Home Automation

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Home automation (also called domotics) is the residential extension of ‘building automation’ (electronic which monitor and control the mechanical, electronics, and lighting systems in a building). ‘Building Automation Systems’ (BAS) keep the building climate within a specified range, provides lighting based on an occupancy schedule, and monitors system performance and device failures and provides email and/or text notifications to building staff.

Home automation may include centralized control of lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), appliances, and other systems, to provide improved convenience, comfort, energy efficiency, and security. Home automation for the elderly and disabled can provide increased quality of life for persons who might otherwise require caregivers or institutional care.

A home automation system integrates devices in a house with each other systems devoted to entertainment, houseplant and yard watering, pet feeding, changing the ambiance ‘scenes’ for different events (such as dinners or parties), and the use of domestic robots. Devices may be connected through a network to allow control by a personal computer, and remote access from the internet. Automated homes of the future have been staple exhibits for World’s Fairs and popular backgrounds in science fiction. However, problems with complexity, competition between vendors, multiple incompatible standards, and the resulting expense have limited the penetration of home automation to homes of the wealthy, or ambitious hobbyists. Possibly the first ‘home computer’ was an experimental home automation system in 1966.

In modern construction in industrialized nations, most homes have been wired for electrical power, telephones, TV outlets (cable or antenna), and a doorbell. Many household tasks were automated by the development of specialized appliances. For instance, automatic washing machines were developed to reduce the manual labor of cleaning clothes, and water heaters reduced the labor necessary for bathing. Other traditional household tasks, like food preservation and preparation have been automated in large extent by moving them into factory settings, with the development of pre-made, pre-packaged foods, and in some countries, such as the United States, increased reliance on commercial food preparation services, such as fast food restaurants. Volume production and the factory setting allows forms of automation that would be impractical or too costly in a home setting. Standardized foods enable possible further automation of handling the food within the home.

The use of gaseous or liquid fuels, and later the use of electricity enabled increased automation in heating, reducing the labor necessary to manually refuel heaters and stoves. Development of thermostats allowed more automated control of heating, and later cooling. As the number of controllable devices in the home rises, interconnection and communication becomes a useful and desirable feature. For example, a furnace can send an alert message when it needs cleaning, or a refrigerator when it needs service. Rooms will become ‘intelligent’ and will send signals to the controller when someone enters. If no one is supposed to be home and the alarm system is set, the system could call the owner, or the neighbors, or an emergency number.

In simple installations, domotics may be as straightforward as turning on the lights when a person enters the room. In advanced installations, rooms can sense not only the presence of a person inside but know who that person is and perhaps set appropriate lighting, temperature, music levels or television channels, taking into account the day of the week, the time of day, and other factors. Other automated tasks may include setting the HVAC to an energy saving setting when the house is unoccupied, and restoring the normal setting when an occupant is about to return. More sophisticated systems can maintain an inventory of products, recording their usage through bar codes, or an RFID tag, and prepare a shopping list or even automatically order replacements.

Home automation can also provide a remote interface to home appliances or the automation system itself, via telephone line, wireless transmission, or the internet, to provide control and monitoring via a smartphone or web browser. An example of remote monitoring in home automation could be triggered when a smoke detector detects a fire or smoke condition, causing all lights in the house to blink to alert any occupants of the house to the possible emergency. If the house is equipped with a home theater, a home automation system can shut down all audio and video components to avoid distractions, or make an audible announcement. The system could also call the home owner on their mobile phone to alert them, or call the fire department or alarm monitoring company.

In terms of lighting control, it is possible to save energy when installing various products. Simple functions such as motion sensors and detectors integrated into a relatively simple home automation system can save hours of wasted energy in both residential and commercial applications. For example imagine an auto on/off at night time in all major city office buildings, say after 10pm. When no motion is detected, lights shut down, and the owner could save kilowatts of wasted overnight energy. Similar controls on HVAC in buildings could save even more energy.

Home automation has been a feature of science fiction writing for many years, but has only become practical since the early 20th Century following the widespread introduction of electricity into the home, and the rapid advancement of information technology. Early remote control devices began to emerge in the late 1800s. For example, Nikola Tesla patented an idea for the remote control of vessels and vehicles in 1898. The emergence of electrical home appliances began between 1915 and 1920; the decline in domestic servants meant that households needed cheap, mechanical replacements. Domestic electricity supply, however, was still in its infancy – meaning this luxury was afforded only the more affluent households.

Ideas similar to modern home automation systems originated during the World’s Fairs of the 1930s. Fairs in Chicago (1934), New York (1939) and (1964–65), depicted electrified and automated homes. In 1966 Jim Sutherland, an engineer working for Westinghouse Electric, developed a home automation system called ‘ECHO IV’; this was a private project and never commercialized. The first ‘wired homes’ were built by American hobbyists during the 1960s, but were limited by the technology of the times. The term ‘smart house’ was first coined by the American Association of Housebuilders in 1984. With the invention of the microcontroller, the cost of electronic control fell rapidly. Remote and intelligent control technologies were adopted by the building services industry and appliance manufacturers worldwide.

During the 90s home automation rose to prominence. By the end of the decade, ‘domotics’ was commonly used to describe any system in which informatics (the study of computer-based information systems) and telematics (telecommunications and informatics) were combined to support activities in the home. The phrase appears to be a portmanteau word formed from ‘domus’ (Latin: ‘house’) and ‘informatics,’ and therefore refers specifically to the application of computer and robot technologies to domestic appliances. However, despite interest, by the end of the 1990s there was not a widespread uptake – with such systems still considered the domain of hobbyists or the rich. The lack of a single, simplified, protocol and high cost of entry put off consumers.

There have been many attempts to standardize the forms of hardware, electronic and communication interfaces needed to construct a home automation system. Some standards use additional communication and control wiring, some embed signals in the existing power circuit of the house, some use radio frequency (RF) signals, and some use a combination of several methods. Control wiring is hardest to retrofit into an existing house. Some appliances include a USB port that is used for control and connection to a domotics network. Protocol bridges translate information from one standard to another, e.g., from X10 to European Installation Bus.

Besides the upcoming standardization of home automation hardware, there is also the issue of the control software. In older systems (and some contemporary ones), the control of each home automation system needed to be done separately, and there was thus no central control system. This sometimes led to a great amount of remote controls, one being needed to control each individual part of the system. However, with the new generation of home automation systems, central control can be foreseen. Software such as ‘Fast Track Team Home Personality Software Greeter 1.0’ (aka ‘Cleopatra’) or ‘e-Home Automation’ route all controllers to a single computer, smartphone, or TV.

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) solutions can include temperature and humidity control, and more commonly in Europe, fresh air, heating and natural cooling. Home automation solutions are varied and could include an internet-controlled thermostat, by allowing the homeowner to control the building’s heating and air conditioning systems remotely, or it could be linked to windows to allow automated opening and closing to allow hot air out and cool air in to allow for cooling of the thermal mass of the house structure. Many systems are designed to not only provide convenience but to also allow for better energy efficiency.

Lighting control systems can do things like: extinguish all the lights of the house at a predetermined time and date range; use motion detectors to automatically extinguish the lights in a room after occupants have left and turn on the lights if occupants enter a room; turn the light on or off with the use of a remote wireless device; control the brightness of the lights according to the level of ambient light available, or other criteria; and change the ambient color of a room via the lights used or by using RGB LEDs (mood control). Natural lighting control involves controlling window shades, LCD shades, draperies, and awnings.

With Home Automation, the consumer can select and watch cameras live from an Internet source to their home or business. Security cameras can be controlled, allowing the user to observe activity around a house or business right from a Monitor or touch panel. Security systems can include motion sensors that will detect any kind of unauthorized movement and notify the user through the security system or via cell phone. Systems devoted to home security include: intrusion detection; motion sensors; magnetic contact sensors for doors / windows; glass break detectors; pressure sensors; presence simulation; detection of fire, gas leaks and water leaks; and medical alert (teleassistance). An intercom system allows communication via a microphone and loud speaker between multiple rooms. Integration of the intercom to the telephone, or of the video door entry system to the television set, allowing the residents to view the door camera automatically.

Other systems that can be tied into home automation include security gates, garage door, coffee machine, pool/hot tub, sump pump, and well pump.

Home automation technologies are viewed as integral additions to the ‘Smart grid.’ The ability to control lighting, appliances, HVAC as well as Smart Grid applications (load shedding, demand response, real-time power usage, and price reporting) will become vital as Smart Grid initiatives are rolled out. Green Automation is the term coined to describe energy management strategies in home automation when data from smart grids is combined with home automation systems to use resources at either their lowest prices or highest availability, taking advantage, for instance, of high solar panel output in the middle of the day to automatically run washing machines.

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