Using an App to control your home – How does that work and what’s the right app?
With apps for just about anything on anyone’s mind, available for most of today’s mobile platforms for phones and tablets(Android, iPhone, BB), many still wonder about how apps will influence home control and home automation. When will it happen? Will it make home automation easier? Change it drastically? Well, it’s already here, has been here for some time and works much better than you think (if you think about it)! It makes home automation and control easier. But it’s not as easy as the TV commercials purport it to be. First off, if you download the app, that doesn’t automatically connect it to your devices or home systems. We’ve had actual calls from folks who have downloaded a free app and then expect it to control the existing lights, thermostats and more in their home. There are underlying products or services you must purchase to make these apps work, you must have “connected” devices to control them.
What does a connected device mean? Basically, it means that the device in question (a light switch, garage door opener, satellite receiver) must somehow connect to the internet so it can eventually communicate with the phone/tablet’s app. This means different things for different devices. A Satellite or cable box may be “connected” via their inherent connection, via the uplink to the phone line, or the network connection. For other devices, say light switches, garage door openers, etc, they can either be connected to your homes wireless or hardwired network or to the manufacturers own control box, then your homes network and the internet. There is some setup typically involved with this. You will typically need to setup the device the app is supposed to communicate with, to your homes network. Then you must setup the app to communicate with your home’s static IP or use a DNS service. A DNS service will provide a static address for your house, whether your IP changes or not. A static IP is an unchanging address for your homes network, on the internet, thus you can use it from anywhere in the world, to connect to your home.
How good are apps at controlling things? There are a few things to consider and a few ways to look at this. Your phone is a remote control, much like the old school button remotes for garage doors, lights, or even the TV. Most of today’s smart phones are well equipped to handle an app that can control any connected device. Most people have seen the TV commercials showing a phone controlling the garage door, another for the lights, or even a DirecTV or other app to control your A/V experience. Now there are even apps for your A/V receivers and more. Notice these are still “connected devices”. Herein lies one of the major problems with this app based model. If the device being controlled (garage door opener, door lock, lights, etc) aren’t designed to be “connected” somehow or controlled via an app, you cannot control those devices. The manufacturers of those products, typically only make the app to control one product line or brand. This is a problem, since for most people, it isn’t prudent to replace your garage door opener to get the benefit of using an app to check to see if it’s closed. This holds true for many devices you want to control, lights, doorlocks, etc., unless you are doing a home automation system (more on that later).
Another issues with apps, already, is that there are thousands upon thousands of apps first to choose from, then to remember and find when you need them. So, like the old remote control that came out in the 70′ s and 80′s, you need a remote, err app, by each manufacturer, for each device you want to control. So, simply imagine these scenario for A/V control. You want to watch a TV show and now pull out your tablet. You open up the app for your TV (Samsung has one) and turn the TV on. We assume you have HD video source (satellite/cable), a surround sound receiver/system and a BluRay player in your system. Then, you open another app, for your A/V receiver to turn it on and set the volume level. Then you open up your DirecTV app to control the channel changing. If you want to control the volume on the receiver or watch a BluRay, you’ll need to open up the other apps, waiting for each to load, then go back and forth between them, to work your A/V system. This sounds awfully similar to having 4-6 remotes to control your AV system.
Lets consider a similar scenario for home control or automation. This typically means controlling HVAC, lights, Audio/video, garage doors and more. You have an app for checking and opening your garage door. You have another app to arm and disarm your security system, yet another app to lock/unlock your front door, another for the lights, etc. So, you purchase the garage door opener with the app that tells you it’s open or closed and allows you to close it. Then you buy the app for a lighting system with light switches. Apps can be cool and do a lot. Think of the great looking thermostat and app to control that and measure your energy, from NEST products. With it’s slick product design and app enabled device, it seems like a no brainer.
Finally, lets look at the results here. Regardless of what you’ve spent, you have 3-10, or more, apps to control the various items/systems in your house and they typically won’t/don’t work together, basically creating a multitude of remotes on your iPhone/iPad. Is that what you want and expect from your interface. It sounds cool on paper, but doesn’t really offer what most people are looking for.
If you have or are considering a home control or home automation system, this is the way to go. Typically, most of the major manufacturers of home control systems (Crestron, HAI, Control4, Lutron and others) have had apps and internet control software for their systems for several years and have many added benefits over the above method. From Crestron, HAI and others that have been in the industry for decades to some of the newer systems, such as Control4 and Savant, most all have apps available now, even some of the Do It Yourself systems (think SmartHome.com, Insteon, etc.) on the market have apps for them. Here are the important points. First off, one app to control everything is key. This is what home automation and control has been about, lessening the number of remotes to control the various systems in the home. It is highly inconvenient to open multiple apps to control all the different systems in your home. Next, most of the manufacturers listed above, offer API’s that allow for 3rd party integration and to allow for customizations of screens and more. Finally, having a unified system is much easier to add to and integrate more and more to your system. It also saves money on the little things. For example, having a home control system that is app capable, allows you to add anything to the system and it will show up on your one main control app. Thus, if you start out with audio/video control on your app, you can add the lighting, garage door openers, thermostats and more, and they will all show up on your one single home control app. This is a much more integrated method of app based controls for your home, 1 home, 1 app.