Technology

Home automation—using a PC and several additional attachments to control home appliances remotely—is a popular and growing field. Even if you can't afford a butler or housekeeper, you can screen visitors at the front door, set your lights and thermostat without lifting a finger, and more.
Home automation comprises PC networking, shared Internet access, telephone communications, home security/ surveillance, and automated/remote-control lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning). Eventually, it will


Technology
encompass home chores, too. There are already robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers with limited capabilities.
Home automation comprises PC networking, shared Internet access, telephone communications, home security/ surveillance, and automated/remote-control lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning). Eventually, it will encompass home chores, too. There are already robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers with limited capabilities.

You could easily spend $50 a square foot to automate a showpiece home—a hefty price considering an upscale, 3,000-foot home costs about $150 a square foot to build. But $1,000 can provide you with automation tools to make your life easier and amaze your neighbors. Even $100 is enough for a starter kit to control half a dozen lights from your PC, from a PC-programmed timer, or from a wireless remote that's small enough to fit on a keychain. Here we'll recommend a shopping list around which to base your budget.

At the heart of most home automation schemes is a 25-year-old standard called X10. It's a method of transmitting signals over electrical wiring. The signal is at a much higher frequency than the 60 Hz your wiring uses, so the signal can be readily distinguished by a receiver/sensor. Receivers plugged into wall outlets or embedded in light switches "listen" for signals and react as necessary, flipping a switch to turn lights on or off (or dimming them), starting a coffeepot, and so on.

Remote coffeemaking is a good example of what is possible yet not advisable. X10 signals are very reliable, but they can be interrupted by surges or drop-offs in the power lines. Damp weather or even an appliance being off can affect the performance of an X10 receiver. So any device that could be dangerous if not turned off properly shouldn't be controlled by X10. A porch light is no problem, a sprinkler would waste some water, but a space heater or coffeemaker could overheat.

Workarounds have evolved, such as sending the same command two or three times in succession if you're using a PC-based controller or a simple clock timer that sends two on and two off commands (1 minute apart) per daily cycle. Getting the signal through the first time is a good reason to buy high-quality switches and to install signal boosters (that plug into a wall outlet) or breaker-box couplers. (Most homes have two electrical legs, or pathways, connected only when a 220-volt appliance runs. A coupler bridges the legs.)

Most X10 users also have wireless remotes, which use radio frequencies (not infrared), so you don't have to be in the same room as the receiver. Most X10 starter kits include a wireless remote that controls X10 and audio equipment, as well as a small keychain remote that lets you turn on devices from outside the house.

A fertile area for the future of home automation is energy-intensive water heaters, air conditioners, dishwashers, and dryers. You could turn the heat up at your home in New England just as your plane from the Caribbean was landing or reschedule a dishwasher to run at night, if electricity rates are cheaper then.



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