Introducing Maximum PC Lab North

Michael Brown

Many of you will be coming here after reading my article on home automation, “The Digital Domicile,” published in the June 2008 print edition.  Welcome! I hope you enjoyed the story, and that you want to learn more about the topic. If you don't have the June 2008 edition, you can download a PDF version of the entire magazine here .

When I set about building a new house in 2007, I took advantage of the opportunity to include infrastructure that would make for the ultimate real-world test lab for many of the products on my beat list here at Maximum PC (the illustration in the aforementioned story is loosely based on my home’s floor plan). Videocards are still benchmarked in the official Maximum PC Lab in South San Francisco, but wireless networking products, speakers, media-streaming devices, iPod docks, home-automation, and home-theater related products are tested at the house, which we’ve dubbed Maximum PC Lab North.

The house is located in a rural area of Northern California on 10 acres of what was once a dairy farm, which has its ups and downs. On the upside, my neighbors are so far away that I don’t need to worry about their Wi-Fi equipment stomping on any of the wireless products I’m testing. In fact, no one was even running a wireless network when I first moved in; I’ve since detected weak signals from two nearby networks. On the downside, it’s a three-hour commute from home to the office. Obviously, I can’t do that commute every day, so I live part time in an apartment closer to the office.

I wrote this story  to share with you some of my hands-on experience with the latest home-automation technology, and to document the environment in which many of my product reviews will be conducted. I’ll also point out some of the mistakes I made during the planning and construction of the new house, so you can avoid falling into the same traps should you decide to make changes to your own house.

The home isn't meant to be a showcase of absolutely every piece of whiz-bang technology available today. As much as I enjoy reading those types of stories, I didn't have the budget to go over the top. My aim was to include practical home-automation technology and to build a house that could serve as a home as well as a lab. I hope you’ll use the comments tool to give me some feedback on what else you’d like to see in Maximum PC’s home-automation and home-theater coverage, whether that be more product reviews, more how- to’s, or whatever else you’re interested in.

I also want to give credit to the team that built the house: Luke Alexander, of Luke Alexander Construction was the general contractor; Scott Jackson, of Evergreen Development was the architect, did the lighting design, and installed the solar system; John Patterson of Patterson Electric performed the electrical work and installed the Z-Wave products; Allen Wilson of Premier Telecom Systems installed the Ethernet, coax, speaker, and telephone systems; and Greg Amaral, of Amaral Construction, designed, built, and installed the custom cabinetry.

Contents:

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE MEDIA ROOM

The Media Room is used for testing all home-theater type products, including home-theater PCs, larger speaker systems, iPod speaker docks, video projectors and screens, A/V-streaming solutions, media-center extenders, and the like. I had the entertainment center designed so that I had plenty of storage and could close the whole thing when the TV is not being used (the cabinets go all the way to the top of the nine-foot ceiling). The Media Room is actually a room--within-a-room, for acoustic reasons. You'll find the details of its construction here.

Greg designed bi-folding pocket doors that slide into the niche (and virtually disappear) when opened. The doors for the speaker niches are mounted on double hinges that allow them to open much wider than a normal hinge would permit.

The niche for the television will accommodate up to a 50-inch screen. We’re currently using a 42-inch ViewSonic N4285p LCD HDTV to test media-center extenders and A/V streaming products. I might have goofed by having Greg make the opening for the center speaker just big enough for the Klipsch RC-35 center-channel speaker—it doesn’t leave me room for anything bigger. The doors on either side provide even more storage.

Nearly all the equipment for the home-theater system are located in this one cabinet. The biggest mistake I made here was in not having Greg make the side cabinets deeper. Since all the cables terminate at the A/V receiver, there’s barely enough room behind the receiver to accommodate everything.

The cabinet holds (from bottom to top) an Onkyo TX-SR701 A/V receiver (still a great receiver, although it predates HDMI), a Niles Audio four-pair speaker selector, a somewhat-useless Philips DVD player, an AMD reference-design home-theater PC with a Blu-ray drive, a Dish Network satellite TV tuner, a Sonos ZP-80 Zone Player , and a Belkin PureAV PF60 power conditioner.

The device sitting on top of the DVD player is a Bluetooth transceiver for a Logitech diNovo Mini keyboard. A bathroom-type ventilation is installed at the top of the cabinet to evacuate warm air, so that the door can be left closed even with everything running.

Contents:

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE MEDIA ROOM (continued)



Greg installed a custom pull-out rotating shelf for the receiver because I need to access the inputs and outputs in back quite frequently, but I had to screw on those hoopty-looking brackets to prevent the shelf from sliding forward on its own (the rat’s nest of cables in the back push it out).

The IR emitters attached to the DVD player, satellite tuner, and the A/V receiver are connected to a Niles Audio RCA-HT Remote Control Anywhere Kit (left). The master IR sensor (right) glued to the cabinet is barely noticeable (right).

CABLE SNARL
It’s difficult to see for all the cables in this photo (speaking of a rat's nest), but there are jacks for 14 speakers (the media room has front left and right, surround left and right, rear left and right, center, and a subwoofer, and there are two speakers each in the dining room, great room, master bedroom, and enclosed patio).

The bedroom speakers and the rear channels are currently not in use. There is also a phone jack, a coaxial jack, and four Ethernet jacks here. The satellite tuner is plugged into the phone jack and one of the Ethernet ports; the Sonos uses one Ethernet port and the other two are available for product testing (media streamers and such). The HDMI connector is connected to a ceiling-mounted video projector.

If you build or remodel, I can't overemphasize the importance of communicating with your contractor or installer and visting the job site frequently. We had to drill holes in the interior sides of the cabinets because Allen thought the speakers were going in the other side. I had also intended to have this patch panel up higher in the cabinet, so that it would be out of sight. But since I was usually at the job site only on weekends, I didn't notice what was going on. This isn't Allen's fault, it was just a matter of a communications breakdown between him and me.

(Yes, my cable management sucks, but I change out gear so frequently that it just doesn’t make sense to keep everything neat and tidy.)

SPIN CYCLE
Greg installed these rotating slide-out racks for the front speakers (left), so that I could pull them out from their niches and rotate them. It also makes it easy to access the patch bay on the wall behind it. The racks were designed for mounting tube TVs, so Greg got a great price on them because so few people are buying tube TVs these days.

I had power and an HDMI port installed in the ceiling to accommodate an Epson Powerllite Cinema 500 video projector, but I goofed in not installing the infrastructure for a ceiling-mounted screen in front of the entertainment center. I'm using Epson's Accolade Duet tripod screen for the time being.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

MEDIA ROOM (continued)

I haven't fully evaluated Logitech's new diNovo Mini keyboard, but I like the small form factor and the D-pad can replace a bulky mouse. You can leave it on a coffee table (or on top of a speaker) when you’re not using it, so it doesn’t draw anyone’s attention.


PIPE DOWN!
I had Allen install speaker jacks and volume controls in the dining room, great room, master bedroom, and the enclosed patio. Those, and the speaker selector box, really leverage the one Sonos zone player in the media center.

This arrangement, however, doesn’t allow someone in the media room to use the receiver to watch TV while music plays in the rest; and using one zone player for multiple rooms means I can’t have different music playing in each room, but that’s just not something that I need.

Another option I decided to do without is volume controls with built-in IR receivers. These would have allowed me to control the local volume from across the room, but then I'd have to keep track of a remote control in each room. My rooms are relatively small, so it's not a big deal to walk to the control to make adjustments.

Allen installed Niles Audio VCS100 volume controls because they can handle up to 100 watts of power each and they're capable of magnifying the impedance presented to the amplifier. The impedance magnfication feature was particularly important because I sometimes use my A/V receiver's front-channel amp to drive up to four sets of speakers. (The typical amp expects to see a six- or eight-ohm load on each channel. As you add additional speakers to the channel, the impedance can drop below those thresholds, resulting in damage to the amp.)

Niles Audio OS10 indoor/outdoor speakers are installed in the enclosed patio. The volume can be adjusted using an in-wall volume control. This is a better alternative to using the A/V receiver or the Sonos controller to adjust the volume, because those are both master controllers that would change the volume in every room.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE HOME OFFICE

I use my home office for evaluating near-field speakers (typically comparing them to one of my favorite 5.1-channel speaker systems, M-Audio's Studiophile LX4). That's an Intermatic CA5500BR master Z-Wave controller sitting next to the speaker on the left.

Since we're in a rural area and are subject to the occassional power interruption during inclement weather, I installed a Belkin UPS (left) so that I wouldn't lose any work should the power cut out. I ran Cat5e, telephone, and coax to every room in the house, but I elected to run four strands of Cat5e to the home office (right). I currently use one Ethernet connection for the PC and a second for a Belkin Network Print Hub .

THE HOME RUN CLOSET

My home office doesn't have a closet, so my home run is located in another bedroom in the house. Luke built a shelving system that comes in handy for storing boxes and product that's waiting to be reviewed, and it's also handy for stashing a NAS box. Allen installed a Leviton Structured Media Center for the home run in that closet, and John made sure there was plenty of power nearby. There's a duplex inside the home-run cabinet and two more on the wall beneath it. John also pre-wired the closet for a ventilation fan in case I decide to put a server in there.

Here's what the home-run closet looked like before the wiring was finished, the doors were installed, and the room was primed. The built-in shelves are just the ticket for storage, and there's plenty of room at the bottom for a server tower.

The shot of the structured media center on the left was taken after Allen finished pulling the Cat5e (for data and voice) and the coax (for satellite TV). He hadn't terminated the coax at this point, nor had I installed the router and switch. The Cat5e and telephone patch panels are from Leviton.

The shot on the right was taken after the satellite dish was installed and I had plugged in the patch cables for the router and switches. Allen also installed a phone outlet here for my DSL modem (something we hadn't thought to do originally).

Good lighting is almost as important as good ventilation. My simple solution was to clamp a goose-necked desk lamp onto the side of the built-in shelf. This allows me to target the light where it's needed.

Many people put their router and switch inside their structured-media cabinet, but I elected to mount them outside because I change things out so frequently for product testing. I'm currently using a D-Link DIR-655 router (802.11n with a four-port gigabit switch), a Netgear GS116 switch (16 gigabit ports), and a D-Link DGS-2208 switch (eight gigabit ports). My network has a total of 23 Ethernet drops, 13 telephone drops, and 10 coax drops. All the gear is plugged into a Belkin PureAV home-theater surge supressor. I also had John install a whole-house surge suppressor at the main circuit-breaker box.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE KITCHEN

As in many homes, our activities frequently revolve around the kitchen, so I asked Greg to integrate a desk and file cabinets into the kitchen cabinets. I put an HP IQ775 TouchSmart PC on the desk (the successor to the IQ770 I reviewed last year). We using a saddle stool instead of an office chair because we can tuck it away to regain floor space when we're not using it.

If I had this to do over, I would have had Greg figure out some way of hiding the surge suppressor and the cables; maybe a false panel in the back?

I absolutely love having a PC in the kitchen. Family members can check email and surf the web without having to skulk off to a bedroom or the home office. The machine has a built-in TV tuner, too, which is connected to the second tuner in our satellite set-top box in the media room. The TouchSmart also acts as a server for the Logitech WiLife video-surveillance system we have installed. This machine gets more use than any other computer in the house.

You can never have enough USB ports, and since I needed to drill a hole in the desktop to route the cables through anyway (the desk is attached to the wall), Belkin's powered four-port In-Desk USB Hub (left) was the perfect solution.

I installed Intermatic's InTouch CA600 dimmers (for incandescent ceiling cans), CA3000 switches (for fluorescent ceiling cans and ceiling fans), and CA3500 receptacles throughout the house (right). The InTouch devices use Z-Wave technology, which enables me to control all the lighting remotely and to monitor the status of the lights from anywhere I have Internet access. I also have several CA5000 multi-button scene controllers in the house, which allow me to store and recall multiple lighting scenes for different rooms. The one drawback to the InTouch products is that the dimples don't match the conventional Decora faces. Intermatic started offering Decora-style faces after our construction was already finished.

This is what the WiLife Command Center looks like running on the host PC, but you can also monitor all of your surveillance cameras from the Web with a remote PC or a smartphone.

Logitech's WiLife outdoor security cameras are weatherized, so they don't need expensive enclosures. They use power-line networking technology, so they need only be plugged into a receptacle to work. John suggested cutting the plugs off and hardwiring them inside weatherized in-wall electrical boxes, and the results look so much better than the typical bubble enclosures would. But when I told Logitech what we'd done, they politely pointed out that we'd just voided the warranty on the product. D'oh! Do not follow our example.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE GARAGE

I don't imagine Sonos and Soundcast anticipated their products being use in conjunction with each other. The Soundcast is designed primarily for streaming music from an iPod (you plug the MP3 player into the dock on top), but it also has an auxiliary input. I plug the Sonos ZP80 into the Soundcast base station in the garage (yes, I have an Ethernet port there,too) and stream music from there to Soundcast's OutCast battery-powered speaker when I'm working in the garden.

Since the Wayne-Dalton garage-door openers (left) are Z-Wave enabled, we can have the lights inside the house turn on automatically when we pull up the driveway and open the garage.

In addition to its Z-Wave capabilities, you can program the door's "pet" mode, so that it opens just far enough for your dog or cat to get out, you can turn on its light only (and it will automatically turn itself off), and there's a "delay" button that will give you a few seconds to get out the door before it closes.

John didn't realize the door openers were wireless and that the wall-mounted remotes operate on batteries, so he had run electrical wire to those locations. Wayne-Dalton also provides battery-operated keypads that you can install outside the garage (we haven't done this,yet). The keypads allow you to open the door from the outside even if you don't have a remote.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar Power System

THE SOLAR SYSTEM

This really has nothing to do with home automation, but I thought readers might be interested in it.

Since we had plenty of room, there's plenty of sunshine to be had, and California offers a generous rebate program, we decided to install a grid-tied photovoltaic system on the property. These 30 Evergreen Spruce Line panels feed 5kW of electrical power into the grid (we sell the power to our utility and then buy some of it back).

This Fronius IG5100 grid-tied inverter converts the electrical power generated by the panels from DC to AC and pipes it into the electrical grid. A net-meter measures how much electrical we generate (and sell to the utility company) and how much we consume (and buy back from the utility).

THAT'S ALL, FOLKS!

Well, that's the story of Maximum PC Lab North. I hope you enjoyed it and that I was able to give you some tips (or at least some pitfalls to avoid) for when you build or remodel, install home-automation features, or set up a home network. As I said in the opening, I hope you’ll use the comments tool to give me some feedback on what else you’d like to see in Maximum PC’s home-automation and home-theater coverage, whether that be more product reviews, more how- to’s, or whatever else you’re interested in.

Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Media Room

Page 3: The Media Room: Wiring and Video

Page 4: The Media Room: Audio

Page 5: The Home Office and the Home Run

Page 6: The Kitchen and the Video Surveillance System

Page 7: The Garage

Page 8: The Solar System

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