Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Smart Homes Work


Setting Up a Smart Home
This keypad will send a message to your lamp.
This keypad will send a message to your lamp.
Don Farrall/Photodisc/Getty Images

X10, Insteon, ZigBee and Z-Wave provide only the fundamental technology, called protocols, for smart home communication. They've created alliances with electronics manufacturers who actually build the end-user devices. Here are some examples of smart home products and their functions.

  • Cameras will track your home's exterior even if it's pitch-black outside.
  • You can control a thermostat from your bed, the airport, anywhere your smartphone has a signal.
  • LED lights let you program color and brightness right from your smartphone.
  • Motion sensors will send an alert when there's motion around your house, and they can even tell the difference between pets and burglars.
  • Smartphone integration lets you turn lights and appliances on or off from your mobile device.
  • Door locks and garage doors can open automatically as your smartphone approaches.
  • Auto alerts from your security system will immediately go to your smartphone, so you instantly know if there's a problem at home.
  • Many devices also come with built-in web servers that allow you to access their information online.

These products are available at home improvement stores, electronics stores, from installation technicians or online. Before buying, check to see what technology is associated with the product. Products using the same technology should work together despite different manufacturers, but connecting an X10 and a Z-Wave product requires a bridging device, and often, extreme patience and some technical skills on your part.

In designing a smart home, you can do as much or as little home automation as you want. For starters, it may be best to think of tasks you already routinely do and then find a way to automate them.

You could begin with a lighting starter kit and add on security devices later. If you want to start with a more expansive system with many features, it's a good idea to carefully design how the home will work, particularly if rewiring or renovation will be required. In addition, you'll want to strategically place the nodes of the wireless networks so that they have a good routing range.

About 60 percent of homebuilders who have installed home automation devices hired professional help [source: Regan]. If you're looking for a technician, check if they have CEA-CompTIA certification. This certification is the result of a partnership between the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), and it represents proficiency in installing, maintaining and troubleshooting any vendor's home networking equipment.

The cost of a smart home varies depending on how smart the home is. One builder estimates that his clients spend between $10,000 and $250,000 for sophisticated systems [source: McKay]. If you build the smart home gradually, starting with a basic lighting system, it might only be a few hundred dollars. A more sophisticated system will be tens of thousands of dollars, and elements of home theater systems raise the cost of a system about 50 percent [source: Gloede].

Is it worth the money? To learn more about the benefits of smart homes, go to the next page.


More to Explore