The High Cost of Home Automation

Michael Brown

Today’s home-automation technology can not only make life easier, it can also render your house more energy efficient. A last-minute change of plans means you won’t be home until late? Call your programmable thermostat on your smartphone and reset the time the heater cranks up. Wake up at 2AM craving a snack? Set the occupancy sensor in the hallway so that it comes up to 25-percent brightness when it’s triggered in the early-morning hours and you won’t wake your spouse.

Those are just two examples. But considering how inexpensive PCs have become, isn’t it remarkable how pricey high-end home-automation systems remain? Case in point: Best Buy—a retailer typically known for discount prices—offers what they bill as an all-in-one home-automation system. It’s called ConnectedLife.Home and it costs a mere $15,000. For that princely sum, you get a 32-inch flat-panel TV, a PC, a media extender, a gigabit router, a wireless access point, a digital thermostat, five dimmer switches, five standard switches, two six-button lighting keypads, two wireless network video cameras, a remote control, the software to control the system, and someone to install it.

Besides the obvious drawback of the price tag, this one-size-fits-all approach to home automation is unlikely to deliver a very satisfying experience—especially for tech-savvy readers such as Maximum PC’s audience. It doesn’t take into account whatever gear you might already own, for starters; and while you can add components to the package, you can’t substitute for what’s already in it.

Here’s the number-one reason why: Many of the companies selling the components essential to a home-automation system market their products available exclusively through custom installers .

And as expensive as Best Buy's ConnectedLife.Home might sound, it’s cheap compared to what most true custom installers would charge. Exceptional Innovation’s Lifeware home-automation software is the only element of the system that Best Buy identifies by brand name, and Exceptional Innovations sells this product only to custom installers. (At least EI is straightforward about it. Some manufacturers claim they don’t sell their products directly to the consumer, but you’ll find them in all sorts of gray-market channels. This lets them have it both ways: They sell into a market that’s potentially larger than the custom market, but don’t have to provide tech support to individual buyers.)

The function of every other component in Best Buy’s package, meanwhile, can be performed by products that are available in retail channels, both online and brick-and-mortar. And several other developers offer the PC software that’s essential to controlling a home-automation system.

A true custom installer, of course, can give you exactly what you wanted (or figure it out for you if you didn’t already know). I don’t doubt that these guys earn their money, and I don’t blame companies like EI for not making their products available in retail channels, either. The costs associated with tech support and consumer marketing can be formidable. But as geeks, why should we let someone else have all the fun of setting up a wicked-cool home-automation system?

Over the next several months in the magazine and in these blog posts, I’ll be reviewing as many DIY home-automation products as I can get my hands on. And since I’m in the process of building a new house, I’m going to integrate as many practical home-automation features as I can into the construction.

In order to keep the information relevant, I’ll only be reviewing products that can be purchased at retail and that can be self-installed as a retrofit. I’m not intent on building the unobtainable dream home you see in so many magazines (I couldn't afford it, and it probably wouldn't any fun to live in anyway!), but I will show you how to automate your own home; and I’ll document all the pitfalls I’m sure I’ll run into along the way.

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