Smart Home Technologies: Part 1

SMART HOME OVERVIEW

Smart Home Technologies cover a broad range of what you can automate in your home. There is a ton of technology out there attempting to deliver a complete Smart Home package, but I like to look at it as three components:

  1. Audio Video Control – These are smart “whole home” systems that, at their core, control all of your sound and video systems. Think Receivers, TV’s, Amplifiers, Music Streamers, Content Systems (such as AppleTV, Roku, Firestick), CD/DVD players, and Speaker Systems. These systems also are very good at setting up Rooms throughout your home so that you can pipe sound and video fundamentally to separate or all areas through an easy to use interface or app.
  2. Home Infrastructure Automation – These are systems that manage and automate the devices in your home such as lighting, video cameras, leak sensors, water usage, sprinkler systems, pool controls and HVAC (Heating and AC Systems).
  3. Security Systems – These are the systems that monitor your home across your entry points (think doors and windows) as well as video surveillance, smoke detection, CO Detection and motion detection within your home.

Virtually every company that started as one of the Smart Home areas above is now pushing all of them as part of their solutions. ADT, for example, is a Security System company, but now they position themselves as a Smart Home Automation system. And yes, their base security system and set of automations is amazing, but when you get to the infrastructure automation, it’s quite limited and restrictive. Hopefully, after going through all three parts of this series, you will have a better understanding of these three components of Smart Home technologies and, at the very least, be able to make more informed decisions about this growing suite of technologies.

AV SMART HOME TECHNOLOGIES OVERVIEW

This is Part 1 of my Smart Home Technologies Series, focuses on Audio and Video Automations. There are 3 main players in the Full Home Automation Systems market: Control4, Crestron and Savant. They’re primary advantage are controlling your AV priorities in the home and increasingly home automation with lighting, shades, security and HVAC. This overview will summarize our experience with two systems; We bought our home with a pretty significant Control4 system already installed with some parts of the system updated and current, other parts dated and end of life. After two years with Control4 we were advised by our dealer to move to Savant which we did in late 2019 and have been operating that system for about two years now.

INITIAL CONSIDERATIONS

RESOURCES: The Internet is a good place to start researching and comparing systems. Our experience doesn’t always align with what the reviews say, but here are some good published comparisons of two systems:

https://www.audioadvice.com/videos-reviews/control4-vs-crestron-vs-savant/

YOUR INTERNET

Full Home Automation systems, in fact all home automation systems, require a strong/stable Internet within your home. The devices you install yourself (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Nest, Ring, etc.) are all communicating to each other all day long. As your system grows, so does the Internet traffic within your home. Having a fast Internet provider and a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout your home is critical. Many integrators can help with the “in-home” Wi-Fi but beware, this is usually not their focus and expertise and if this part of any system is glitchy your whole system will be glitchy. Our recommendation is to keep these separate. Keep your Internet provider and home Wi-Fi solution separate from your Home Automation system to ensure the right experts are solving the right problem cost effectively. We use our own home Wi-Fi solution from LinkSys that is bulletproof and delivers over 900 Mbps speed anywhere on our property and never goes down. That ensures our home automation system is sitting on a strong foundation and almost never has any issues.

YOUR HOME INFRASTRUCTURE

All homes are setup differently, and how your home is setup will determine what you can and cannot do cost effectively. Also, the location of your primary system will be important. You want to ensure your main control system, be it Savant or Control4, has direct ethernet connectivity to your main Internet router.  Things to consider are the following:

  1. Audio Wiring: Is your home/outdoor area pre-wired for speakers? This makes things easier in many ways for Full Home Automation and likely dictates where you put your main control system…where all the wires go.  Ours are conveniently located underneath our stairs, so that’s where the main AV and control systems go.
  2. Ethernet Wiring: Do you have hard-wire ethernet throughout your home? If so, again, makes things a lot easier both from setting up a strong wi-fi signal throughout your home, but for direct communication for your main controlling devices from your home automation system.  NOTE: This is a big differentiator between setting up a simple Amazon Alexa system (which is communicating with wi-fi) and a full home automation system. You want the core home automation hubs to be able to connect directly to your network with ethernet, if possible, to ensure a stable system.
  3. Current Smart Home Devices: Initial investment in smart home devices can be pretty important. Consideration must be given to your current investment in home automation. Many folks already have Ring, Nest, Alexa, AppleTV or Google. When choosing a Full Home Automation, will these common devices you are already familiar with integrate seamlessly with your system or will you need to replace with system specific devices. NOTE: This is one of my problems with these systems, they tend to dictate what type of devices you can use and if they don’t work with Nest, but you like your Nest, that’s a problem. It’s why we keep our Savant System as an AV Management System only, because it does that very well, and use Samsung SmartThings combined with Alexa voice control for home automation. With this combo, we can install/use whatever devices we want and everything just works.

YOUR AV INFRASTRUCTURE

This section summarizes how these systems work in a typical home. Fundamentally, you will need the following:

Family Room – Main Gathering

  1. System Controller (Usually the Master system controller is for the Family Room)
  2. Receiver – To control more than one device like your Digital TV Service (Cox/DirecTV), AppleTV, Game System, DVD Player, etc.) Usually your best Sound Equipment is in your family room, so all of those speakers plug directly into this main receiver.
  3. TV – To display everything
  4. Power protection, like an ethernet-capable WattBox or Monster to protect all the equipment and to give the integrator remove capability to reboot part or all of your system.
  5. IR Controller – Used by the Master Controller from Savant/Control4 to send signals to your receiver to change devices, control devices, volume control, etc.
  6. One or more additional amplifiers to stream your content to speakers in other rooms like kitchen, dining, office, outdoors.
  7. Mini-amp to control doorbell speakers if you have one
  8. Power conditioner, like Panoramic, to keep consistent power to all of your devices
  9. Main Network Switch to hardwire ethernet to all of the devices in this room and to connect to devices in other rooms. (Integrators are very particular about brand here and will usually include in their quotes)

Master Bedroom – Typically you have a TV and speakers here, for that, and any similar room, you need the following:

  1. System sub-controller – This communicates to the Master controller in your family room and likes to be ethernet connected
  2. Receiver – To control more than one device like your Digital TV Service (Cox/DirecTV), AppleTV, etc. and your speakers in that room
  3. NetWork switch so all devices talk to each other
  4. Usually you don’t need an IR controller here for the receiver, the sub-controller does it for you.

Bonus Room or Additional Smaller Family Room – Like the Master bedroom, you will need some combination of the main family room setup and the Master bedroom setup depending upon what you have or want in that room.  This is true with any room, fundamentally, that has a TV and speakers. We, for example, have our Master System for our Family Room, then 1 additional Master System for our Kids family room upstairs, then 3 sub-systems with just a TV, Receiver, Sub-controller and set of Speakers for rooms like our Cabana, Master bedroom, Master bathroom.  All other rooms (Dining, Living, Office, Kitchen, Master Retreat) are just what we call “speaker rooms” so we can push music/sound from one of the two Master Systems to any of these speaker rooms.

User Friendly Controllers

All of these high-end systems provide several ways to interact with your Full Home Automation system.  They are the following:

  1.  Handheld Controller – You can have a single controller for each Master or sub-master room that is pre-configured just for that room. These “remotes” are usually really easy to use and control your AV/Automation needs. We have 4 of these for our 2 Master rooms and 2 of our sub-rooms. These remotes are expense, about $600 for Savant each, about $1,000 for Control4 each.
  2. Wall Controller – These are iPad size controllers that you install on a wall as a redundant controller for a room or the only controller for a room. We have 2, one in the Kitchen as a redundant controller for our Master system but is on the wall and doesn’t get misplaced and one for the Master bathroom because we always lose the remote there. For Savant, they just use iPad Mini’s and the installed Savant App, so only $399 per controller, Control4 has their own, it’s about $1,000 and sucks if it has to be upgraded to a newer version in the future. (Remotes tend to work forever)
  3. SmartPhone App – All systems have a SmartPhone app to control any room and any system. They’re not all super user friendly, but pretty functional when you are moving around the house, especially outside where you have no physical controllers.

FLEXIBILITY

It’s important to understand that these Full Home Automation Systems want you to see them as the end all for everything home automation. Always remember, at their core, they are really good at AV Management (TV’s, Sound, multi-system/multi-room control). Home automation is cool, but it’s still in development for these companies. Look at what you have today, but also look at what you may have tomorrow. Is the system you choose flexible enough to take you into the future. For example, we just completed a major renovation and in the process, installed new digital controlled and automated door locks from Emtek to match our design with all the doors in our home.  So, in this example, the door handles were the controlling decision of course, not the home automation system. We did ensure the Emtek system worked with Alexa, which in turn works with our Samsung SmartThings home automation, but the system is so new from Emtek that it can’t be controlled by either Control4 nor Savant. So, do you really want your home automation system dictating the design of things in your home, or the other way around? For us it’s easy, because we keep home automation separate from AV Management, but once you take the plunge, you are now controlled by what that system has and can work with. This was another reason why we moved to Savant, it’s a wi-fi based system and it works with Alexa so we can do and control things from Savant to our other wi-fi based systems. Control4 uses primarily a Zigbee set of devices, so fundamentally if the device doesn’t come with a Zigbee capability, you can’t use it and must go to a specific Control4 device to be compatible.

DEALER/INTEGRATOR

This is one of the most important parts of your decision, who is going to install and manage this system for you? It’s important to understand with all of these high-end systems, they are “closed systems” meaning you, the homeowner, cannot actually manage the control system itself. They are all run by proprietary software packages and you must be a registered/trained dealer of the system in order to be able to install and manage the software that manages your system. This means that in addition to having a strong support backbone, the integrator needs to be responsive. Outside of support issues, any change you want to make to your system must be done by the integrator and usually with a physical visit to your home. Want to automate a new light, have to call the integrator, want to add a new set of outdoor speakers, have to call the integrator. So choosing a good partner is important. We have experience with 4 different ones with different experiences depending upon the system and issues. NOTE: Control4 “controls” your integrator.  Meaning you have to authorize the integrator with them first, then that integrator can manage your home. So if you start with one, but then what to change a year later, you have to go through Control4 corporate to designate a new integrator. Not a super big deal, but slows things down. Here’s our experience:

  1.  Best Buy Magnolia: The system that came with our home was Control4 and the designated integrator was Magnolia.  So we HAD to work with them first to update our system, and we tried. We found their “Technical Manager” was really just a sales person trying to upsell us on everything from new AV equipment to updates to all of our Control4 devices. Our initial request was just to get the thing working with our more modern HDMI controlled TV’s and digital receivers. The initial quote was over $18,000 just to get the system running…we already had all of the required Control4 system components. So we moved on to another Integrator.
  2. Glabman Technology Solutions – This is who we registered with to get our Control4 system up and running. They were considered the best integrator by Control4 corporate when I called for a recommendation. They are super high-end with a big showroom, in Irvine I believe, and their founder is somewhat of a big deal in this Full Home Automation world. Like Magnolia, they had to do a site visit and I could see them just adding up the $$ for a sale, I was able to keep them focused on just proving to us that our Control4 system worked, and for around $2,000 they were able to get everything up and running. We worked with them for about 2 years, and finally reached a point in 2019 where Control4 was doing a major software upgrade, that was unavoidable, and it was going to cause about 1/3 of our system to stop working. The estimate was that we needed to replace 3 of our sub-controllers, our master controller and our two wall mount remotes, for a total of about $18,000…just for a required software update. We went looking for another integrator/solution!
  3. Fuzion3 – This was a recommendation from our neighbor, who uses them for Control4. We brought the owner over to evaluate, took a while, but when he came in, he’s the one that pushed us to Savant. Yes, we would have to reinvest in a new/updated system, but in his experience they are more solid, fail a lot less and much better price point. So for about the same investment as the Control4 upgrade, $16,000, we took the leap. They did an amazing job with the installation and the system worked flawlessly, no support issues, for over a year.
  4. AVD – These guys are one of the biggest and best Savant Dealers in Southern California. They jumped to our rescue and within 6 days were onsite fixing and reconnecting our Savant system for about $350. The President did the site visit at our home the same day I called and they have an impressive resume. They don’t do Control4 for some of the same reasons I have experienced, it goes down a lot, it’s harder to support and customer satisfaction requires a lot of their time. Not sure how these guys will be in the long run yet, we just started working with them, but they are busy and scheduling new adds, which we are going to do, is about 4-6 weeks out.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

Over the past 3 ½ years, we have been able experience several integrators across 2 of the top systems. Remembering that we do NOT use these systems for home automation, our experience is limited to the sound and visual control of some very sophisticated equipment throughout our home. 2 of those 3 ½ years were with Control4, 1 ½ years with Savant. Based upon the issues we constantly had with Control4, and the fact that 2 of our 4 integrators confirmed the issues and one actually pushed us to Savant, we have found the Savant system much more stable and much more cost effective. For those of us who are not AV experts, this is exactly what you want, everything just works. That was never the case with Control4, but again, just our experience. Remember to know that you will have to choose your battles in the Home Automation space. A solid Internet and Wi-Fi backbone is absolutely key to minimizing issues with your system. And again, try to keep the two separate, because getting these guys out to your home to fix stuff usually takes a few days and always costs a lot to get them there $200-$300 per visit, just to get them there.

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