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Reader's Voice: An Introduction To Home Automation

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June 19, 2009 6:55:03 AM

Sounds like a lot of fun, though my Grandpa wouldnt like it , he likes to work too much. =/ He might like setting it up though.
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June 19, 2009 7:14:36 AM

IMO, the problem with "Home Automation" is that

(a) it's fragmented

(b) most applications can be accomplished in most homes with less expensive, individual systems than with any integrated system - even if one existed.

HVAC: Unless you have a large home requiring multiple HVAC zones/thermostats, and unless parts of the home are unoccupied for varying amounts of time, a programmable thermostat is an adequate solution. Setbacks (eg while you are at work) don't seem to save much money with modern HVAC systems in most US climates.

Lighting: If "security" means cycling lights so the house looks occupied, again simple timers are adequate. Unless you have a large, multi-source lighted home, few need automated lighting and "scenes".

Irrigation: If you have any sprinkler system, once again timers and rain sensors do the job well enough.

And so on.

FYI, I have a large primary residence with a networked security system that also controls multiple thermostats. A dedicated PC has replaced a stand-alone DVR to monitor security cameras. A low-voltage, microprocessor controlled system controls lighting.

If these 8-year old systems talked to each other well, maybe I could use the motion detectors to automatically turn lights on and off. And maybe I wouldn't be better off using standard internet cameras to monitor security as I travel between homes.

Its all cool technology, but as a substantial user and tech-lover, I just don't see significant, practical application in most homes.
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June 19, 2009 7:29:53 AM

Please forgive the double-post, but I couldn't resist pointing out one savings I learned about from all of this.

I use a lot of 130V bulbs in the fixtures controlled by microprocessor controlled lighting system. Most of these bulbs are also oversized for their purpose, and are therefore set to run at, eg, 60% or 75% of maximum voltage when turned on.

I don't know whether I've saved any electricity or not - I doubt it lol - but I have saved a tremendous amount of money on bulbs. EG, there are 11 such bulbs in my kitchen ceiling and they run a minimum of 12 hours per day. I have not replaced a bulb in that set since they were installed over 8 years ago.
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June 19, 2009 8:11:02 AM

Buying proprietary systems is bad. Go with equipment that goes by industry standards and the whole issue with home automaton being a long-term investment goes away for the most part. Unless some company's proprietary technology always leads industry standards by leaps and bounds, but this is rare.
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June 19, 2009 8:27:27 AM

What industry standards? HAI's? Lutron's? X10's? Standards from what era?
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June 19, 2009 8:31:39 AM

I suggest you to use KNX
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June 19, 2009 9:08:57 AM

If you want the real deal, go for Crestron.
Sure it costs money but so does liquid nitrogen cooled overclocked gaming rigs.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 11:11:37 AM

On the life of light bulbs . . . .
Lamp life is very sensitive to operating voltage - for 120 volts Ge quotes 125 volts as shortening the lamp life to 1/2 and 130 volts to 1/3. The inverse is true - if you put a 130 volt lamp in a 120 volt circuit you can expect over double the lamp life, and if you have a dimmer to soft start then it can last a way lot longer.
http://www.gelighting.com/na/business_lighting/faqs/inc...
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 11:47:48 AM

How can you not mention http://www.CocoonTech.com, the largest DIY home automation site out there.
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June 19, 2009 11:56:49 AM

cocoonerHow can you not mention http://www.CocoonTech.com, the largest DIY home automation site out there.

It was mentioned on page 3:
Quote:
Many of the searches for further guidance landed me at cocoontech.com, and reading other people's guides and questions helped me through the process.
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June 19, 2009 12:06:10 PM

I researched HA a couple of years ago, but I found that my house is really not large enough to justify it, the standards and the equipment are subpar, and it's very expensive (which again can't justify it). Unless if the components and system are completely "plug in and play" with complete across-the-board industry standards, HA will never become mainstream. After reading the efforts involved in this article, I see it is still in that condition.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 12:08:13 PM

Sadly, I think there are two, very basic, problems with "home automation"...

First - With no set "standard" to work with, we (the consumers) are left to piece together a system from a hodge-poge of available components. By definition then, an "integrated" system is all but impossible to create, unless you have a fair amount of money to permit not only hardware modifications to be done (and paid for), but also programming / software writing. A "expensive" proposition...

Second - The "industry", for all our "talk" does NOT think home automation is even remotely a priority for the "masses". A "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer.

Without the second, you will not get the first.

Sadly... The second (to me) is the simple result of no one really outlining what the REAL benefits could be. Sure, we see a bit here or there, but it is about as disjointed as it can be. Until someone decides to truely invest in the idea of HA and promote it accordingly, it will not take root, to any appreciable amount.

As consumers, we need to be told what this will do for us in a way that we can understand and see real benefits from. Not "off the wall" concepts of futuristic homes, but down to earth, realities that we could feel, today...or even tomorrow (short term). Not to mention, at a price point which is do-able for the majority.

There are also "some" issues with using existing wiring, etc., that need to be addressed... ie., for this sort of thing to take hold, it has to be available, not only for new construction, but also to be retrofitted into existing buildings, without having to rip out walls, etc. It's there, in other forms, it just needs to be adapted for this type of use.

Could any of it be done? I believe so, but I think, at this moment, there is no one company, no group of companies, who will bother. The ROI just is not there.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 12:18:16 PM

sublifer, I somehow missed that reference, my apologies.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 12:50:17 PM

I have been Home Automated for quite a few years now and really can't live without it. Just the lighting control saves time turning this and that on for all times of day (Morning and Evening). Also supplies passive security and with newer motion detectors and nice jump up in performance.
Getting the right hardware/software combination is critical. I have gone from X-10 to the latest "Insteon" products and reliability has improved 90%.
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June 19, 2009 1:50:15 PM

jbierrieA "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer

I've enjoyed my system greatly so far. Yes, I'm a tech geek and not an avg consumer... you hit the nail on the head with that BUT that is how innovation starts. Enough people jump on board or get involved, even just making suggestions to the companies that are involved, and that is how it will grow into commonplace. Do you think the future homes, as are portrayed in the movies, will come about without prevalent HA technology? Nope. Its just gonna take baby steps to get there.
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June 19, 2009 3:36:14 PM

Insteon is FAR superior to X10.

I ran X10 for years and had reliability and interference issues.
99% of these are gone with Insteon, the appearance of the devices is much nicer and the programmability is superior - using the ISY99 from Universal Devices.

http://universal-devices.com/
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 3:55:10 PM

No mention of LinuxMCE which brings all these protocols together as well as your network, home cinema _and_ much more? As far as I've heard they're even coming out with a beta very soon for the new version.
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June 19, 2009 6:44:38 PM

SAFTEY WARNING!!

The author should seriously refrain from giving electrical advice:
... White is neutral (hot) and is ...
I really hope this was a typo, because it kind of suggests that the author doesn't know (very basic!) difference between hot (black) and neutral (white).

In the name of not having any Tom's readers electrocute themselves, I'd reccomed saying nothing more than "installs like standard electrical hardware." and leave it at that. If they have to ask, they either need to hire someone, or at least get a good book and spend some serious study time! By the way anytime you see a red wire comming out of a box, if you KNOW its a 3-way lighting circut, thats fine, but also be aware that red is also used as "hot" in split-phase 220v wiring, so that you've got ground (bare or green), neutral (still white), and TWO hots (black and red), each at 110v AC with respect to neutral, bat out of phase with each other to give a combined 220 v AC. 110v hurts ... 220v is a lot more likely to kill.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 7:36:49 PM

Also, perhaps only relevant to Europe I dunno but cable color codes have changed through time and older houses might provide you with installed runs of cables that do not match the current standard at all.

Sometimes you'll happen upon different colors used for the same thing just because an older standard wasn't specifying a color for certain things at all, or the technician ran out of white and didn't care...
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June 19, 2009 9:14:07 PM

cldebuhrSAFTEY WARNING!!

Good point, neutral is not hot, its the return (completes the circuit) but not really a safety issue. People afraid of touching the neutral won't hurt anything, besides, the author already covered making sure that power was removed from the circuit.
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June 19, 2009 9:54:53 PM

I'm a bit of a gadget freak but am struggling to think of what I'd want to automate in my smallish apartment. If I want to turn lights on or off or dim them, I just get up and do it. Same with heaters, fans, vents, etc. I actually have a small irrigation setup for my balcony to water plants when I'm away for more than a few days, but it has a $20 timer that works well on its own, and I can't imagine why I'd want to control it remotely, especially without a feedback monitor to tell me when the plants need watering (and even if I had one, this would probably be best connected to the water on/off timer, without needing to be hooked up to my PC or monitored remotely). Home automation is something that sounds cool in theory, but in practice, I'm not sure what I'd use it for.

Although, actually, it would be kind of nice to have a simple outdoor weather station that took accurate readings and was connected wirelessly to my PC, to allow me to track basic weather readings on it over time. Can anyone recommend such a setup, that wouldn't cost much more than $100, and preferably less? Ideally, it would have both a PC connection and remote clock/radio-like base unit that I could put on my nightstand. That's the sort of "automation" that I could see having.
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Anonymous
June 19, 2009 11:50:47 PM

I've been using X-10 technology since the 80's. Works great for hgome automation. Many copy-cats out there now.

Q

www.IraqWarHeroes.org
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June 20, 2009 2:31:42 AM

The next step is to tie into a PC based home automation software setup. This is where the many independent and most always different protocols can be blended together into a more seamless user experience.
The software bridges one technology across to the other.
Media / HVAC / Lighting / Security / cameras / Internet derived info like weather / Irrigation come together for the user via iPhone / in wall touchscreen / automation logic / schedules, etc.

MainLobby / Homeseer / CQC are amongst the software leaders. All three handle all of the above capabilities.
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Anonymous
June 20, 2009 2:59:49 AM

I would suggest you stay away from Insteon as your HA lighting and control solution. It has been plagued with problems from day one and SmartHome just pretended there was nothing wrong. Tact switch issues on the Switchlinc was one of the major issues. Even today there are people with issues having trouble getting things that are defective replaced. Protocol issues with the I2 protocol, selling things labeled as a dual mesh network and really most devices are either powerline or wireless, not both. The sold a device called a signallinc and then came out with a new device called an accesspoint because the signallinc devices really didn't work with the wireless devices and originally advertised.

If you are going to chose an HA system you really should do your homework, especially if you are going with a DIY type system.

Cocoontech.com is the best place to search out any HA stuff.

Search "Insteon Problems" and see what comes up.
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Anonymous
June 20, 2009 7:25:36 AM

Linuxmce?!?!?!?
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June 20, 2009 8:43:03 AM

I know KNX is not well known in US. However it is superior to anything else. Just check www.knx.org
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Anonymous
June 20, 2009 9:15:46 AM

so far the only worldwide, open, multivendor, ISO certified standard for HA is KNX. backed by big names such as ABB, Siemens, Schneider and 100 other companies.
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June 20, 2009 11:28:49 AM

WeylandAlso, perhaps only relevant to Europe I dunno but cable color codes have changed through time and older houses might provide you with installed runs of cables that do not match the current standard at all.Sometimes you'll happen upon different colors used for the same thing just because an older standard wasn't specifying a color for certain things at all, or the technician ran out of white and didn't care...


Indeed. Whenever I want to fix something in the house I always get a tool to check the hot and neutral wires before touching them. Even when I power down the whole place, I still check it :) .

Regarding linuxMCE, that seems like a great idea. An open-source HA solution would be first adopted by more or less technical geeks, then it might become popular. I salute that, and I think a DIY HA could be useful even for small condos.
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June 20, 2009 12:32:25 PM

I didn't realize that a home's power lines were color coded. In US, there is just Hot (black), Neutral (white) and Ground (not coated). One can't trace a power cable from distribution panel to outlet or switch using colors at all. A tone generator and receiver works great to trace a cable. Better than color coding as it is sure.

For low voltage (ethernet) there are the two 586A and B standards that as long as both ends of a cable are terminated same, no problem.

HVAC seems to keep to a color coding standard.

Media connections are standardized.

So I don't think color standards is the issue of HA adoption.

I think the real issue is cost vs. value vs. complexity of choice and ensuring that pieces work together towards the end objective(s).
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June 20, 2009 8:34:45 PM

Imo, one solution for the need for the multiple controllers would be to replace them with a single PC based on ARM or may be even an Atom.And make all the items Wireless g/n compatible.
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June 22, 2009 2:58:58 PM

They seem to primitive for me to get into it. I see no reason why they couldn't interface with a webcam mounted above your big screen TV, and a high quality microphone coming out of a small hole in the drywall behind the couch for phone calls and voice control. I should be able to say "Call Kaitlyn in any room of the house) or a nice touch LCD control panel mounted inside the wall. It would also need to control door locks, so that if you forgot to lock the doors when you left, or you didn't have your keys on your a cellphone could be used to "lock down" the house.

I also think facial recognition has came far enough to be used as a security device if a user forgets their keys (not as the main use for entry)

Until theses devices are updated to the point where they don't like like tacked on 1950s stuff, I won't be interested.

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June 22, 2009 5:55:03 PM

Bleh. This HA stuff looks like technology from the 90s, not technology that is available to us right now!

What happened to the networked fridge that knows its inventory and that you can remotely manage in tandem with your favorite food retailer's outlet current up-to-date selection as to find the best deals around and always have a reminder of when you'll run out of stuff?

What happened to the networked temperature/lightning/water heating/music/whatever system that knows when and where you are in a room as to turn stuff on/off when you are in/out with proximity sensors?

Why isn't voice recognition implemented with those systems as well?

What about your home sending you a warning if there is an intrusion / fire / accident with a quick option to notify the correct authority?

Doesn't take a genius to come up with improvement to those systems... It looks like those companies are lazy with their innovations and that might be why they aren't finding a lot of buyers, since it isn't such a big improvement vs currently available low-cost/low-tech solutions.
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June 22, 2009 7:12:20 PM

antiacidWhat happened to the networked fridge that knows its inventory and that you can remotely manage in tandem with your favorite food retailer's outlet current up-to-date selection as to find the best deals around and always have a reminder of when you'll run out of stuff?What happened to the networked temperature/lightning/water heating/music/whatever system that knows when and where you are in a room as to turn stuff on/off when you are in/out with proximity sensors?Why isn't voice recognition implemented with those systems as well?What about your home sending you a warning if there is an intrusion / fire / accident with a quick option to notify the correct authority?Doesn't take a genius to come up with improvement to those systems...

The fridge would be expensive to review (for those that don't get a free one sent to review) and I don't even know if they're available. Everything else you mentioned is already available. Pretty much every HA can network HVAC, lighting, water heater, the rest... Voice recognition is available with HAL (and maybe others) Home sending warnings is available through software, security systems and other HA add-ons.
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June 23, 2009 5:05:25 AM

pratik77If you want the real deal, go for Crestron.Sure it costs money but so does liquid nitrogen cooled overclocked gaming rigs.

Please tell me where I can buy a 24/7 LN2 rig.

...

What's that? Yeah, you can't buy an LN2 rig. The only feasible method for a 24/7 LN2 rig is an extremely large cascade cooling system, and I doubt such a system would be shippable by normal methods.
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Anonymous
June 23, 2009 9:42:35 AM

I've used Minerva to hide all the protocol problems in my setup. It works well, but it doesn't support as many protocols as I'd like, so I've had to write some myself. Why don't the manufacturers do this for me? I hate using their closed systems :( 
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Anonymous
June 24, 2009 2:37:34 PM

I honestly feel if they want to see home automation move along and become more of a reality. They need to work together with hotels.

First off with hotels you have an unlimited advertise potential. As a society, we are a see to believe. It truth, how many people would have really gone out to buy a new HDTV if you hadn't seen the visual difference at a store. If I had seen a 36" picture tube next to a 36" HDTV and saw the difference was only wide screen to standard and the cost was double. I would buy the picture tube.

The second thing is a reason to further develop ideas that revolve around a hotel but can also be modified to fit your home. For example, a lot of hotel doors are spring loaded to shut, this is a not a large problem, but wouldn't it be nice if when you scanned your key card it opened the door for you and turned on a light. Making it easier to get your luggage inside and see were your going. Place motion sensors in the room so when a guest checks out and leaves lights on in the room. If the motion sensors do not detect movement after a certain length of time it turns off the lights in the room, tv, and turns off the AC box. Now you have a greener hotel that waste less energy and many of these same ideas good be adapted for home use as well.

If home automation is going to move forward, people need to see the benefits and have to want it. You also need to make it seem like a convenience and not just something the rich would buy just to say they have it.
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June 24, 2009 3:54:44 PM

Don't forget Zigbee and Control4. I had it recently installed and its great. Only downside is that they don't allow homeowner to add new devices. You have to call the Control4 dealer. If I had known that before not sure if I would have gone with them.
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June 27, 2009 10:48:38 AM

smoothtlkThe next step is to tie into a PC based home automation software setup. This is where the many independent and most always different protocols can be blended together into a more seamless user experience.The software bridges one technology across to the other.Media / HVAC / Lighting / Security / cameras / Internet derived info like weather / Irrigation come together for the user via iPhone / in wall touchscreen / automation logic / schedules, etc.MainLobby / Homeseer / CQC are amongst the software leaders. All three handle all of the above capabilities.


I couldn't agree more! Really a set of standards is only necessary with respect to the HA hardware and your PC. Why not just use something that already exists like USB or even better, TCP/IP over a home LAN. The end-user can then simply install a driver provided by the manufacture and use a generic software package to control everything. We do that for the oodles of peripherals available. The biggest roadblock as many here have pointed out is the lack of benefit (or at least an apparent lack of benefit). If you think about it, HA is portreyed by the media as the home of tomorrow--not the home of TODAY! The only people who have these "toys" are those with more money than they know what to do with (ie: Bill Gates). Provided things were standardized (PC compatible), I believe you'd see a dramatic drop in cost. Granted a majority of the stuff isn't really necessary; however, there are a couple of HA products that deserve merit. What homeowner wouldn't love to be able to remotely notified their basement beginning to flood due to a sump pump failure and then be able view the situation in real-time on their smartphone. Granted you could probably do that now, though I can almost guarantee you'll need to somehow bring completely incompatible systems together in some jerry-rigged fashion. Perhaps even some custom written software running on a PC or microcontroller. Hopefully someday, we'll be able to VPN into our home server and monitor/manage everything--all while on vacation.
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