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home automation icons on tablet

There are lots of ways to plan your smart home, not just in terms of equipment, but how you go about getting all that home automation up and running, and once its up and running, how to access it.

In this article we’re going to sketch out just one of the options you have (occasionally, though mentioning the alternatives), which is to work with what is typically a large service provider.  I’m talking about those who’s business model is built around monthly revenues or, more typically annual fees/contracts.  The services provided in this case, can include security monitoring – as that’s where many of these companies come from – security, and remote access and control – so you can use your phone or other device when you are outside your home to monitor, but they are adding home automation features.

Of course, if you are a DIY type, you can accomplish pretty much all the same access without going the subscriber route.  But if you go with some sort of subscription, it could cost you $5.99 a month, or $11.99 or more than $50 a month – probably the sky’s the limit, depending on what services you want.  You should at least be aware of all your options.  Let’s just call the options we’re discussing here, “subscription models.   Many of these plans are built first, and foremost around security monitoring, since many of these companies come from that “space.”

Some might be month to month, others may be a one or two year contract.  We’ll try to explore in this piece, what some of those options look like.  Of course in the smartphone world 2 year contracts have ruled for a decade now, but all of a sudden, they are vanishing.  We’ll see whether two year lock ins can survive in this market.  Of course the security portion of home automation is something we shouldn’t be taking lightly.  We probably shouldn’t change from one company’s monitoring to anothers every few months to save a few dollars.  Life’s too short.

First, just so you have some idea of who’s doing what to whom – that is, who the players are, some of the companies that are into the subscription.

Understand, it is not necessary to have some monolithic company overseeing your home automation adventure.  You can do just about anything you want, with today’s Wifi and Z-Wave (and Zigbee) solutions.  Still the companies who have been selling home security for years, see this as an opportunity to dramatically expand – their reach, and their revenues per home.

ATT-Digital-Life_house-icons

This Home Automation graphic is from AT&T. Note it’s mostly about Security

Let’s start with having a company monitoring your home.  After all, as stated above, many of the players in the “subscription” place, come to home automation from the home security field.  It therefore shouldn’t be in the least surprising that ADT – the home security company, was talking up their whole home automation program way back in January at CES 2015.   Just two weeks ago, however, I attended CTIA – the big wireless tradeshow (in Las Vegas).  While only a small portion focused on the home, I got to chat with AT&T there, and they too, look to get into your smart home in a big way – built around a subscription model.

A Home Automation Focused Subscription Service

The first home Z-Wave controller we reviewed, the Nexia Bridge, also offers a subscription, but their program is smaller, and less comprehensive than AT&T or ADT.  You buy their controller, so your subscription isn’t covering included hardware, like the way AT&T’s program works.  Nexia’s is also especially home automation oriented, rather than security.  Nexia, BTW is owned by Ingersoll-Rand, who we are more likely to think of for huge industrial pumps, and construction gear, than say, a thermostat, or alarm.  (Nexia, it should be noted, partners for products other than their Bridge. In other words, they don’t seem to want to be a manufacturer of light bulbs, or wall outlets).  Everyone’s getting into the act though.  Lowes is offering up their own IRIS home automation and security gear (Lowe’s, btw,  originally worked with Nexia).  Home Depot has Wink, and so it goes.  The subscription model will no doubt remain popular.

Our first in-depth look at one of these companies offering a security oriented subscription model, will be AT&T.  I expect that that “review” will be live before Oct. 1, as I’ve been writing both of them at the same time.

MyNexia.com main screen

Shown is the main screen from the MyNexia.com website, once logged in

I want to use Nexia as one example of a subscription, as we’ve already reviewed their controller and covered their services. [ Click to check out that review.]  Suffice to say here, that Nexia’s is a basic subscription model, currently $9.99 a month.  For that you get a website, that has everything their Apps have, and more, and you’ve given their “secure” site access to your home router so it can access the home automation controller.

Now by comparison a free service is available from IFTTT  I’ve always thought of IFTTT as mostly for techies, and DIY types, although it really isn’t that challenging.  Using IF as it’s now named, is described as setting up Triggers and Actions, to create Recipes.  The term “script” comes immediately to mind.   It’s a simple form of programming on the Internet, but it can give you control.

Nexia by comparison, for $9.99 a month goes far beyond in some areas, it’s your web based control center. The photo above (if you click on it to enlarge), will give you a very good idea of what to expect.

With the MyNexia site, there are even more capabilities than the apps offer.  With MyNexia, I can at least to some degree, control most of my smart lights features, control all my Z-wave wall switches and outlets, check my door locks, and more, from inside my home or out. (Their current apps won’t let you adjust the color, only turn the lights on/off/dim.)  But enough about Nexia, back to topic.

This article is first in a series that’s really about introducing you to the options available.  We’re writing all types of end users, from DIY types to those who want top of the line, money no object, going with “old school” systems, and all the rest of us, in between.

If all you care about is the security side of things there’s plenty of info and even comparisons online, and one of the subscription based services is likely for you.

But if you are like me, and are really into all the things home automation can do – then we’re in a fast expanding, rapidly changing industry.  I know there aren’t a whole lot of places to find answers your questions online yet, but we’ll try to be one of the better sources for you.

Controlling your Smart Home From Beyond Your Front Door

Security companies, of course, for years, have provided remote monitoring of our homes to those willing to pay for it.  Many companies like ADT, FrontPoint or AT&T Digital Life are expanding into at least offering some home automation gadgetry.

With the advent of affordable home automation, people are looking for more than just “security.”  We want to be able to monitor and adjust their smart homes, themselves, even when remote.   Want to look in to see how the puppy is doing, from work?  Turn on the lights before you get home… You get the idea.   That means that WE need the ability to do our own monitoring, even if we are paying a company for security monitoring.  And we want to be able to make sure we locked the door when we left, or closed the garage.  Or turned down the thermostat.

It’s logical, therefore, for the security based companies, to expand into home automation.  After all, they already have the expertise for the monitoring side, they just need to also be able to share some of that monitoring and control with you.

But it’s not just the security aspects.  One big issue for us all to think about, is that if we go with a company that offers both security and home automation, whether they can provide all the capabilities we ask for.  In our series of looks at different subscription based solutions, that will be a key aspect that we will discuss.

I think you’ll find that since home automation gear is changing so rapidly, that there’s far more capabilities and a huge variety of types of gear out there that can be done by a DIY type person, and also, by anyone hiring a local home theater/home automation type company, than you will find offered by most of the big security company types.

Do you, therefore, want to consider having two separate systems? Maybe?  At first thought, probably not.  But then, you may already have a security system, so it’s not that far fetched, it’s even logical:  Security experts for security, home automation experts for your smart home.

As you will read in our next published piece – one on AT&T’s Digital Life solution, they’ve got security monitoring, and the hardware to go with it:  Locks and door sensors, carbon monoxide sensors, etc.  Even wall light dimmers and outlets.  But, so far, no support for smart light bulbs, motorized shades, etc.

Want to use some smart, color, RGB or RGBW bulbs in your house, and change colors, set times, etc?  Sorry, AT&T at this point has no support for that.  But you can put a lot of LED or CFL (or conventional) bulbs around the house, that are controlled by smart wall switches,allowing you to control them by schedule, and you can dim those that are dimmable.  Color lighting, I truly believe, is coming to your home environment, so, personally, I consider support for smart bulbs, and especially smart color bulbs to be something many of us will want, even if we’re primarily hooked on white light.  But not all are supporting that yet.

 

Inside your home, you can install (or have someone else do it), smart lighting, thermostats, and door locks, window sensors, alarms, etc.  Whether you are using Wifi home automation gear or Z-wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Insteon or other standards, you can pick up your phone and and control these devices by a few taps on apps, or maybe voice control by way of Apple’s Siri or some other personal assistant.

Once you go out that front door, you need, or at least want, a way to communicate with your home system – a secure way, I should remind you.  Considering all the hack attacks going on out there, the last thing anyone wants is our home network compromised so that someone evil can disarm the system, unlock the front door, and walk right in!  That should not have to be part of the price we pay for home automation.

Smart Home photo

There are times when you want to monitor, or control aspects of your home from afar.

You might want to check the status and then lock the front door of your smart home when you get to the office, if you think you forgot.  You might want your garage door to open automatically as you are driving home, and get within a half block of your house (and even unlock the front door at the same time, fire up some lights (if it’s night time of course), and so on.  All of that and more is doable.

Or you just might want to check on things while on vacation, or maybe, if you have smartened your summer home at the shore, you might check and see that the outside temperature has dipped below 32 degrees F, and have a smart valve open slightly to run water through your smart home’s pipes to keep them from freezing up, and doing major damage.

The point is, you will want some control, when away from home.  What’s the best way to accomplish that, and what are some of your options?  Next we look at a DIY alternative.

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