In Monday’s article, we discussed the various ways home automation can make life easier. Today we’ll look at the primary commercial methods of automating the home—a true and grand lifehack, in that it hacks the primary habitat in your life!

At the end of the day, there are two main methods of home automation. The most popular is probably most popular because it is most affordable, and that’s plug-in automation provided by companies such as X10 (warning: annoying flashing lights if you follow the link) and Insteon. You plug these devices directly into the wall, and they form a network and communicate through the home’s power lines, and/or by radio.

The other solutions are hardwired. You need to build these into your house, whether that involves planning a new house from the ground up to integrate home automation, or doing some extreme retrofitting of your existing house. They provide a more seamless experience, of course—hard to call something seamless when modules sticking out of power outlets dot the landscape. Two companies that provide this sort of system are Crestron and Vantage.

Weighing Up a Plug-in System

Plug-in solutions such as the X10 or Insteon are cheap. They’re not just cheaper to purchase, but cheaper to install, since you just whack them into a power outlet (much of the time, at least). They’re also easier to move around—if you’re renting a house, it should be no problem to take your modules with you.

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. Plug-in modules have a reputation for being unreliable and doing strange things. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find all the lights around the house flashing on and off! Of course, many enjoy these products or they wouldn’t be so popular in the world of home automation, so it’s hard to say whether the problem is the product or the person using, and installing, the product.

I’m willing to bet that the reliability of such a system is dependent on the knowledge, skill and care of its owner and operator, if not just for the fact that if these systems were so unreliable that they barely ever worked, they wouldn’t be the most popularly selling systems with dedicated fanbases.

That said, it makes sense that these systems would be less reliable no matter what. Instead of crafting a permanent, carefully planned system in between the walls of your house, you’re running things from power outlets. Simply knocking something as you walk by could put the system out.

Weighing Up a Wired System

Wired solutions are reliable by design. I’m not saying there are never problems with them. They run on electricity and they’re made by humans, so you can expect problems. But by design, they’re sturdy. They’re protected by your walls. They’re well-planned, carefully-installed, and properly-programmed systems that don’t change and aren’t modular. While the lack of modularity can be a nuisance for those perpetual experimenters who don’t have the ability to set it and forget it, it provides reliability.

The downside, of course, is that such systems are expensive. Far more expensive than other systems. And in the case of X10 and Insteon, the changes you need to make to your home’s wiring are minor and depend on what you need to do; even if you rent, the cost is minimal (so long as you get your landlord’s go ahead). When it comes to complicated, built-in wired systems, you need to have your own home. I’m sure the landlord wouldn’t mind if you added that sort of value to the house, but I’m also sure we all agree that’s a stupid way to spend your money unless you’re really fond of the person who takes your rent money.

What Should You Buy?

“Ah, here comes the conclusion,” you say. “I know what he’s going to tell us — that there is no one right decision and that it depends on personal factors.”

Yeah, I know I say that a lot in my articles, but this time I have to say there’s a clear winner. If you have your own home, don’t waste your money on a plug-in system. The extra to wire up permanently will be well worth it.

That said, the decision is dependent on a variety of factors. Money, whether your home is rental or owned, whether you have the electrical skills. Add the factors up and see which is best for you, but I think if it can be helped anyone interested in good, reliable home automation should be prepared to do it properly. There’s no half-assery around these parts of town.

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