By definition, a smart device can do things that it was never traditionally asked to do. Watches talk to you. Sneakers tell you how far you’ve run. Apple created a smart device when it built a computer into a phone.
Another important attribute of smart devices is they do not operate in isolation — they are connected to other devices and share information.
The most popular smart devices for 2017 came from Amazon and Google. These two platforms are trying to liberate users from the qwerty keypad with their smart speaker systems, and both are operated using voice activated virtual assistants. Amazon’s Echo is activated by the word “Alexa”, which wakes up its voice assistant. Google Home is turned on by “Okay, Google”. You can then ask about the weather, make a shopping list or turn on your favourite radio program.
It’s not surprising that both tech giants want to get their foot inside your front door. That’s where decisions about purchases are made, and Google and Amazon are in the business of selling. Amazon will even install a lock that allows delivery drivers to open your front door to accept Amazon deliveries.
But Google and Amazon are focusing on information exchange and product selling. They are not making your home smart, just the devices within it. To create a smart home, you need a home automation system that controls access and environment. And from air-conditioners to door locks, technology is doing to the home what Apple did to the phone — turning it into a device that shares information.
From Fibaro to Vera — installing a hub
One of the most sophisticated home automation systems is the Fibaro system from Poland. Fibaro is a top of the range system and runs off a protocol called Z-Wave. This uses a radio frequency to allow a hub to communicate with automation modules installed in the house and garden — much like your Wi-Fi lets your AV systems “talk” to each other.
The Fibaro modules are paired to the home automation hub, which is password protected with 256-bit encryption.
The basic Fibaro hub costs about $1,200, and with switches to control lights, doors and windows, CCTV, smoke and security alarms, the complete package costs four to five thousand dollars for an average home.
Sarang Vengurlekar, CEO of Baulkham Hills technology company Future IQ, is installing home automation systems like Fibaro across the Hills district.
“There’s a lot of interest in the area. People are trying to make their homes more tech-savvy,” Sarang said. “The reason for that is our lifestyle is getting busier. Ultimately, a smart home will take care of itself.”
He says GPS tracking of homeowners is the next innovation, although the technology is still waiting to be approved in Australia.
“At the moment in the USA and the UK, home automation systems use GPS to track home owner activity,” he said. “So, say you get out of work at 8pm. The home will know that you left work at 8pm, and that it will take you 20 minutes to get home. Within that 20 minutes, the automation system will switch on the lights and turn on the AC to your preferred temperature. It will open the garage when the car approaches.
“The home knows where you are — and it can keep tabs on the whole family.”
GPS aside, Sarang says Australian company Lockwood has produced a deadbolt that combines with home automation hubs.
“So if I’m out of the house and my parents come home and they don’t have the key they can call me and I can unlock the door immediately over the phone. Everyone is getting those locks now.”
The deadlock is Sarang’s favourite home automation device.
“It means I don’t have to carry my keys everywhere. It’s also got a PIN pad so I can enter a password, which means I don’t even have to carry my mobile with me.”
At the cheaper end of home automation hubs is Vera. Costing $299, Vera can be paired with a single switch. This means that for just under $500 you can start a basic home automation system.
The difference in price is down to the number of switches to which you have access. That single switch could control the lights, which means householders can turn them on just before they arrive home to enhance security.
Additional switches can be added to the modular system until you can see when a door is open and for how long, or the state of an air-conditioner in an upstairs bedroom.
How does it all work?
Home automation works thanks to the Internet of Things, the concept that any device that can be assigned an IP address (which is how computers connect to the internet), can be networked and controlled by a hub. This can then be accessed remotely from a smartphone.
A wristwatch, a pair of sneakers, an air-conditioner, a fridge, a door, a garden sprinkler system — all can be connected to the hub. You can then access data on where you went that day, how many steps you took, how much milk you have, who last entered through the front door and when you last watered the lawn.
If that sounds appealing, then a more sophisticated system like Fibaro would suit. If it sounds like your worst nightmare, but you can see the advantage of being able to turn on the lights remotely, then Vera will do the job.
But in the future, home automation may not be a question of choice. Just as many of our essential services have migrated to the internet, so there may come a day when your home is refused insurance because it does not have home automation. You may not be able to have a tap fixed because you cannot give remote access to the plumber. Signs of the normalisation of home automation are already evident as smart home systems are now being built into
Home automation from the ground up
At the moment, these systems are added to the home much as you would install Wi-Fi to play music from your phone through the stereo.
But it is possible to have the home automation hub, plus its connecting cables and routers, hard-wired into the house during construction.
David Denton, managing director of Denton Homes, operates in the high end of the market, servicing mainly the rural areas of Sydney — Dural, Kenthurst, the Hills area, the Southern Highlands and the outskirts of Camden. His average building contract is around $3.5 million.
“In the last five years every home I’ve built has included home automation,” he said. “My clients have a bit more disposable income, and they’re also quite savvy. They see home automation as an investment. There’s also the security aspect — the control they have over their homes.”
As part of that security, David’s hard-wired home automation hub includes a button tagged “lights on/lights off”.
“Some people call it the panic button,” he said. “If they hear a noise, they hit that button and every single light on the property comes on.”
He believes home automation also reduces power bills because there’s no such thing as leaving on the lights, TV, stereo, air-conditioner or any other appliance, and not being able to switch it off until you return home.
And if you’ve already turned in and can’t remember if you turned off the kitchen light, you can hit a “night scene” or “all off” button.
Then there’s the added advantage of monitoring curfews. He says many clients have reported how awesome the system is for their teenagers.
If a child says they are going to be home at 11pm, parents can check the door data to see what time they actually got home.
“With security and cameras you can keep an eye on your property no matter where you are on the planet,” said David.
The price for this security and convenience is obviously more cost effective while building the home than adding a system after a home is built.
“If people are spending $50,000 on standard electrical wiring, and they wanted to include home automation, they would probably spend $30,000 to $35,000 on top of that,” he said. It may be a wise investment.
Top five smart home accessories
1 - One button LED dimmer switch
2 - Panic button – activates all home lights
3 - Water Sensor – detects both the presence and absence of H2O
4 - Smart LED bulb – 16 million colours on call
5 - Door sensor – alerts when opened or closed.