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Home Automation: Has Anything Changed in 15 Years?

We're still banking on utilities to jump-start the home automation industry and a "real" standard is "just around the corner."


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EH Publishing is 15 years old in July 2009 and, being there at the beginning, I came into the business knowing nothing about home automation.

So I called this guy named Tom Riley, founder of Unity Systems. Unity was the original home automation company, with touchscreen-based graphical interfaces.

Unity’s biggest strength, though, was in energy management, pioneering demand-side management (DSM) systems that would help consumers respond to changes in electric rates.

DSM was all the rage in the 1990s, and virtually all of the major utilities ran trials with smart meters and intelligent thermostats and fancy Internet dashboards (when the Internet came into being).

Back then, two powerline-based home-control protocols were vying for the utilities’ affections: LonWorks and CEBus.

The thought was that utilities would pump nodes (meters, thermostats, load-shed devices) into millions of American households. And those smart devices would prompt homeowners to add compatible lights and appliances for a completely automated home.

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Smart Energy is one of the 6 Pillars of EHX Spring 2010: The New Opportunities Show. Save the date: March 24-27, Orlando, Fla.

Home automation would surge once the utilities did their thing!

Fast forward. Tom Riley and I became good friends and kept in touch after he sold Unity to Invensys. Thanks to his Harvard MBA roommate George Bush, Tom spent the last five years as ambassador to Morocco.

His Excellency just returned to the United States (his own Unity system still working after 25 years, he tells me) and I briefed him on some of the industry happenings.

Turns out, he didn’t miss anything.

Fifteen years later and we’re still banking on utilities to jump-start the home automation industry and a “real” home automation standard is “just around the corner.”

This time, instead of CEBus and LonWorks duking it out, it’s ZigBee and Z-Wave. It looks like the utilities may settle on ZigBee (and possibly a powerline-based solution) for their smart meters and demand-side devices. Does that mean ZigBee wins the title of Home Automation Standard?

I say no. First of all, there will always be ways to bridge standards, just as there are today.

Second, even if ZigBee is deployed on a large scale for DSM purposes, the utilities really don’t care about giving consumers the tools to graph their energy usage on a day-by-day or hour-by-hour basis. And do consumers themselves care enough to take the initiative? Do they really want to know how many kilowatts they consumed last week? (Microsoft seems to think so with its new Hohm initiative.)

The utilities will not spur mass adoption of automation. Consumers will not flock to Home Depot to pick up smart dimmers just because they have a smart thermostat. It will still be up to you, the integrator, to push those new products into the home.

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Sculley, Metcalfe Debate Growth of Home Automation



  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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