How Does Home Automation Work?

The term “home automation” is all over the internet, but in this article, we’ll explain to you exactly how it works.

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Jun 30, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Jun 30, 2021

Home automation is one of our favorite topics. It gives us a glimpse into what future smart homes might look like. However, in this article, we’ll get down to brass tacks and answer one question that still eludes many: How does home automation work?

What Is Home Automation?

Home automation is the automatic and electronic control of household appliances, features, and activities. That’s the technical definition, but we’re not fans of technical definitions either, so how about an example of how home automation can change an aspect of your home?

With normal light switches, you have to flip the switch manually, so the control is neither automatic nor electronic. Smart switches automate the process by turning lights on and off based on schedules, or the times of sunsets or sunrises. That’s a simple but practical application of smart home automation. To sum it up, home automation devices control themselves based on your preferences, schedules that you’ve set, and a ton of other factors.

Vivint Smart Hub
Vivint Smart Hub

How Does Home Automation Work?

Real home automation isn’t just one automated device connected to the internet, but a network of devices that integrate with each other. The network then connects to the internet, so you can manage it remotely.

The Main Components of Home Automation Systems

The key element of home automation is integration, and to create well-balanced integrations, you need three types of components:

  • Sensors: Sensors provide data that signals to home automation systems when to perform actions. For those familiar with smart home security systems, there you have window sensors, door sensors, glass break sensors, motion detectors, smoke detectors, CO alarms, and the like. Home automation systems may also include sensors that read temperatures, humidity levels, room occupancy, moisture, and so on.
  • Controllers: Your controllers are the devices you use to control or manage your home automation system. In most cases, they’re the smartphones, tablets, and computers loaded with the systems’ companion apps. In advanced automation systems, there are smart home hubs or touchscreen panels as well. Either way, the controllers tell your system what to do and when to do it.
  • Actuators: The actuators are the devices that perform automated tasks, such as smart lights, smart light switches, garage door controllers, smart thermostats, smart bulbs, smart door locks, and smart plugs.

To illustrate how these three main components work together, let’s take smart locks as an example. Many smart locks automatically lock or unlock the door as you leave the house or approach it. In that scenario, the sensor is your phone’s GPS, the controller is the smart lock’s app, and the actuator is the smart lock. When your GPS enters a certain radius around your house, the app tells the smart lock to unlock the door.

FYI: Some home automation devices have multiple functions. For instance, there are smart thermostats with built-in presence sensors, making them both actuators and sensors.

Cutting the Cord With Wireless Home Automation

Wireless connectivity is also crucial to the integration of home automation devices. Control protocols make that possible. When two devices use the same protocol, they can likely connect with each other. The most popular examples are Z-Wave and Zigbee.

  • Z-Wave: Z-Wave is a proprietary wireless standard that uses low-frequency radio bands, specifically 908.4 MHz and 916 MHz in the U.S.1 Because it’s low-frequency, it doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi.
  • Zigbee: Zigbee is an open-source protocol. It uses the IEEE 802.15.4 physical radio standard, and it operates on the 2.4 GHz and 915 MHz bands in the U.S.2
  • Wi-Fi: Some devices don’t need specialized protocols; rather, they connect to the internet over Wi-Fi. While that’s convenient, having multiple Wi-Fi-connected devices may congest your network and slow down your internet.
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth is also a control protocol, but it’s not as widely used as the others because of its limited range and lower data transmission rate. The advantage of Bluetooth is that it’s power-efficient, making it a good protocol for battery-powered automation products.
  • Thread: Like Wi-Fi, Thread is an IP-based control protocol. Unlike Wi-Fi, it has low power consumption and doesn’t need routers. It’s also capable of creating mesh networks to extend the wireless range of each device.

That pretty much covers the basics of how home automation works, but keep reading as we delve deeper into home automation, smart homes, and the internet of things, or IoT.

What Is a Smart Home?

Smart home and home automation are similar, but not exactly the same. Home automation is the process of automating devices, while smart homes are any living spaces with home automation. Smart thermostats, smart lights, and smart locks are all home automation devices, and if you install them in your home, that makes it a smart home. Click here to learn more about how to make a smart home.

Are IoT and Home Automation Devices the Same?

We know that a lot of people use the terms “IoT” and “home automation” interchangeably, but are they the same? They aren’t. It’s a classic case of “all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs.” “IoT” refers to any internet-connected device that doesn’t connect to the internet typically, like thermostats and light bulbs.

Home automation, on the other hand, is the process of controlling IoT devices automatically and electronically. So, while all home automation devices are IoT devices, not all IoT devices are capable of home automation.

Features You Can Achieve Through Home Automation

Depending on which home automation devices you own, you can access a number of home automation features.

  • Light control: Smart lights automate lighting based on schedules or events, like when there’s motion at the front door.
  • Temperature control: Smart thermostats automate indoor temperatures based on the current humidity, air quality, occupancy, and other factors to promote energy efficiency and savings.
  • Appliance control: Smart outlets and plugs automate non-smart appliances plugged into them. You can create schedules or control them remotely via apps.
  • Geofencing: Geofencing uses your phone’s location to automate tasks, like locking your door when you leave and unlocking it when you arrive.
  • Keyless entry: Smart locks also allow for keyless entry, using smartphone apps as substitutes for keys. They also allow for access sharing, so you can give housesitters temporary control over your door without leaving keys under the mat.
  • Schedules: Schedule functions let you set when smart devices should turn on, turn off, or adjust the settings. Simple, but useful.
  • Scenes: Scenes control multiple devices with one command. Instead of turning on your lights one by one, you can create a scene that turns them on at once.
  • Routines: Routines are scenes on schedule so that they activate automatically when you need them to.
  • Home and away modes: Home and away modes let you set your preferences for when you’re home and away. For example, when set to home mode, your thermostat will adjust to your preferred home temperature.
  • Shared access: You can share access to your smart home with people you live with. Most automation systems log which user accessed which devices and when, so you can monitor who locked and unlocked your door, adjusted your thermostat, and more.
  • Triggers: Devices trigger other devices to create automated responses to events. For instance, motion sensors can trigger smart lights to turn on when they detect motion.
  • Voice control: You can control compatible smart home devices using Alexa, Google Assistant, and even Siri. You can read our Echo Dot With Clock review, Echo Flex review, and Echo Show 8 review for more details on Alexa. For Google Assistant, read our Nest Hub Max review, Google Home Hub review, and Nest Mini review.
  • Remote smoke and carbon monoxide alerts: With smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, you can get alerted to fire and gas leaks, even if you’re not home. They send alerts through email, push notifications, and SMS.
  • Smart home security: Home security systems integrate with home automation devices to provide better security. For example, you can set your security system to arm whenever you lock your smart lock, ensuring that you don’t leave your system vulnerable.
  • IFTTT: IFTTT is short for “If This, Then That,” the formula this internet tool uses to create smart homes. By setting applets that contain triggers and actions, you can create simple home automation tasks involving hundreds of compatible smart home brands.
Smart Home Automation
Smart Home Automation

Do You Need Home Automation?

Home automation is not for everybody, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons to decide whether to dive into it or not.

Benefits of Having an Automated Home

Home automation takes a futuristic approach to home management. We’re still years away from robot butlers, but even simple features like schedules, geofencing, and scenes have plenty of benefits.

  1. Remote access: Home automation enables remote access via the internet, but it’s about more than just turning on lights remotely. With remote access, you can adjust your home automation preferences on the fly. Is your meeting running late? No problem! Just adjust your thermostat schedule from your phone and you’ll come home to a comfortable living room without wasting electricity.
  2. Comfort: From smart thermostats that keep homes toasty in the winter to robotic vacuums that clean floors, home automation keeps us comfortable. It achieves that with sensors. For example, some smart lights boost moods by detecting ambient lights and adjusting light temperatures accordingly — warm white when it’s sunny to energize you and cool white when it’s cloudy for a calming ambiance.
  3. Energy savings: Smart thermostats are prime examples of energy-saving home automation devices. Nest claims that its smart thermostats save customers 10 to 12 percent on their heating and 15 percent on cooling costs.3 With that kind of savings, smart thermostats pay for themselves in only about two years of use.
  4. Safety: Home automation also promotes safety. In the area of fire safety, for example, smart smoke alarms can alert us to fires even if we’re not home, unlike regular smoke alarms, which can only alert those in the vicinity. The same goes with flood sensors that alert us to burst pipes or leaks. They can save us from expensive and tiresome flood repairs. Smart security systems also provide better security, from turning on smart lights when there’s motion to letting us answer our doors through doorbell cameras. And yes, security cameras can deter crime.
  5. Convenience: Home automation devices are nothing if not convenient. With many home automation systems, you can set your schedule, preferences, and routines once and automated tasks will run indefinitely.

OUR EXPERT TAKE: Not all home automation systems are the same. Before building your smart home, make sure the devices you’ll use offer all the features you want. Schedules and scenes may be common features, but geofencing and routines are less common than you might think.

The Disadvantages: Is Home Automation Safe?

On the flip side, home automation comes with disadvantages that you might not want to put up with. Consider these cons when deciding if home automation is for you.

  • Cybersecurity: In 2018, iQor found that 70 percent of consumers fear the possibility of hacking through home automation devices.4 That well-founded fear stems from the fact that home automation devices connect to the internet, which means hacking is very much possible (even alarm systems can be hacked!). In fact, it has happened before, like when a Milwaukee couple discovered that a hacker spied on them through the very cameras and video doorbells they put in their home. However, you can take steps to protect your smart home and your phone from hackers. We’ll discuss those later on.
  • Privacy concerns: Privacy is a real concern with home automation devices. When Amazon and Google launched their smart speakers, their passive listening feature bothered 36 percent of consumers, according to an NPR study.6 Although Amazon and Google made it clear that the speakers only listen for the wake words (“Alexa” and “OK, Google”), it’s always a good idea to check the company’s privacy policy to see what types of data they collect.
  • New technology: New technology comes with bugs and glitches, and home automation devices are not exempt. You may experience difficulties every now and then. And believe us, it’s not fun when your smart lock won’t unlock automatically because of a glitch. Fortunately, most smart locks still come with physical keys, but it’s annoying, to say the least, when glitches happen.
  • Costs: Most automated devices cost more than their non-smart counterparts. As an example, we’ve found that the average cost of smart bulbs is $36, whereas regular bulbs cost $5. Of course, there are reasons for this. For starters, smart bulbs use LED technology, which consumes less energy than fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. You also get tons of features with smart bulbs, like the ability to change their colors, control them from anywhere, and create schedules. By putting lights on schedules, you can save a significant amount on your electric bills. But the upfront costs, compared to those of regular bulbs, are undeniably high.
Secure Your Home Automation
Secure Your Home Automation

Home Automation Through the Years

Now, when we say that home automation is a new technology, we mean the type of devices we have today: smart locks, smart thermostats, smart bulbs, and so on. However, the idea of automated homes began roughly 50 years ago with the first IoT device.

  • 1982: Carnegie Mellon University students connected a Coca-Cola vending machine to the ARPANET, a precursor to the internet, creating the first IoT device.7 Its purpose was to monitor if the machine’s contents were cold or if it was empty.
  • 1989-90: John Romkey connected a modified toaster to the internet, which allowed him to turn it on and off remotely. He displayed it at the October 1989 Interop conference.8
  • 1999: Kevin Ashton coined the term “internet of things,” or “IoT.”9
  • 2007: Ecobee invented the first Wi-Fi smart thermostat.10
  • Late 2000s: The rise of smartphones gave way to the creation of home automation devices with remote app control.

How To Set Up a Home Automation System

OK, so how exactly do you set up a home automation system? Our smart home experts recommend a six-step process, and we’ll walk you through each step.

1. Select Your Ecosystem

Most likely, you’ll have to choose between Alexa and Google Assistant, the two most popular home automation ecosystems today. However, you can take a step back and choose ecosystems based on how they manage automation tasks and how you control them.

  • Control: App-based control uses apps or software, such as smartphone apps, computer programs, web apps, and voice assistants. Central control, on the other hand, uses central units to control smart homes. Examples are hubs, control panels, and smart remotes.
  • Processing: Cloud computing stores automation settings and preferences on a cloud, which means you need an internet connection to use most features. Local processing stores settings in a central unit like a hub. While it’s more reliable, local processing usually costs more because it requires more processing hardware.

THE MORE YOU KNOW: Although centrally controlled home automation systems use central units for local control, most also have companion apps for remote control. The hubs, base stations, or control panels connect to the internet to provide remote access to the users.

2. Choose a Control Protocol

Next, you’ll need to choose a control protocol, which we discussed above: Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, or Thread. The most important thing here is to choose the control protocol that works best with your ecosystem. For instance, Alexa and Google Assistant work best with Wi-Fi home automation devices, while Zigbee and Z-Wave work best with hubs.

3. Choose Your Devices

The next step is choosing your home automation devices. But first, what can you automate? Well, what can’t you? From the more common smart lights and thermostats to the bizarre ones like smart toilets, here’s a list of things you can automate.

  • Basics: Smart lights, switches, thermostats, plugs, speakers, displays, TVs, security systems, smoke and CO detectors, video doorbells, robotic vacuums, etc.
  • Kitchen, bath, and laundry: Smart refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers, ovens, coffee makers, trash cans, crockpots, blenders, toilets, showerheads, shutters or blinders, etc.
  • Nurseries: Baby monitors, smart rockers, health monitors, changing tables, mobiles, sleep trackers, air health sensors, white noise machines, window blinds, etc.
  • Pet items: Smart treat dispensers, pet cameras, self-cleaning litter boxes, mats, pet doors, pet toys, water dispensers, pet-friendly security systems, etc.
  • Others: Smart ceiling fans, sprinkler systems, beds, temperature-controlled smart floors, etc.

4. Pick Brands and Buy

Now that you know what smart devices you want, it’s time to pick out brands. Our list of the best smart home devices might help, but consider these factors as well:

  • Integrations: For starters, you’ll need to research which brands work with what other brands.
  • Diversity of devices: You’ll also want to check which brands offer the largest variety of automation products so as to minimize the number of smart home apps on your phone.
  • App ratings: Speaking of apps, the brands’ smartphone app ratings are worth considering. Some brands are better at making apps than others.
  • Privacy policy: Lastly, check the brands’ privacy policies to see what types of data they collect from their products.

When it’s time to purchase, we recommend buying in bulk to access discounts. It costs less to buy packs than to buy individual products.

Also, keep an eye out for deals and promotions. Black Friday smart home deals, in particular, tend to yield huge savings. We’ve seen amazing Echo Black Friday deals, for instance, as well as Echo Prime Day deals.

5. Decide on DIY vs. Professional Installation

The next step is installation, either professional installation or DIY. If you go the DIY route, installation typically involves placing the devices, connecting them to Wi-Fi, pairing them with each other, and setting up automation. That was the case with the best DIY security systems we tested. However, you can also have someone install your system professionally. Both are equally good ways to install home automation devices.

6. Customize Your Smart Home

The last part of the home automation journey is customizing the system to your liking. This involves setting schedules, adjusting your preferences, creating scenes, setting geofencing radiuses, scheduling routines, and more.

Fun Ideas for Automating Your Home

Here are a few fun ideas to try:

  • Ambiance with smart lights: Create scenes for different moods using color-changing smart bulbs. For example, you can create a romantic scene for date nights that turns all your dining room lights amber.
  • The illusion that you’re home: Have your smart speaker play a recording of your voice when you’re gone, and make your TV and lights turn on and off randomly to make it seem like you’re home, Kevin McCallister style.
  • Priority cooling and heating in occupied rooms: Integrate motion sensors with your smart thermostat, then make it prioritize cooling or heating in occupied rooms only.
  • Automated night lights: Set up motion sensors along your path to the toilet, and have your smart lights turn on to the lowest brightness setting when the sensors detect motion.
  • Morning routine: Have your smart devices perform your morning routines for you, like turning off lights, brewing coffee, and turning on the TV to the morning news.

If you want more ideas, check out this article of ours that focuses on using home automation to secure homes.

Amazon Echo Flex
Amazon Echo Flex

How To Secure Your Home Automation System

Securing your home against intruders is one thing; securing your smart home against hackers is another. Follow these tips to ensure your smart home’s digital security:

  1. Use router encryption. Choose a secure encryption method for your Wi-Fi, like WPA2, to prevent outsiders from connecting to your network and stealing data from your home automation devices.
  2. Use a strong, complicated Wi-Fi password. For the same reasons, set a hard-to-guess password for your Wi-Fi network.
  3. Buy a secure router. For better security, buy a new router instead of using the router from your ISP. Generally speaking, branded routers are more secure than generic routers.
  4. Use separate Wi-Fi home networks. Create a separate Wi-Fi network just for your smart home devices. This will ease Wi-Fi congestion and prevent guests from accessing your Wi-Fi-connected smart devices.
  5. Check your account password’s security. In addition to your Wi-Fi password, check that your home automation account passwords are secure.
  6. Use two-factor authentication. Whenever possible, enable two-factor authentication on your smart home apps or even biometric authentication, also known as multifactor authentication.
  7. Check privacy policies. It’s important to know what types of data your home automation companies collect. You can find that information in the companies’ privacy policies, or you can check for them in our privacy guide.
  8. Update the software and firmware. Update your apps and device firmware regularly to receive the security updates that come with new versions of the software and firmware.
  9. Check your device settings. Sometimes, home automation devices and apps have default settings that are not necessary and make your devices more hackable, such as location tracking. Turn off these settings if you don’t need them.
  10. Use VPN routers. A VPN encrypts your devices’ online traffic for privacy and security. While most VPNs don’t work with home automation devices directly, there are VPN routers that encrypt the traffic of all the devices connected to them. Learn how to set up a VPN on a router.

Recap

Sure, there are hundreds of home automation brands and thousands of devices on the market, but to achieve home automation, all you need are devices that integrate well together. Once you know which devices and features you want, you’ll be able to set up your own smart home. As always, if you need help doing that, feel free to check out our home automation guide.

FAQs

We hope the guide we put together above answered all your home automation questions, but in case you have more, here are our answers to some frequently asked questions.

  • How do home automation systems work?

    Home automation systems and devices work by integrating multiple home automation devices together. Well-integrated networks of smart devices allow for features such as remote access and control, schedules, routines, geofencing, and scenes. In order to build a home automation system, you need three types of devices: sensors, controllers, and actuators.

    • Sensors: Sensors give home automation systems data that signal them when to perform automated tasks. Examples are motion sensors, temperature sensors, and smoke alarms.
    • Controllers: These control the home automation devices, either remotely or locally. Smartphone apps and computer software are common types of controllers, but hubs, control panels, and smart remotes also do the job.
    • Actuators: Actuators are the devices that perform automated tasks, such as smart thermostats, smart lights, and smart locks.
  • How do you automate your home?

    You can automate your home by following our six-step process:

    1. Choose an ecosystem. Currently, the most popular home automation ecosystems are Alexa and Google Assistant, but ecosystems like SmartThings also do the job.
    2. Choose a control protocol for your wireless home automation system. Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee are the most popular options.
    3. Plan your home automation system layout by selecting the smart devices you want to use.
    4. Pick home automation brands that offer the devices you chose. The more types of devices they offer, the better.
    5. Install your home automation devices. Most likely, you’ll need to place them, connect them to each other and to your Wi-Fi network, and create automation.
    6. Customize your home automation system by setting preferences, creating schedules, making routines and scenes, and setting up geofences.
  • Is home automation worth the money?

    In our opinion, home automation is worth the money. It provides features that make our lives easier and more convenient.

    In addition, most home automation devices can actually save us money in the long run. Smart thermostats, for example, can cut down our heating and cooling costs. As long as you use your home automation devices properly and wisely, they are worth the money.

  • How much do home automation systems cost?

    Home automation systems can cost as little as $20 and as much as several thousand dollars, depending on your layout. Some of the cheapest home automation devices we’ve seen are smart bulbs and smart plugs, with some selling for $10 each.

    However, if you want to fully automate your home, expect to spend hundreds of dollars, at least. Entry-level smart thermostats alone cost over $100, while the more feature-rich models cost $200 to $300. When you buy home automation devices, we highly recommend buying in bulk, as most brands offer discounts when you buy packs.

Citations
  1. Z Wave Alliance. Z-Wave Global Regions.
    z-wavealliance.org/z-wave-global-regions/

  2. Connectivity Standards Alliance. Zigbee FAQ. zigbeealliance.org/zigbee-faq/

  3. Nest Labs. (2015). Energy Savings from the Nest Learning Thermostat:
    Energy Bill Analysis Results.
    storage.googleapis.com/nest-public-downloads/press/documents/energy-savings-white-paper.pdf

  4. iQor. iQor Homepage. iqor.com/press/cpx360-survey-part-2

  5. FOX6 Milwaukee. (2019). ‘Felt so violated:' Milwaukee couple warns hackers are outsmarting smart homes. fox6now.com/news/felt-so-violated-milwaukee-couple-warns-hackers-are-outsmarting-smart-homes

  6. National Public Media. (2020). The Smart Audio Report.
    nationalpublicmedia.com/insights/reports/smart-audio-report/

  7. CMU CS Department. The “Only” Coke Machine on the Internet. cs.cmu.edu/~coke/history_long.txt

  8. BBC Future. The toaster that changed the world.
    bbc.com/storyworks/future/the-new-wave/innovation

  9. Smithsonian Magazine. (2015). Kevin Ashton Describes “the Internet of Things.”
    smithsonianmag.com/innovation/kevin-ashton-describes-the-internet-of-things-180953749/

  10. Ecobee. (2019). The Untold Story of the First Smart Thermostat.
    ecobee.com/en-us/citizen/the-untold-story-of-the-first-smart-thermostat/