Book review: Home Automation for Dummies

4 out of 5 stars

Home automation has come a long way from the days when all that was available were manual timers that might or might not have offered anything more than the ability to turn a lamp or appliance On and Off at one set time, or the X-10 modules and controllers that drove almost everybody nuts trying to get them to work properly. Nowadays we have what seems like endless choices, with no two systems being alike in either products or complexity. How to make sense of it all? Home Automation for Dummies tries to straighten it all out. Does this book succeed? Let's find out:

The basics of home automation, aka SmartHome

As with all the For Dummies series of books, Home Automation for Dummies starts with the assumption that you don't know much, if anything, about the subject under discussion, and starts by explaining the absolute basics you'll need to know to get started. The author, Dwight Spivey, also makes the assumption that the reader isn't going to be gearing up to do a massive, self-installed, whole-house installation. He assumes a reasonably tech-savvy reader with a reasonable, real-world budget, which is a definite plus.

Where To Buy

In our recent article How to get smart about your home we discussed the different basic philosophies of setting up automated processes in your house. This book doesn't talk philosophy as much as it talks about figuring out what your goals are (a little at a time or "all in") and whether you want to try to make devices from multiple manufacturers work together, and whether you want to take the practical approach or just tinker with the latest and greatest gizmos you can find. For people who are truly just getting their feet on the ground, this approach can save a lot of time, money and frustration.

There's a step by step plan for determining what's practical for any individual setup: Your home's size, whether you want to automate exterior devices, whether you want to start off with just a few simple gadgets or go ahead and blow the wad on a major installation, and so forth. These sections are well worth reading, but there is a downside: The author has chosen very specific devices to illustrate his points. While this will work OK for a while, with the way technology advances, the devices in the book will be obsolete quickly and may no longer serve as a worthwhile illustration of the points.

Automating inside your home

Many of us have done a little "home automation" when we schedule lights and appliances to turn On and Off. Maybe you want the coffee maker to start early, so you have hot coffee when you stumble out of bed and grope your way to the kitchen. Or maybe you want your lights and radio to turn On, to make it look like you're not away on vacation. And many people have thermostats that can be programmed to keep the place at a reasonable temperature. Nowadays, of course, there are far more options for turning things On and Off, controlling the lights and controlling the thermostat. Home Automation for Dummies describes quite a few options in detail, giving examples of both inexpensive and expensive devices and suggesting how they might be used.

It's not just a matter of Off and On, when it comes to lighting systems. The controllers can respond to sunlight or darkness in the house and change the lights accordingly, and they can be controlled with your smartphone so you can have the place lit up before you get home in the dark. They can also be triggered by motion, which could be very helpful for humans getting out of bed in a darkened dwelling, but not quite so helpful if you've got pets who roam around at night. Some systems can be used not only to light your home but to control the color of the lights you use. The book gives a good overview of the options available from companies such as Philips Hue, INSTEON, TCP, SmartThings, and Belkin.

Security is a big new field for home automation. Home security systems have been around for a long time, of course, but now there are even more options. Your home alarm system can be set and monitored from your mobile device, and you can lock and unlock your doors the same way. You can monitor your home through webcams that send a signal to your mobile device, and you can set off an alarm if your system doesn't do it automatically. There are even devices that can tell you where your pets are, assuming the pet is big enough to put a fairly bulky tag on, which pretty much limits it to medium-to-large-size dogs or small farm animals, and whether something is leaking inside your house. Home Automation for Dummies once again gives a product overview to illustrate the kinds of things one can consider buying and installing.

There's a lengthy chapter devoted to home entertainment systems. The author endeared himself to me when he began the chapter by describing a tech-deprived childhood much like mine, where TVs only got three channels (at most) and remote controls were only for rich people in a galaxy far, far away. Although I was from an even more primitive age when UHF hadn't been invented yet. Look on the internet for "Philco TV 1956" if you want a bit of free entertainment from the ancient world. :)

He then goes on to introduce the modern world of home entertainment, and there's a lot of technology out there that can make choosing what to watch or listen to, and where, and on what devices, about as easy as it can be.

There's a section devoted to "home entertainment gurus." These are websites that show you how to do things you might never have thought of, like having a virtual web-based "remote control" that can handle all your devices regardless of how they transmit their signals to each other. Or using Bluetooth technology to replace a box full of remote controls with your smartphone. Many of us are already familiar with streaming devices like Roku, AppleTV and ChromeCast. The "Smart Home Entertainment" chapter goes into detail about both the known and the unfamiliar devices and gives the reader a good idea of what's out there… at least at the time the book was published.