Home Automation Systems and Technology Choices
The term “Home Automation” encompasses many different areas including Lighting, Heating / Aircon (HVAC), Energy Management, Security / CCTV, AV Distribution and Entertainment.
There are a multitude of Home Automation systems available, from budget plugin modules that are easily retro-fitted into existing properties, to professionally designed bespoke installations that require a CI (customer installer or integrator) and structured wiring at time of build.
It’s hard to categorise home automation technologies. Some are simply protocols, whether open or closed standards. Others comprise of hardware or software or all of the above. Here’s our guide offering an overview of some of the most popular home automation technologies around.
AMX is an all-encompassing high end professional home automation system. Usually only found in large bespoke homes as well as commercial settings like hotels and offices it employs proprietary technologies to provide an exceptionally polished system where every item is controlled and managed.
WeMo is a brand new range of home automation modules from Belkin. They offer simple plug and play appliance control and provide scheduling and remote operation from inside and outside the home with a free iOS App. In conjunction with the Cloud service If This Then That they can also be triggered from emails, SMS text messages as well as be scheduled to come on at sunset etc.
C-Bus from Clipsal / Schneider is a professional home automation system. It’s hard wired using a variety of topologies with CAT5 or similar cables – including it’s own pink version. It offers some wireless products in the range now too. It encompases a large range of modules, especially lighting, from this single supplier. It has a good following amongst Automated Home readers and DIY installation is possible with decent support available from forums etc. Watch our C-Bus video interview here.
The Comfort system from Cytech is one of the most popular smart home security panels around. As well as featuring If/Then/Else logic, one of its strengths is its ability to integrate with a wide range of other home automation systems via one of its ‘UCM’ boards. These hardware interfaces allow – for example – your security PIR to detect movement and then turn on your C-Bus controlled lighting in response . They support other standards like RS232, RS485, Ethernet, C-Bus, Crestron, KNX, Z-Wave, Velbus and GSM. Recently Cytech have released a cut-down version of their system, the ‘Logic Engine’ which acts as a stand alone HA controller for customers that don’t require the security features. Watch our video interview with Cytech.
CommandFusion are an Australian company producing a range of home automation hardware for CI’s and DIY installers. They aim to make things as simple as possible to install and operate and their iViewer software allows for creation of a GUI on a mobile device (iOS and Android). Their modules include various relays as well as traditional IR, RS232/422/485 and flexible I/O ports.
Control4 is an all-encompassing mid to high end home automation system. A relative new comer (established in 2003) it is highly rated and is installed by a network of approved CI’s. It aims to automate lighting, music, video, security and energy around the modern home and make it as easy to control as possible. Check out our interview with Control4 here.
Crestron has been in business for over 40 years and is another high end all-encompassing professional home automation system. Like AMX it is a very fully featured proprietary system that has matured over many years. It is usually installed by CI’s in large bespoke homes with big budget HA systems offering control of everything from Crestron’s touchscreens and iOS devices.
Domotiga is free open source Linux home automation software from the Netherlands. It can be run on a wide range of hardware including the Raspberry Pi and supports RFXCOM, X10, xPL, XBMC and 1-Wire.
Freedomotic is free open source home automation software that runs on any OS with Java support (Linux, Windows, Mac OSX, Android etc). It can be deployed on a single standard PC, a PCs network, a network of embedded devices like Raspberry Pi, or a mixture of the above.
Global Caché produce a range of WiFi / Ethernet IP enabled IR, serial, and contact closure devices. Most recently they have launched the iTach Flex range. The hardware allows you to control your home automation system using iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) Android devices as well as integrate them into controllers such as Indigo.
Harmony is Windows home automation software developed by UK based Domia Lifestyle. Around since 2002, this PC software supports X10, ByeBye Standby, C-Bus, Dupline, 1-Wire and Rako. Modules are available for Web and Touchsceen interfaces as well as CCTV and voice control.
HomeEasy is a range of wireless home automation modules produced by Byron. Ideal for retro-fitting into an existing property the range includes plugin modules, wall switches, micro modules, PIRs and remote controls. Check out our review here.
HomeSeer is probably the best known Windows home automation software around. Established in 1998 its feature list has expanded yearly and now represents one of the most complete suites available. It’s also been joined over the years by the HomeTroller range of hardware home automation controllers. It supports a huge range of HA hardware including Insteon, UPB, X10, xAP, xPL and Z-Wave.
HomeVision and HomeVision Pro are hardware home automation controllers that were built to allow control of large X10 systems. Their innovative software allowed complex If/Then/Else conditions to easily be programmed by a novice yet provide powerful macros. They support a range of I/O too and the ability to work through a TV menu. In late 2011 HomeVision creator Crag Chadwick announced the controller was being discontinued. Still considered by many to be one of the best controllers ever made and still swapping hands on eBay and our Buy/Sell forums.
Idratek was born out of years of University research and aims to be a true Home Automation system in the sense that it makes many decisions autonomously, rather than just provide remote controls for the home. Their Cortex software provides the intelligence for their own hardware modules and the entire network of sensors and switches learns from your behaviour which is ideal for assisted living scenarios too.
Indigo is s comprehensive Mac OSX home automation software package from Perceptive Automation. It supports X10, Insteon and more recently Z-Wave devices too plus a host of other sub systems from more than 40 3rd party plugins. The system is being actively developed and has a thriving support forum. Listen to our podcast with Matt Bendiksen from Perceptive Automation
Insteon is a range of hardware home automation modules ideal for retro-fitting to any home. Insteon’s inventors SmartLabs describe it a “Dual Band” system as every command gets transmitted over both RF and Power Line. This built-in redundancy is designed to ensure your commands get through. The RF side of things is a proprietary Mesh Network where every module receives and re-transmits signals to maximise range and reduce dead spots. On the Power Line side Modules are also capable of sending X10 commands so you can control any legacy devices you may have. All of Insteon’s latest modules support status requests. Check out our video here.
KNX is the successor to several previous standards including the European Home Systems Protocol (EHS) and the European Installation Bus (EIB / Instabus). It’s a huge ecosystem for the smart home with over 7,000 certified KNX products on the market from over 100 companies. KNX is currently popular in Europe but has very little presence in the USA. Check out our Interview with KNX Association Director Joost Demarest for more information.
A relative new comer, LightwaveRF from JSJS designs offers a range of attractive modern home automation modules at reasonable prices. This wireless range currently doesn’t support status requests – although this may be coming in future hardware. Check out our in-depth LightwaveRF review.
LinuxMCE is a free open source software suite that provides home automation controls as well as media centre duties. The system can be used to control X-10, KNX / EIB, Z-Wave, EnOcean, and Insteon hardware. In addition it provides other core components including VoIP with the FOSS Asterisk PBX and integration with CCTV / security systems. Checkout our overview of LinuxMCE here.
The Loxone system is built around their neat ‘Miniserver’ hardware controller. It supports KNX switches and sensors, PC’s or touch screen, via web interface, remote control by iPod, iPhone, iPad, Smartphone, software integration and more. View our Loxone case study here.
Around since 1961, Lutron are famous for inventing the solid state dimmer. Now known for their intelligent lighting controls, Lutron is a professional grade system found in high end domestic and commercial installations.
Mi Casa Verde
Mi Casa Verde produce the “Vera” range of Linux based hardware home automation controllers. Built around Z-Wave technology these controllers also support Control4, X1o, Insteon and IP CCTV cameras. Their open APIs allow developers to create additional apps to control the home.
Minerva is an open source Linux home automation software suite. It offers a built in web interface, SMS and IR control plus speech synthesis. In addition it employs a range of ‘Applets’ to connect with and control various devices around your home. These include plugins for X10, Bluetooth, Audio and Video playback, Weather, reports, TV Guide and an RSS feed reader.
MisterHouse is free open source home automation software. Written entirely in Perl, it runs on Windows and most Unix based platforms, including Linux and Mac OSX. It supports a multitude of systems including xAP, xPL, X10, iButtons, TTS, RS-232 Serial etc.
Nest was started by Tony Fadell, one of the lead designers in both the iPod and iPhone. He invented the Nest learning home heating thermostat and the Nest Protect smart home Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm.
The open Home Automation Bus (openHAB) is a system developed in Java that is hardware and protocol agnostic. With support for over 40 technologies including things like Raspberry Pi, RFXCOM, KNX, MAX! and Asterisk, it is building a growing smart home community.
Open Remote is software that runs on Windows, Linux, Mac and Raspberry Pi and is freely available under an Open Source license. It can be used to integrate many different smart home sub-systems including those from AMX, KNX, Lutron, Z-Wave, 1-Wire, EnOcean, xPL, Insteon, X10, Infrared, Russound, GlobalCache, IRTrans, XBMC, VLC, panStamps, Denon AVR, FreeBox and MythTV. End-user control interfaces are available for iOS and Android devices, and for devices with modern web browsers. User interface design, installation management and configuration can be handled remotely with OpenRemote cloud-based design tools.
Open Source Automation
Open Source Automation (OSA) is free open source home automation software for Windows. Its Plugin architecture and API makes it possible to interface to and control a wide variety of home automation and entertainment systems including X10, Insteon, 1-Wire, RFXCOM, Z-Wave, Global Cache, MCE, Squeezebox Server and XBMC.
Rako Controls produce a range of wired and wireless smart home lighting products that are designed and manufactured in the UK. iPhone and iPad control of lighting is available with their hardware bridge and their free Rako iOS App.
Revolve aims to be the one smartphone smart home controller to rule them all. It integrates control of many systems into a single iOS app (Android coming) plus a $300 hardware hub that houses 7 radios including Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Insteon. With it they can control Sonos, Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo and Nest amongst others with drivers for more systems planned.
RFXcom produce a range of wireless transceivers that are a swiss army knife for RF home automation systems. They are supported by a huge range of software and hardware including HomeSeer, Indigo, Vera, HomeEasy and LightwaveRF. These inexpensive USB products work with Linux, Mac-OS and Windows.
Founded in 2005 Savant Systems provide a suite of integrated proprietary automation solutions for residential and commercial applications built using Apple technology. It’s employed in beautiful bespoke installations like the one in this video using multiple Mac mini servers along with iPads and other iOS devices for control.
Shion is home automation software for Mac OSX. It has recently been made open source and free along with its Shion Touch iOS App which is also free. With support for X10 and Insteon it’s an interesting proposition for Apple Mac users for zero outlay.
Universal Powerline Bus (UPB)
UPB is a 2-way powerline communications technology which was designed in the 1990′s with a view to replacing X10. PulseWorx lighting control products are produced by Powerline Control Systems Inc (PCS) and you can read more about them in our My Automated Home article from Delmar Fadden.
Velbus is a modular home automation system using a bus cable consisting of 4 wires (2 for power and 2 for data). There is no central control unit making the system immune to a single point of failure. It has a number of different control options, from built in control functions on each module, to server type controllers, including free and paid options. It also offers a DIN mounted server option and iPhone control.
Entry into the world of home automation has been powered by X10 for many people (Ed: including me). It’s probably the best known ‘proper’ home automation system, in that it offers a large range of hardware and software and it can be used in a relatively powerful way. It’s inexpensive and allows up to 256 addresses on the network but on the down side it’s based on a slow powerline technology invented in the 1970′s (by Pico Electronics in Scotland). While the technology is extremely well established it lacks modern features like status control.
xAP started off life on the Automated Home mailing list. It is a protocol designed to help disparate home automations systems talk to each other using broadcast UDP over a LAN. While development seems to have slowed in recent limes it remains a useful tool for integrating various smart home systems. Check out our xAP Tutorial here.
xPL is a fork of xAP. While it is a very similar protocol its developers wanted to it to be as lightweight as possible to support embedded devices. Listen to our podcast with the xPL developers here.
Xtension is Mac OSX home automation software that’s been around since 1996. It supports X10, Z-Wave, UPB and Oregon Scientific weather stations.
Zigbee is based on an IEEE 802 open standard and provides a low power personal area network. Zigbee chips are used in various smart home devices like the AlertMe Home Energy and Home Security systems. Listen to our AlertMe podcast.
Zipato are a Croatia company and their Zipabox home automation controller allows customers to use Zigbee and Z-wave devices to secure and automate their homes. Read our full Zipabox review here.
Z-Wave is simlar to Zigbee in that it’s technology that creates a wireless mesh network. Although it is not an open standard there are many manufactures producing Z-Wave modules. Read our interview with Z-Wave for more information and check out our Fibaro Z-Wave Controller review.
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) is a popular term referring to the increasing number of items that have an IP address. While an over-riding home automation communication standard has yet to appear, IP is rapidly becoming the medium of choice. The new low power 802.11ah standard that’s in the works should make Wi-Fi even more practical for smart home applications and with IPv6 it’s easy to see a time when every light bulb, radiator valve and PIR in our homes will have their own IP address on the smart grid.
Check out the Arduino and the Raspberry pi, which continue to be the darlings of the DIY home automation hardware hacker and there are a multitude of new wireless bulb technologies that have emerged in recent times too.
Lastly here’s a list of smart home technologies that haven’t made it into the main body of this article yet. Check back as we’re always updating this page and let us know if there’s something you’d like to see included.