How to choose the right Smart Home System – Part 3

January 30, 2014


This is part 3 of a 3 part series on how to choose the right Smart Home System for your home.   Parts 1 and Parts 2 can be found on the side bar or click the links.

The highest end and most prevalent systems available now are the professionally installed control processor based systems.  These systems are usually the most robust, most expandable, most reliable and long lived systems available.  As with anything in life, you get what you pay for.  These are professionally installed and programmed and work very well, almost bullet proof, when done correctly.   Old horror stories of systems that never worked or are problematic are systems that were improperly designed and programmed, so do your homework on your dealer/integrator.

These systems are typically installed in a new home while it is being built, due to wiring needs for audio and video, but these systems can also be retrofitted into an existing home and offer reliable wireless alternatives for just this purpose.   While a security based system can do a fair amount of automation, once it is obsolete, there is no upgrading without replacing the panel or main system, and usually all the components as well.  Since security systems are a commodity, for all intents and purposes, they are not built for expanding and upgrading, just to get in the door.   Thus, they have limited lifespans with respect to automation as they can’t be upgraded, not true for automation based security panels like HAI/Leviton panels.   A control processor based system typically can communicate with multiple protocols (Wifi, Zwave, RS232, Ethernet, RF, etc) and thus can “talk” to mutliple 3rd party devices.

Custom installed systems are also typically designed for 10-20 year lifespans, meaning they are built to upgrade, expand and last for decades, allowing for adding new functions, features and products over time.  These systems are sold design/installed systems and can run between $5000-100,000 and more, depending on the complexity and number of devices in the home.   The best systems include both audio and video distribution and will work with HD, HDMI, 3D and Ultra-HD systems.  These are usually the only systems that allow for complete whole house audio and video distribution.  These are systems like Crestron, ELAN, AMX, Control4, Savant (Apple based), and others who offer the whole house system and controls via touchpanels, control systems, amplifiers, video switching, lighting, shades, drapes, door locks, garage doors, gates, pools/spas, waterfalls/features and just about anything you want to control.  Best of all, almost all of these systems are American owned &  manufactured and support large numbers of employees, right here in the USA.

Programming and cost

Most custom integration (smart home) companies charge a programming fee, which can be from 5-20% of the total cost of the system.  There is also installation and design, which you are paying for one way or the other, but is often included in programming or other cost.   If you have a relatively small, simple system, it is not a problem to program most DIY systems yourself.  If you have a large more complex system, that involves 3rd party devices such as gates, pools/spas, many loads of lighting, etc, then configuring and programming these systems can be exponentially more complex and often require not just the knowledge of a software programmer but also the experience of someone who has installed, setup and programmed a complex system in the past.

With respect to cost, the cost are actually relatively similar, relative to components and parts and pieces, between most systems.  As with most things, there is a price difference between different quality products, so the least expensive products will probably provide the least amount of features and lowest quality, while more cost typically means more features, better quality and longer warranties.  Quantity is usually the driving factor in the overall cost of a complete system, which totals out from number of light switches, audio zones, video zones, thermostats, etc., all of which contribute to the cost of a system.   For example, 10 lights switches at $75/each vs 100 switches at $75/each can make a large difference in price, a $750 or a $7500 lighting system.  A “smart” light switch from the cheapest system may be $45 each, but those don’t dim or fade up and down, only on and off and don’t offer scene controls.   While a high-end switch might be $110 or more each, but includes scene controls, dimming and fading, works with LEDs or low voltage lights (more common these days) regardless of who makes it, and you can install and unlimited number of them.   A thermostat may be as little as $250, but only integrates with an app, or a high-end integrated thermostat might be $550, but integrate into any system.    Finally, the processors can be from a $100 hub up to a $3000 Linux or other custom OS based processing system, the latter being much more programmable and customizable.  Again, if cost is a concern, consider, you only have 1 processor typically, so skimping on cost there doesn’t seem like the best course of action.  Since device quantities make the largest impact, that is where you can save money upfront, even leaving room to upgrade later.  A basic DIY system may offer 10 switches, a hub and thermostat, but maxes out at 20 switches more, so you can not add much else to that system.  If that is sufficient for you, that is great, but be aware of the limitations of the systems available.   A custom system offers the ability to add almost any device, from any manufacturer, at a later date, even years or decades down the line.

So, price usually follows functionality and expandability.  The more features and expansion you can have, typically the more the system will cost.    I hope this has helped in clearing up some of the differences between these systems and assist you in making your decision on which type of system is best for you, your family and your home.

Good luck in your home automation research and endeavors.  If you need a professional opinion, design or a system, don’t hesitate to contact us directly and get a free consultation related to your home system and needs.

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