Home Automation: How it Works

Whether using a DIY setup or a whole house system, a full home automation system usually consists of devices in your home that communicate with a central remote controller. The number of devices can vary, along with the degree of control and the remote interface. Here's a basic breakdown of the important components in any home automation system.

Protocols & Platforms

Each devices works with a protocol. Similar to the old PC vs Mac setup, your choice of protocol will determine which products you can use in your system. Some of the more common protocols include:


Though it's not typically used for large system integrations, this is common for running a few devices from a computer or mobile device, and built into most smartphones.


Most home automation devices operate on your wireless internet signal, and sometimes plug into your wireless router.

Automation-Specific Standards Available

Aside from common connections like WiFi and Bluetooth, there are a few more protocols being used for more elaborate automation systems:

  • The Insteon system of products, which is a hybrid of wireless and powerline-based protocols, can operate both beginner and advanced systems on Windows, Windows Phone, Google Play, Amazon Apps, and the Apple App Store. The Insteon line is popular for its reverse compatibility with existing home automation systems.
  • Zigbee and Z-Wave are both common wireless protocols which use a “mesh network” concept to pass signals between devices in a decentralized manner. Both of these protocols are more popular choices for newer systems.

Each protocol should have a listing of products that work with its technology. If you're still a bit confused, check out this great guide from Digital Trends that walks through each automation standard.

Plug-and-Play Devices

The easiest way to set up home automation is to start with WiFi or Z-wave friendly wireless technology. Many appliances and home gadgets are pre-built for wireless compatibility. For those items that don't come this way from the manufacturer, try a powerstrip like the Aeotec Smart Strip. Similar to the normal power strips found in most homes, this adds the additional feature of remote operating controls via wireless Z-wave technology.

Another great idea is the Dlink Smart Plug. A smaller option like the Smart Strip, this plug-and-play option works to convert one outlet at a time to a WiFi driven plug you can turn on and off from your smartphone.

Receivers and Full Systems

Moving beyond plug-and-play, smart home automation is based around a receiver, or hub. The hubs act as a central point to coordinate the wireless signals, which are then linked towards your computer or mobile device for control and monitoring.

Webee is a kickstarter automation system for the plug-and-play users that is based around a hub “BOSS” that directs the information to and from devices. The innovative idea of this system is that the system is capable of learning over time.

The SmartThings hub is another example of plug-and-play setup based around a central hub and connecting all of your devices.

Professional installers will usually have their own branded hub, and can recommend choices for you based on home size and automation needs.

Mobile Apps

Whether using a whole house protocol or a basic automated system or two, you will want a user friendly app to control things the way you like. Decide which information is most important to you, and use a compatible system.

Different apps may work better for you depending on your mobile OS. For Apple users, try you might want to check out Cortexa or Indigo Domotics. Popular choices for Android operating systems include Conductor and HCA: Home Control Assistant.

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