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Home Automation Made Simple

Look up the definition of “hype” and you’ll find the phrase “home automation” listed as a usage example. So many manufacturers have made so many promises to create the ideal automated, or “connected,” home over the years that many people just roll their eyes when they hear the term. Thankfully, we’re here to tell you that the hype is finally coalescing into reality.

There are still a few kinks that need to be worked out, but here’s the situation in a nutshell: There are enough viable products on the market to turn your home into a tech Mecca. You’ll need a substantial budget to go whole hog with a system that controls everything from your lighting to your climate control to your home theater with a single remote, but you can deploy a more modest system for just a few hundred dollars. Here, we’ll show you the basic building blocks of a DIY home-automation system.

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Regardless of how extensive a home automation system you decide to build, you’ll want to make sure that the basic infrastructure you start out with can be expanded to control more elements down the road. For most people, lighting control is the most logical place to start. From there, you can expand to controlling your HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system, home-theater components, garage door opener, security and video surveillance systems, irrigation system, and even large appliances (such as a hot tub).

Coming home to the ideal automated home would mean that the HVAC system would bring the interior of the home to the ideal temperature 15 minutes before you pull into the driveway. Opening the garage door would trigger the interior lights to come on, set the hi-fi system to playing your favorite music, deactivate the security system, and warm up the hot tub. And you’d be greeted at the door by your robotic butler carrying a tray with your favorite libation. Okay, we’re exaggerating a bit with the butler; but the rest of it can be accomplished if you have the cash.

In a high-end system, you’d have a customized computer or central server control everything, and there would be touch panels mounted in the walls in key locations that you’d use to control component devices. But many people prefer to start out with something more basic—and considerably less expensive.

DIY or Hire a Custom Installer

The first choice you’ll need to make is whether you want to tackle this type of project yourself (fun and eminently doable for the tech-savvy) or hire a custom installer (costly, but you don’t have to get your hands dirty—or deal with electrical wires).

We advocate the DIY approach, but you should be aware that some manufacturers will sell their gear only to custom installers. That way, they don’t have to support the average consumer, and limiting the size of their dealer network helps them keep their profit margins fat.


You’ll encounter two major home-automation control protocols in today’s market: ZigBee (an IEEE standard) and Z-Wave (proprietary, but widely licensed). ZigBee and Z-Wave are both wireless mesh networks based on low-power radios embedded in devices such as light switches, electrical outlets, plug-in modules, thermostats, remote controls, USB sticks, and other devices.

By using low-power radios, a controller in one house won’t interfere with a system in a neighboring home. A mesh network operates by relaying commands from one device to the next until the command reaches its intended target. So if you wanted to turn on a light in the upstairs bedroom while you’re standing in the laundry room, you’d press a keypad that was programmed to turn on that light. When you press the button, the keypad broadcasts a command that’s addressed to the light switch in the bedroom. Every device within range of the keypad in the laundry receives the command, recognizes that it’s addressed to some other device, and passes it along to the next device in its range until the command reaches its target.

Wayne-Dalton Garage Door OpenerThe two protocols are not compatible, so if you’re assembling your own home automation system, you’ll want to stick with products based on either one or the other. Z-Wave currently has gained the most traction, and you’ll find a broad range of products from Leviton (lighting control), Intermatic (lighting and thermostats) and Wayne-Dalton (garage door openers and a variety of other devices). That’s not to say that ZigBee is failing, however. Eaton’s Home Heartbeat home monitoring system uses it, and Control4 has built a very complete home automation system based on the standard. (Although the latter system is available only through custom installers).

Lighting Control

Mention home automation and lighting control is the usually the first thing that people think of. But lighting-control systems based on the ZigBee and Z-Wave protocols can do much more than dim interior illumination. With the right gear, the touch of a button can dim the lights, lower the shades, turn on the home-theater system and begin playing a movie.

If you’re not comfortable with replacing your wall switches, or if you just want to try a basic lighting-control system before you jump into deeper waters, check out one of Intermatic’s HomeSettings Intermatic's HomeSettings HA14starter kits. The HA101K Lighting Control Starter Kit ($109.99) consists of two plug-in modules for lamps and a wireless tabletop remote control. Simply plug the modules into an outlet, plug your lamps into the modules, and you can control the lights with the remote. Intermatic’s HA102M Wireless Home Control Starter Kit ($139.99) adds a USB stick and software that enables you to control lights from your PC. If you don’t like the look of the plug-in modules and you’re comfortable doing some basic electrical work, you can replace your wall switch or receptacle with a Z-Wave switch, such as Intermatic’s HomeSettings HA01 receptacle ($37.95) or HA14 in-wall dimmer ($39.95).

Wayne-Dalton sells garage door openers ($239.99) with Z-Wave chips that can automatically turn on Z-Wave-controlled lights inside your home when you open the door as well.

Climate Control

Programmable thermostats have been around for years, and they can save you a bundle in heating and cooling costs, but a thermostat that can be integrated into your home automation system is much more intelligent. If you have a PC equipped with a Z-Wave USB stick and the proper software, you can send messages to Wayne-Dalton’s Z-Wave thermostat ($100) over the Internet to delay warming or cooling the house because you’ll be arriving later than you’d anticipated, saving valuable energy.

Home Security

Logitech WiLifeWant to keep an eye on your property from afar? Logitech’s WiLife video surveillance system includes a great software package that enables you to see whatever your cameras can see from anywhere you have Internet access. The cameras have motion detectors that can automatically record a video clip and send it to your smartphone, too.

The system is very inexpensive and—because the cameras use powerline networking technology—very easy to deploy: They use your existing power lines to transmit video to a host PC that’s connected to the Internet. A starter kit consisting of the software and one indoor or outdoor camera sells for $299.99. You can add up to seven additional cameras at $229.99 each. But you should be aware that in-wall Z-Wave devices and powerline-networking devices don’t always integrate well—the in-wall Z-Wave devices can disrupt data being transmitted over the power lines.

IP (Internet Protocol) cameras are one of the best alternatives to the WiLife system, and they’re only a little more expensive than Logitech’s products when you add the cost of a weatherized enclosure. Choose a model capable of operating on power over Ethernet (PoE), such as Trendnet’s model TV-IP201P ($209.99, plus $119.99 for the manufacturer’s model 15-AH25B weatherized enclosure) and you’ll need only to string a Cat5 cable from your router to each camera, even if there’s no power outlet near where you want to mount the camera. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll also need to upgrade to a switch that’s capable of running power over Ethernet or purchase a power-over-Ethernet injector.

Eaton’s Home Heartbeat system uses the ZigBee protocol to help you monitor your home. This product line consists of a base station and a collection of sensors that you place on doors and windows (a starter kit sells for $200). The sensors detect when a door or window opens and send a message to the base station. The base station can then send an alert to your cell phone to notify you of a possible intrusion. It can also alert you when an expected event doesn’t occur; if, for instance, the front door doesn’t open by 3:30 PM to let you know that your child has arrived safely home from school. The system can even be expanded to include water sensors that will automatically shut off a valve if they detect a leak—perfect for people who own vacation homes.

Central Control

You can further control your home automation system from a desktop PC if you have a simple system, or if you have a large home and a lot of devices to manage, you might want to install a customized server that’s dedicated to the task.

HomeSeer Technologies offers a very complete home automation software package that you can install on your own PC. You’ll also need an interface to control your devices, such as Leviton’s ControlThink Z-Wave adapter ($39.95), if you decide to go with the Z-Wave protocol. HomeSeer also manufactures the HomeTroller ($895), an ultra-quiet computer specifically designed to run the company’s HomeSeer software. The HomeTroller includes a built-in Web server that enables you to remotely monitor your home using a PC or a smartphone with Internet access.

Embedded Automation’s mControl software can run on either a desktop PC or as an add-in to Windows Home Server (you can buy an OEM version of the operating system for $100 and provide your own hardware). Like HomeSeer’s software, mControl provides hooks into a vast array of home automation devices, ranging from lighting control to your home theater gear and HVAC system. The company also recently announced a relatively inexpensive touch-screen panel that can serve as the visual front-end to you home-automation system. The mPanel ($999.99) can be flush-mounted to a wall and requires only an Ethernet connection to operate (drawing power over a Cat5 cable).

HomeSeer mControl

Microsoft Windows Home Server

If you’re interested in test-driving a home automation system before jumping in with both feet, you can download free trial versions of HomeSeer, mControl, and even Microsoft’s Windows Home Server to experiment with.

Whole-House Audio

If your interest in home automation is limited to having audio in every room, it’s hard to beat the Sonos Digital Music System. A two-room system costs either $999 (for one amplified module, one non-amplified module, and a fabulous handheld controller with a 3.5-inch LCD). Each additional room will cost $349 ($499 if you want a module with a built-in amplifier). You’ll also need to provide your own speakers.

Logitech SqeezeboxIf that system is too rich for your blood, take a look at Logitech’s Squeezebox line. The Squeezebox classic sells for just $299.99 per room and the Squeezebox Duet includes a remote control with a built-in 2.4-inch LCD for $100 more. Unlike the Sonos system, which operates on its own proprietary wireless network, the Squeezebox relies on your 802.11g or 802.11n network. Both systems can also operate on a hardwired Ethernet network, and you can use your iPhone to control either system using free software.

The bottom line: There’s never been a better, or easier, time to automate your home, especially with the technology available at one’s fingertips today.

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