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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."

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.

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.


Road to Home Automation Standards Paved with Good Intentions
Has Home Automation Standard Finally Arrived? ZigBee Pro with Control4 as ‘Anchor’
Why H.A. Manufacturers Fail
Why H.A. Manufacturers Fail: Revisited
Sculley, Metcalfe Debate Growth of Home Automation

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Article Topics

News · Blogs · Home Automation and Control · Home Automation · Industry Insider · Hvac · Utilities · Smart Meters · · All topics

About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
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. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]

24 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by jberger  on  07/07  at  08:08 AM

The difference this time around is the legislation of energy production and use. The requirement for demand response systems and in home monitoring are being forced by the federal government. It’s not a fair market adoption anymore, it’s the law.

Posted by Avi  on  07/07  at  08:25 AM

My favorite part of the old reprint… the third entry on the table of contents:

“SMARTHOUSE…big hit at Builder Show…Wiring America Executive Committee Formed”

Brings back great memories of the old HANA days…

Posted by Michael Stein  on  07/07  at  09:36 AM


As a long time veteran of the Home Automation, Electric Utilities, Deregulation, Customer Choice, Wheeling, etc. And as a participant in many of the Utility trials of the early 90s, I can say that many things are different today than they were back then.

To name a few:
*A PC in EVERY home
*The Internet in everyone’s home
*iPhones and connected Touch Screens Everywhere
*Climate Change Awareness
*An administration that isn’t hostile to the environment
*Retrofit technology choices that actually work

In the days of Unity systems (which was great in its day) large dedicated touch screens and complex infrastructure limited its market to the wealthy. This still persists to some degree due to the lack of a common standard.

As I look around the globe I find that many countries are far ahead of the US in terms of energy conservation, smart metering, and interoperability standards. Look at Europe and KNX as an example. By mandating a standard the possibilities of future integration and interoperability are greatly enhanced.

In the US “Smart” meters are currently relegated mostly to meter reading applications. However we should expect that these will begin to reach into the home. The path into the home is easy to predict. Large energy consumers like HVAC, and Water Heating will be the first since the ROI is great and easy to justify the capital expenses.

This first wave will provide peak load shedding capabilities to the utilities allowing them to defer or eliminate the need to build new coal burning plants. As consumers we will see rotating load shedding of our HVAC and water heaters for short durations during heavy load. This is typically an opt in program and offers rebates for participation.

Of course the control of your appliances is better if you have visibility into what it’s doing. This is where the PCs and iPhone like devices come into play. Integration with the home network (or via a service provider portal) provides visibility and control of these systems the customer is being paid to have installed.

As prices come down and energy prices increase we can see the ROI improving for lower energy usage devices and more interest in tying in the lighting, and smaller appliances.

If the utilities are successful (the stimulus money will help) in implementing standards based load shedding than it would be smart for companies in the Home Automation space to adopt these standards.

In the end the consumer wants a single interface to access all his energy related information and controls. This includes metering data, utility load and real time pricing, load and appliance status, etc.

This can be accomplished using bridging as you mention, but seriously, the cost and complexity will relegate such solutions to a niche. True standards are required to make this work seamlessly for a large market.

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  07/07  at  10:10 AM

Michael—I’ve grown up with you in the industry (although you are, of course, considerably older than I!) So ... which standards will Russound abide by (besides IP?). Something new or existing?

Posted by Michael Stein  on  07/07  at  11:05 AM


Very good question. Unfortunately, answering it would tip our hand more than I’d like to at this time.

Posted by Jive Turkey  on  07/07  at  11:06 AM

Plenty of things have changed.  For example, most now describe control as automation these days.  Somehow the macros associated with an integrated automation system have become what most dealers focus on.  Whereas, your article talks about true automation in the sense that a human is not interacting with the systems.  (Actions occuring based on time or an event.) 
The big change is happeing.  The thermostat (using the Zigbee utility profile) will be the gateway to the zigbee automation components that integrators will be offering.  This is truly a leap forward and good news for integrators seeking new opportunities beyond A/V control.

Posted by John Perry  on  07/07  at  11:51 AM

I agree with Mr. Stein for one reason only…he is right.

I also find the first line somewhat ironic, and perhaps telling, in relation to the title of this post, and that is:

“...I came into the business knowing nothing about home automation.”

Apparently nothing HAS changed in 15 years.

All due respect, to infer nothing has changed in 15 years is just inaccurate.

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  07/07  at  11:57 AM

“Nothing has changed” was hyperbole.

Many things have changed of course, most notably the proliferation of PCs, Internet and smart phones.

It has been said ... smart meters will drive H.A. Wait, broadband will drive it. Smart phones will drive it. ... So far, none has had much of an impact that I see (and that research reveals).

HA adoption has grown in the course of things, but if you just awoke from a 15-year nap, you would enjoy a bit of a chuckle about the sameness of it all.

Posted by Michael Stein  on  07/07  at  12:42 PM

Where to start…

Let’s look at an analogy.

Mobile Phones were once only used by wealthy titans of industry in a few cities that were equipped with specialized service providers. Believe it or not, these services existed many years before the advent of the first Cellular phones. Some enthusiasts would equip their cars with HAM radio and their homes with rigs that allowed the middle income, although very geeky, consumers to approximate the service of a mobile phone.

This is analogous to the HA business today. Some wealthy titans of industry can afford to hire a professional service to install an integrated system, or a geek may decide to install a DIY system that approximates the capabilities of a professionally installed system.

What happened when Cellular phones were released? How fast has that latent market moved? The original mobiles were on the market for many years before Cellular. If you were in a time capsule for 20 years you’d have seen no changes in mobile phones (first patented in 1908) until the advent of the Cellular.

My assertion is that the availability of connected User Interfaces like the PC and Smart Phone, the mature field proven technologies for connecting devices, the desire of the federal government to create a smarter pattern of energy consumption, the Utility ROI calculations in light of current energy costs, and the decreasing technology costs have created the same opportunity to exploit the latent HA market as when the Cellular phone unlocked the latent mobile communications market.

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  07/07  at  12:54 PM

Michael, you are right of course, and we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t believe it. We just can’t rely on smart grids and HA standards to drive it.

Posted by Ross Heitkamp  on  07/08  at  12:20 AM

Many things have changed, except that still very few people have any interest in what we call Home Automation or Smart Homes.  Why?  I contend it is because we still don’t actually have anything smart or automated.

Automated.  This means things work automatically.  Smart.  This means thinking, learning, anticipating.  Try to picture these applying to any of the best systems today - what features really fit?  Is there a system that actually reduces the number of things a user needs to do in their house?  From all I see, no.  They do offer the ability to do many more things, but with that greater control has come a greater burden of doing and knowing.  I love being able to do more and readily install it all.  But, that greater burden it brings means that most of it doesn’t pass the WAF (wife acceptance factor). 

The exceptions?  Universal remotes do simplify - especially the ones that execute macros to achieve what you want with single button presses.  The short-lived Destiny Networks HPS (Home Positioning System) turns on my lights for me as I walk around the house.  That is wonderful.  I have a rain sensor for my Mercedes windshield wiper that wipes when needed.

The answer?  More sensors - so the system knows what is going on.  More ability for the user to customize their own system - so when they realize that they always do some routine, they can program that without having to deem it worth getting a technician out to implement it for them.  There needs to be if-then-else capability - not just a trigger.  It needs to be “If motion, and dark, then light on” type of stuff.

Posted by Jive Turkey  on  07/08  at  08:57 AM

@ Ross

The features you are asking for are available today.  Including the ability for an end user to change a “user setting” that alters a routine.  (Take a closer look at HAI)

Thanks for supporting my point…that most in the industry today have been fixated on macros and control vs. automation.

Posted by Smarthomes Chattanooga  on  07/08  at  09:50 AM

If I counted all the people I know that have HA systems (not counting my customers), it would be a very small number. HA still has not reached a broad market. It is still for wealthy people building new homes.

There has to be a tipping point. A way for HA to get to the broad market. I don’t think our (CEDIA) channel alone can get us there. 

AMI (Smart Meters) might be exactly what we need. A Trojen horse into existing homes. Once the market gets a taste hopefully they will want more.

Who will they turn to for upgrades to their system? I hope it is us. We have to do a better job of raising awareness about what we do.

We have to get good at climate and lighting control systems. We need good retro-fit products for A/V. As I see it, the key will be to position ourselves to be the “go to” guys and not lose out to another channel.

Steve Nicola
Smarthomes Chattanooga

Posted by Lew Brown  on  07/08  at  01:58 PM

There are many good points here regarding the change in the marketplace that will support the growth and adoption of home control as it relates to energy management/conservation. The PC, smartphone, broadband, etc. are all critical elements of the shift in consumer behavior that are the impetus for change.

But let’s not forget safety and security in this mix as well. While I agree that energy management will be a big driver, the fact that Schlage and Black and Decker (combined have 80%+ of the residential door lock business) have adopted Z-Wave and in B & D’s case Z-Wave and Zigbee wireless access control bodes well for the further penetration of home control.

However none of this would be meaningful without the smartphone. Consumers have expressed a high interest in managing there home remotely (studies from CEA, Kelton Group and others have shown 60-70% expressing HIGH interest), the adoption constraint has still been there with consumers needing to open up a laptop in an airport or go to their office to use their office PC. Now with the ability to easily access your home with your Blackberry, Iphone or Palm Pre this becomes almost as easy as sending or receiving email. It will still take some time but is inevitable.

Lew Brown, Principal

Posted by rusgrafx  on  07/09  at  03:38 PM

I completely agree with Ross.

Currently, the majority of HA systems are for the 25-45 year old geeks. They do provide CONTROL, but not the automation. In many cases it’s just easier to walk a few steps to invoke some action then to navigate unintuitive touch screen menus. Can you imagine a grandma operating any existing HA system?

The true home AUTOMATION systems should be able to analyze (learn) user’s behavior on a day-to-day basis and predict all possible macroses that are currently have to be professionally programmed by system installers.

The system should also provide the most natural to a human being way of communication - speech. Not many (if at all) systems of today are capable of that. And let’s be frank, most of the currently available text-to-speech technologies suck.

This kind of automation is on a verge of AI and is still far away. I think to move forward, the industry has to agree to a common standard and start working together on the integration part instead of trying to push their own technologies.

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