What can a home automation system do?

There have been great strides in the home automation systems arena, especially with DIY voice recognition products such as Amazon’s Echo or Nest products from Google. That innovation is giving a boon to homeowners who want a lower-cost way of having a smart home. “It used to be when they tried to make home automation things inexpensive, they didn’t work well at all,” says Dan Fulmer, owner of the home automation company FulTech Solutions in Jacksonville, Florida. “The expectations for some of these products is Star Trek or Tony Stark from Ironman. But the reality is, we’re just not there yet with DIY,” says Fulmer, who is also chair of the Consumer Electronics Association TechHome board.

If you’re wondering if a DIY home automation system is right for your home, ask yourself these three things:

1. What Are Your Expectations for Home Automation?

The reason the inexpensive, DIY home automation systems work better now is because manufacturers have sharpened their focus; instead of trying to make products that do 50 things, they are making products that only do a few things, but excel at them. “The cheaper stuff works now,” says Fulmer. “It can’t do complex stuff, but it does what it’s supposed to do really well.”

For example, Nest does the basic stuff (like temperature and light control), but you need a bridge that costs several hundred dollars more to do other things. “That’s how a lot of DIY products are. Often, you can only use a certain amount, like 20 switches, or 30 switches and two thermostats,” he says.

With Amazon’s Echo, it’s a similar story. The product was marketed primarily as a voice-controlled music speaker, and does some other voice recognition tasks adequately. In fact, research company Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) reported that the majority of Echo users were using Echo for other things besides music control, such as getting information about weather or hooking into other devices. The people who have been happiest with Echo are the ones who have recognized its handful of uses and really maximized them, Fulmer says.

Bottom line: You can expect DIY products to work well for their intended use, but be careful of expecting too much or trying to scale them into a full-on smart home.

2. How Much Do You Trust the Internet of Things?

“The problem with Internet of Things/cloud-based systems is that your technology becomes obsolete whenever the technology provider says it is. So if a manufacturer shuts down a back end service, everything in your home is obsolete,” Fulmer warns.

This is actually happening with a Nest product (specifically, a technology the company bought a while back). As of May 15, Nest will no longer support the home automation hub Revolv — which means that anyone who has been using Revolv will be out of luck. The shut down is perhaps a cautionary tale of buying products that tap into the Internet of Things. Ultimately, that is the risk with a DIY type of product: It has to access the cloud to work. There is, of course, an alternative in the form of hiring a pro. That’s where Fulmer’s company comes in. “The custom systems we use are all agnostic: They can work with any system, so you never have to worry about that,” he says.

3. How Much Customization Do You Want?

This is what it really comes down to: What do you want to be able to do? Fulmer’s company mostly designs and installs systems for multi-million dollar homes. These are systems that scale easily, meaning you can add on components or increase things like audio and video.

With high-end systems (starting at $15,000–$20,000, with the sky being the limit), you can integrate audio, video, security, multiple air conditioning zones, hundreds of light switches, pool, water fountain — everything. While DIY sticks out, custom has a degree of integration and seamlessness (like outdoor speakers in landscape lights with subwoofers buried underground). Plus, you can have your systems programmed to do whatever you want (and you always have an override). “With a scalable custom system, we actually can get pretty close to Tony Stark’s house,” Fulmer says.

A home automation system will help you make your home a little smarter. Explore the differences between DIY and custom home automation systems, and be sure to pick one that works with your lifestyle in order for the best experience.