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.
Control Your Home Security System
Now that you understand home-automation basics, you can install additional modules and sensors to improve your home’s intelligence. You can buy Z-Wave-enabled thermostats, faucet switches for irrigation, door sensors, and more.
Your automated home can boost your security, too. ADT is launching a Z-Wave-enabled service, ADT Pulse, which works with many devices. (An ADT representative told me that only ADT-approved Z-Wave devices are supported; I’m anticipating that any Z-Wave hardware could work, but Pulse wasn’t available for my testing in time for this article.)
ADT’s computer software will monitor and control your home, including disarming your security system from your phone. The system will cost $47 to $60 per month in addition to up-front hardware fees ranging from $399 to $1299. ADT Plus should be available across the United States in early September.
You don’t have to wait–or pay those monitoring fees–to automate your home security, however. Several door locks and deadbolts are enabled for Z-Wave, and they can help your smart home recognize when you manually open them (as well as automatically open them for you in certain situations).
For example, Black & Decker, Kwikset, and Schlage make Z-Wave deadbolt locks that run from about $200 to $400. You install the lock, and then connect it to the HS2 software.
The locks include keypads for password entry, so within the software, you could program specific codes for certain people, such as a dog walker. You could also set each code to allow access only at a certain time of the day. Since the locks send Z-Wave updates when opened, the HS2 software could e-mail you each time your pup gets picked up, for example.
Control Your Home From Anywhere
You can have a long-distance relationship with your smart house, and check in on it while you’re in the office or on vacation. Most home-automation software includes an online component, although companies sometimes charge extra for the service.
You don’t have to pay anything else if you have a VPN or remote-access setup. LogMeIn Hamachi or another free VPN application can make your remote PC act as if it were on your local, home network; after establishing the link, you connect to your software’s Web server, such as in HS2.
Remote-access software such as GoToMyPC is an alternative. Through it, you connect directly to your server PC, controlling the home-automation system in a window as if you were there.
Software for the iPhone and other smartphones can work in both situations: You can run a remote-access app or connect to a VPN. Native iPhone software, however, can control your home devices from anywhere. The free HSTouch interfaces with HSPRO (or can be added to HS2), giving an app view into your automated home. To set it up in the HSPRO configuration Web page, click Interfaces, and then select Disabled next to ‘HSTouch for iPhone’. Click Save at the bottom of the page.
Wake Up in Luxury
Home automation certainly works for utilitarian tasks–you could configure the system to e-mail you if it senses a water leak, for example–but it should offer a dash of luxury, too. Here’s how to configure the ultimate weekday wake-up.
A half-hour before your 7:00 a.m. reveille, your house can begin brewing coffee for you. All you need to do in advance is set a dumb coffeemaker in the “on” position and connect it to a Z-Wave appliance module that controls its power. When you configure your software, set your script to signal the module to turn on electricity to the coffeemaker at 6:30 a.m.
As the aroma wafts up to your bedroom, your lights can gently turn on. Schedule the Z-Wave-enabled light dimmer to gradually increase the brightness between 6:50 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.
At 7:00 a.m., your system can play your favorite MP3s or tune in to a streaming-audio station. HS2 can interface with many audio devices, such as a PC running iTunes. I like to have it connect to a stand-alone Logitech Squeezebox. If you want to do the same, you’ll have to install the Squeezebox Plug-In ($40) first. In the HS2 Web interface, pick Interfaces, and then select Install more interfaces. Click Next, wait for the page to load, and then click Next again. Check the box next to the plug-in, and click Next once more. After you’ve installed it, you can configure it in your script.
And that’s just the beginning. You could have the system open your shades, turn on the shower, and do nearly anything–simply add more sensors and modules.
How about a system that triggers a Z-Wave garage-door opener and starts your car on a winter morning? Add a network camera, and your house can e-mail you a picture of your kids when they get home from school. A Z-Wave-to-IR translator can command your home entertainment system, so you could dim the lights, make popcorn, and start a movie with one button press.
Even if the right Z-Wave device doesn’t exist, you could hack your own. Z-Wave relay switches can be wired to any electronics to close a low-voltage circuit instead of toggling power. That way, you could wire a self-contained electronic pet feeder, a variable-speed fan, or even an NES controller. Want to unlock your game room by punching in the Konami code? You can.
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