Dealing with the Hidden Complexity of IoT Home Automation

The dream of automating a range of home systems is very close. Today you can turn every light switch, light bulb, fan, window blind, door lock, garage opener or air conditioner into an internet connected appliance, with the ability to turn on or off from your cellphone. And you can turn any wall socket into a remotely controlled on/off or dimmable device allowing any kitchen appliance to be controlled in the same way. There are ways of controlling your audio and TV devices from your phone as well, so it seems reasonable to assume that home automation is here. And yet, these devices and systems are still quite clunky unless you go to an expert company such as Crestron (who are today the rolls Royce of home automation both in terms of quality and price).

The challenge is that all the available home automation devices come from different companies, and so use slightly different methods of control. This means that without a lot of experience the average installer will create a complex system that is hard to control.

Convergence is on the way, with the likes of google, amazon, apple etc. starting to provide platforms for consistent control. But these systems are still for early adopters who are willing to live with significant limitations.

Controlling your light switches from your cellphone or by speaking specific terms sounds fun, but wait until your parents come to visit and can’t turn off the lights at night, you will quickly realize the limitations of the current technology.

Some companies do provide switches that look like classic wall switches and allow for more advanced workflow to be used. For example, a switch can be used to turn on a series of lights at specific levels of brightness, while double clicking the same switch could perform a different task. You may even choose to place light switches in different locations that turn on the same lights to different levels of brightness, so for example the switch your TV watching chair turns on the lights to TV watching levels and the one by main room door, turns on the light as bright as they will go. This would mean to the “uneducated” user the lights will work as expected, but to the “educated” user you can setup lights to work subtly as you prefer.

Not all home automation vendors offer all of the levels of subtlety I’m describing, but some do.

There are (of course) a lot more levels of complexity associated with home automation, even within the products of a single vendor, you may find that not all devices work the same way, and quite a lot of research is needed to choose exactly which components to use.

To provide a simple example of what I’m talking about, consider that most home automation light switches require three wires, a live, a neutral and an earth. If your house was built before the 1980’s it’s quite likely that your wall switches don’t have neutral wire, and this would mean that you are either are facing a major electricians bill for rewiring or you will need to specifically chose a home automation vendor that has light switches that work without a neutral. These devices to exist (for example Insteon have these as an option), but depending on your light fixture these switches may not work with certain kinds of light bulbs, or may not fully support dimming. There are ways around all these problems, but it takes a lot of investigation to work everything out, and if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you won’t find it out until you have an issue.

Home automation using modern IoT devices can provide a level of luxury that you will love, but it is still not simple and low cost. It can be low cost and complex or it can be high cost and simple. Alexa, Siri and Google have started to offer some interesting directions for future automation, but as of today they are in their infancy.

I haven’t even broached the subject of security yet, but suffice it to say that there are significant security issues with any device that is continually listening to every word spoken and is sending it across the internet to be processed looking for spoken commands. There are also issues with having every device in a house containing a processor and connected to the internet. Everything must be continually secured, and this takes experts working hard to keep ahead of hackers.

The world has changed around us, and IoT now means that millions (or even billions) of previously simple devices are now internet connected and can provide information and can allow remote control.  What damage can someone do my remotely controlling a light switch? Who knows; But if every light switch and every light bulb contains a microprocessor connected to the internet, that is a lot of processing power that if combined could be formidable. Already we have seen distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS) using a massive array of distributed home automation devices. And I can think of dozens more potential ways that IoT devices can be used for bad. Security will continue to be critical.

My advice – don’t enter home automation lightly, either use an expert or plan on becoming an expert.

 

 

 

 

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