium to large property, automation HAS to be a necessity to make the property enjoyable and usable. Leaving lights on at one end of the house without some automatic means of them being turned of or having the ability to turn them off from where you are, would be a royal pain and not good planning. Single button presses to turn on large numbers of lights, rather than walking all around the house turning on switches, a definite must, and the ability to turn off systems in multiple rooms from a single button makes maintenance much easier. It also allows you to combine many functions into one interface.

How many of you have looked at your air conditioning or underfloor heating thermostat and wondered 'what the hell' half the functions do? Well, Automation and control takes all this away from you, only giving you the functions that you need on a daily basis.

A sample interface is shown below:

The above panel design shows a lot of functions that can be combined into one interface for easy access. Here, you select the room to adjust, touch the setpoint temp and adjust it. You can simply turn off the room if you require. No masses of button presses and all rooms are accessable from one place. We can also set presets so that all rooms can be done with a single button press.

One of the advantages of automated systems is that if you change your mind how you would like it to work, it can be changed - as the control element of Smart Homes is generally software based. Also, the good brands used in Home automation (such as AMX and Savant) can have multiple generations of controllers used in the same system. This simply means that as time goes on, technology advances and these companies bring out new generations of control devices, they can all be used within the same system. You do not have to upgrade everything in the system just because you need to add additional devices. We have some systems with 3 generations of controllers in, which are over 17 years old and still running. These have been added to and upgraded over time.

The likes of AMX and Crestron have generally been regarded as being the 'High End' of automation and the likes of Control 4 and Savant to be lower down the scale and more cost effective. This balance has now become more equal as costs have reduced. The biggest cost is probably the time taken for programming. However, we reduce this as much as possible by writing device drivers for our commonly used product, at our own cost. We look at recouping the cost for these over a long period. Others will charge for these on every project, ramping up profits - not that there is anything wrong with making money, it just has to be on a fair basis.

So what is the difference between brands?

AMX and Crestron have the maximum flexibility and they can be programmed, by a competent Automation Programmer, to do pretty much anything required. We choose AMX because of the flexibility of how it is programmed.

Control 4/ Savant are alternative control systems that are heavily dependent on the manufacturer to write the base software drivers for each of the devices that you wish to control. The issue here is that there may or may not be a pre-written driver available for the products that you would like in your system. If there is not, you will have to wait until one is - or change product. Also, if you would like some functionality that the manufacturers driver doesn't have, you will also have to wait. As a general rule the programmer will not be able to do this. This is because these control systems are effectively 'pre-packed' to make it simple for the programmer, but it reduces the ability to give the customer the 'customisation' that they may require. They are advertised as lower cost as they require less time to get a programmed system up and running, but the knock on effect is to give you a less flexible system.

These types of control systems tend to be adopted by companies who come into the automation business from electrical or satellite installation businesses, as they require very little knowledge of systems and little background in Home Automation/Domotica. The issue comes when something goes wrong - they also don't have much idea how to fix it, and turning it off and back on again can only be acceptable so many times.

The other scenario is that you will end up with a system built around what your programmer has pre-built software drivers for.

So, for instance if you wanted, say, Mobotics cameras your Control 4 Installer may try and get you to move to something else because maybe they may not have a driver for it. With AMX, we could ask the manufacturer for the control information and write one - so that you can have the system that you wanted, rather than US telling YOU what you can have. In other words, our systems are built around the best equipment for your project - others build theirs around what they are ABLE to control or what their manufacturer can supply to make their job easy.

Now, you may say - well isn't that just sour grapes because they do not supply Control 4, Savant or Elan. Well... we were a Control 4 dealer, but were not willing to sell it to customers because of the number of quirks it has and reliability issues - plus if, for any reason, we did not sell any of their product for 6 Months - we would no longer have access to customers systems and we would be cut off by the manufacturer - it is a sales/target driven product. The number of negatives far outweighed the positives. We also invested in demonstration kit to become a dealer - which we have since disposed of.

We have also investigated Savant, and we have now taken this on as a product. Part of our responsibilities, is understanding the limits of the equipment we supply so that the customer does not get lumbered with something that has run into a deadend.

As an automation contractor, we have a responsibility to investigate all options and not leave customers with a dead end product. 99% of our brands are global brands from large companies. For example : AMX is owned by Harman Professional systems - a multi billion dollar company, who is in turn owned by Samsung. Lutron (Lighting Control systems) and Leviton (alarm systems) are both privately owned multi billion dollar companies. Crestron is a privately owned multi million dollar company. Whilst their turnover does not guarantee they will never fail, its far less likely than a startup company in an industrial unit.

To sell product to you, we have to believe in it ourselves. I have AMX, Lutron and Leviton in my own home and my wife is often my guinea pig for new software that we write and products that we trial. Because she is not a 'technical' person , I get proper feedback of how thing work from a real persons point of view. This is invaluable, as we 'technical people' get carried away sometime and it becomes something that we understand and way too complicated. I also do tests using my parents, who are in their 70's. This ensure that we provide systems that real people can use on a daily basis and not something that people are scared to touch because they do not understand technology. The whole point of these systems is that they take away the complications that you do not need to see.

So what should my Smart Home/Intelligent Home actually do?

Again, a very BIG question and an open ended one.

Essentially, it should make day to day living simple when you are using many systems and also take care of tasks in the background.

For example: to Select something to watch on TV you would have to turn on an amplifier, set the volume correctly for the room, turn on the TV, select the right input on the TV and then turn on your cable box. That's at least 3 remote controls required and you would need to know what is on which input on the TV.

An example of a simple TV interface is as shown below:

Smart Home | Intelligent home | Domotica | Home Automation
Example of Sky TV Controls

If you select the button for your cable box on your automation system, the system will turn the TV on and flip to the correct input, turn on the amplifier and set the correct volume and turn on the cable box - leaving you only making the decision of what to watch.

Now, further back, I said that some companies will just transfer TV controls to an iPad and think this is automation....this is true and it should be PART of a system. So, later on in the evening, you decide to go to bed and walk away from the living room leaving the TV, lights and AC on. You go to your alarm panel at the bottom of the stairs and set the alarm to 'Night mode'. The automation system will detect the mode change, will turn off the AC, turn off the lights in the living room and the stair lights with a very long fade (allowing you to get to the bedroom with the stairs still lit), and turn off the TV and amplifier.

The house is then secure and all systems that do not need to be on are turned off - all you did was set the alarm. This is an example of true Intelligent home/ Domotica/Home Automation/Smart Home.

In another scenario; Should you be unfortunate enough to have a fire alert, all TV's and sound systems will be turned off and lights will be turned on everywhere. The AC will also be turned off to prevent the spread of smoke, as well as the alarm alerting your monitoring station.

You can apply as many scenarios as you like(and there are many), we can start with a very basic system and you can add whatever features you feel necessary as you get used to what you have.

Home Automation/Intelligent Homes/Smart Home systems that work are down to good planning for infrastructure, good reliable product choices, high quality installation and programming, and an understanding of what the customer wants. The latter is is always our starting point.

True intelligent/Smart Homes constant monitor systems and take action when something major happens or something that you define happens. Even down to irrigation the outside temperature too hot? if so your plants may suffer when watered, the temperature can be monitored so that the irrigation system only comes on below a certain temperature but also warns you that it has not turned on today and why - that way, you can make a manual decision to turn it on anyway or leave the automated system to carry on.

If you are thinking of starting a new build or refurbishment project and are considering some Smart Home technology, call us!

tel : +351 289 393378


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