Smart home or home automation

3 minute read

We often talk about the smart home and home automation as if those terms are interchangeable, but they’re (mostly) not.

Smart Home

This is a house that contains devices that you can interact with, and potentially can interact with each other. These are things like the Hue lights, a Nest thermostat, a Ring doorbell, some smart lock, and more.

Individually, each of these things is useful, but I feel though that it’s really been the addition of voice assistants that have taken it from a geek toy to something more widely useful. Now you don’t have to find your phone, open an app, and then take control from there. Instead you just say Alexa, turn on the lights or Hey Google, lock the front door.

The power of this is now extended by things like routines, and other smart home features that allow you to do more than one thing, or turn on lights automatically at sunset. Now we’re starting to get into automating the home.

Talking of that…

Home Automation

This is where you take your smart home, and add some (relatively limited) brains to it. You start linking things together, saying if this happens, do that

Doing this builds upon the foundation of a smart home - it adds a system to run that logic, sensors to detect things happening, actors to do things (eg a smart light, or a smart plug), and potentially connection to external services for other data. It may, but doesn’t have to, bridge across ecosystems - it’s quite possible for a home automation platform to be vendor specific.

These “brains” can be in your home (such as with Home Assistant), in the cloud, or as a hybrid. There’s advantages and disadvantages to all of these. Local means you’re not reliant on your Internet connection, or cloud services, but you need an always on computer to run it on. Running in the cloud, makes you reliant on that cloud service, and your Internet connection, but you don’t need anything local. Hybrid is probably the one with more downsides than upsides. You need that local always on device, and you’re reliant on your Internet connection and that cloud service.

Some of the automations may be very simple - like turning on the outside lights when the sun sets, then turning them off when the sun rises. Some may be more complicated - like turning on certain lights only if you’re home and watching the TV, or closing the blinds just enough when the TV is on and the elevation and azimuth of the sun would cause it to shine on the TV.

Having automation shouldn’t stop you from taking manual control, though you’ll typically have to account for that - these systems are rarely smart enough. There’s little more annoying than having to battle the automation platform to get things the way you want. I know, because when that happens I get told in no uncertain terms to fix it.

It’s not a competition

These aren’t competing things, there’s room for dumb home, smart home, and automated homes.

Some people want, and can afford, a fully automated house, sites like Automated Home are an interesting window into that world. Others (probably the majority) just want something simple and predictable, where they can have a little fun. Then there’s the home automation crowd, most of who sit somewhere between those two depending on budget, time, and desires.

There’s room for all of these positions, and more. There’s no shame in wanting a simple smart home with only a handful of devices. Similarly there’s no shame in wanting a fully automated house. We shouldn’t be snobbish or elitist about this, or any hobby/technology/skill.

I’ve also seen a lot of complaints about “dumbing down” of home automation to appeal to a wider audience. A wider audience is a good thing. Making home automation more accessible is a good thing too. I’ve seen many posts from people who’ve used home automation to make life easier for people with limited mobility, provide visual notifications for people with hearing loss, and more. We’re doing everybody a disservice if we try to act as gatekeepers.

The challenge is making it more accessible without losing the capabilities that attracted so many of us to it.