Remember what TV was like before the remote control? Neither do we, but we're guessing it was no fun. The ability to control your TV or even your entire home theater while lying on the couch has become a way of life. Now imagine being able to control every system and appliance in your home in much the same way--not just from your couch but from every room in your house and even remotely. That's the promise of home automation.
Though it sounds futuristic, home-automation technology has been kicking around for decades. Products based on the X-10 technology--still the most widely used because it is cheap and piggybacks on a home's existing power lines--first hit shelves at RadioShack and Sears in 1978. For much of that time, however, home automation has been for hobbyists willing to spend hours fiddling with phase couplers and noise filters just to, say, dim a light at a particular time.
That's now changing. Broadband Internet access, home networks, more sophisticated computer and consumer electronics products, and the digitization of entertainment all are sparking new interest in ways to tie together all of the systems within your home and make life more convenient and enjoyable. Not surprisingly, new technologies with names such as Insteon, Zigbee, and Z-Wave are coming out of the woodwork (literally) and vying to supplant X-10 and break this market open.
Put simply, home automation is anything that gives you remote or automatic control of things around the home. The systems that you can control include:
- Heating and cooling
- Security and monitoring systems
- Entertainment (home audio and video)
- Communications (telephones and intercoms)
- Lawn sprinklers
The concept of home automation is to connect all of these systems and devices so that they can be controlled from anywhere and react to one another. For example, as you arrive home, your home-automation system can automatically turn off the sprinklers, open the garage door, unlock the front door and disable the alarm, light the downstairs, and turn on the TV. Or if you power on the DVD player, it might automatically dim the lights, draw the shades, and direct all calls to voicemail.
To make this happen, you need a network to tie it all together. Wireless (Wi-Fi) networks are ideal for distributing data, voice (VoIP), and audio and video to different parts of the home. But they are overkill if you simply want to tell a lamp to turn itself on. Instead, most homes will have two different connected networks: one for accessing and distributing rich broadband content and one for managing all of the devices and systems in the home. These home-automation networks, by contrast, have low data rates (typically less than 200Kbps), are extremely inexpensive, use very little power, and can reliably controls hundreds and even thousands of devices. There are several different types of management networks:
|Type ||Description |
|Power line ||Uses your home's electrical wiring and outlets. Current applications include lighting, appliances, and security. X-10 is a power-line technology. |
|Radio signals (wireless) ||Think of this as a more sophisticated version of your RF TV remote. In addition to traditional lighting, appliance, and security applications, these technologies can also control home entertainment and communications systems. Many of the emerging technologies such as Zigbee and Z-Wave are based on RF. |
|Phone lines ||As with power line, homes already have telephone wiring and jacks in place. In theory, in addition to voice and data communications, this wire can be used for entertainment networking and other applications, but practically speaking, there are few technologies or products currently available. |
|Structured wiring ||The most reliable and robust option but really practical only when building a new home or conducting extensive renovations. Typical wiring systems include RG-6 (coaxial) wire for entertainment systems, Cat-5 wire for data and communications, as well as wiring for in-wall speakers and touch panels. |
The other critical component of a home-automation system is the interface. Rather than a single interface, most homes will have many different ways to access and control systems. Most include a software interface that lets you control the system from any PC, at home, in the office, or on the road. Many high-tech homes have wired or wireless touch screens that also let you perform the same tasks in any room, much the way you do with a universal remote. Emerging technologies will also let you control all of your home's systems from mobile devices such as a cell phone or PDA.
New advances in automation
While X-10 remains the most popular home-automation technology--it is estimated that there are 10 million X-10 devices in U.S. homes--it looks like it may have reached the end of its run because it simply doesn't deliver the reliability, the ease of use, and the convenience to attract a mainstream consumer audience. This year you'll see products based on several new technologies popping up at Home Depot and RadioShack.
The first, Smarthome's Insteon, is a dual-band technology--it uses both power line and RF. One of its chief advantages is that it is backward-compatible with X-10 and is designed to eventually replace the older technology. While it is a logical successor, two upstarts, Zigbee and Z-Wave, are hoping to dethrone it. Both are based on RF wireless, but Zigbee has garnered the most press, largely because it is based on an open specification (IEEE 802.15.4) and has lined up 100 companies that plan to use the technology. In response, Zensys, the developer of the Z-Wave technology, recently formed a Z-Wave Alliance consisting of about 60 companies that will use the technology in products and ensure that they are all interoperable.
The three technologies have a lot in common. All three are mesh networks,
meaning that all devices have radios, can talk to one another, and act as repeaters transferring data to other radios that might be out of range of the central controller. They are all low-data-rate networks, designed for executing quick, simple tasks, and since they go to sleep when they aren't executing these tasks, they use tiny amounts of power.
Unlike Insteon, Zigbee and Z-Wave are both strictly wireless, and they are not backward-compatible with X-10. Zigbee uses the 2.4GHz (global) and 915MHz (Americas) and has throughput of 40Kbps to 250Kbps; Z-Wave uses the 908.42MHz (United States) band and has a data throughput of 9.6Kbps. Products based on Z-Wave have been available for about three years, but those based on Insteon and Zigbee should start showing up at home improvement and electronics stores later this year, all starting at around $20.
There are several ways to get started with home automation. One of the easiest and least expensive is to purchase a starter kit at a local Home Depot or RadioShack or from a site such as Automated Outlet
, Integrator Pro
, or X-10 Super Store
. This gives you a chance to experiment with some basics, such as lighting controls, and determine what technology and applications best fit your lifestyle. If you happen to be building a new home or renovating, take a little time to consider structured wiring and other systems that are relatively easy and inexpensive to add when the walls are opened. Finally, if you'd like a helping hand, our Home Installation Directory will find you a local pro who can design and install your home-automation system.