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Whether you are planning a ten-million-dollar or a few-hundred-thousand-dollar dream home – everyone can have a high-tech lifestyle.

There are many reasons to have an electronic home control system, but one home owner in Sydney’s Palm Beach area had a particularly unusual request: He wanted something that would make him exercise every day. Now even with today’s advanced technologies, an electronic home control system can’t actually force someone to work out, but this home owner has the next best thing. When he arrives home each evening, an inviting pathway lights the way to the fitness room, where his favorite music automatically plays and the climate is set to his liking. If that’s not inspiration enough, he can’t operate other home controls for about 15 minutes. And so he gets some exercise.

Home control systems today can be designed to be this personal. And they’re simple to use. You can touch a screen and an eye-popping colour graphic comes on. It’s not littered with a confusing array of buttons such as we’re used to seeing from remote controllers. The beautiful graphic sports just a few simple buttons, making it easy and intuitive for nearly anyone to navigate. In addition, graphics and button styles can be fully customised to the owner’s wishes.

Welcome to a new era in home control, where believe it or not, the needs of the homeowners actually do come first. Too often in the steady progression of electronic home control systems, the technology making these systems possible has interfered with providing simple and intuitive home control.

Not any more. Today when home control systems are installed and programmed correctly, the homeowner is the winner, not some nerdy engineer with a slide rule and an extremely warped sense of cool.

Home control systems today are the ultimate in convenience, providing one easily controllable package that ties together several systems in a home, including security, lighting, audio and video, heating and ventilation, computers, telephones and intercoms, pool and sprinkler systems, possibly even your washer and dryer.

But Why?

Let’s face it: In some cases, technology hasn’t always made our lives easier. In many ways, it has made our lives more complex. And with more demands on our time, from work to family to the two-step we constantly do between the two, complexity is about the last thing we need.

Nevertheless, we buy the DVD player to watch the latest movies with better video and sound, and we want audio and video to be distributed throughout the house, we need that  security system and we want to be more efficient in using our heating and ventilation and lighting systems.

And before we know it, we have more control devices than things we know how to control. The coffee table is littered with remotes, the security system requires some mind-numbing sequence to be punched in so we don’t even use it, and after years of living in the house we can’t remember what the middle two light switches do on that four-switch panel at the front door. Lights are constantly flashing on and off whether we’re coming or going. Sometimes we don’t know whether we’re coming or going.

A good home control system can solve a lot of that confusion, while allowing you to enjoy the benefits of today’s technology. Instead of that four-gang switch and intimidating security keypad at the front door, imagine a nice little device the size of one light switch panel, containing a few buttons, to turn on the lights needed, turn the security system on and off, place the house in the climate you want it set at, whatever you need. The buttons are engraved for these functions so you know at a glance which one does what.

If you want to go a little more high-tech, the panel can be a small in-wall touchscreen, say 6 inches diagonally, with custom-designed buttons for only the functions you require. You come in the house, press a couple of buttons, and the lights are lit, the security system is disarmed, the climate control comes on to your comfort level, even your favorite music plays. You could even have the system heat up the hot tub or pool to the temperature you desire.

Home control systems also make it possible to control several systems at once. You can raise the lights as music comes on as the house heats or cools to your desired temperature. You can have several lights come on at various levels for bright party modes or dimmer romantic scenes, light the exterior of your house in a pleasing way, or light pathways to the kids’ rooms or kitchen or bath during the night. If an intruder enters, the lights can flash while the alarm sounds. When you’re ready to watch the latest DVD in the family room, the lights can dim as the TV or projector comes on and the DVD player and speakers fire up.

Can’t wait for the hot tub to heat up once you’re home? Many systems today allow you to ‘call in’ on a mobile phone and activate any of your home modes, so you can dial up the house from the road and hit the appropriate button for your hot tub to ensure happy soaking as soon as you open the door. You may also be able to hit the garage-door opener in your car and automatically de-activate the security system, light a pathway to the back door, play your favorite music, whatever else you want. And of course, the garage door should open as well.

Sensors and clocks can also be used to activate certain home control scenes or modes. Say you want to light a room whenever it’s dark. Many home control systems have astronomical clocks that can be used to turn lights on at dusk, which is great for landscape lighting. Or you may want the lights turned on in a room whenever it’s dark, so a light sensor can trigger the lights whenever the outside light is too dim. Motorised blinds or drapes can be drawn at certain times to cool a room or protect valuable furnishings from harmful ultraviolet rays, motorised windows can close when it rains, sprinkler systems can water the lawn at specified times or when it becomes too dry.

And now you can control all of this over the Internet, with the right control system. If you’re at work and you want to turn on the hot tub, put on lights or shut them off, arm or disarm the security system, check on your kids via security cameras or just monitor the property, you can log onto a secure Web site and, well, it’s almost like you’re right there at home.

 

Behind the Buttons

What’s a Pocket PC doing here? With Web server-based control systems from companies like ISR, a Compaq iPaq or other Pocket PC can be programmed to be mobile controller for the whole house
What do you need to have all of this control – or even some of it? A great start is having proper wiring throughout your home. Highgrade communications cable is essential to having a control system throughout your home. That kind of cable, often called Category 5, 5e or now even Category 6, makes it possible to control the lights and security and other systems at the other end of the house while you press a button at your bedside. These wires have the necessary space, or bandwidth, to enact complex scenes or modes as quickly and seamlessly as possible. These wires are also shielded from electrical interference and ‘line noise’ that can disrupt a control signal.

Often this wire is used in conjunction with high-grade video cable, called RG-6, and run to each room you intend on connecting for home control, in what is referred to as a “structured wiring” package or bundle. Better structured wiring systems have two cables running to each room, and each back to a central hub, in either a basement or an equipment closet.

This type of wiring is called ‘home run’ because the wire runs to each room and back to its home. The cables shouldn’t be run from room to room, or ‘daisy-chained,’ because any problem or break in one line can result other rooms going ‘off line’ as well.

With this wiring, you can have multimedia outlets with two cable TV jacks and two high-speed communications jacks in each room. The cable jacks generally use the RG-6 coaxial cable and the communications jacks use the Category 5 or 5e cable. These highspeed communications jacks are often called Ethernet jacks or RJ-45 jacks, and look like a wider version of a standard telephone jack. You can use them to plug in computers and other devices for high-speed connections. And now you can do much, much more with them. (Keep reading.)

High-end home control systems such as those from AMX and Crestron use this structured wiring setup to send many complex commands back and forth throughout the house. These powerful systems offer a lot of customisation and come with optional touchscreens that can be placed on tabletops or mounted in the walls, with customised control panels that display only the controls you need. They can be one-stop shops and can be used in conjunction with other lighting, security, heating and ventilation, and audio/video distribution systems.

If you live in a large luxury home or property and require even more control, ISR’s TronArch system effectively makes all the large subsystems in a large home or compound work together and harmoniously. ISR even programs large properties to be operated via Pocket PCs like the Compaq iPaq.

A more affordable solution for homes of 3,000 square feet and up is available from HAI (Home Automation Inc.) and its series of OmniPro controls. They’re particularly effective at controlling security and heating and ventilation systems. Premise Systems also has an affordable control system that operates right over a home computer network.

High-end lighting systems such as those from Lutron use a separate control wire, called ‘low-voltage’ or ‘bus’ wiring, that connects each switch location to a master control panel in the basement or equipment room. These are known as a ‘hard-wired’ lighting systems, and they are the most reliable. In some cases, these lighting control systems can be used to control other systems, such as security and audio/video distribution. More affordable, hard-wired lighting solutions are available from Leviton and CentraLite.

Whole-house audio systems require speaker cable to be run to each speaker location as well. Audio distribution systems from Audioaccess, Sonance, Elan Home Systems, Russound, Niles, Xantech and others provide different numbers of room control and can be use in conjunction with lighting control and high-end home control systems.

 

Have a Plan

With all this wiring required, it’s best to plan ahead for these systems. Often all the wires and cables can be installed only when the house or addition is being constructed and before the walls are closed. Otherwise rewiring can be expensive, destructive and sometimes impossible.

To get around this problem in existing homes, some lighting systems such as Lutron’s HomeServe use wireless radio frequency signals to communicate between the switches and the master control panel. Other home control and lighting systems are designed to send signals over the home’s existing wiring, or powerline. These systems are susceptible to interference and noise that can disrupt the signals, so a general rule of thumb is to only use powerline control for simple solutions not involving a lot of complex control and in homes of up to 4,000 square feet.

With many systems, particularly the highend control systems, you’ll have a master controller that can be located in an equipment room or even the equipment rack for a family room or home theater. This central processor acts as the brains of the home control system. When a button is pressed on a remote control in the family room or a bedroom, the signal goes to the master controller, which in turn tells which devices to do what. As a result, you can have your entire audio/video system components in the family room or home theater, yet enjoy them throughout the house, without having to add stereos and DVD players and satellite receivers in several rooms.

The central processor can be very intelligent and allow you flexibility. Some control systems allow you to carry one of the company’s remote controls from room to room and have the buttons perform different functions in each. In the family room a button could turn on the TV and dim the lights, while in the master bedroom the same button could provide soft music and a reading light above a divan. The central processor reads where the control command is coming from and automatically sends the appropriate control signals.

More Control to Come

High-end control systems such as AMX and Crestron are really getting into whole-house control, offering audio and video distribution through their systems, as well as lighting. AMX is now teaming up with Lutron to provide a lighting solution with AMX’s NetLinx control system. And Crestron is adding video virtuosity to its line of touchscreens, enabling its larger 14- and 16-inch touchscreens to display video from several sources, so you can watch your baby sleeping via a camera in her room while you check the stock prices and keep an eye on the big game.

A lot more is coming in home control as well. As computers proliferate throughout our homes, we want to share printers and broadband Internet connections – and also be able to use the power of our computers to do other things, such as store our music libraries on a hard disk.

So how do you connect the PC in the office or the kids’ bedroom to the control system or the TV in the family room, without having a desktop or laptop computer in every room?

 

You can have a network like the ones in most businesses and corporate offices, so that everything can be operated on one common interface. And that common interface is quickly becoming the Internet Web page.

That doesn’t mean you’ll have to dial out to the Web to control your house. Your home control system, in effect, will be its own little Internet, often called an intranet. The power of this type of control system is that every device or electronic system basically becomes its own little Internet address and allows computers and consumer electronics devices to coexist seamlessly on the network.

Your home control system won’t have to look like a Web browser, either. That’s really just the technology operating in the background. In some cases you can have customised graphics and controls, just as you do with today’s higher-end control systems.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of this advance in home control is that your home can stay connected to the Internet – if you so desire – to retrieve information automatically or at your whim. Say you place a CD in your computer or CD player to add to your music library. Your control system can quickly retrieve all the information about the song titles and tracks from the Internet and add them to your computer- based library. With AMX’s new Internet Inside applications available with its NetLinx control system, you can do this, categorize and access your CDs or MP3s from anywhere in the house, even have weather reports that can determine whether the lawn gets watered, and email alerts sent to your office when the kids arrive home.

This new breed of control systems is changing the way the Internet is being used by the home.

Also look for more audio and video to be ‘streamed’ throughout your house. Low-level audio can already be sent over high-grade communications cables such as Category 5e wiring for background music, and systems using a technology known as A-BUS are available from companies such as Russound.

You will see more audio and video being sent room to room via communications cable instead of the high-grade video cable, saving you time and labor costs during a home construction or retrofit. Crestron can send audio via Cat 5e cable, and others are starting to send audio through the house this way as well. The audio signals still go to an amplifier, which is then wired to the speakers. And this year, watch for a system from NetStreams in which digital audio will be sent over Category 5e wiring right to the speakers, where it is amplified for your listening pleasure.

How do you get all this cool stuff?

The best way to assure you get a home control system that is right for you is to visit several custom electronics professionals. Ask if they have memberships in organisations such as CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association). Make sure they have a showroom where you can try out control systems and see how they work, or at least an office that you can visit to assess the company’s level of professionalism. If they don’t have a showroom, ask to visit a home in which they have installed a home control system. And be sure to ask for references and call referees.

Home control systems can cost several thousand dollars up to tens of thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, so you want to make good judgments on the people you hire. Make sure they have service plans to help you if you have a problem, are fully insured for at least the cost of your home, and above all, that they listen and are responsive to your needs. And, if you want a high-end control system check that they have their own programming department as they will be literally designing a system to fit your needs.

Follow these simple guidelines, and someday soon you can have friends over, reach down for a touchscreen controller and with a big grin on your face say: “Look at what we can do with this.” You don’t have to be a professional these days to have fun with home control.

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