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Understanding Home Automation, Part Two
By Adrienne Maxwell
March 2007

In part one of this two-part series, we explored the landscape of high-end home automation: the product categories, control interfaces and technologies that are helping to redefine the industry. These high-end systems can provide the ultimate in control and customization, but they’re meant to be installed by specially trained custom integrators who know how to maximize their potential. Both the goods and services are a wonderful indulgence for those people willing or able to make the investment. In real world, however, few of us will make that kind of commitment to home automation. We’ll add a bit of lighting control here, a few security cameras there … at a pace that our budget or interest allows. And then, of course, there are those people – and you know who you are – who flat-out reject the premise that you need to hire someone else to do, well, anything. If they’re going to fully automate their home, it’s going to be on their terms.

Products have long existed to assist the ambitious do-it-yourselfer who wants to craft an automation system on a budget, but until recently, these products lived on the fringe of the industry. Advancements in home networking and wireless technologies haven’t just affected the high-end automation industry; they’ve turned everything upside down, making it much easier and less expensive for the everyday DIYer to build an advanced system of home control and whole-house entertainment. There are now a ton of creative ways to accomplish a desired task, whether you want to distribute audio or video around the house, set up automatic lighting and temperature control, or monitor your home remotely while on vacation. So many ways, in fact, that it would be impossible to describe all of the systems at your disposal – so I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’m going to talk to you about the importance of communication.

I think I just heard a collective eye-roll from the men in the audience. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how important it is to sit down and converse with your wife, although you might want to run it by her if you’re planning a major DIY project. No, I’m going to talk about communication platforms – the various technologies that allow products in the automated home to talk to one another. In the high-end home-automation realm, you personally don’t have to think about how products communicate. All you have to do is pick the systems or manufacturers that you like, and it’s the installer’s job to create a seamless experience. If you plan to do it yourself, however, you need at least a basic understanding of the options available to you, so that you can be assured that the products you pick will play nice with each other. So let’s dig into some of the popular and emerging communication methods, both in terms of control systems and audio/video distribution. As you consider each technology, ask yourself, could I set this up myself, are there enough products available that use this technology, and is it reliable and easy to use on a daily basis?

Control Systems: Over the Power and Through the Air …
In the beginning, there was X10, and it was good. Well, good enough. X10 is a communications platform in which products talk to each other over the home’s electrical wiring, through a series of transmitter and receiver modules. This analog technology has been around since the 1970s, and a quick Internet search on the subject reveals a large, passionate group of X10 followers, who appreciate its easy set-up, high scalability and low cost. Because it works over your power line, X10 lets you automate lights and appliances already residing in your house. You can begin with something as basic as employing a single X10 transmitter/receiver combo to link a certain light to a certain motion sensor and work your way up to an advanced system of receivers, transmitters, tabletop controllers and wireless RF remotes to control lights, security cameras, appliances and HVAC systems, for only a couple hundred dollars. But you have to accept a few drawbacks: X10’s power line communication method can cause performance to be slow and inconsistent, subject to power line noise and interference from other electrical products. It’s also a one-way system, so the transmitter can’t confirm that the receiver has executed a command, which further hinders reliability. Nevertheless, X10 is an easy, inexpensive way to create a smarter home. You can learn more about X10 and shop for X10-compatible products at www.x10.com or www.smarthome.com.

As the saying goes, evolve or die. Universal Powerline Bus (UPB) represents one digital evolution of X10. This digital power line communications platform sends pulses over the power line, as opposed to tones (the way X10 does), and is two-way in nature to help improve reliability. UPB can work concurrently with X10 over your home’s wiring, but the two aren’t compatible. Currently, the biggest name associated with UPB in automation circles is Home Automation Inc., which uses UPB for its lighting controls. PCS and Simply Automated also market UPB-enabled lighting products.

Insteon, developed by SmartLabs Technology, is a direct offspring of X10, created to provide more flexibility and address some of X10’s reliability concerns. Insteon is a dual-band technology that works simultaneously over your power line and over the air via RF communication. Insteon is a two-way mesh network, meaning that every Insteon device in your home acts like a two-way repeater – sending and receiving commands, confirming commands, and retransmitting corrupted messages – to improve reliability. Its RF nature means products, including remotes and other controllers, don’t need line-of-sight to communicate with each other wirelessly. Since the system relies on the individual devices to send and receive commands, it doesn’t require a central controller, and the more devices you add, the more robust it becomes. Insteon is backwards-compatible with X10 products, and you can visit www.insteon.net or www.smarthome.com to check out specific Insteon products, including a number of software programs that let you monitor and control Insteon-enabled products via your PC, Mac, Media Center PC, or web-enabled phone or PDA.

Insteon isn’t the only control system utilizing mesh-network technology. In fact, you should probably get used to hearing those words, as this technology’s popularity amongst home-automation companies is growing rapidly. In part one, I briefly mentioned the two big names in mesh-network communication: Z-Wave and ZigBee, which, like Insteon, use two-way wireless RF communication but don’t add the power line element. Both Z-Wave and ZigBee are modular systems that you can expand at your own pace and budget; it should be simple to add compatible products from an assortment of manufacturers without running wires, and you can often accommodate legacy products using adapters. Unfortunately, the two technologies aren’t compatible with each other, and product offerings are somewhat limited at this stage. Z-Wave is currently the furthest along in the consumer space, with support from manufacturers like Monster, Logitech, Leviton, Universal Electronics (UEI), HomeSeer, Intermatic and Jasco (GE). Hawking Technologies recently announced a home control solution called HomeRemote, which lets users control Z-wave-enabled appliances, lighting, climate control and security systems wirelessly and via a web browser or mobile phone for as little as $200. For more info on Z-Wave products, go to www.z-wave.com. Thus far, ZigBee (www.zigbee.org) has been used more for industrial applications, but custom-oriented companies like Niles and Control 4 have begun to employ it in conjunction with other technologies in some of their products. Control 4 recently announced plans to market a couple of prepackaged automation solutions directly to consumers through a yet-to-be-named retail outlet; the company claims these systems are so simple, you can set up a multi-zone control and distributed audio system in under 10 minutes.

It’s worth noting that, before there were Z-Wave or ZigBee, Lutron employed its own two-way RF communication platform for its RadioRA and Wireless HomeWorks lighting-control systems. And, if all you want is lighting control, Lutron’s GRAFIK Eye is popular choice to add lighting scenes to a few zones.

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