Whether you’re researching smart bulbs or exploring the capabilities of your new voice assistant, you’ve probably encountered the terms Smart Home and Home Automation, and you’ve got yourself wondering, is there a difference?
While these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and are closely related, they actually refer to slightly different things.
The term Smart Home generally refers to a class of electronic devices and sensors that can be controlled over the internet (or your local network) via your phone, computer or other devices. These devices will often have their own separate app or interface that you would use in order to control devices within certain ecosystem– for example Philips Hue smart-bulbs are Smart Home devices, and the manufacturer maintains their own app which you can use in order to control the devices within the Philips Hue ecosystem.
Home Automation, on the other hand, refers more to a methodology for using Smart Home devices. The idea behind Home Automation is to make these devices work automatically, responding to what you are doing while requiring little-to-no interaction with any sort of app or physical interface.
For example, let’s say you may have Philips Hue smart bulbs, and when you watch movies you like to have them all set up in a certain ‘scene’ (scene is general purpose term that refers to the a bunch of smart home devices set to a specific state). General smart-home use would be opening up the app on your phone and then pressing the button for the corresponding scene and then starting your movie– and then when you stop (or press pause) opening up the app again and pressing the button for the scene that you want to go back to. If you are into home automation, you would set up an automation that detected when a movie started playing and then automatically adjusted your lights to your ‘movie scene’ and then turned them back to normal when you pause or stop.
You can easily have smart home devices without doing any sort of home automation (but what’s the fun in that?) but it is very difficult to do any sort of home automation without some sort of smart home device.
To confuse matters more, often some smart home devices will have some home automation features built right into their core functionality– like the Nest thermostat, for example, automatically adjusts your temperature depending on whether it thinks you are home or away.
But built-in home automation features are not the only (and often not even the best) way to accomplish this functionality. Most home-automation enthusiasts will use some sort of hub software that serves as a middle-man to allow various devices and ecosystems to talk to each other and to use various small pieces of information from one another and combine this information to assemble the context it needs in order to better respond to more complex scenarios than any single set of devices can on their own. Hub software like this also has the added benefit of being a single point of control so that you can control all of the smart devices in your house without having to use a bunch of different apps for each device.
There are many options for what to use as your Hub. The two big free open source options are Home Assistant and OpenHAB. I have used both, and I think both projects are great and have very excellent communities. My personal day-to-day is Home Assistant, but definitely give both a try to see which has the best support for your devices and which interface you like best. These two are by no means the only options, there are a variety of other projects and also some paid options that might be worth considering depending on your requirements.
Some users are happy to just cobble together some automations using IFTTT (though, personally, I find the service really slow and a bit unreliable), but others might strive to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Home Automation is an excellent hobby if you like learn and problem solve. The key is being able to build fun and innovative automations is being able to identify problems, processes and systems in your day-to-day life and find ways to optimize them by breaking them down into smaller, more workable problems that can be solved. All you need to get in to it is a willingness to learn and spend time and money on stupid shit (and it definitely helps if you have a patient partner who doesn’t get too upset when you test out your new sunrise automation without giving them any warning).