The home of the future unlocks the door and turns on the lights when you arrive, brews coffee to wake you up, and automatically waters the garden. Seem like something that's still decades away? You can create a smart home today that does all that and more--and you don't need to pay thousands of dollars to a contractor to accomplish it.
What It Takes: A PC, Software, and Modular Hardware
Your automated home needs three main components: a computer, software, and modular, automation-aware devices. The computer and software are your home's "mind." If your PC goes to sleep, so does your home's intelligence, so you'll want to run automation software on an always-on system, such as a server.
I like HomeSeer Windows automation software because of its power and its support for a range of automation protocols, but you'll have to put up with an often-clunky interface. It's available in the lower-tier HS2 version for $220 or the high-end HSPRO edition for $600. Although the basic tools follow the same interface, HSPRO bundles many extras that are otherwise paid add-ons for the basic edition, including iPhone control. (You can read more about the differences on the HomeSeer Website.)
The PC software automates your home's devices and sensors, which could include lights, appliances, a stereo, motion sensors, a thermostat, and on and on. Many devices, such as light switches and thermostats, are available in automated versions, but you can add almost anything. If a device runs on electricity, you can connect to it an automation-aware box that toggles the power; you could put one between, say, a fan and outlet.
Your automated home's nervous system needs to communicate on a specific protocol. For decades, X10, which sends signals over a home's power lines, ruled the market. However, X10 can drop messages, misinterpret cable noise (thinking you've told it to turn on a light, for instance), and bleed into your neighbors' wiring. Insteon, another power-line technology, was designed to address those problems, but they can still occasionally crop up.
HomePlug and Universal Powerline Bus, which are even more reliable than prior power-line protocols, are alternatives--but you won't find as many compatible devices available for those two standards.
Though I still use X10 and Insteon devices, I'd rather go wireless; the new protocols communicate over radios instead of via your power network. Over a wireless connection, the devices can create a mesh network to pass messages among themselves from one end of your house to the other, meaning range is rarely an issue.
If you decide to go wireless, your two best options are Zigbee and Z-Wave. Zigbee has existed as an open standard for several years, but its open focus defined how devices could communicate, not how they must. As a result, several competing companies--such as AMX, CentraLite, Control4, and Crestron--make Zigbee devices, and their products may not work together. The newer Zigbee Pro mandates a specification based on Control4's example, but very few devices are available.
Z-Wave's protocol is controlled by a single company, but I like it because it's much more widely adopted. You can choose from hundreds of Z-Wave devices, and tools from different companies are regulated so that they almost always work together.
Whichever protocol you pick, you'll need a PC adapter that speaks that language. (And if you can't pick just one automation standard, you could mix multiple adapters.) I tried out the Aeon Labs Z-Stick Series 2 Z-Wave USB System Interface, available for about $65.
Configure a Gentle, Automatic Night Light
Your smart home should begin with a bright idea: lighting control. Once you understand some lighting basics, you'll be able to configure almost anything.
Many Z-Wave lighting controllers are on the market. You can get boxes for installing between a lamp and an outlet, replace current wall switches with Z-Wave controllers, or insert an adapter between the bulb and the socket. Depending on the module, you can expect to pay about $30 to $80. Just be sure to pick hardware that's rated for your application, such as fluorescent lighting versus incandescent.
Let's say you want to configure a hallway lamp. Attach a lamp module to your outlet. You'll use a Z-Wave remote to connect the lamp module to your Z-Wave network: Position the Z-Stick Series 2 (or a similar computer adapter) next to the lamp module. Push the button on the USB adapter, and then push the main button on the lamp module. The two will pair, and the USB adapter will store this information for the PC.
Turn your lamp on, and connect it to the Z-Wave module. (The lamp should stay dark.)
Connect the USB adapter to your PC. Install any driver software if needed, and import the lamp details into the HS2 software. You configure the software in a Web browser (which is great for accessing the HomeSeer PC from a networked computer of any OS). Click through to the Interface tab to attach the Z-Wave USB adapter.
Most important, be sure to configure the correct COM Port. With the USB adapter attached, open Device Manager and pick Ports. Check the port number of the USB stick, and enter that back in the HS2 configuration page; if you have the wrong COM Port, the software won't show the adapter, and it won't reveal a clear error either. When you've configured the software properly, you can import the details about the Z-Wave lamp module.
You can now control the lamp from your PC, turning it on, shutting it off, and setting the brightness. That's a good start, but your home won't be truly smart until it can sense its environment and configure devices automatically. So let's say that you want to install a motion sensor in the hallway--to do so, you just configure the USB adapter and add the Z-Wave motion sensor in the same way as you did the lamp module.
Now that your PC knows whether there's motion in the hallway and now that it can control the lamp, you should set up a "scene" to connect the two. If, for instance, you typically get up to use the bathroom at night, you can set the lamp to automatically turn on only at night, and to do so at just 40 percent brightness.
You arrange this in the Events tab in HS2. Under the Trigger setting, add the Z-Wave motion sensor; additionally, specify that this behavior should happen only at night. Under the Action tab, set the lamp to turn on at low brightness.