The terms home automation and smart home are used interchangeably, but they refer to the same thing: connecting smart devices in your home to a remotely controllable network.
Home automation lets you control devices that make tasks more convenient (like your thermostat or your light bulbs) or more secure (think cameras and smart locks) from your mobile device.
What home automation can do
Home automation is a term for a home setup where several devices are connected to a network that you can monitor and access from anywhere. With a smart home (a home equipped with automation), you can do a couple specific things.
1. Automate devices you use every day
You can automate your devices to respond to commands. For example, if you want your home to be a balmy 75 degrees when you get home from work, you can program your smart thermostat to make that happen. If you want the lights in your home to flicker on and off when your security system alarm is triggered, you can teach your device to do that too.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of connected devices and products, including those in home automation. One analyst group predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. (1)
2. Control your system from anywhere
Home automation systems give you the ability to control, monitor, and access the smart devices in your home from virtually anywhere. Using your mobile phone, you can check the status of devices while you’re away, making sure doors are locked, lights are off, and everything is where it should be.
The benefits of home automation
Smart home automation makes day-to-day life a bit easier, but it can also keep you safer. Many home security systems can connect to your smart home, giving you an extra layer of protection.
Security cameras connected to your network can show you what’s happening on your doorstep in real time. Smart locks can automatically lock the door behind you whenever you leave your house.
How home automation works
So how do your smart devices communicate with each other? Home automation devices work by sending signals to each other via protocols. Most protocols use radio frequency or Wi-Fi to get things going.
The most widely used wireless protocols are Z-Wave and Zigbee. They both use radio frequency to help your devices communicate and connect with each other. The two protocols differ in negligible ways—they operate at different frequencies, and Zigbee is a tiny bit faster—but either one works great for a smart home.
Wi-Fi is also a popular protocol. Most smart devices can connect to your home wireless network, and you can control them from your phone. But beware: having too many devices that only use the Wi-Fi protocol can drain your batteries and slow down your network performance. If you’re planning on using many smart devices in your home, you should consider a smart hub.
What is a smart hub?
The core of a smart home is a smart hub, the device that acts as a nerve center for all your connected devices, helping them communicate with each other. Some systems work without a smart hub, but depending on how many devices you want to control, you may need a hub to tie them all together.
The best smart hubs
The most versatile hubs are compatible with Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee and also work with most smart devices.
One of our favorite hubs is also a smart speaker. The Amazon Echo works with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee protocols. It controls many of the most popular smart devices from Honeywell, Philips Hue, and more. You can even connect it with tons of third-party skills to tailor the Echo to your liking.
Here are our top smart hub recommendations:
>>Learn more: Compare our favorite smart hubs.
What you can automate
Because there are so many types of smart devices, you have nearly endless possibilities of what you can automate in your home. But once you’ve got the basics down—having lights turn on when you enter your study, for example—you’ll find there are many more ways to improve your home with home automation devices.
For starters, you can make your home safer. Doorbell cameras, smart locks, window sensors, and more help keep your home secure. Plus, many home security systems will do some of the heavy lifting for you with professional monitoring. These are some of our favorites:
Some smart home products, like the Nest Thermostat, learn your habits and make adjustments accordingly. You can also program a smart thermostat to turn off when you’re not home and smart lights to sense when you’ve left the room and adjust accordingly.
Some smart devices can monitor your environment and alert you about potential hazards:
Find the best home automation system for you
Ready to make your home a smart home? Check out our rankings of the best smart home systems.
- FTC, “Internet of Things: Privacy & Security in a Connected World”