Home Automation Controller Buying Guide

The Controller is the brain of the home automation system.

What Is A Home Automation Controller?

With home automation many of your daily routines such as: locking the door, shutting off the lights, and changing the thermostat at night can all happen automatically. Separate devices control each aspect of the system – dimmers to control lights, for example, and thermostats to control heating and cooling. At the heart of the system is a Controller, which acts as a central hub or “brain” for the entire system. The Controller receives information from, and sends commands to, each of the devices in the system.

For example, the Controller might detect when a door has been unlocked, and then automatically turn on lights and adjust the thermostat to welcome you home. Or the Controller might identify who unlocked the door, and send you a text message telling you who came home. The Controller lets you run everything according to a schedule, or create “scenes” so that touching one button (such as on a key fob, or from your smartphone) triggers the “time for bed” or “arriving home” scene.

A Controller coordinates numerous areas of home automation, including lighting, door locks, heating and cooling systems, curtains and Venetian blinds, and home theater equipment. Home monitoring and security are typically part of home automation systems too, so the Controller may also connect with: video cameras, door and window sensors, motion sensors and alarms. Other devices that may connect to a Controller include: temperature and humidity sensors, garage door openers, and energy monitoring devices such as smart switches (with built-in electric meters) and meter readers.

Selecting a Home Automation Controller

The Controller is probably the most important component in a home automation system, because the Controller will determine the overall capabilities of the system, including how many different devices you can connect, and what protocols it can connect with. The more devices, and the more different wireless protocols it can handle, the more room you’ll have to grow for future expansion without having to replace the Controller.

The Controller will also determine the overall look and feel of the system. Typically the Controller has no screen or keyboard of its own. You will operate the Controller through a web site or using special software where you can see all the different devices in your home automation system and program the Controller to function as you’d like.

Some Controllers come equipped with a built-in Wi-Fi router.

Must-Have Controller Features

Important features to look for in a home automation Controller include:

Wireless Communications – There are several protocols for wireless communication between the Controller and the connected devices, such as Z-Wave, W-Fi, Zigbee and IR (infrared). Systems capable of utilizing multiple protocols provide maximum flexibility. Some older home security systems use wires, but almost all newer systems use wireless technology because it’s faster and easier to install, less intrusive and unsightly, and easier to move.
Expansion Capability – You might think you’ll just need to control a handful of devices, but the numbers can add up quickly. If you use the Controller to create a security system, for example, you may want one sensor for each window and door in your home. That can be over a dozen devices! Add video cameras, door locks, lamp dimmers, and the number can easily approach twenty or more, even for a modest home. Look for a Controller that can handle at least two-dozen or more home automation components.
Web Access – With web access you can control and view your home automation system from any computer, using a browser. This Controller feature lets you not just control lights and door locks and temperature from anywhere in the world, but also lets you see and hear what’s going on in your home, and even converse with people in your home, using cameras with built-in microphones and speakers.
Mobile Apps – Control and view your system from a smartphone or tablet. Even more convenient than Web Access, because you can conveniently carry your home automation “remote control” anywhere and everywhere you go. For smartphone control, look for Controllers that have their own smartphone apps, because using the phone’s browser can be cumbersome with pages designed for full size computer screens.
Messaging – The Controller can send out text or email alerts when specified events occur, such as when kids get home. This feature is great for families and small businesses, because it unleashes some of the “brain power” of home automation. For example, with code-number door locks, each person can have a different “key” (a code). So the Controller knows who has unlocked the door, and can send you a message. Similarly, you can receive an alert when an intruder is detected, when a window is opened, or for just about anything else.
Auxiliary Battery Power – The Controller will run from standard AC power once it is set up, but with wireless home automation systems you’ll find it very handy to have auxiliary battery power for your Controller. That’s because almost all wireless systems require a process of “pairing” whenever you add a device to the system (just like adding a Bluetooth headset to a smartphone.) The battery pack makes it easy to move the Controller around your home to pair it with each device it will control.

A web browser style Controller interface lets you schedule events and create scenes in which multiple devices are triggered by a single action.
Controllers and Remote Control

Some older Controllers use a custom remote control to program and operate the system. Most new home automation Controllers use web sites and apps that run on tablets or smartphones or laptops (or all three) for control. Some let you view cameras, adjust thermostat, lock and unlock doors, and completely control everything in the system, all from the comfort of your living room couch, or from practically anywhere in the world!

With this “virtual remote control” you never have to worry about losing the remote or carrying it, you can easily add more devices, you can access your home system from your office or a hotel without carrying any special equipment, and you can take advantage of software upgrades and new “apps” that keep appearing to provide even more advanced capabilities to your Controller.

Tips for Buying & Setting Up a Home Automation Controller

You’ll almost always save money by buying rather than leasing your Controller. Services that charge monthly fees will add up in the long run; check these fees very carefully (and contract commitments) before you sign!
Do It Yourself home automation Controllers and kits (that include the Controller and several devices) currently offer the least expensive way to set up a Controller and home automation system in your home. Some charge no monthly fees.
It is possible to have your home automation system professionally installed without paying monthly fees–either by purchasing your system through an independent dealer who does installation, or buying the Controller and other components yourself and hiring an installer for a fee. This approach, though costlier up front, will almost always save money in the long run (compared with services offering free installation but charging monthly fees.)
Keep future expansion in mind when selecting your home automation Controller. A flexible Controller allows you to add more sensors, controls, video cameras and other devices as time goes on.
Locate your Controller near the center of your home. Since the Controller uses wireless communications to speak with all the other devices in the system, the more central its location the better the chance that everything will be in range. Some Controllers come with built-in Wi-Fi routers to simplify hookup and ensure good signal coverage throughout your home.