Smart Homes - What They are and How They work

In this blog post we discuss smart homes - what they are and the pros and cons. Read on for our tips and advice.

Our guide to smart homes

Think of a smart home and a feverish mind will likely conjure up an image of a futuristic dwelling kitted out with the latest acoustically transparent screen, digital surround sound system and Robo dog. These days however, it's not just millionaire's pads getting the sci-fi makeover.

With design sensitivity and techno know-how evolving at a rapid rate, the converging realities of consumer electronics, broadband networks, digital entertainment and security systems are delivering a mainstream smart-home revolution that was unimaginable a decade ago. A raft of high-tech features, from remote controlled white goods to multi-home entertainment systems are giving homeowners total control of their living space. Many home installations are being creatively ‘retrofitted' (using existing cabling), but the bedrock of the ‘smart' revolution is in new-build construction, where architects, developers and owners co-plan a customised fit for a truly integrated easy-to-use system.

What exactly is a smart home?

The mistake many people make is to assume ‘smart' means lots of gizmos and gadgets. In its simplest form, a smart home has had its key systems and devices networked. A central control structure enables the homeowner to communicate with those systems and devices with just the touch of a button, hence maintaining an optimum living environment, from controlling the lights and cranking up the heating, to playing music and activating the spa bath.

What are the key elements of SHT?

Smart home technology (SHT) has a hierarchy in terms of ‘intelligent' features, hence the wide range of bolt on additions available to suit varying budgets and house sizes from studio flats to country estates. Design and installation are key, as is having a system that matches individual needs rather than an overly complex one that does everything just because it can. Design divides into three essential components: basic infrastructure and the associated technology needed to operate a given system, context specific requirements (which take into account the layout of a home and dictate the most appropriate equipment to install), and user specific functions which dictate the system's configuration. Technology control can be achieved in two ways - via the use of active devices such as control panels, switches and touch screen panels to access audio, video and lighting control; and passive devices such as sensors and receivers, which function ‘behind the scenes' to maintain an optimum living environment.

What are the benefits?

Smart homes are all about enhancing quality of life, with technology providing convenience and time saving elements at the touch of a button. Smart technology also adds a layer of luxury to leisure time; allowing digital music for example to be streamed to any room, with wired and wireless data networks providing internet and telephone connections wherever you want. Energy efficiency is a further boon - fingertip control allowing you to turn equipment on and off precisely when you need it. Smart technology also comes into its own in the home security arena. Beyond conventional CCTV technology, alarm systems can be set up to work by remote access using network cameras or external lighting sensors. Lighting and blinds can be controlled electronically to create the illusion that people are at home, with "holiday" settings simulating your usual living patterns.

How easy is it to smart-proof your home?

There is no "one size fits all" solution. Smart convertees are looking at a bespoke service based on the size of their property and the complexity of technology installed. Although simple DIY internet-linked home appliances are hitting the market, transforming bog-standard home wiring into something more useful for a budget of around £500, ultra systems that turn your home into a haven of smart technology require the expertise of a specialist "smart" company to install. A budget of around £40,000 will go a long way to fully automating a family home. Upwards of £150,000 and you'll get a value-added repertoire with specialist server and remote touch panels, which can communicate with heating, lighting, security and high-definition entertainment systems via wall-mounted interfaces, giving homeowners control over all services anywhere in the home. The most effective and streamlined results however, come before a house is built. This enables all the ‘electrical plumbing' and services to be fixed in a discreet centralised way within the main building infrastructure. Wireless technology is also becoming a faster and increasingly reliable smart home choice although many specialist companies will still recommend a "structured" cabling approach because it's robust, expandable and can accommodate a high volume of data. Buyers considering off-plan, can also opt for a ‘future proofed' home, which accommodates communications, heating, entertainment and security systems in a structured wiring regime, with mainstream developers like Laing, Octagon and Barratt leading the way.

What kind of features can be installed?

A minimum threshold of heating, lighting and security controls is usually installed, although practically anything can be included from the innovative and highly practical to devices that are just plain fun. Intelligent appliances for example are becoming increasingly sophisticated - from microwaves that scan and log the bar codes of food for perfect and even cooking, to coffee machines with a built-in "brewing schedule" for 6am weekday French Roasts to Decaf Sumatra on Sunday mornings.

Other companies are expanding home entertainment possibilities enabling digital music files to be played over the home network, and installing video distribution systems with multiple screens - enabling viewers to watch a DVD in one room, pause and resume watching it on an LCD in another.

What happens when technology goes wrong?

Smart homes use a distributed control system, which means if one part of the house stops working, the system will operate as normal in other rooms. Care should be taken to ensure that devices can be manually overridden-particularly in ‘safety conscious' zones such as entry and exit points. It's also possible to have a key system battery back up for use during a power cut.

What does the future have in store?Smart homes are unlikely to want for innovation. Niche-orientated and specialist products today are undoubtedly the high-volume consumer products of tomorrow. The tipping point however, is still some way off, so for now it's a case of sampling and enjoying today's empowering designs.

With thanks to BuyAssociation.