DIY Home Automation Systems
DIY vs. Professional
Until recently, you couldn’t automate your home without buying a professional system. The reason why is it involves a knowledge of computer programming and electrical work to set up traditional automation systems, which necessitates a licensed installer. DIY automation now lets the rest of us jump into home automation. There are more DIY home automation products than ever before, all offering the promise of a connected home. Three of the top DIY automation systems are HomeSeer, Samsung SmartThings and Wink.
There are two types of DIY home automation systems: retail and maker. Retail DIY home automation systems are available in home improvement and electronics stores and often work with popular smart home products. These systems have accessories, tutorials and warranty support.
In contrast, maker systems let you build homemade smart homes and devices. If you have a solid understanding of coding and electronic components, it can be rewarding and inexpensive, but for most of us, this can be overwhelming. While our evaluation focuses on retail DIY automation systems, it’s good to know you have other options. For professionally installed systems, check out our home automation systems review.
To help you find the right system for your needs, here’s a crash course on DIY home automation in three sections. The first section, What to Expect from DIY Home Automation, helps you understand the limits of DIY home automation and gives a basic overview of the industry. The second section, Buying Tips, dives a little deeper to help you choose and set up a system that’s right for you. The final section discusses installation and customer support. For additional information, see our smart home articles.
What to Expect from DIY Home Automation
We’re still a long way from having intelligent homes that cater to our every whim, but home automation as it exists today can do a lot. During our research, we discovered a few things that can give you a better idea of what DIY home automation does and how it works. Let’s break it down into a few categories: mobile apps, installation, compatibility, pricing, security concerns and uncertainty.
One System, One App
Smartphones are the driving force behind DIY home automation. The best DIY automation systems allow you to control and monitor dozens or even hundreds of devices from a single mobile app. The app helps you set up notifications and automate tasks in your home. The key word here is “helps” – you still need to tell the app what to automate. Examples include programming it to tell you when the kids come in late or to turn the outdoor lights on at sunset.
Installation Is Mostly Easy
A majority of equipment is easy to install and requires nothing more than mounting and a connection to a power source. You can mount most devices with double-sided tape or screws, or you can simply place some on a shelf. These systems draw power from batteries or a power outlet. IP cameras, smart plugs, lightbulbs, sensors and other small appliances generally fall into the easy installation category, and it takes around 10 minutes on average to install these types of devices.
On the software side, once a device has power, you go through a pairing process to connect it to the system. This only works if the device is compatible with the system you’ve chosen, but we’ll explain that in the next section. Pairing takes less than five minutes on average per device.
A few items require a little more effort to install: light switches, programmable thermostats and smart outlets. To install these items, you must turn off the circuit breaker and manipulate electrical wiring. If you’re not comfortable with this, an electrician can install them for you. A smart lock is easy enough to install on your own, but if you want it to use your existing keys, a locksmith needs to rekey it. Installation takes 20 minutes or longer per device.
Compatibility Is Complicated
Truthfully, there are dozens of competing standards, but devices are compatible in one of two ways: hardware or software. When devices have compatible hardware, their transceivers speak a common language such as Z-Wave, ZigBee, HomeKit and Wi-Fi. Those with software compatibility share programming, mostly via cloud-based servers. Examples of strong software compatibility can be found in Amazon Echo and an online task automation service called IFTTT. For the most part, hardware and software compatibility work hand-in-hand, with software compatibility most common on Wi-Fi devices.
Bigger Systems Require Bigger Budgets
A smart home is not a cheap investment. Outfitting a small house or condo can cost around $1,000 or more. Devices in DIY home automation systems range in price from $15 for sensors and lightbulbs on the low end to hundreds of dollars for thermostats and cameras on the upper end of the spectrum. Building your ideal smart home all at once can be expensive, so installing it over time is a way to spread out costs.
Security & Privacy
One of the most attractive things about smart homes is that they can track your personal preferences and location. This creates a new pathway for criminals to steal your personal data. While no system is immune to hacking, most hubs use encryption to help protect your data on their servers.
On the privacy end of things, DIY home automation systems monitor how you use the system to improve service. To reduce their liability, most DIY home automation companies don’t associate your personal information with the data they collect, except in specific instances such as when you request customer support. If you’re not comfortable with companies collecting data about your smart home, then home automation is not for you.
Before you commit to a DIY home automation system, know that new products can be rife with turmoil, since they haven’t reached mainstream popularity. Despite a DIY smart home manufacturer’s best efforts, sometimes there isn’t enough demand to stay in business. You might spend $400 on an automation system to find out it doesn’t work anymore or fails to live up to your expectations. Until smart homes prevail in the market, proceed with caution.
DIY Home Automation: Buying Tips
As is common for do-it-yourself projects, DIY home automation ranges in cost and complexity. Before you can automate your home, take time to plan what you want to do and explore different options to make it happen. Planning helps you avoid buying devices you’ll never use or that have no practical value. Here are some tips to get you started:
Choose Your Starting Point
Your smart home should start with the device you want the most – good starter devices include Nest Learning Thermostat and Philips Hue. Once you choose the piece of gear you want the most, look for a system that can help it talk to other products. Every DIY automation company has a compatibility or “works with” page that can narrow down your choices. If two devices cannot communicate directly, explore alternative devices or services such as IFTTT.
Ideally, the smart home hub should be your third purchase; when you purchase the hub after your first couple of devices, you’re less likely to buy one that can’t talk to either of your first two devices. DIY home automation kits are also excellent starting points.
Determine Your Focus
Focus only on features you want, and don’t purchase pieces of equipment just because you can. Choose devices that contribute to your ideal version of a smart home. As a general rule, a complete smart home has elements of control, security, utilities and entertainment. DIY smart homes do well with the first three but have either weak or no support for entertainment. These categories are not mutually exclusive; for example, lighting plays a role in all four.
Control – Devices that give you more control add convenience by helping you create schedules, rules and smartphone controls. Common examples are light switches, garage door openers, thermostats and window treatments.
Security – These devices protect your family, belongings and property by monitoring for and deterring intruders. Some examples are door sensors, motion detectors, smoke detectors, smart locks, IP cameras and sirens.
Utilities – Some devices can encourage you to make you home more energy efficient, which helps you save on gas, electric or water bills. Examples include thermostats, sprinkler controllers, leak detectors and window treatments.
Entertainment – These are audio-video devices and home theater equipment. Universal remotes, such as Logitech Harmony, are a good way to control your TV, home audio system and streaming sticks with your DIY smart home.
Cloud Control vs. Local Control
In many cases, systems use a remote server to execute commands; for example, if you turn on a light in the app, it talks to the server before the light turns on in your home. This means your devices don’t respond instantly to your commands but take a couple seconds. Cloud control uses a Wi-Fi connection to control your home remotely and doesn’t work without an internet connection. While the best DIY home automation hubs have both cloud and local control, companies mostly use cloud control to cut costs.
Locally controlled components respond instantly with no lag, and they don’t require an internet connection. Systems with local control often can’t perform data-intensive tasks, such as video streaming, and are limited to simple tasks like turning things on and off. Professional home automation systems are more capable of data-intensive local control.
Consider Potential Savings
When you see the high price tag of the equipment, consider that many features can save you money over time. Energy-efficient devices, such as smart light bulbs and smart thermostats, reduce your power bill and eventually pay for themselves. If you opt for security system features such as cameras and sensors, you could get a discount on insurance – check with your insurance agent to see if a DIY system meets the requirements.
Large Appliances Don’t Yet Automate Well
Smart large appliances, such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, don’t currently offer much value beyond a few gimmicks. Outside of a professional home automation system, home theater equipment doesn’t automate well either. Smart large appliances can easily add $2,000 each to your automation budget. Wait for smart appliances to mature a little before making that big of an investment.
Installation & Support
As we said before, installation is mostly easy. However, it can go smoother if you know a few things beforehand. Here are a few suggestions to help the process along:
Prepare Your Home
Make sure you have internet speeds of 10 Mbps or more and a solid wireless router so your smart home has a good foundation. This is especially important if you have IP security cameras as part of your setup. Your router, or at least your DIY home automation hub, should set up near the center of your home. This puts the system in range of most of your smart devices and allows Z-Wave and ZigBee mesh networks to operate more efficiently.
If a device fails, check to make sure the system still works by checking the other devices in your system. You can often fix a malfunctioning device by removing and re-adding it to the system.
When you install your system, 3M Command hanging strips are a good alternative to double-sided tape, especially if you live in an apartment and need to remove the equipment when you move. Also, keep spare non-rechargeable batteries on hand just in case.
We recommend you go through social media customer support if the company offers it. A public post on a company’s Facebook page or Twitter account is more likely to receive a quick response. If social media isn’t available, telephone and live chat are good alternatives. Email support isn’t as reliable as the other forms of support, since it might take longer for the company to respond. The best DIY home automation systems have vibrant online communities to help you solve tricky compatibility issues and get helpful tips.
The majority of smart home goods have warranties that are only valid for one year. This is a standard warranty, though some manufacturers offer longer ones. Equipment should work for years after its warranty expires.
Every smart home starts with its owner. If you have realistic expectations, it should be easy to choose the system that best fits your needs. Whether you approach it as a novelty, hobby or a serious investment, DIY home automation is a good way to improve your home.