Automation Cost Analysis

Automation systems don’t come cheap.  Well, sometimes they do; but you get what you pay for.  When deciding on an automation system for your home, you need to decide a few things.

1) What type of user am I?

2) How quickly does everything need to be up and running?

3) How much money do I have to spend?

4) What are my expectations?

These are key questions to consider and here is why.

Question 1. The type of user you are will determine what kind of system you’ll be happiest with.  If you are a do it yourself kind of person and expect that you will want to tweak and make changes to the system, then you will not be installing high end systems like Crestron, AMX, or Control 4.  All of these systems require authorized dealers to install and program the system. Depending on the programming, you will most likely have to call the installation company to come out and make changes to the system every time you get new equipment or want to tweak the way the system works (more on that later). If you just want a system that works and don’t want to make changes on your own, then you would want one of the above mentioned systems, but you would not want a DIY solution like Insteon, Hal, or many of the other DIY centric systems out there.

This question actually has two parts.  The second part of this is to note that the professional systems are professional for a reason.  Installers choose companies like Crestron or AMX because they are reliable.  They know that when they put the system in and program it, the system will run correctly (if they do a good job programming) for many years.  The DIY solutions are not always as reliable.  Plus, if you’re constantly tweaking things then you’re likely to make a mistake once and  a while.  Professional systems are made so that installers can design the system, install it, and leave knowing that the system will keep on running.

Question 2. The question about how quickly everything needs to be up and running is an interesting one. It is most likely that you have a day job and can’t sit around for two weeks in one shot to program the system.  If you’re building or renovating a house, however, chances are that certain parts of the automation system need to be up and running for you to get your C/O or for inspectors to give the OKAY for progress to continue.  This is especially true if you are installing certain kinds of lighting systems. You may need an installer simply because they can get the system installed and programmed on time.  Let them spend two weeks straight on programming.  It’s their job.

Question 3.  Money.  It always comes down to money. Automation systems cost a lot of money.  Professional systems like Crestron and AMX are expensive.  Their equipment is designed to be able to withstand the harsh environments of a home.  Hot equipment rooms, dust, brown outs, power outages, and static electricity can all damage equipment.  These high end systems are designed to withstand all of this and continue working.  They also require installers who suggest protections like, whole house surge protection and lightning protection.  These installers also do designs and work with architects and contractors to give you the best possible product.  The installers are also only going to recommend products that they feel comfortable with or know will be reliable and last a long time.  All that attention to detail costs money.  Installers will also want to install a whole system at one time instead of doing it piece meal.  It’s a lot of money to lay out at one time.  Finally there is programming.  A good programmer costs money.  Most installers will do the programming as well, but others rely on outside programmers.  I would recommend a large firm with many programmers.  This way if one gets sick, your house will still get finished on time and on budget.  Programming can cost the same amount of money as the equipment if not more.  Be prepared to pay for a good programmer.  Bad or inexperienced programmers can make a nightmare out of your system. Processor lockups, lights that mysteriously turn on or off, or buttons that simply don’t work.  If you want to make changes to the system or add equipment or modify the programming, expect that to cost money too.  You’ll need to call the installer or programmer back to make those changes.  Again, larger companies may have more time for you or they may not have time for small one time changes.  You need to ask them how they deal with changes.  They might suggest a yearly maintenance fee or retainer for services.

If you go the DIY route then you have the option of choosing less expensive equipment as well as installing the system in pieces as you can justify the cost. With less cost, usually comes less features or less reliability.  Be prepared for things that don’t always work correctly or don’t have a full feature set.  Systems like Crestron can control almost any piece of equipment.  If the manufacturer has a way to control it externally, these systems can interface to them (if you have a good programmer).  DIY systems sometimes have limited programming ability or don’t support working with certain equipment types.  The more advanced DIY solutions usually allow you to do custom programming but you’re going to spend a lot of time just to interface to a few pieces of equipment.  The simpler DIY solutions only have simply IF Than Else programming models which may not give you all the control you want. Again, going this route may mean that you have to replace equipment that may fail more often.  I had a low quality wireless light switch in my home that got damaged because of static electricity when I touched it.  That’s not something that would typically happen with higher end equipment.  I had to spend a few hours replacing it and then modifying the code to accept the new switch.

Question 4.  Expectations are sometimes hard to manage.  You need to find an installer or consultant who can help you understand all the benefits, hindrances, costs, hidden costs, features, quality of life improvements, and all the other ins and outs of home automation. Know that when you choose a professional automation system that you are going to have to pay the installer or programmer to make changes to the system, no matter how small. Know that with a DIY solution you may burn an entire weekend just to turn on a light bulb.  You need to determine what your time is worth.

The second part of expectations comes in when you start to think about how you’re going to use the system.  With a professional system you get touch panels or special light switches around the house that all interact as one system.  You don’t need a thermostat, alarm panel, and 4 light switches on one wall.  You just need a touch panel or 4 button light switch. When you’re ready to play music through your whole house audio system you simply press the media button.  That media button also has the volume control for the room on the same page. Again, you can stay inside the same automation graphical environment.

Some DIY solutions offer similar touch screen and button interfaces but a majority don’t.  Especially when you start to use disparate systems.  When you want to play audio, you need to go into your Sonos App.  Then you want to change the volume in the room so you need to go to the wall to change the amplifier volume on your Cat5 whole house audio system.  Then you need to go to close the Sonos app and click the Nest app to change the temperature.   You’re constantly switching apps.  You’re also probably doing this from an iPhone or tablet. Now you need to have a phone or tablet in your hand at all times. New lighting systems like the Philips Hue are really cool but they don’t have hard button wall switches.  So all your light switches need to be left on and you can only use an App to turn the lights on and off.  That means you always need to have your phone out as you move from room to room.

The systems you choose will come down to your expecations


Final Thoughts

You need to find a company who believes in automation as well.  I read trade magazine article where the installer mocked a client for wanting something specific automated.  This was an automation company openly saying that they didn’t think automating a particular task was worth their time.  That goes against the entire belief of home automation.  You want an installer and/or consultant who can really get behind automating a house!