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Understanding Home Automation, Part One
By Adrienne Maxwell
February 2007

Well, here we are: It’s 2007, and the promises of technology have fallen a tad short of expectation. No hover cars. No teleportation devices. No Rosie the Robot to cook me dinner and clean my house. I’m pretty bitter about the hovers cars and teleportation devices; but, to be honest, I’m okay with the absence of a robot in my life, convinced as I am that Rosie will inevitably turn into the T-1000 and kill me as I slumber. And yet my inherently lazy nature is simply begging for more automated assistance around the home. In that respect, technology has delivered. Home automation is already a thriving industry, so it’s not necessary to wait for artificial intelligence to enjoy a truly smart home.

Despite the many possibilities in this arena, most of us have yet to embrace home-automation technology. What’s keeping you from building a smarter home, one that ups your enjoyment while lessening your workload? Is it a lack of awareness of the many devices and technologies available, or is it just the opposite—that the numerous options leave you feeling overwhelmed? Perhaps it’s a simple matter of price. Our goal in this two-part story is to explore what’s possible in home automation and equip you with some food for thought to help you make more-informed decisions. In part one, we’re going to focus on higher-end home-automation systems—products that are highly functional and oftentimes highly priced, meant to be installed and maintained by custom-installation experts. In part two, we’ll explore some entry-level and do-it-yourself home-automation options for building a smarter home on a real-world budget.

Elements of Home Automation
In attempting to break down the various product categories that constitute “home automation,” I ran into the same problem that faces many consumers: There are no longer clear boundaries between the different product categories. Some companies still embrace the “do one thing, and do it well” approach, choosing to focus specifically on one area of home automation, such as whole-house audio, lighting, or temperature control. However, many of the major home-automation players contribute products to multiple categories, precisely because it enables you to control a whole host of activities via one smart system. In this day and age, the adage “If you can dream it, you can achieve it” applies quite well to the home-automation realm, so the breakdown below is hardly an exhaustive list of product categories; however, it will give you a general idea of the ways you can use automation to create a smart home, as well as some preliminary questions to consider and manufacturers to check out.

Audio-Video Distribution:
The bread and butter of the home-automation industry is whole-house audio/video distribution, mainly because some of the companies now synonymous with home automation begin with products that let you send audio and/or video from one primary location to different rooms around your house. The two main questions to ask yourself here are: 1) Do you only want to distribute audio, or do you want to add video distribution; and 2) to how many rooms would you like to distribute the signal? Maybe you just need a simple audio-only system to enjoy your CDs, iPod, and satellite radio in multiple rooms, or perhaps you’d prefer to dazzle your friends with an A/V setup through which you can watch TV on an in-wall touch panel in the bathroom. One of the more common configurations for a basic whole-house system is the six-source/six-zone setup, meaning you can send up to six different sources to six different areas of the house. A good custom installer will thoroughly explain the different features available as you move up the price chain, but here are a couple of preliminary things to consider: Does the system let you play different sources in different zones simultaneously (an entry-level system may only let you play one source at a time), does it have built-in amplification to power speakers in the remote locations, can it be expanded to more zones in the future, and what types of controllers are available (we’ll discuss this further in a moment).

* Companies in this space: Crestron, Niles, Elan, AMX/Matrix Audio, Russound, Audioaccess, Netstreams, Colorado vNet, NuVo

Audio-Video Servers:
The whole-house systems described above can accommodate a wide range of sources, from CD players to AM/FM and satellite radio tuners to MP3 devices. For a truly high-end experience, though, nothing beats the addition of a hard-drive-based server capable of storing your entire CD and/or DVD collection, with artist, song, album, or movie info displayed right on the controller. Factors to consider when selecting a product include the size of the hard drive (the more storage it offers, the more you’ll pay) and the types of files it will accommodate (uncompressed music like AIFF and WAV, protected Microsoft or Apple music files). Again, you must decide if you want both audio and video capabilities. There are numerous options in the audio realm; many of the companies I named in the audio/video distribution category sell their own audio server to simplify integration: the Crestron Adagio AAS, Russound SMS3, and Elan VIA!dj, to name a few. Companies like ReQuest and Escient specialize in audio servers, while a custom-integrated Media Center PC from HP, Niveus Media, or Integra also serves this purpose. On the video side, companies like Kaleidescape, AMX, and CodexNovus sell video servers that allow you to rip and store your DVD content and then stream it to dedicated players around your home. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for this functionality, as the manufacturers are forced for copy-protection reasons to use closed, proprietary systems to rip and distribute DVD content. Elan’s VIA!dvdj and ReQuest’s VideoReQuest get around these issues by working in conjunction with a multi-disc DVD carousel to provide access to your DVD collection, as opposed to actually ripping the content to a server.

* Companies in this space: Crestron, Russound, Elan, ReQuest, Escient, HP, Niveus Media, Integra, Kaleidescape, AMX, CodexNovus.

Lighting Control:
Audio/video distribution may be home automation’s bread and butter, but lighting control is probably the technology most people think of when they envision an automated home. That’s because it’s a relatively easy, highly customizable way to create a more sophisticated home environment. You can start small by adding basic, inexpensive products like automatic on/off timers, motion sensors, and wall-mountable dimmer switches. When you’re ready, you can graduate to a complete lighting solution like Lutron’s Homeworks or Vantage’s Infusion, in which advanced presets dictate certain lighting scenes for certain activities or times of day. You can add sensors that automatically lower the lighting based on how much natural light is in the room, or even turn lights on or off via a phone or Web browser. If you wish to integrate lighting control into a finished home with a minimal amount of disruption, you might want to check out a wireless system from Control 4, Lutron, or Vantage.

* Companies in this space: Lutron, Vantage, Centralite, Leviton, HAI, LiteTouch, Control 4, Colorado vNet

Temperature Control (HVAC):
Smart temperature control goes beyond simply setting your thermostat to turn on the air or heat when your home reaches a certain temperature. An advanced system can combine digital thermostats with touchscreen interfaces, temperature sensors, motion sensors, motorized shades, humidifiers, and air filters to ensure an optimum environment, throughout the house or just in the room you’re currently using. Some systems allow you to monitor and control the home’s temperature remotely, using a PDA or Web browser, when you’re at work or on vacation. Not only can automated temperature control make your home more comfortable, it can reduce your energy consumption and heating/cooling costs, since it (unlike you) never forgets to make the needed adjustments.

* Companies to look at: Aprilaire, HAI, Control 4, Honeywell

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