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Home Automation on a Budget
It used to be, if you wanted to automate your home, you could take one of two routes. The first was to do it yourself, using a technology called X-10, which enables the remote control of a home's lighting and appliances through existing electrical power lines. By doing it yourself, you could get away with spending only about $2,500, plus your own labor (and frustration).
Or you could have a custom installation designed for your home, which could cost upwards of $100,000. That's right, there are five zeros in that price, and it still is very expensive to have electronics tailored exclusively for your home.
However, there's now a third option available to homeowners, made possible by the introduction of computer software packages that enable the programming of home automation from a PC. This third option is modular in design that is, it involves the use of standardized products. If you do some smart preplanning, you can keep your initial investment in home-automation technology to around $5,000 and make additions as your budget allows. It's a scalable approach, made easier by the standards upon which PC-based systems are built.
The primary advantage of PC-based home-automation systems is cost. You're buying a configurable mass-market system, rather than one that is uniquely designed and programmed for your home. While a custom system is desirable because it's tailored to your exact specifications, it takes much more time to plan and install; therefore, the costs are significantly higher.
Another advantage to using PC-based systems is that they use IP, or Internet Protocol, as the underlying basis for their programming. Because it's an open system, IP makes programming easy and acts as a building block for more complexity as your needs and budget grow. In addition, because it is network-centric, it enables you to control your system using a standard off-the-shelf home PC via a familiar computer-style interface.
Automation on a Budget
So how much home automation can you get with a $5,000 PC-based system? As you might expect, it will be limited. You could, for example, have the ability to control the lighting in two rooms. You'd also be able to control all the heating zones in the house, scheduling temperature changes for each zone through a single panel that appears on your computer monitor.
In addition, because this low-budget system is based on a PC network, you would have the ability to make changes via any Internet browser from anywhere in the world. Because each individual controller has an IP address, you can dial in to it from anywhere, says Joe Lautner, vice president of marketing for HomeLogic, a home-management and control-systems manufacturer based in Marblehead, Mass.
With that budget, all of the necessary wiring could be installed throughout a home of about 2,500- to 3,000-square-feet, but the homeowner would not be able to control every system for every room in the house. "Homeowners might want to pull the cable in the wall and then use a blank box over it, or just leave a tail on the cable, so they can add to the system easily later, suggests Philip See, president of Transitions IT, based in Swampscott, Mass.
As the dollars you allocate for the project grow, so too will the number of systems you can control, including security, audio/video, phones, spas, garage doors, irrigation the sky really is the limit if your budget is unlimited.
As far as planning goes, you should realize initially that a home-automation system is relatively complex to design and install as a do-it-yourself project. That's only partly due to the technologies involved. The complexity, and the rising cost, is primarily a result of the large (and constantly growing) number of options available. There are many decisions to be made. The following details about the components of a PC-based home-automation system should help you as you work your way through the decision-making process.
If you decide on the DIY approach, you can purchase PC-based home-automation software in the form of a CD with the necessary files on it. These files will enable your PC to interact with the devices you?re planning to control. The computer sends your commands to the individual modules, automating specific devices such as a light or a thermostat. On-screen interfaces run the gamut from simple text-style inputs to the more widely available graphical user interfaces, which show you icons of the items you can control.
On the other hand, if you purchase the entire system as a package from an installer, then the software will be installed for you, and you'll generally receive a slick graphic interface for the system.
Wired vs. Wireless
During the planning phase, you'll have to decide how, or whether, to wire your home. Electricians, the home-automation industry and many others use the term structured wiring to describe a package of cables that gets snaked through the walls and ends in strategic locations throughout your home. The other choice is to use wireless technology.
Structured wiring is generally thought of as more reliable than wireless, which can be susceptible to interference. However, structured cable is more expensive to install and offers less flexibility if you want to move controllers such as touchscreens and keypads after installation. Because of structured wiring's reputation as a robust, maintenance-free option, most installers opt for this approach whenever possible.
The best time to have the necessary network cabling (commonly called CAT-5 or CAT-6) installed is when building a new home or during a major remodeling project where you will be exposing walls, even if you don't expect to use the cabling right away. At a later date, it will be easy to upgrade and add components and controllers, as long as you've planned for those upgrades and had the cables installed in the right places.
In addition to your PC-software interface, you may want to install separate controllers to program and manage your home-automation system. A consideration not to be taken lightly is which type of controllers you will use. A limited budget may restrict your choices to keypads, while a more open wallet will enable you to add touchscreens. Priced from about $700, touchscreens give you the ability to control numerous functions throughout the house with one simple button push, whereas with a keypad you need to remember a number, or series of numbers, to control each individual function.
These devices enable you to control specific items in the home, such as a table lamp or an appliance. Simply plug the item you want to control into an X-10 or UPB (Universal Powerline Bus, see sidebar on page 39) module, then plug the module into a wall outlet. Controllable outlets are also available. The modules form a network over the home's electrical power lines, which then can be controlled via a number of control devices or through the computer's onscreen interface.
Generally, X-10 modules are priced from about $50 per item to be controlled. UPB modules are based on a newer technology and aren't yet manufactured in large quantities, so they are usually more expensive. These devices are available from a wide range of manufacturers, including HAI, ActiveHome and Leviton.
For lights that are installed, you will need to swap out the existing switches with controllable switches. X-10 in-wall switches are available for about $40 to $80 per switch, and are manufactured by various companies, including those mentioned above.
Tying It All Together
Once you've installed the necessary components and the software on your PC, it's a straightforward task to take control of your house. Let's say you're heading off for a weekend but you don't want to alert burglars to that fact. You can program lights around the house to go on and off at various times, to give your house a lived-in look. For instance, you could program some of the downstairs lights to go on at 6 p.m. and turn off at 10 p.m., while the upstairs lights would turn on at 10 p.m. and then turn off after an hour.
Some Final Considerations
Whether you are building a new home or remodeling an existing dwelling, you likely will need to work closely with someone who is knowledgeable about available automation choices and familiar with the process you will need to follow to achieve the best results for the project. In some cases, that person will be your builder or architect, but if you have more complicated needs, you may want professional help from a custom-installation company.
Your builder or installer should let you know early on when you will need to make important decisions about the system. In general, the process of designing and installing a home-automation system should begin with a meeting between the homeowner(s) and the architect and/or builder to discuss your expectations about the system to be installed. You should determine exactly which internal systems you want to control (lighting, climate, security and so forth) and where the controls, like keypads or touchscreens, will be placed throughout the house.
In addition, you should discuss a timetable for installation. It generally takes a week or two to install all the wiring and system components, and then test it.
A good home-automation installer will also plan to spend some time explaining the system to the homeowner. Over a couple of hours, the installer will show you how the system works, how to make changes, how to override the system if necessary and what to do if something unexpected happens. Homeowners should make sure the installer allows them to live with the system for a couple of weeks, then come back to the home to make changes free of charge.
The best way to experience the power and sophistication of home-automation systems, as well as to get a good look at what might be termed the cool factor, is to visit several dealers or installers in your area and have them demonstrate the systems for you. Be sure to describe your budget realities, so you can get a realistic appraisal of a system that you can afford. But a word of warning before you step into a showroom: You might get hooked on the capabilities available to you. As See, of Transitions IT, puts it, Once a client gets a demo, they usually fall in love with the system.
Steve Singer is a freelance writer based in Watertown, Mass.