Under the understanding “Smart Home”, “Home Automation” or “Domotics” one summarizes all efforts to make the residents of a house or apartment their stay there more pleasant and easier through automation and digitization.
The greatest possible cosiness and user-friendliness in one’s own four walls has always been a worthwhile goal. What began with improvements – now self-evident – such as the remote control for the TV or blinds instead of shutters, has not only gained new momentum due to the advancing digitalization, but also a whole arsenal of new technical possibilities. If you want to take it very carefully, you can also see early inventions such as the washing machine or the water boiler as automation and trace the beginnings of this trend back to the 19th century.
Today, smart home solutions often include functions such as automated door locks, temperature control and lighting, or music and TV systems. Even seemingly simple systems such as vacuum cleaner robots or smoke detectors theoretically fall into this category. The list of possible uses is long.
Today, Domotic applications are usually controlled from their own smartphone or tablet. But even fixed control units are not uncommon and sometimes remind us of simple thermostats in design. Thanks to automation, which is an important part of the overall concept, regular, manual control should become more and more a rarity.
Today, smart homes form a still manageable but constantly growing market. Individual applications (e.g. lawnmower robots) from this category are already enjoying widespread use, while the use of complete systems is still rather slow.
Definition “Smart Home”
A smart home is first of all just an automated residential/apartment. Theoretically, this automation can already be realized in the form of a simple motion detector that activates a light. In daily use, however, larger systems are meant, in which several devices can be operated at the same time or controlled automatically. A common view, for example, is that smart automation must include lighting, climate, and consumer electronics to meet the definition.
The individual parts of the system are usually controlled by a central “hub”, which forms the heart of the system. Today, access is usually via smartphone or tablet apps to make settings or changes.
Since the majority of smart home devices are connected to the Internet, the in-house WiFi network is often an important backbone of Domotic. Such an online system is also a central building block of Internet-of-Things (IoT) concepts and is mentioned in connection with them as often.
Definition of digitization
Digitalization is, quite soberly speaking, simply the transfer of formerly analogue processes to digital ones. Even if we are currently increasingly encountering these and similar terms, this is a very old and simple process, because almost every form of digitization is rewarded with efficiency increases, cost reductions and new, previously unknown possibilities. No wonder we humans have always been very interested in her.
Due to the accelerating technical progress and the mutual support (new technologies enable new technologies …) digitalization has gained so much speed in recent years that it has now penetrated into all areas of our lives and is indispensable from there. This digital transformation is a technological, socio-cultural, economic and intellectual process that brings with it gigantic upheavals.
For companies in particular, the digital transformation creates unprecedented opportunities – but it also lurks with considerable dangers, especially if it is ignored.
Smart Homes as part of Building Automation
The idea of automating your own four walls with modern appliances and making them more comfortable for residents is not new. However, since these efforts always involved considerable technical effort, private individuals often balked at the associated costs.
In companies, on the other hand, such expenses have always paid off much faster, which is why the business world is already a few steps ahead in terms of building automation: Here, automatic locking systems with ID cards are already commonplace and light does not simply burn in the country’s factory halls, but activates when there are staff in the room and switches off accordingly after leaving.
It was only with the onset of digitalization that smart homes became affordable options. For example, the smartphones that almost every human being owns today are completely sufficient as control units – eliminating expensive interfaces. An in-house WiFi is also an absolute standard and allows easy networking of the devices used. Other benefits, such as a larger supply and generally lower prices for electronics, transported smart homes from a niche product for tech freaks to an interesting trend topic.
Classic use cases for Domotic products include lighting control, heating/air conditioning, and entertainment systems such as speakers and tVs. In addition, countless other applications are conceivable and numerous corresponding products flood the market.
Light can be controlled centrally via a corresponding lighting system as well as installed directly on the respective lamp. Those who shy away from the hassle of major renovation work are therefore well advised with retrofit kits: These can often also be installed by laymen directly behind the light switches and can be controlled by app or remote control, depending on the model.
There is also no need to buy a new, smart system for heating. If you already have a digital thermostat, you can quickly move to automation by adding additional retrofitting. Even for old mechanical rotary knobs on radiators, there is a digital replacement. If you have a modern air conditioning system, you will probably already have appropriate connection options ex-factory. Older devices can also be retrofitted with consultation with the manufacturer.
With the introduction of smart TVs into our living rooms, entertainment devices became one of the fastest and easiest to connect components of the smart home. As the name suggests, they have numerous corresponding functions and can sometimes even control other devices.
Many household items are now equipped with automation interfaces. These include, for example, the bedroom lamps, which are coupled with the intelligent alarm clock and gently wake us up in the morning, or the coffee machine that holds our cappuccino when we get out of the subsequent shower. And of course, the bathroom knows who is in it and makes appropriate adjustments to the water temperature, while the favorite music sounds from the speakers.
An important, if not uncontroversial, point is also locking systems. To release or block access to our apartment via app requires a high level of basic confidence in the technology behind it, but at the same time promises additional comfort. In this way, the parcel messenger can be granted access to the windtrap/house floor without violating the privacy of the actual living space – and without having to be present himself.
An important component: the sensors
In addition to the obvious components of a Domotic system, such as smart home-enabled devices, the full performance is often only demonstrated by the use of appropriate sensors: they enable the system to achieve comprehensive and personalized automation.
Among the most well-known and obvious options are certainly motion detectorsthat automatically turn on light in one part of our apartment. In addition to the outdoor area, classic fields of application are mainly corridors, which are usually frequented more frequently than other rooms. This eliminates the need for nerve-racking switching on and off the light. However, they can also be used for more complex tasks: all persons within the house can be detected by such sensors at any time. Since the smart home knows where the residents are, it also knows which rooms are abandoned and can automatically turn off the lighting, reduce the temperature or warn us by message when a window has been open for X minutes in an unused room.
Contact sensors are useful to detect an open window. These tiny devices are attached to windows, doors, garage doors, etc. and give a signal when the access has been opened or closed. This not only makes it possible to implement security concepts that warn of break-ins; It is also possible to receive a message if, for example, the refrigerator is open for a long time. It is also easy to capture and analyse one’s own habits. When did I leave the house this week and when did I come back from work (sensor in the front door)? Do I air enough or maybe even too much (sensors on the windows)? How often does my pet come and go through the cat flap in the balcony door? There are many possibilities here.
With the use of temperature and humidity sensors, significant savings in heating costs can often be achieved. The individual rooms can thus be analyzed according to the time of use and the desired temperature and ideally determined for ventilation, heating or air conditioning. For example, if you start every day at the same time in the well-deserved evening and like to have chubby warm, the system can have the ideal heating phase determined and use the recommendations to keep doors open to warmer areas of the house. Of course, such sensors are only useful in conjunction with thermostats or heaters, to which they can pass on their data and arrange appropriate heating or cooling. For the pure recording of a temperature for informational purposes, a thermometer is the much simpler variant.
The most widely used sensors, even if they are not always categorized as such, are smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo (“Alexa”), Apple’s HomePod or Google Home. You receive voice commands and can pass them on to other systems. If required, they also act as a hub, i.e. a central control unit for the respective Domotic system. Due to their widespread use, they can be considered the standard device for smart homes. In 2019 alone, 150 million such smart assistants were sold worldwide.
Why not everyone lives in a smart home
While home automation with a small size, for example a smart speaker that can also control the light, is very popular and easy to realize, the complete automation remains complex and expensive.
Extensive systems suffer from a lack of interconnectivity on the one hand: while the control unit from manufacturer X seems ideal for your own four walls, it unfortunately cannot be combined with the light switches from manufacturer Y, which would be cheap and easy to install. And the intelligent refrigerator unfortunately cannot connect to the control unit without another interface from the same manufacturer, which costs another X Euro… Those who are seriously interested in a mature Domotic system often cannot avoid buying a complete package – and leaving thousands of euros on the line.
The other major problem in the topic is the lack of support from the manufacturers and their rapid change of the product catalog. The newly acquired loudspeaker system, which can play different music for different residents in each room, may not be in the program after a few months and does not receive any software updates. When trying to connect the devices to the new Alexa assistant, the owner suddenly stands alone.
Home Automation manufacturers, their product policy and customer support have enjoyed such a bad reputation for years that you can’t always be sure if you’re reading a review or a Loriot sketch. Earned or not; many interested parties are reluctant to buy because of the horror stories.
If you want to take the step in spite of everything and intensively automate your own living space, it is easiest for new buildings or more extensive renovations. Although today’s devices are almost universally connected via WiFi and often battery operated, they can be placed almost anywhere. Especially if cross-room heating solutions, locking and safety systems or automatic shutters are to be installed, there are considerable advantages for the client in planning and implementation.
Smart homes are not music of the future – simply because they can be realized in almost any building at any time with a small amount. The great success of smart speakers is a huge boost to this development. The digital control and automation of individual devices has therefore long been the norm: activating the coffee machine from bed via smartphone is, thanks to digitalization, everyday life.
However, more extensive systems still suffer from poor to impossible connectivity between different manufacturers and often high prices. The complete automation of all functions within one’s own four walls therefore seems to remain a hobby for dedicated tinkerers for the foreseeable future. To this day, there is no clear market leader on whose products one could rely without fear of being in the rain after a short time.