Geek-Free Home Automation

A nice little article has appeared on the PC Mag site, even if it is a little uncomplmentary to us automatiors…

“One of life’s ironies is that those of us who can dim the living-room lights and switch the stereo to soft jazz at the press of a single button are probably the geeks who can’t get a date and take advantage of the romantic atmosphere.

No less an authority than the Queer Eye team recommends dimmed lights everywhere. And that is the core of home automation today: making the remote dimming of lights and switching of appliances work for as many people as possible. New technologies and products over the next year will make automation something to think about even if you don’t safety-pin your eyeglasses’ hinge…

The old faithful of home automation is X10, which dates to the late 1970s; its products can be found at Radio Shack and . X10 technology sends power pulses from a switch over your household current to a device. Maybe 95 times out of 100, half a second after you press the button, you get the desired result; say, the porch lights come on. Besides wall plugs for lights (dimmable) and appliances (switchable), there are X10 wall switches and even drapery pulls, thermostats, and lawn-sprinkler switches.

A generation of home AV and security installers have developed enough tweaks and workarounds to raise the X10 success rate to 98 times out of 100-good enough to turn the coffeemaker on but not good enough to turn it off. With PC-based controllers, you can make a PC or a wall switch turn on different lights at different levels.

You may lose one or two cheap X10 devices a year to power surges, so you’re better off with Leviton or X10 Pro switches ($30 to $50 versus $10 to $20), or switches from direct suppliers like Home Automation Inc. (HAI) and Smarthome. Get a whole-house surge suppressor too.

X10 has other drawbacks: Most switches are one-way, so you can’t confirm when they’re activated. Lights controlled by the cheaper X10 switches have to come on at full brightness before they can be dimmed, which can be a mood-breaker. Most circuits are split between two 120-volt legs, which must be bridged; unless you install a coupler in your circuit breaker box, it may be difficult to signal the X10 devices that are not on the same leg of your home wiring. And X10 is mostly a wired technology.

X10 stalwart Smarthome recently announced a wired and wireless protocol called Insteon, which works with existing X10 devices. The 900-MHz Insteon wireless adapters also serve as bridges between the two legs of your home wiring. Insteon’s drawback is that the wireless isn’t standards-based; its ace in the hole is the installed base of X10 fans. Expect Insteon products in 2005, priced about the same as the X10 Pro series.

Another intriguing wireless protocol is Z-Wave, from Copenhagen-based Zensys. Z-Wave is a mesh network; every device that hears the signal passes it along, enabling you to reach throughout the house. The protocol is not standards-based, but Z-Wave has Intel’s support (for creating a path to UPnP AV and PC devices). Sylvania sells a starter kit (two modules and a wireless controller) for $150; HomeSeer makes more sophisticated PC controllers and software.

If the size of its standards committee is an indicator of success, ZigBee, with 62 vendors lined up, could be the next big thing. It’s a wireless mesh network that will control dishwashers, furnaces, and washing machines as well as lighting. Something like universal ZigBee (or Insteon, or Z-Wave) could reduce peak demand at power plants on the hottest days if it deferred washing dishes or clothes until late at night. Many analysts are bullish on ZigBee, though that could be because so many cover it. As with Insteon, ZigBee products aren’t likely to appear until 2005.

Who will prevail? I suspect the winners will be the ones that Intel and Microsoft embrace. But I’m the last person to predict the future after having been sure X10 would be blown away in the 1990s by something called CeBus (now defunct). ZigBee has the most widespread support, Z-Wave works now, and Insteon can take advantage of the several million X10 homes. For appliance control, you’ll likely need a new suite of appliances. Retrofits don’t work, except for HVAC systems where the controller is the thermostat.

True home automation is about audio, video, security, and the Internet-as well as romantic lighting. Imagine a $200 Wi-Fi Pocket PC three years from now-bridged to Insteon, ZigBee, or Z-Wave-controlling your video, music, and lights and even browsing the Web. But even if this automation arrives too late to provide you with a romantic evening, perhaps your teenage children will thank you.


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