Home Automation Basics: Terms You Should Know

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Here’s a view of my home automation rack, where I can control lighting, music and TV in our home.

To many people, home automation might seem like the future and out of reach. But in the past few years, it has become much more inexpensive and attainable for everyone. I’ll spend the next three posts covering some of the basics of home automation today: terms, capabilities and DIY vs. DIFM (Do it for me).

The first topic is terms. You can get bogged down very quickly in the techno-babble. Below are a number of the basic terms that will help you navigate this world of creating a smart home. It’s probably not a complete list, but it will get you familiar with the terminology and make you more comfortable researching home automation on your own.

Home Automation Terms

 

  • Access Point: This is the piece of equipment that allows your WIFI devices to connect to a network (which could be the Internet). Most people have one built into a router, but bigger systems separate these two devices. You can get them for both indoors and outdoors and they come in different speeds and ranges.
  • Arduino: This is a micro-controller with the supporting electronics all packaged together on an easy-to-use circuit board. These devices have opened up the world of micro-controllers to a lot more people due to the simplicity of wiring and programming. A number of different hacks can be done with these to automate processes around your house. They are not that expensive ($25 – $35) but you will probably need some other gear to start automating with them.
  • Domotics: This is a fancy word for home automation.
  • Ethernet: This is basically your home’s Internet but it’s a bit more complicated. It is a collection of technologies to make local area networks, which enable you to connect to the world Internet.
  • HVAC: Including Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning, this is the combined system of your furnace, blower, air conditioner, thermostat and all the vents in your home or office.
  • IR: Infrared is the light that is just out of human sight on the longer end of the spectrum. In home automation, it is used for wireless communication (like most remote controls). Since it is light, it requires LOS, or Line of Sight, to function. This means the IR emitter (the device sending the signal) must have an unobstructed view of the IR receiver (the device reading the signal).
  • Low-Voltage: This is a way to differentiate High Voltage (electrical outlets, switches, etc.) and other devices (ethernet, audio/video, etc).
  • Macro:  This is short for macro-instruction and is a combination of individual commands. An example is a button you might program called “Start Movie.” It would turn off the lights, turn on the TV and DVD, and start your movie.
  • Modem: This device translates the Internet signal coming from your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to something your computer can use. These are typically rented from your ISP. It is fairly illegal to hack them but the device does control your Internet speed (you’ve been warned).
  • Mesh Network: This is a network that becomes stronger the bigger you make it. Each device in the network boosts the signal by both transmitting and receiving all the data. This allows you to have a centralized processor to which each device in your home automation system would connect back, while allowing the further devices to “puddle jump” using devices closer to the processor.
  • POE: Power over Ethernet is a bit of magic that sends electricity through your ethernet (example: network or Internet) lines. While this isn’t a lot of electricity, it is enough to run small devices like access points and cameras.
  • PLC:  Power Line Carrier or Power Line Communication is kind of the opposite of POE. It sends communication data (example: network or Internet) along your electricity lines. So you could plug in a lamp and it could surf the Internet (not really but kinda).
  • Relay: A relay is a special type of switch that triggers a bigger switch. In home automation, we can use relays to trigger other devices such as hooking up your garage door opener to your system so you can open it up from your phone.
  • Router: This device connects multiple Internet devices to your modem. It allows you to have more than one computer connected to the Internet and connects them to each other for sharing files and services. That is an overly simplified explanation and if you really want to fry your brain you can learn about the OSI model.
  • Scene: This is an orchestration of turning on and off many lighting devices to make a holistic event, such as “Movie Watching” (all TV room lights off), “Dinner Party” (Dining room and kitchen lights on), etc.
  • X10: There are a number of industry standards for home automation. The three I am most familiar with are X10, ZigBee and Z-Wave. X10 is a little more rogue and in my mind requires the most research and experience. However, that depth makes it great for the DIY home automator because it allows a lot of flexibility normally locked up by the bigger standards.
  • ZigBee: This is a type of communication protocol used to build mesh networks. They are low power but don’t send a lot of data. It is used in many applications. More information can be found at the ZigBee Alliance. For some home automation systems, this is the network that connects everything.
  • Z-Wave: Similar to ZigBee, Z-Wave is a communication protocol for building mesh networks. It is different because it is almost entirely used for home automation only. This has pluses and minuses. Find more information at the Z-Wave Alliance

 

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About Nick Britsky 

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I am a digital account executive by day and seeker of new skills by night. Maker Faires are my passion, and I have built projects ranging from giant Twinkie cars ...

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