What Is Home Automation?

Have you ever wondered, "What is home automation?" It's a way to integrate and control your home's systems efficiently and economically.
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Kitchen at the HGTV Smart Home 2013 located in Jacksonville, FL

Photo by: Eric Perry

Eric Perry

By: Sean McEvoy

If you're a new homeowner or someone who's looking to make improvements to your current home, you may be looking for an answer to the question "What is home automation?" Put simply, home automation refers to any number of automated ways that the systems present in your home—from lighting to security to outdoor sprinklers—can be configured to run automatically, and in some cases, even controlled remotely via the internet from anywhere on the planet.

The Smart Home of the Future

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Housing: What the Future Holds

Flash forward 50 years: The “millennial generation” is reaching retirement age (which is now 78, thanks to ever-increasing life expectancy). That’s right, they are the mature members of society, no doubt complaining about the slacker youth of the day and living in a technologically advanced world we can only imagine. As we begin coverage of the HGTV Smart Home 2014 construction project, let’s take a look at how our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will live.

Planned Communities

Let’s start with the big picture: What neighborhoods will look like. “Over the past 50 years, the biggest trend has been out of compact urban dwellings into sprawling suburban ones,” says Roger Platt, senior vice president at the US Green Building Council. “Over the next 50, the opposite is likely going to happen.” People will want a walkable lifestyle with an urban cool vibe. That means parks, bodegas and entertainment venues nearby and — thanks to population growth — extremely compact houses with multifunction rooms; for example, a single space might triple as living room, dining room and kitchen.

Water-Top Homes

Rising water levels and massive coastal storms may change our methods of building along the shore, says architect Maureen Guttman of the Alliance to Save Energy. Instead of buttressing homes on ever higher, deeper and beefier pilings in the sand, she envisions houses being built on floating barges that can simply be relocated out of harm’s way when hurricanes or nor’easters approach.

Building Materials

Forget 2x4s and wallboard, the house of the future may be built of a material that’s something like concrete but could be manufactured on site using a giant 3D computer printer, says physicist Max Sherman, who leads the Energy Performance in Buildings Group at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. He predicts that this substance will be able to literally change itself from a super-insulating and draft-blocking barrier one minute into a breathable and free-flowing one the next, all depending on the conditions inside and outside.

Heating and Cooling

Thanks to this efficient building material, houses may need only tiny heating systems. Just a bit of added warmth will maintain comfortable indoor temperatures. Large-scale cooling, on the other hand, will still be needed because on hot days, no amount of insulation will keep the ambient temperature down. But air conditioners and even geothermal heat pumps will be things of the past. Physicist Max Sherman predicts that both cooling and heating will be provided by the walls themselves — possibly that newfangled concrete-like material or the paint on its surface — which will contain electronic devices that simply warm or cool on demand, in much the same way that an LED (light emitting diode) bulb produces illumination today.

Self-Sufficiency

The roofs and exterior walls of houses will also double as solar energy collectors, using far more effective technologies than today’s photovoltaic cells. “The solar energy that hits the earth in one hour is enough to power all of humanity's energy needs for a year,” says Mark LaLiberte of Construction Instruction, a building efficiency and technology consultancy. “We just don’t know how best to capture it yet.” In the world’s increasingly urban settings 50 years from now, houses will likely be interconnected in “micro-grids” so that those that get the most sun, and therefore create more power than they need, will help to supply nearby units that can’t generate all of their own power. New technologies — and global food shortages — may also make backyard and rooftop gardening feasible as a significant food source for feeding the family, though busy homeowners will likely hire help to tend their mini-farms.

Appliances

Bob Martin, director of industrial design at Electrolux Major Appliance, predicts the end of dishwashers. “New surface technologies will mean dishes and cookware hardly need any cleaning at all,” he says. Meanwhile, tiny robots could keep houses clean, not by randomly circling the floors to vacuum and mop, but by identifying the moment soil appears on any surface of the house and dispatching a team of smartphone-sized machines to clean it. Rather than a gas or electric cooktop, kitchen countertops themselves may heat pots on command, using induction technology that boils water in seconds yet won’t cause a burn when touched. Ovens will cook to perfect doneness automatically without probe thermometers or human intervention.

Smart Controls

Today’s touch screens, remote controls and dashboard apps will seem like quaint relics of the past. Our experts predict that houses will automatically respond to outside weather conditions, to their residents' eminent arrival home, and to commands provided with just a thought.

Home automation systems integrate electrical devices with one another. The systems controlled through home automation are sometimes connected to the home's computer network, letting homeowners control them remotely from their computers or mobile devices.

The main system categories controlled by home automation are lighting, security, HVAC and outdoor sprinkler systems, although there are many other uses for home automation, including pet feeding and the use of robotic interior cleaning and exterior landscaping devices.

Systems that control lighting often operate on a timer, so that some or all house lighting turns on or off at pre-set times. The greatest benefit of lighting automation is energy and cost savings, but automated lighting may also be viewed as a security benefit, since a well-lit house may be less of a target for criminals. Automated home lighting systems require a connection to the home's electrical grid; they may be controlled remotely or via in-home controls. A fully integrated lighting control system connected to a whole-house automation system can be very expensive, whereas a standalone system provides a more budget-conscious option.

Widely available and relatively affordable, home security systems can be integrated with an existing whole-house automation system, or they can operate independently. They offer varying levels of complexity, from simple detectors that monitor door and window security to complex combinations of motion detectors, closed-circuit and online cameras and even facial recognition technology.

Your home's HVAC features can also be controlled via home automation, often with significant energy-saving benefits. Homeowners can regulate the heating and cooling in their entire homes or in individual rooms or zones, and create a temperature calendar and schedule based on everything from weather predictions to an upcoming visit from a Great Aunt who likes it particularly toasty in the guest room.

Outdoor sprinkler systems are also often offered as part of home automation and control, as they eliminate the need for unsightly and ineffective standalone sprinklers or time-consuming manual hose watering. They can even be adjusted to respond to weather changes automatically, ensuring more watering during dry stretches and shutting down to conserve water during periods of rainfall.

Home automation and control systems offer tremendous benefits of convenience, cost and time savings. Depending on your budget and the needs of your home, an integrated whole-house automation system or a series of standalone systems may be the right choice. Regardless of which approach you choose, it's likely you'll see immediate returns both economically and in terms of increased free time.

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