As I’ve watched recent developments in home automation, I’ve seen some tantalizing possibilities for REALTORS®. Home automation permits you to control different electrical and mechanical systems in a home from one unified control, often a mobile device. Imagine getting ready to go to a showing or open house, and, in your bedroom, turning on the heat or air conditioning at the unoccupied property so that it is at a comfortable temperature when the prospective buyers arrive. Similarly, imagine being able to turn on lights in the home that will best accentuate the staging. Finally, imagine opening up the property with your cellphone, without having to use a lockbox.
Home automation has been around for a long time, but it has traditionally cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars; much of this has involved opening up walls and pulling wiring to link every light fixture and appliance. The development of wireless networks has brought down the price of home automation to a few hundred dollars; connecting the devices, which was the main cost, has become cheap and simple. In the new wireless “mesh” networks, every device has the ability to transmit, receive, and route its own communications traffic. Devices communicate with each other to find the shortest possible path of transmission. They do not have to be within “line of sight” of each other in order to communicate, meaning that networks can follow a path around corners and walls. Networks are self-configuring and “self-healing,” meaning that if you take out a device or two, the network will route around the “dead nodes” and find different pathways of communication. Wireless mesh networks are perfect for a typical modern home automation install, in which the homeowner plugs his or her lamps, stereo, doors, and thermostat into the system and expects everything to “just work.”
The three most common protocols for home automation are from the IP consortiums Z-Wave and ZigBee, and the hardware manufacturer INSTEON. Z-Wave and Zigbee both license their standards for home automation to hundreds of manufacturers, while INSTEON builds its own hardware. INSTEON also offers a parallel system alongside mesh networking, power line networking, which transmits signals along a house’s existing electrical wiring. The three systems differ in the networking algorithms they use, whether there are one or two classes of device, and how the systems configure themselves. ZigBee and Z-Wave deviate from the mesh networking concept in that there are two classes of device. In ZigBee and Z-Wave, there are devices that can both send and receive, and devices that can only receive. This is not necessarily a defect, as second-class devices have extremely low power requirements, need not be plugged into an outlet, and need only poll the environment periodically. An example of a second-class device might be a battery-operated deadbolt, where fraction-of-a-second timing is not required. First-class devices perform the communication and self-healing functions traditionally associated with a mesh network. In Z-Wave, the network has nodes that are controllers, which configure, establish, and maintain the network; in ZigBee and INSTEON, the network is truly peer-to-peer. INSTEON and Zigbee can work over your existing 2.4 GHz wireless network (802.11 a/b/g/n). However, networks on the 2.4 GHz band can encounter interference from other networks and devices working on the same frequencies, such as cordless phones and baby monitors. To avoid interference with these networks and devices, all three protocols can make use of U.S. unlicensed spectrum – for INSTEON and ZigBee, the 868 MHz band, which gives the two a certain degree of interoperability, and for Z-Wave, the 908.42 MHz band.
Two or three generations of home automation products have come out from the standard bearers: dimmers, on-off switches, temperature sensors, thermostats, interfaces to audio equipment, interfaces to security systems, and many more. At the same time, there are still inherent security problems with home automation equipment, as well as exploits that are even now being carried out. The single most serious security design flaw in home automation equipment is that in order to use a smartphone as a controller, every piece of home automation equipment in a house is connected to the Internet; the residence’s router is opened up via port forwarding. Much of the security inherent in these systems relies on the components being physically secure; there are encryption keys that are baked into the hardware, and the companies are relying on these being difficult for an attacker to guess. But accessibility from the Internet changes the game completely; the same functionality the system gives the user’s smartphone can be used by someone else impersonating that smartphone. The ability for a hacker to “sniff” the network, read network communications packets, and inject malicious content into the network leaves every connected device in the home open to being tampered with or disabled. In addition, the wireless network is susceptible to snooping and tampering from outside the home, simply using a wireless station that picks up the signals traveling between devices. At the BlackHat 2013 conference, Behrang Fouladi and Sahand Ghanoun demonstrated an exploit they had created that used a software-defined radio to unlock a Z-Wave deadbolt and suppress the alert to the owner. (http://research.sensepost.com/cms/resources/conferences/2013/bh_zwave/Security%20Evaluation%20of%20Z-Wave_WP.pdf) The problem gets worse once you connect devices to your home automation network that, unlike a light switch, are capable of running malicious code – cable boxes, HDTVs, and “smart” appliances. A recent report concerning a botnet that had been assembled using these kinds of devices turned out to be of doubtful credibility, but the principles and practice of such a hack are not beyond the realm of possibility. (http://arstechnica.com/security/2014/01/is-your-refrigerator-really-part-of-a-massive-spam-sending-botnet/) Refrigerators sending SPAM may well be a future problem. A final problem is that the manufacturers of home automation networks and “smart” devices may not be inclined to issue security updates when exploits are found, and this problem may worsen as your device grows older. So far, these devices have been sold as-is, and – with the exception of some video hardware – do not have easy paths for firmware updates (security patches) to be applied in the field. Of course, even where fixes are available, it is questionable whether a non-technical homeowner would be willing or able to apply fixes that don’t involve simply replacing a physical device. As a commenter to a story on the refrigerator botnet put it, “’The Internet of Things’ should really be called ‘The Internet of Devices Running Outdated Software That The Vendor Will Never Bother to Patch.’”
A more solvable problem is integrating devices and network components that come from different manufacturers. Patrick Moorhead at Forbes has an excellent article (http://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickmoorhead/2013/09/26/the-problem-with-home-automations-iot/) that enumerates all the different manufacturers and protocols and sets out what you would have to do to get them to all work together. It’s easy to imagine a nightmare situation in which you had a door-opener, a stereo, a “smart” refrigerator, and a climate control system from different manufacturers, each speaking a different “language” and each requiring its own controller app and infrastructure – rather like the situation we already have when we have a TV, a VCR, an A/V receiver, a BluRay player, and a pile of four remotes on our coffee table. Fortunately, Moorhead sets out some solutions. While it is possible to go to an integrator like AT&T, the high up-front and ongoing costs, combined with dubious component quality, make that an unlikely choice. Moorhead is much more impressed by equipment from a company called Revolv, which integrates the transmitters of all the major protocols into one box and provides you with one app that can control everything, and provides the following table illustrating its power:
Equipment controllable by Revolv
- Insteon Appliance Linc (On/Off)
- Insteon Motion Sensor
- Insteon Lamp Linc (Dimmer)
- Insteon Light Bulb
- Insteon Wall Switch
- Insteon Garage Door (I/O link)
- Insteon Key Pad
- Insteon Open/Close Sensor
- Sonos Family (Play:3, Play:5, Playbar, Sub)
- Belkin WeMo
- Honeywell Z-Wave Thermostat
- GE Z-Wave Outlet
- Leviton Vizia Appliance Module
- GE Z-Wave Wall Switches (including On/Off, 3-way On/Off, Dimmer, 3-way Dimmer switches)
- GE Z-Wave Duplex Receptacle
- Yale Z-Wave Door Locks
- Kwikset Z-Wave Door Locks
- Trane Z-Wave Thermostat
- Philips Hue, Bloom & LightStrips (Hue’s native hub currently required)
Revolv, and similar solutions such as SmartThings and Mi Casa Verde, have the potential to solve the “four remotes” problem, and markedly increase the usability of home automation.
Are we ready for a “smart home”? There are certainly many enthusiastic early adopters who have tried to integrate as much of this technology into their homes as possible. Others are considering adoption and making the decision by balancing the “cool” factor, luxury and convenience, environmental impact, and return on investment (ROI). For others, it is a concern that the security model, both for the home automation network and for the “smart” components it connects, is very much in its infancy. For proprietary protocols like Z-Wave, too much relies on “security through obscurity”, underpowered encryption, and on the physical security of the networking equipment; the Internet opens things up far too widely. Finally, there is the question of hidden costs: the life of a house is at least several decades and, while traditional wired home automation may be upgraded only one or twice during that time, by contrast networked home automation puts the house on a much faster upgrade cycle – even more so if manufacturers live up to their responsibility of patching or replacing their devices as crises below the level of an emergency recall arise. But, it is possible to imagine a networked home automation system in which the problems of security and obsolescence have been worked out, and in which the benefits come to the fore. Using your smartphone as your garage opener, your door key, your thermostat controller, your television remote, and the recipient of notes from your smart refrigerator saying that you need to buy more milk and that the hamburger on the third shelf is getting dicey – the power to do all this may simply be too compelling for much to get in the way of adoption long term.
For me, the “killer app” of home automation has not yet been created. One REALTOR® I was talking to about the subject recently, said “I use ‘smartthings’ every day. It’s not that I can’t live without them – [but] they are fun.” The fun factor isn’t enough to convince me to take the plunge. But for some homeowners – especially those who travel a lot, have a second home, or are selling their unoccupied home – the value has got to be increasingly tempting. The energy savings of efficient thermostat management alone could be their “killer app”. For the REALTOR® arranging a showing for an unoccupied home, being able to remotely turn on the lights and turn up the heat in time for the home to be inviting before the prospective buyers get there is pretty compelling. One REALTOR® I was talking to on Facebook about this subject noted how timely the conversation was: he was “stand[ing] here this morning at 7 AM in a listing where the heat went out last night. The ‘Internet of Things’ is going to be critical.” Certainly, REALTORS® are going to need to understand increasingly more about this type of home automation – certainly, enough to use it when they need to – and even to know to ask about and carefully record what automation elements may convey with the home. In the end, it is value to homeowners, current and prospective, that determines the value home automation adds to a house; it is likely that home automation is not a fad, and that REALTORS® will have to follow developments in the field in years to come.
Share this post: