Home Automation - Getting Started

Home Automation

What is Home Automation?

The simple answer is - anything you want it to be!

Home Automation enables you to use your home's lighting, heating and appliances more conveniently and efficiently. And, at the same time giving you greater levels of comfort and security.

It can be as simple as remote or automatic control of a few lights, or it can be a complete system that controls all major parts of your home.

Home Automation is anything that gives you automatic control of things around the home, turning it from "dumb" to smart.

Perhaps you're concerned about your energy bills and would like to reduce your carbon footprint?  With a Home Automation system in place you can create detailed analysis of the areas in your home that are costing you money.

Not interested in graphs and figures?  Simply set the system to manage your energy use in the most efficient way - turn lights off when rooms are unoccupied, reduce the heating temperature when nobody's home and turn appliances off at the socket to minimise "standby" power drains.

Maybe convenience and comfort are your primary goals, so your focus could be on your family wellbeing - your Smart Home can monitor the air quality and open or close windows as required, or control your HVAC system to ensure your house has a constant supply of fresh and filtered air.

With the stresses of modern life nowadays, we're all likely to benefit from some form of assisted living and there's nothing quite like having your own personal assistant at your beck and call! Whether you're an Alexa fan, a Siri convert or an OK Google addict, a Voice Assistant can be used to interact with your Smart Home like never before. From controlling your lights, adjusting your room temperature, answering your phone calls, checking who's at the front door or triggering entire sequences of events from a single word, Voice control is no longer confined to the movies - now we can all be like Tony Stark and chat with our own version of Jarvis!

 

Where To Begin

Regardless of which technology you use in your Home Automation system, the basic building blocks and components will be similar. Most systems will have a central controller, sensors that tell you what is happening (motion, doors opening, temperature, humidity, light, etc) and actuators that make things happen (turning on a light, switching off the TV, opening the blinds, etc).

The purpose of this guide is to help you understand what the components do and how they work together.

There are a wide range of Home Automation technologies to choose from and this can be confusing to people new to the area. Fortunately, this is less of a minefield than it used to be as many systems now work with each other, even if the underlying technologies are different. This means that you don't need to know all the inner workings of particular products - you're able to choose the ones that suit you best.

For more information about the systems available, take a look at our Smart Home Compatibility guides.

Getting Started Tips

There are broadly two types of Home Automation systems.

The main systems use "standard" wireless technologies such as Z-Wave, ZigBee and WiFi, the advantage of these is that they can use products from different vendors and often work together directly.

The other type, so-called "proprietary" systems use their own wireless technologies which are often undisclosed - these tend to be very good at the task they are designed to do, but might not work directly with other systems.  This doesn't necessarily mean that these systems should be avoided, since many of them offer other forms of integration via their own Cloud services or via third party integrations such as IFTTT.

  • Choose a product or system for now
    While we use the term "Smart Home", few of us will dive straight in and automate the entire house in one go!  In fact, it's usually our advice not to do that - we would always recommend to start small, perhaps with one single room at a time.  So for your first "system" choose a product that will do what you need for a specific task - it may be just controlling a few lights or some simple heating control. Choose the system that best meets your needs now.
  • Check that it works with other systems
    When choosing that first product or system, double check that it can work with other products and systems from different manufacturers. This may not be important now, but it means that you can more easily expand in the future. Look for products that use "standard"' wireless technologies such as Z-Wave, ZigBee and WiFi.
  • Take a look at Voice Assistants
    Voice Assistants are on trend right now and products that work with them are a good indicator of which products to choose for the best experience.  Our Home Automation Compatibility section helps show products and systems that can work within particular "Ecosystems" such as Alexa, Siri and OK Google or with products supported by Apple Homekit or the Google Assistant, and with products from Google Nest and Philips Hue.
  • Don't ignore Proprietary systems
    On the face of it, "standard" systems give you the most flexibility. However, if you are only planning to add Smarts to one part of your home or a specific task, it may be better to use a "proprietary" system. Some proprietary systems excel at the task they were designed to do - so sometimes choosing the best system for the job is the better way to go. A dedicated alarm system with the possibility of a simple integration via IFTTT at a later date (for example giving armed, disarmed and alert status) may be a better choice rather than trying to add alarm system functionality to your existing heating control system. In this case it really is better to be a "master of one" and not a "jack of all trades"!

Your Home Automation System

As mentioned previously, all Smart Home systems will use similar components (also called devices).  These enable it to perform different actions, to sense environmental conditions and to react to motion, doors opening, windows closing and all manner of different events in your home. Each device type has a specific purpose within the system, together they will give you the flexibility to control your home, and keep you informed about what's going on.

System Controller (Gateway / Hub / Bridge)

As is name implies, the controller, sometimes called the hub, gateway or bridge, "controls" your Smart Home. It enables you to add and configure devices and to create and run "logic", sometimes referred to as flows, scenes or moods.  These enable the system to do things automatically, such as turn on lights based on motion or raise the heating temperature just before your family arrives home so that your house is nice and warm when they open the front door.

The controller is connected to your Internet router or modem using WiFi or by an Ethernet cable.  This allows you to control the system from a smartphone, tablet or computer and allows remote access even when you're away from home, via the Internet. In order to control the system from your smartphone or tablet you usually install an "App" for that controller and this gives you control whether you're in the lounge or sitting on a beach on the other side of the world.

Your controller may focus on one particular technology (for example Z-Wave), or it may have several different technologies built in (for example Z-Wave, ZigBee and WiFi).  Choosing a controller that supports these standards as a starting point is the best course of action for most Smart Homes, but remember to also check for integration possibilities with any proprietary products or systems that you might also plan to use (such as Hive, Tado or Visonic), for example using IFTTT or a Cloud service.

More help and advice is in our Choosing A Smart Home Controller section.

Actuators

Actuators are devices that physically make things happen by controlling lights, heating and appliances. There are various types of actuator, most are listed here:

  • Switches (Relays) - control a light or appliance by switching the power going to it (On or Off).
  • Dimmers - controls the the brightness of a light, as well as turning it On or Off.
  • Roller Shutter - control motorised blinds, shutters, awnings and curtains.
  • Modules - as opposed to an entire "faceplate", these are small modules that are wired directly into the electrical circuit.  They are available in many different types such as relays, dimmers, shutters, etc and can often be installed behind an existing light switch or wall socket.
  • Wall Plugs - simply plug into the wall socket and controls the attached appliance.  Versions for simple On or Off control, dimming and power monitoring versions are available.
  • Wall Sockets - replaces an existing wall socket with a wireless controlled version.
  • Boiler Receiver - wired into your boiler circuit, giving you wireless control of the boiler, usually used together with wireless thermostats.
  • Radiator (TRV) - control when hot water is allowed to flow into the radiator based on the TRV's setpoint temperature.
  • Siren - sounds an alarm when triggered by the Home Automation system, can often also be triggered directly from other devices such as smoke detectors.
  • Door Lock - allows you to control and monitor access to your home or parts of the building.
  • Smart Bulbs and LED Strips - LED bulbs and strips that can be directly wirelessly controlled from your home automation system.

Sensors

Sensors monitor your home and report if they detect motion or door opening, or specific values of environmental conditions such as light, temperature, humidity, etc.

Sensors also have an important role to play in making things happen automatically - which is one of the main goals of a Smart Home!

  • Motion - alerts the system when motion is detected using a PIR sensor.
  • Door/Window - detects when a door or window has been opened or closed.
  • Temperature - monitors temperature, this can be used by the to make things happen based on temperature.
  • MultiSensor - has multiple sensors in one device (motion, light, temperature, humidity, etc).
  • Thermostat - controls the heating based on room temperature compared to a programmed setpoint.
  • Flood - detects water, allowing alerts to be sent or can even trigger shutting off the incoming water supply.
  • Smoke - triggers an alarm when smoke or excess heat are detected.
  • Power / Energy Monitoring - monitors the energy consumed by individual appliances or even the whole house.

Remote Controls

Remote controls give the convenience of controlling the system from a physical control unit as well as from your smartphone or tablet.

  • Handheld - just like your TV remote, controls devices, scenes and moods.
  • Wireless Wall Switch - similar to a handheld remote but wall mountable.
  • Key-Fob - carry it around with you, great for when you walk back into the house.

Voice Assistants

We've mentioned Voice Assistants several times during this guide and it's clear to see why - in the past few years they've become a huge presence in all our lives!

Whether it be on your smartphone or tablet, or on a dedicated Speaker device, Voice control and feedback has now become a valuable part of any Home Automation system. 

Audio Visual (AV) / Multimedia

Historically, this section wasn't directly part of a Home Automation system, however, lots of people wish to control their multimedia equipment in order to create an integrated environment where lights, blinds, TV, music and video can all be controlled together. 

InfraRed (IR)

Most AV and TV equipment is controlled using Infra-Red (IR). For these, we suggest using an iTach IR Adapter. The iTach adapter receives instructions from the Smart Home controller via the network (either Ethernet or WiFi) and then the iTach sends IR commands to the TV, AV receiver, etc.

Alternatively, if AV will be a big part of your Smart Home plans, then choosing a Smart Home Controller with IR built in may make the most sense.  The Athom Homey has IR included, and can therefore control IR devices directly without the need of additional adapters. 

Network (IP) controlled equipment

Many modern multimedia products connect to your Ethernet or WiFi network (IP network) - Smart TVs, AV Receivers, Music Players, Stereos, etc. In some cases these can be integrated into your Smart Home by sending commands directly to them via the network.

Most Home Automation controllers have software plug-ins available for many of the latest appliances which makes it very easy to include them in your Scenes and Logic - with just a few words to your Voice Assistant - "Alexa, play movie" and your lighting can dim, blinds can lower, AV and TV can turn on and the latest blockbuster can start ..... all without lifting a finger!

Take a look at our full range of Multimedia and AV Controllers.

Find out more...

Where ever you wish to start with your Smart Home, we have you covered. We have comprehensive guides that help you select the most suitable systems and products for your needs.

We would recommend that you continue your Home Automation journey by reading our Choosing A Smart Home Controller guide!

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