Automating Network Devices throughout Your Home

9 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Network Installation and Setup

Advances in home automation technology, including lower hardware costs and new home networking protocols, are making home today seem like they're from the future. Home automation refers to the control of devices in the home such as light switches, heating and AC controls, and appliances; as well as the automation of those devices — according to a schedule or in response to the situation.

For example, you could program a system to turn lights on at a certain time of day, or to do so when a motion sensor detects someone entering a room or even when you’ve finished watching a movie and turned the TV off.

Types of home network automation devices

Examples of home automation technologies and their possible uses include:

  • Refrigerators: Using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to identify the contents of your refrigerator, you can use your smartphone to build your shopping list while you’re at the grocery store, surf the Internet for recipe ideas based on what you have in the fridge, manage your perishables and leftovers to better reduce spoilage, leave a note for your family on the refrigerator door’s LCD screen, or stream a saved episode of Emeril Live to your refrigerator door so you can listen while you cook.

  • Ovens, bread makers, and coffee makers: Automatically program and synchronize all of your clocks and schedules, download new recipes from the Internet, and get text or e-mail notifications when your Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas bread, or a fresh pot of coffee is ready!

  • Washing machines and dryers: Download new wash-cycle programs from the Internet, check the status of your laundry online, and automatically notify the manufacturer or a repairman when a malfunction occurs.

  • Heating and cooling thermostat: Remotely program your thermostat while you’re away — in case you forgot to do it before leaving on an extended business trip or vacation.

  • Lighting and blinds: Turn the lights on or off so you never have to come home to a dark house and open/close your blinds to scare off potential burglars or help you reduce your energy bills.

  • Security cameras: Monitor your front door or a nursery with wireless security cameras.

How to shop for home network automation devices

When shopping for network-capable home appliances, look for standard networking technologies and protocols, such as 802.11 wireless, Bluetooth, UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), and Ethernet or Powerline adapters.

For most folks, the first step into smart home (home automation) technologies is to create a wireless control network that controls simple devices such as lights or blinds. There are two main wireless protocols for this type of home control, both of which are relatively widely supported by vendors:

Both of these technologies are wireless, but they’re different from (and don’t interfere with) more familiar wireless technologies in the home like 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Both ZigBee and Z-Wave are low-power, relatively short-range wireless systems that use something called mesh networking to extend their reach throughout the home.

Mesh networking is essentially the lily pad approach to networking, where a signal hops across multiple ZigBee or Z-Wave devices to get from point A to point B. This means that the more devices you have in your home, the better coverage you’ll have throughout the house, as there are more nodes in your mesh network to help transmit control signals.

There are a lot of vendors of ZigBee or Z-Wave systems on the market, ranging from fancy whole-home automation vendors like Control4 to companies that make electrical equipment like Leviton to home theater vendors like Monster Cable, which makes a popular universal programmable remote (the Home Theater and Lighting Controller) that incorporates Z-Wave for lighting control.

A great way to get started with wireless home control is with a kit like Schlage’s (yep, the door lock company!) Nexia Home Automation starter kits. These kits start with remotely controllable door latch/lock devices, but the kits can be easily expanded to include controllers for lights, drapes, thermostats, and other devices. Be careful — once you start automating your home, you'll never want to stop!

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