Yeah, we know. Home automation is the most overpromised, under-delivered technology of modern times, out-hyped only by cold fusion and the perpetual motion machine. But that situation is changing rapidly as two new home-control standards fight for dominance: the IEEE 802.15.4 standard popularly known as ZigBee and the proprietary Z-Wave standard developed and widely licensed by Zensys. Combine these with a PC, some software, a wired or wireless network, a few other gadgets, and a little elbow grease, and you can transform your home into a digital domicile Buck Rogers would be proud to inhabit.
Imagine a video-surveillance system that lets you view your house from anywhere you have Internet access or a home-monitoring system that alerts you to the presence of an intruder by sending a picture to your smartphone. Or the ability to program your garage door to turn on your interior lights when it opens—and turn them off when it closes. How about lights that dim when you press play on your DVD player?
We’ll show you how to pull off these tricks and a lot more. We’ll walk you through the steps of planning your own home-automation makeover, tell you what equipment you’ll need to buy and how to install and program it, and share the lessons we’ve learned from first-hand experience. You’ll find even more details at MaximumPC.com.
Observe the carpenter’s maxim: Measure twice, cut once
You can build your home-automation system piecemeal and expand it as you have the inclination and budget, but we can’t overemphasize the importance of spending some time to plan what you want to accomplish. A little forethought will save you a lot of time and a load of cash. Here’s a broad overview of what’s possible and how much you can expect to spend.
The most important decision you’ll make is which home-automation protocol you’ll use—at least for lighting control—because you don’t want to take a mix-and-match approach. Although there are others, we’re currently recommending that readers choose between these two wireless mesh network technologies: Z-Wave and ZigBee.
The advantage of a mesh network is that each device on the network is capable of receiving a command from any other device and responding to it. The response could be to activate a switch that sends power to a light or it could be to recognize that it’s not the intended target, in which case it passes the command to the next device within range. This approach gives the network nearly unlimited range while consuming very little power.
Zensys manufactures Z-Wave chips and sells them to nearly every lighting-control manufacturer in the market, including Cooper, GE, Intermatic, and Leviton. This promiscuity has prevented any one licensee from dominating the market, which has in turn helped keep prices in check; it has also prevented the more open ZigBee standard from gaining a strong foothold.
|We can close our entertainment center (and hide our cable mess) thanks to Logitech’s Bluetooth-powered DiNovo Mini keyboard and Niles Audio’s Remote Control Anywhere kit.|
When people think of home automation, managing their home’s lighting via remote control is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Fortunately, this is the cheapest and easiest feature to implement on a small scale—and it’s not much more difficult to set up on a large scale.
For those who just want to dip their toes in the water, plug-in modules are the easiest way to go. You simply plug a box into the wall, plug your lamp into the box, and program the remote control; you can then control the light using the remote (make sure the outlet cannot be shut off by a wall switch). The typical kit (with two modules and a remote) sells for about $100. Another $50 to $60 will buy a USB controller and basic PC software that allows you to manage your lighting system using your PC.
If you don’t like the look of wall warts, you can replace your outlet with one that can be controlled via remote ($35 to $75), or you can replace the switch that controls that outlet (assuming there is one). Dimmers and switches cost between $35 and $75. You’ll also need the remote, of course—those run from $35 to $150.
|We can keep an eye on Maximum PC Lab North from anywhere we have Internet access, including our smartphone.|
Interested in keeping tabs on your house while you’re away? Want to know if the kids got home from school OK or if the dog is tearing up your flower beds? Have you considered an alarm system but balked at the cost and the prospect of strangers monitoring you? Consider deploying a video-surveillance system or a home-monitoring package.
Price tags for such systems range from $250 for a basic kit to a couple thousand for an elaborate system capable of monitoring every square inch of your property. In addition to the cost of the equipment, most packages also carry a modest subscription fee for off-site video storage or sending alerts to your smartphone.
We’re assuming you already have a broadband Internet connection and a wireless router with at least a four-port switch. You might need to expand your network by stringing Ethernet cable, installing RJ45 jacks, and adding a second switch. We’ll cover that in more depth in the next section.
If you intend to control your home-theater equipment with the same remote control you use for lighting, you’ll need a remote that’s compatible with both infrared (the technology used by most everything in your entertainment center) and RF (radio frequency, the technology used by everything else). If your A/V gear is hidden away in a closet, you’ll also need an IR control kit. We like Niles Audio’s RCA-HT Remote Control Anywhere kit for this; it’s pricey at $270 but can be expanded to control everything from two different zones in your house (you’ll find our review at http://tinyurl.com/39fr5g).
Make both wired and wireless infrastructure plans
Cameras and other devices described as “wireless” typically require electrical power. If there’s not an electrical outlet near where you need to place the device, and you don’t want to add one, consider buying a wired model and running Cat5e cable to that location instead. Plug a power-over-Ethernet (PoE) injector ($25) into your existing router or switch and put a PoE splitter ($40) at the other end of the cable.
Even at $65 per node, this approach will be cheaper than hiring an electrician—at least for small deployments. If you’ll be setting up a lot of low-power devices, consider buying hardware (including a switch) that has PoE built in. If you have electrical power at all the desired locations but don’t want to string Cat5e there, consider installing hardware that uses power-line networking.
|Here’s an example of structured wiring, in which all the home’s Ethernet, telephone, and coaxial cables (for satellite TV in this instance) are routed to a central location.|
The best way to build a network is to create a home run, a central location where all your Ethernet, telephone, and coaxial (for cable or satellite TV) cables originate—think of a bicycle wheel with spokes emerging from a central hub. Your broadband modem, router, and switch will also be located here. If you’re retrofitting—as opposed to building a new home—you might wish to limit your home run to your data network.
Your home run should be accessible but out of sight—a closet or garage is a good choice. Install a cabinet, such as Leviton’s Structured Media Center ($35 to $110, depending on size) to keep everything tidy.
Draw your home’s floor plan and scout locations where you want to place Ethernet jacks (make sure there’s a power outlet nearby, but avoid running Ethernet cable parallel to electrical cables—fish them down the opposite side of the stud). Use a stud finder to make sure there are no obstacles such as water pipes, in-wall insulation, or fire-beaks that will prevent you from pulling your cable. Explore your crawlspace or attic to ensure there’s a clear path from the home run to each destination and then number these locations on your floor plan.
Step 1: Cut Holes Use a mud ring instead of a junction box when installing low-voltage cable such as Cat5e. You’ll still need to cut a hole in your drywall if you’re retrofitting, but the mud ring makes it much easier to pull cable without crimping it (kinks in Ethernet cable will reduce the cable’s data rate).
Place the mud ring against the wall and use a torpedo level to make sure it’s straight. Using a pencil and the inside of the mud ring as a template, draw an outline on the wall. Place the tip of a drywall saw in the middle of the outline and hit the handle with the heel of your hand to punch a pilot hole. Carefully saw the drywall and remove the excess material. Place the mud ring inside the opening and flip the flanges out so they grasp the opposite side of the drywall; tighten them down with a screwdriver.
Next, drill holes from either the attic or the crawlspace between the same studs as your mud rings, as well as at the corresponding site of your home run. Using a spade bit, drill a two-inch hole in the footplate or ceiling joist. Drop fish tape through the hole, go back to the mud ring in the wall, and attach a length of wire to the fish tape. Go back to where you drilled the hole and pull the fish tape through—route this through your attic or crawlspace to the home run. Repeat this step for each run.
Step 2: Pull Cables Consider pre-cutting your Cat5e cable, so you can pull everything into your attic or crawlspace at once (give yourself plenty of slack; the cable is cheap, and you want to avoid redos). Go back to the home run and label the cables at each end. Bundle one end together with electrical tape, secure the bundle to the fish wire, and push it into the hole in the wall. Now go to your attic or crawlspace and pull the wire and cable through.
Unbundle the cables and pull each one toward its destination according to your map and the number on the cable. Attach the fish wire there to the cable and drop it into the hole. Go back to each destination room and pull the wire to draw the cable through the mud ring. Take care to make gentle turns with the cable, don’t bundle the cable too tightly, and make sure the cable doesn’t chafe on any surfaces.
Step 3: Terminate Your Cable You’ll need to terminate the Cat5e cable at each end. When you prepare the cable for termination, strip as little of the twisted-pair cable jacket away from the twisted pairs of wires as possible. Untwist the wire pairs and drape them over the snap-in jack (four on each side), following the color-coded T568A wiring diagram on the jack.
It’s crucial that no more than a half-inch of the wire is untwisted—less is better. Use a punch-down tool to press each wire into place and trim off the excess. (Repeat this step at the home run, terminating the cable into a patch bay.) Maneuver the cable through the channel in the jack and lock it in place with the cover. Snap the jack into the back of the wall plate and mount the plate to the mud ring.
|Netgear’s GS116 switch delivers 16 gigabit Ethernet ports in a burly but silent enclosure.|
A router is essential for sharing one broadband Internet connection among computers, and a switch joins multiple computers (or other devices, such as a media-streaming box or a gaming console) within a local area network. All modern routers have built-in switches, but they typically have only four ports. You can deploy multiple switches to expand your network as needed. If you have only one Ethernet jack in a room and need to connect two or more devices to the network from there, plug a multiport switch into that jack and instantly expand your network.
To set up your router, plug one end of a Cat5e cable into your broadband modem and the other end into the WAN port on your router. If you need more than the four ports on your router’s switch, simply install a second switch by plugging it into one of the router’s switch ports.
It’s not always desirable—or even possible—to string Cat5e cable throughout your house, which is why Wi-Fi routers were invented. But distance and physical barriers (concrete walls, multiple floors, etc.) can prevent a remote client from connecting to your Wi-Fi network. One easy solution is to install a power-line network adapter.
As the name implies, a power-line network carries data on your home’s existing electrical wiring. Plug one module into a power outlet near your router or switch and connect the two using Cat5e cable. Plug the second module into an electrical receptacle in the room where you need network access. In some kits, the second module functions as a wireless access point, but if you need to stream high-def video, you’ll want a kit that hard-wires the second module to the streaming box.
You should be aware, however, that two standards bodies (the HomePlug Powerline Alliance and the Universal Powerline Association) are promoting different—and incompatible—power-line networking technologies. We’ve found products based on the latter technology—specifically, Netgear’s HDXB101—to be faster for streaming media, but it looks as though the IEEE is about to adopt HomePlug.
There’s more to it than dimming the lamp from your couch
Two automation standards are fighting for dominance: ZigBee and Z-Wave. We’re focusing on Z-Wave here—despite the fact that it’s not an IEEE standard—because it has the biggest presence in the market. But you needn’t worry about owning an orphan technology should Z-Wave not stand the test of time. ZigBee’s promoters tell us that designing and manufacturing a ZigBee-to-Z-Wave bridge would be trivial.
If you don’t want to hire an electrician, the easiest way to set up a Z-Wave lighting network is to buy a kit consisting of plug-in modules and a remote control. Add a Z-Wave USB stick if you want to use your PC to control your lighting.
|Plug-in Z-Wave modules don’t look great, but they save you from futzing with bare electrical wires.|
If you can plug in a lamp, you can install a plug-in Z-Wave module. Simply unplug your lamp from the wall receptacle, plug the Z-Wave module into the receptacle, and plug the lamp into the module. You’re done. We’ll show you how to program the module in another step.
Before you buy a bunch of modules, however, make sure you select the right type. If you’ve replaced the incandescent light bulbs in your lamps with compact fluorescents, you’ll need to buy an appliance module instead of a lamp module. Most appliance modules, such as Intermatic’s HomeSettings HA02, will control any household appliance (such as a fan or television) up to 15 amps. Avoid plugging a module into a receptacle that’s controlled by a switch because the module can’t function if the switch shuts off its power source.
Step 1: Remove Old Switch We recommend hiring a qualified electrician for this step because a wiring mistake can cause serious injury or death. Even experienced do-it-yourselfers should proceed with extreme caution. Since we don’t know how your house is wired, we can provide only general guidance.
Turn off power to the existing switch by flipping the circuit breaker or removing the appropriate fuse. Put a sign on the fuse or breaker box warning no one else to turn it back on. Go back to the switch, remove the cover plate, and use a voltage tester to ensure that the circuit is cold.
Now, examine the existing wiring. Typically, a black wire is hot, white is neutral, and green or exposed copper wire is ground. We’re setting up a single-pole application, meaning only this switch will control the load. The Intermatic InTouch CA3000 switch we’re using can also function as a three-way or multi-way (the load can be controlled from two or more switches). Unscrew the wires from the old switch.
Step 2: Install New Switch Connect the black wire inside the wall to the black wire on the switch by twisting the exposed wires together. Screw a wire nut onto the two wires and wrap it in electrical tape. Using the same technique, connect the blue wire on the switch to the wire connected to the load, and then repeat this process with the white and green wires. The switch’s red wire won’t be used, but screw a wire nut onto it so that it’s not exposed.
Push the switch and its wires into the junction box and tighten down the screws. Turn the power back on and make sure that the switch turns the load on and off. Replace the cover plate and prepare to program the switch.
|Because Intermatic’s CA5500 remote control lacks an LCD, you have to guess what its single LED is trying to tell you.|
This process is pretty much the same whether you’re programming a lamp module, an in-wall switch or dimmer, or any other Z-Wave device. Once you’ve installed all the Z-Wave switches, receptacles, and wall-mounted controllers you intend to deploy, use a compatible remote to establish a network. First, to ensure you’re working with a clean slate, use the remote at each device: Press the Exclude button on the remote and then press the Activate button on the device.
Once you’ve done this with every device, go back and build your network one device at a time by pressing the Include button on the remote and the Activate button on the device. The InTouch CA5500 remote we’re using in this example flashes a blue LED to inform you when an action is successful.
As much fun as it is to control lights and other devices using a remote control, you won’t realize the full benefit of a home-automation system until you add software that will enable you to control the system with your PC. We use ControlThink’s ThinkEssentials in this example because it’s simple and inexpensive and comes with a USB Z-Wave adapter—all for $50.
|ThinkEssentials is great for getting your Z-Wave feet wet, but a more powerful option is HomeSeer’s HS2 Home Control Software ($200).|
Click the Home tab in ThinkEssentials and click the Draw Rooms button. Using the mouse, draw your home’s floor plan. Once you’ve included all your Z-Wave devices in your master remote, you’ll transfer the information about them to your PC via the USB adapter. Click ThinkEssentials’s Advanced Settings tab and click Join Existing Network. Press the button on the remote that you use to include Z-Wave devices in the network.
When the data has been transferred, an icon representing each Z-Wave device will appear on your floor plan. If the icon is a question mark, click it to send it a command. The icon will then change to a plug (for a receptacle or switch), a light bulb (for a dimmer), or whatever is appropriate. Once you’ve determined which icons are linked to which devices, drag the icons into the appropriate rooms.
Information yearns to be free, but music and video long to be everywhere
|QNAP’s TS-109 Pro is not only a fast NAS box, its feature set rivals that of a full-fledged server.|
There’s a lot of territory to cover here, but it boils down to this: Your media (music, video, digital photos, television programming, and so on) originates from location A, and you want to enjoy it at location B.
A media-center extender can stream any digital content from one room to another. If you don’t have Windows Media Center, there are a host of products capable of streaming music, pre-recorded video, live or recorded TV, music, and digital photos from your PC. A wide variety of products can stream music from a PC, and a number of docking stations will do the same from an iPod. If you’d like to watch TV programming from a remote location or on your smartphone, you’ll want a location-shifting device such as the Slingbox.
|The Sonos Digital Music System is the best multizone music-streaming product we’ve encountered—well worth the $1,000 price tag for a two-room system.|
Choosing the right server is easy compared to finding the right tool for streaming music, video, and digital photographs—there are just so many options to choose from. Your first step is to decide what you want to stream and where you want to stream it.
A media-center extender, such as the Linksys $250 DMA2100 (or an Xbox 360), can do it all, but these devices require that the host PC be running a version of Windows that includes Windows Media Center. Unfortunately, the latest (and most capable) media-center extenders are not compatible with Windows XP. On the other hand, one of the few features that renders Vista superior to Windows XP is its ability to record and stream copy-protected content from your cable-TV system.
But there’s a major catch: You’ll need a CableCARD tuner in your PC, and the only way to get one is as part of a new, prebuilt system. Satellite TV customers are entirely out of luck—there’s no CableCARD equivalent for satellite. A/V streamers such as Netgear’s EVA8000 ($350) or the PlayStation 3 ($400) can do most everything that a media-center extender can do—except stream encrypted television programming.
The most important aspects of a music-streaming system are audio quality, the remote control, the software for the host PC, support for third-party services (such as Rhapsody and Pandora), and capacity for building a multiroom system. Logitech’s Squeezebox (from $300) and the Sonos Digital Music System (from $600) are tops in this category.
Once you’ve selected a server, you’ll want to build a good directory structure on the rig that’s not only easy to maintain and back up but also secure from accidental deletions and malware running on other machines on your network.
While you could put all your files in one giant folder and share that folder, it is much more effective to create individual shares for your music, movies, and photos. That way you can control your users’ access levels based on the type of content in the shares. While everyone should have read access to photos, you may want only one or two people to be able to write to the photo folder.
To access the advanced permissions dialogs, go into the Folder Options control panel, click the View tab, and uncheck “Use sharing wizard” in Vista or “Use simple file sharing” in XP.
|1. CONFIGURE GROUPS: First, you need to create and populate groups with users. You should create groups based on tasks they’ll perform—for example, Music Listeners and Music Admins—and then set permissions to allow the lowest level of access that your users will need to complete those tasks. Once you’ve decided who gets read access and who gets write access, go to Administrative Tools, Users & Groups to set up your groups.|
|2. ASSIGN PERMISSIONS TO FOLDERS: Once you’ve created your groups and filled them with users, you need to enable sharing and adjust the permissions on the folders you want to share. Right-click the folder you want to share and select the Sharing option. Vista users need to click Advanced Sharing and then Permissions. Add your groups and set the permissions you want to allow, removing the Everyone option.|
|3. BACK UP YOUR FOLDERS: Now repeat the same steps for your photo and video folders. Once that’s done, you should set up a regular backup procedure for you media folders. Even though you’ve protected your photos, music, and movies from accidental erasure at the hands of family members, you still need to do regular backups. We recommend using SyncBack Freeware, which you can download at www.2brightsparks.com/downloads.html.|
Protecting your most valuable assets: your home and its contents
In many respects, this aspect of home automation is even more important than lighting controls and media streaming; unfortunately, it’s even less mature as a market. We’ll help guide you through the wilderness.
In our mind, the ideal system would be capable of monitoring all our doors and windows, detecting motion inside the house, and controlling our irrigation system. It would also include sensors capable of detecting disasters such as fire or a burst water pipe, send alerts to our smartphone whenever an unexpected event occurs, and provide video coverage of the interior and perimeter of our home that we could access from the Internet.
No one package does all of those things, which means you’ll need to mix and match solutions to get to home-automation nerdvana.
The three best home-monitoring and surveillance packages we’ve encountered are Eaton’s Home Heartbeat, iControl Network’s iControl, and Logitech’s WiLife. Your other alternative is to deploy a conventional Cat5 system, although this category is limited to video surveillance using webcams.
Home Heartbeat is a robust home-monitoring system that can alert you to the status of doors and windows (open or closed), power receptacles (on or off), and movement inside your house. A starter pack consisting of a base station, a key fob for receiving alerts (originating from your land line), and one open/closed sensor sells for $225. Add-on sensors cost $40 to $50 each. Home Heartbeat can also detect water leaks and automatically shut off the water supply using an optional controller and a custom ball valve. It uses the ZigBee wireless networking standard and can be controlled over the Internet (you’ll need the $160 broadband gateway, and a subscription fee applies). But the system doesn’t include cameras, so it can’t show you what’s happening inside or around your house.
IControl’s advanced starter kit ($250) consists of a broadband interface, a wireless webcam, a lamp-control module, a motion sensor, a door/window sensor, and a remote control. It can be expanded with a host of accessories, including a thermostat, a smoke/heat detector, and a water sensor (although it doesn’t provide any means of shutting the water off). The system uses the Z-Wave wireless protocol, so it can be incorporated into any Z-Wave network. A subscription fee applies.
Logitech’s WiLife system is limited to video surveillance, but it comes with the most robust software we’ve seen in this segment. A starter kit with one camera costs $300; add-on cameras cost $230 (the system is limited to six). It uses power-line networking, which eliminates the need to string Cat5 cable, and the company offers both indoor and outdoor cameras with motion-activated recording capabilities. You can monitor the cameras from the Internet, but there’s a subscription fee if you want email and cellphone alerts.
|Tucked behind a vase, iControl’s battery-controlled motion sensor can operate unobtrusively.|
Place a motion sensor at tabletop height and it will detect an intruder’s movement while ignoring any pets moving about the house. You’ll quickly tune out—or turn off—a security system that constantly cries wolf.
Since you can’t predict where a criminal will attempt to break into your house, it’s best to place a sensor on every window and exterior door. Sensors typically consist of two blocks connected by a magnetic field. When the blocks are separated and the magnetic field is broken, the master controller sends an alert to your email address or to your cell phone via SMS. Sometimes, what doesn’t happen is as important as what does. If you have latchkey kids, for instance, you might want to set up an alert to notify you if the front door doesn’t open within a specific time window.
Sensors can tell you only that motion has been detected or a door or window has been opened (and if the window is simply smashed, it might not even do that). Another line of defense is to deploy Internet-connected video cameras with motion detectors. We recommend placing an outdoor camera at each corner of your home to monitor its perimeter. A box-shaped house would require only four cameras, but a home with an unusual layout or one with recessed entry doors might require more. A web camera with a two-way intercom placed outside your front door or at your gate will allow you to communicate with a visitor without having to approach or open the door.
|This Logitech WiLife camera keeps tabs on the front door. But consider all the other possible points of entry, as well.|
We’ve been jazzed about WiLife’s security camera system ever since we got our paws on its spy camera. The spy cam itself is dorky as all get-out, but its software is amazing.
We’re not big fans of power-line networking, but it works here because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks: All you need in order to deploy a camera is a nearby electrical outlet. The network’s narrow bandwidth isn’t a problem because you’re not transmitting sound and the video isn’t high resolution. You can outfit the indoor cameras with night vision or three different lenses, and the outdoor cameras don’t need enclosures because they’re completely weatherized.
You can view your cameras from any Internet connection. An optional subscription to WiLife Platinum ($80 per year) adds email and cellphone alerts, remote playback, and 50MB of online storage. Setting up the system is dead simple.
|1. INSTALL YOUR CAMERAS AND PLUG THEM IN: First, install the WiLife software; then restart your computer. When you start the software for the first time, you’ll be asked to set aside some disk space that the system will use for recording its video captures. You’ll then be prompted to set up a remote-viewing account. The WiLife system will use your broadband Internet access to upload live video from your cameras, which you’ll be able to view from anywhere. The installer software will then ask how many cameras are in your system and which type of USB adapter you’re using.|
2. PLACE YOUR CAMERAS AND PLUG THEM IN: Power-line networking can be finicky; we’ve learned from experience not to permanently mount a camera until we’re sure it’s going to work with the receptacle we’re planning to use. The cameras won’t work with Z-Wave receptacles, either, because those receptacles have built-in surge suppressors.
Once you’ve temporarily plugged your WiLife cameras into receptacles near where you’ll be using them, go back to the PC and click Next to resume the setup process.
|3. CONNECT THE POWER-LINE USB ADAPTER: Next, plug the power-line adapter into an electrical socket near your PC. The adapter has its own built-in surge suppressor and will not function properly if it’s plugged into a second suppressor (don’t use an extension cord, either). Plug one end of a USB cable into the power-line adapter and the other into your PC’s USB port (do not use a USB hub). When you click Next, the software will find your cameras and configure your network. The adapter will grab the WMV video that the cameras are running through the power-line network and display it using WiLife’s user interface.|
|4. NAME YOUR CAMERAS: If the software was able to locate all of your cameras, it will provide thumbnail screens for each one and ask you to provide a descriptive name for each one. This way, you’ll know which camera is having problems even if you can’t see the video. If the software cannot find one of your cameras, reset the camera by unplugging it and plugging it in again or by using a paperclip to reset the camera to its default settings. If the software still can’t find the camera, you’ll need to move it to a different power outlet and try again.|