10 Lessons Learned About Home Automation


Last year I wrote a series of blogs about favorite technologies for Personal Assistants, for Executive Assistants, and for Estate Managers on their laptops and mobile devices.

Now I want to share tips and experiences from three Estate Managers and two Personal Assistants for using technology in the home. First up, I have 10 lessons learned about home automation, and then later this summer I’ll have a post about smart TV and home theater. 

It’s important to stay up-to-date on home automation, and not just when your principal works in tech, because home automation can be both a labor saver and time saver for you. Melissa, an Estate Manager who has been working in the wine country, shared a great, real life example with me. She uses the home automation system at her principals’ wine country home to remotely control motorized shades and lighting in the main house to suit her San Francisco based principals’ frequently changing schedule. When a night arrival turns into a morning arrival, Melissa can quickly and easily open the shades and turn off lights she’d left on the night before. 

First, defining terms, I use the term home automation for a system that connects controlled devices to a central hub or "gateway.” Home automation systems from companies like Savant, Elan, Crestron, and Control4 are platforms that can control lighting, climate, entertainment systems, appliances, home security, even well pumps. These sophisticated systems come with a price tag to match. The Savant system installed at one estate manager’s previous residence cost $400,000 over two years (e.g. Initial Consultation, Design, Install, All Equipment, Service & Support Fees).

10 Lessons Learned About Home Automation

  1. My number one recommendation is to stay up to date. You’ll likely be making a home automation decision soon, whether that’s a big decision like a new home automation platform or a small one, like adding a connected device. This is a huge category. Wikipedia lists 10 categories of home automation including HVAC, lighting control, and home security. Consider subscribing (free) to a monthly magazine like CE Pro or signing up for their newsletter.
  2. Basics are the foundation of home automation’s hierarchy of needs. I was struck by how often home automation spending starts with the principal’s desire to meet a basic need of modern life. Bridget described a $30,000 project to update a 10-year-old lighting system to support LED lamps. Peter shared a similar experience with converting to LEDs. Melissa shared her experience with a time consuming project to research and evaluate replacements for a 20-year-old home automation system that was triggered by her principal’s complaints about slow Internet speeds and difficulty getting a Wi-Fi signal. But, Melissa advises, factor growth into your decision. Select a platform that not only meets today's desire to control outdoor lights and window shades, but can also handle those cool articulating cameras or turn on the spa before the principal arrives.
  3. Begin with your principal’s likes and dislikes. Your principal likely already has some experience with home automation (i.e., Nest? Sonos? Alexa?), and has expressed priorities for what’s important to her by what’s installed in her current residence (eg security but no lighting controls?). She probably also has specific likes and dislikes about the systems already in place. A short conversation about these topics will be a tremendous help as you build a short list of systems to evaluate in-depth. 
  4. Look for delighters. Will the new system enable you to delight your principal with capabilities that go above and beyond? Think of Melissa’s scenario I began with, remotely controlling shades and lighting in the main home. Or, bringing a smile to the guest that wants to play a song stored from his phone on the home sound system.
  5. Sometimes the magic stops. The Nest thermostat that wouldn’t work. The blind that got stuck down and stayed down until a service tech could come fix it. Stephen, one of the Estate Managers I spoke with, has had those experiences. He said in the future he might automate fewer things knowing how complicated and demanding these systems can be.
  6. An independent consultant can help. After he’d built his short list of systems to consider, Stephen hired an independent home automation consultant on a Time and Materials basis to get unbiased advice.
  7. Ease of use matters. You’ll use your home automation system to control all the many systems to which it’s connected, so you and your principal will be on it all the time. Make sure it’s easy to use. 
  8. Cloud connections are both a godsend and a security threat. Remote access and control of home automation systems from a smartphone is thrilling, but brings security vulnerabilities. At a minimum, software must be kept up to date. And in several cases, EMs described using more sophisticated approaches like firewalls and air gapping.
  9. Have a contingency plan. All the Estate Managers I spoke with have one. For Amy, supporting a client’s vacation home, this has meant printed instructions for troubleshooting problems with the Internet, which Wi-Fi zones to use where in the house, accessing the Sonos sound system, etc. Stephen recommends considering the availability of support at odd hours when choosing a services company. For a security conscious client, Peter recommended instant generator backup which kicks in if power is down for 4+ seconds.
  10. Be proactive. This can mean weekly checks of Wi-Fi in all rooms, an item on Amy’s checklist. Or, if you’re responsible for a home automation system, it can mean discovering and updating your system’s software promptly to keep it secure and add new “delighter” features for your principal.