The idea behind home automation is to make your home "smart" so that it does some of the mundane things for you. Thus, you often hear the term "smart home" used when discussing home automation.
Most people don't think that turning off a light takes much effort. This is true. But think about this: you get into bed, maybe read a book for a while, and you're ready to go to sleep. You flip the switch on your bedside light, but you notice a glow coming though the bedroom door. It suddenly dawns on you that you left the kitchen light on downstairs. Darn! Now you have to get out of bed, perhaps put on your robe, go downstairs, turn out the light, go back upstairs, take off your robe, and finally get to bed. Wouldn't it be nice to just hit a button on a control unit on your beside table to turn the kitchen light out? Or maybe say, "Hey house, turn out the kitchen light," and it does? Or, best of all, the house had already turned out the kitchen light some time ago because it knew you were in the bedroom, not in the kitchen? All of these are possible with home automation.
Lighting control is probably one of the first things that many people think of when they think "home automation". But there is much more to it. So much in fact it is hard to make a list of the possibilities, so I won't even try. Look around on this site and search the Web and you will find endless ideas for making your house smarter.
I actually lump a lot of things under the category of home automation that some people may not such as audio, video, and phones. This is because it is possible to add significant features to these things with home automation that you don't otherwise have. For example, wouldn't it be cool if the house turned music on in each room as you walked around the house?
Of course if home automation is so great, why isn't it in every house? That is an interesting question. For at least five decades there have been predictions that any day now the "home of the future" will get here an we will all be living like the Jetsons. But strangely, that future has never materialized. Even simple home automation, like lighting control, hasn't moved into the main stream. Why? I think there are two reasons. The main reason is cost. Would you pay several thousand dollars not to have to go back downstairs to turn off the kitchen light? If you say "Yes," then that is probably why you are reading this site. You either are already into HA as a hobby or you are interested in getting into HA as a hobby. And that is the key word: "hobby." The majority of people would say "No". Even if they had the money, which most don't, they would still say "No". They would rather spend their money on something else: a car, clothes, etc.
"But wait!" you say. "It would not take thousands of dollars to turn off the kitchen lights from the bedroom." And you'd be right. You could do the above for as little as $20. But then all you could control is the kitchen lights. Now what if you leave the bathroom light on? Unless you spend even more money, your return on investment is pretty small. Most people just aren't willing to make the investment.
The second reason HA hasn't become ubiquitous, as is so often predicted, is the learning curve. I am sure everyone has heard the joke about all the VCRs out there flashing "12:00". I don't really think there are millions of VCRs out there flashing "12:00". They've all been replaced by DVD players! :) But seriously, I think most people today are techno-savvy enough to set the time on their VCR. But I bet most people don't use 80% of the advanced features of their VCR, or TV, or DVD player, or most other equipment they have in their home. Do you? Do you really? Be honest! The truth is most people don't want to make the investment of time that it takes to learn a complex system that will only give them a marginal return in convenience. They would rather just do it the hard way and be done with it so they can get to the more important things in life rather than take the time to learn the "easy way" – especially if two days later they have forgotten the easy way again.
Don't get me wrong; I love home automation. It's cool. It's interesting. It's fun! But I see it for what it is: my hobby. If you are thinking about getting into home automation, do so because you are interested in it as a hobby. If you just want to put it in and have it work, call a professional! Don't expect you're suddenly going to save money having lights turn off to save electricity. Forget it! You will spend far more than you will ever save. Home automation can make some things easier. But you will spend far more time installing and tweaking than you will ever save.
No, home automation isn't going to suddenly make your life a breeze. But if you think the things described on this site are way cool and you just have to know how it works and you are up to the task of figuring out how to make it happen and tweaking and fiddling with things when they go a little screwy makes you happy, then go for it! You'll have a ball! You can really impress you friends! And you just might not have to go downstairs to turn off the light. :)
One other note: Unlike many hobbies, home automation usually directly affects the other members of your house. Make sure they will appreciate your new hobby too! How will your significant other react when the lights come on in the middle of the night because of a stray X-10 signal?