Home Automation - Where to start?

What is the best home automation system?

More than likely, if you are reading this blog, you have a particular requirement, desire, need or problem that you are hoping home automation will be able to satisfy or solve.

Or perhaps you are just curious as to what home automation has to offer.

That’s how it usually starts… At least that’s how it started for me many years ago when I first connected a “Clapper” to my bedside lamp.

Clap your hands; lamp turns on. Clap them again; lamp turns off. Magic… I was hooked!

Home automation has come a long way since the humble days of the Clapper. There is a lot more choice of different home automation technologies and products, all claiming to be the best home automation system - they can't ALL be the best!

The truth is, each system has its strong points and its weaknesses. If you are just starting out in home automation, deciphering which smart home system is right for your needs can be a little daunting.

INSTEON vs Z-Wave vs WeMo vs X10

Usually the first choice you need to make is which home automation technology is best suited to your needs. Not just today, but also well into the future. After all, you are making a valuable and important investment in your home, security and lifestyle.

Currently, different home automation systems tend not to play well together (why can’t we all just get along?). This is slowly changing...

With the likes of Apple (HomeKit) and Google (Brillo) getting on board, there are going to be some major changes that will hopefully help to unify the fragmented smart home industry (read more here). But for now, we have a decision to make…

Which home automation technology is right for me?

When choosing products, we all find different features and capabilities important, if we didn't, then we wouldn't have over 80 different car models to choose from in Australia. Some of us are mainly concerned with safety or performance, for others, price is very important - perhaps you like all the "bells and whistles" or low maintenance may be your main priority. More than likely it is some sort of a combination of all of these things.

In this blog post, I will take you through each of the major home automation technologies available, compare the product range, reliability, value for money and give you an overview that will hopefully provide you with the basic information you need to make an informed decision - based on the things that are important to you as an individual.


INSTEON

What the marketing department says…

INSTEON is an advanced, dual-mesh home automation system that uses both electrical wiring (power lines) and wireless radio-frequency (RF) to communicate. Dual-mesh technology overcomes the shortfalls affecting many other automation technologies, providing a reliable, responsive, simple (yet powerful) home automation system.

Unlike all other mesh networks (including Z-Wave), INSTEON's approach has every device acting as a repeater - receiving and sending every INSTEON message to all other devices on the network. So instead of stressing the network by adding more INSTEON devices, you actually strengthen it. Other mesh networks use router tables, and only those products involved in routing the signal act as repeaters – creating a less reliable network.

Here is our opinion, without the sales pitch...

INSTEON product range

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In the good ole' US of A (where INSTEON began its life over 8 years ago), the product range is very decent… with over 200 products available.

In Australia and New Zealand, there is a smaller range of INSTEON products available. This will change over time as more INSTEON products make their way down under (which they will).

For the moment, the current INSTEON range will cover most people, but it’s worth considering if INSTEON meets all of your home automation requirements. As an example… Currently there is no way to control IR (infra-red) devices with INSTEON. So if you are looking to control a remote controllable split-system air conditioner or perhaps your audio visual equipment, sorry… INSTEON (in Australia and New Zealand at least) can’t do that… yet.

INSTEON performance and reliability

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This is INSTEON’s strongest asset - it is extremely reliable and the product quality is excellent.

INSTEON uses wireless technology to communicate, which in itself is not unique (in fact, all of the home automation technologies discussed in this blog communicate wirelessly). What is unique to INSTEON is it also communicates over your home’s existing power-lines. This “dual-mesh” approach creates an extremely robust network that is not reliant on wireless communication alone (we have all had issues with Wi-Fi dropping out).

There is one other fact that makes INSTEON the most reliable of all the technologies we are looking at in this blog… Every single INSTEON device that connects to your home’s power circuits is also a signal repeater. So the more INSTEON devices you have in your home, the more reliable the system becomes.

The build quality of INSTEON products is excellent and the technology it uses to communicate is simply the best available.

If reliability and product quality are very important to you in your home automation decision-making… it’s hard to look past INSTEON.

INSTEON pricing and value

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Surprisingly, given the excellent build quality and reliability INSTEON offers; the price of INSTEON products is actually very good. It’s not the cheapest on the market, but it is also far from the most expensive.

As far as “bang-for-your-buck” goes, INSTEON offers excellent value for money.

INSTEON overall rating

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I like to think of INSTEON as the “Apple” of the home automation world. The similarities are striking…

One manufacturer – therefore the quality control is consistent and to a very high standard. The build quality of each product is very good (with the exception of perhaps the Mini Remotes, I think these could improve). You can tell a lot of thought has gone into the usability of INSTEON devices, they are easy to use and more importantly; easy to setup.

INSTEON is extremely reliable (it just works) – thanks to the unique dual-mesh approach (where each module communicates via RF wireless as well as your home’s existing power-lines), coupled with the fact that most modules also act as signal repeaters, strengthening the network as you add more modules makes INSTEON an excellent choice.

I firmly believe that once the product range in Australia and New Zealand increases, INSTEON will be hard to beat when all things are considered.

Related blog: An introduction to INSTEON

View our range of INSTEON products


Z-Wave

What the marketing department says…

Z-Wave is a wireless technology that makes regular household products, like lights, door locks and thermostats "smart". Z-Wave products "talk" to each other wirelessly and securely via RF radio frequencies.

When you power your home with Z-Wave you are able to tap into a whole ecosystem of products. Currently there are nearly 1,000 Z-Wave products to choose from. This means you can build and expand your smart home system as you choose and when you choose to do so. With Z-Wave powering your home, you can link different devices together and set up customisable actions, scenes and schedules.

Here is our opinion, without the sales pitch...

Z-Wave product range

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This is Z-Wave’s strongest point of difference to all other home automation technologies; the product range is huge. At last count, there were over 900 different Z-Wave products on the market. Granted there are a lot of “double-ups”; a lot of products from different manufacturers that do the same thing. Nonetheless, the product range is very impressive. I doubt you will ever be left saying; “I wish there was a Z-Wave product that would allow me to…”.

If you can think of it, there is likely to be a Z-Wave product that can do it.

Z-Wave performance and reliability

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For the most part, Z-Wave is reliable; however you should be prepared to put some effort in (coupled with a little frustration). Z-Wave requires a little more attention and tweaking than say a system like INSTEON does – although this could be a good thing if you like to “get your hands dirty”.

Z-Wave uses wireless RF technology to communicate. As we have all experienced at some time or another, wireless technologies can be a little flakey; sometimes prone to interference and range issues – especially as more and more devices fill the wireless spectrum. Z-Wave have built-in some fairly clever “smarts” to help overcome these issues and overall does a pretty good job of managing wireless dropouts and range issues.

There are a lot of companies that make Z-Wave devices, so product build quality and can vary greatly. There are some incredibly well engineered Z-Wave devices; the Fibaro range is an excellent example – these products are built to the highest standards. The Aeotec range from Aeon Labs is also a good example of quality Z-Wave products. I will discuss more about the quality variations regarding Z-Wave below.

Z-Wave pricing and value

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A good rule of thumb, like most things in life; if it’s cheap, there’s a good chance it’s not going to be a great quality product. This may not matter so much if you are buying a shovel from Bunnings to dig a hole.

When it comes to connecting products to your home’s electricity and having them control expensive equipment… and also not posing a risk to your safety, then quality is definitely important.

In two years time, I promise you that you will not be thinking… “I wish I had paid $20 less for that Z-Wave Dimmer module”, but if something does go wrong, there is a very good chance that you will be thinking… “I wish I had paid $20 more for that Z-Wave Dimmer module and gotten the better quality model”.

This doesn’t mean you need to pay a lot of money to get into Z-Wave, it just means you need to be a little sensible when selecting from the huge product range.

Z-Wave overall rating

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If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty and are mildly technically minded, then Z-Wave will likely suit your home automation needs perfectly.

Just as I say INSTEON is the “Apple” of the home automation world, Z-Wave could be likened to “Google”. Again, the similarities are there…

There are lots of manufacturers that license the Z-Wave technology (just like Google does with Android). The quality of Z-Wave products can vary greatly (because so many different companies are making them).

On the plus side, just like Android, Z-Wave is extremely adaptable and customisable. If you like to have complete control over your smart home system, then Z-Wave is a great choice. When it comes to home automation, Z-Wave will allow you to do almost anything you can think of – and it will do it well, provided you choose your Z-Wave products carefully and put a little effort into the setup of your Z-Wave system.

View our range of Z-Wave products


WeMo

Please note; we have discontinued stocking WeMo products due to lack of interest!

What the marketing department says…

WeMo is a series of home automation products from Belkin International, Inc. that allows users to control home electronics from anywhere. The WeMo system can be controlled from an iOS or Android smartphone running the WEMO App, via home WiFi or mobile phone network.

The WeMo App controls the WEMO devices from anywhere in the world as long as the WEMO devices’ wireless network is connected to the Internet. WeMo devices can also be controlled using IFTTT technology.

Here is our opinion, without the sales pitch...

WeMo product range

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The WeMo product range is… how do I put this nicely?

There’s really no other way to say it… The product range is ridiculously small. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its strong points, but product range is definitely not one of them. This may not matter to you so much. Perhaps all you want to do is control one plug-in lamp from your phone… in which case; WeMo will do that for you quite nicely.

WeMo performance and reliability

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WeMo works over your home’s existing Wi-Fi network. In fact, its communication technology is purely Wi-Fi based. This is great for one simple reason, unlike all of the other home automation technologies mentioned in this blog, you do not need a special “bridge” device (like the INSTEON Hub or Z-Wave Vera Edge) to gain control from your iPhone or Android smartphone.

Out of the box, WeMo will connect to your wireless router and allow you to take control from anywhere, without the need for extra hardware. That’s a big tick in the positive if all you want to do is control a few lamps or turn the power to some appliances on or off from your smartphone.

The build quality of WeMo products (made by Belkin) is actually very good. They have a nice modern design and don’t feel cheap in any way.

As far as reliability goes, as long as a WeMo device is placed within range of your wireless router, you should get good performance and reliability.

WeMo pricing and value

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The WeMo product range (I use that term loosely) is not expensive. Coupled with the fact that you will get control from your smartphone without having to spend more money on a controller, WeMo offers good value for money for a (very) small home automation setup.

WeMo overall rating

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If you are looking to control more than a few lamps or appliances, then the choice is easy; WeMo is not for you.

If you have a particular application that only requires a simple solution, then WeMo may do just fine.

There is one other very redeeming feature of WeMo (that other home automation technologies do not have - yet); it has IFTTT (IF-This-Then-That) integration. This is pretty powerful when combined with everything that the IFTTT service can do. If you are not familiar with IFTTT, take a look; it’s becoming very popular for good reason.


X10

What the marketing department says…

There isn't one!

However there is a lot of respect and gratitude.

X10 is the Granddaddy of home automation and helped define the term "home automation". It’s where it all began (nearly 40 years ago). For its time, it was complete science fiction. It is still used in millions of homes around the World today; however, it is getting really old and tired.

If you are starting out in home automation – DO NOT CONSIDER X10.

The only reason we still supply X10 products is because it is in so many homes. Not everyone wants to pull out every X10 device they have and start again. If this is you, then I strongly suggest you take a look at INSTEON, which offers some limited backwards compatibility with X10 and will allow you to make the transition slowly.

But you are lucky, you are just starting your home automation journey from scratch – so I strongly advise, and I say this with the utmost respect; do not start it with X10.

X10 product range

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Because X10 has been around for so long, it has a huge product range. However most of it is outdated and the remaining products are simply too unreliable.

X10 performance and reliability

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I am not even going to go into some of the reliability issues with X10, anyone who is still using it knows what I am talking about. For its time, it was brilliant; but X10’s time has well passed.

X10 pricing and value

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It’s very affordable (and very unreliable). Enough said.

X10 overall rating

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Thank you for everything you have done, however It’s time to retire and take it easy X10 – you’ve earned it.

View our range of X10 products


Final thoughts…

So which smart home system do you choose?

Just as we all live in our homes differently, this is a very personal decision.

If you want a system that “just works”, is easy to install and use and will do most of what you want today and in the future, then I recommend you take a close look at INSTEON. Just as a matter of interest, INSTEON is what I choose to use at home - and believe me, I can take my pick of home automation products. I love its reliability and ease of use.

If you are looking for a system that offers a wide product range and don’t mind tinkering (and the occasional trouble-shooting), then Z-Wave may be the ideal system for you. I can guarantee you this much; you will never be left wondering… “Can I do that with Z-Wave”? Or… “Is there a product that will allow me to…”? Z-Wave will have you covered.

If all you want to do is control some basic lighting or appliances, or perhaps IFTTT (IF-This-Then-That) integration is important to you, then I would seriously consider WeMo – Just don’t expect to be able to grow your smart home beyond the basics in the future.

Your decision can usually be guided by what you want to achieve and what is important to you.

If you would like to discuss your particular requirements, or just want some advice; contact us, we’d love to hear from you.

All the best,

Brad Arthur

Related blogs

Apple HomeKit vs Google Brillo
An introduction to INSTEON