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HOW STUFF WORKS / INDUSTRY

Home Automation For Easy Living

By SmartHouse Staff | Monday | 31/07/2006

A home control system can bring order to a busy household - and it's actually affordable.

Most households find it increasingly difficult to manage daily routines within their homes. When the clock is ticking, simple tasks such as switching off the lights and central heating before leaving for work become tedious and time-consuming chores that often get skipped or forgotten just so we can get to work on time.

But managing a household needn't be so hectic, especially when there are technologies that can help. For example, there are timers that can turn groups of lights on and off at predetermined times and thermostats that can set back the AC as soon as you head off to bed. There are remotes that can roll down the window shades and operate your entertainment system at the press of a button.

Those individual gadgets are a good start toward gaining some semblance of control. However, there's a better way to take charge of your home. A home control system allows you to manage every linked system in the home under one set of instructions. For example, when you wake up, a single morning command can set the lights, the thermostats and the security system just the way you like them. At night, the system can cue a completely different routine. Your house ends up working like one well-oiled machine rather than several autonomous parts. Plus, you can use one device (a keypad, a touchscreen or a handheld remote control) instead of many different types of controllers to issue commands to the electronic components.

So what's the catch? In a word: cost. The high price of home control has unfortunately scared many consumers away - and with good reason. A system that's robust enough to operate several types of devices and systems will usually cost a few thousand dollars. Really advanced systems can set you back $50 000 or more, depending on what you want to control and how you want to control it.

Fortunately, manufacturers realise that it's not only the rich and famous who need help with their households. In fact, it's usually the average family perpetually pressed for time who can most benefit from a home control system.

Option 1: Wire, Then Wait
When people decide to install a network into their homes, it's usually for the sake of their computers. While networking systems can allow multiple computers to share files, peripherals and a single Internet connection, high-speed wiring can also serve as a backbone for many other features, including a home control system.

The beauty of a networking system is its modularity. You can pay for wiring first and then beef up the system later, as your budget allows. For example, you can have your home completely wired and able to support a home control system. Then, when you're ready, you can add control features to the network at an additional cost. In most cases, the addition simply involves connecting a home control system to the wiring infrastructure.

Option 2: Sensible Simplicity
Some manufacturers keep their systems affordable by focusing on the one thing every home needs: security. Security is the traditional building block of a home control system because so many things need to happen based on whether you're home or away. For example, when an 'away' button is pressed on a keypad, the home control system can arm the security setup while turning off the lights and lowering the thermostat. But control gets even more convenient than this. When a security system is the heart of a home control system, it can query the various security sensors in your home to decide how to set the lights and thermostats. When the system notices that a motion sensor has tripped in a child's room, for example, it can activate several lights to illuminate the hallway to the bathroom.

While any control-capable security system can be programmed by a professional installer to fit the unique needs and lifestyle of your household, specific systems can take customisation to new levels by enabling the system to react differently based on who has entered the home. Each family member can carry a microchip-embedded key that can be programmed to trigger a different series of events. For example, when a child enters the home alone, the system can be programmed to automatically turn on the lights and unlock the rear of the house, whilst keeping the front-of-house exterior security system armed.

Option 3: It Only Looks Expensive
Security systems that also control a home's lights and thermostats are fairly common today. They're also extremely affordable. In fact, with a large percentage of homebuilders putting security systems into their homes as standard amenities, the next home you buy might already have one. What you probably won't see at this stage, though, is fancy touch-screens hanging from the walls. That's because keypads are so much more affordable.

This doesn't mean, however, that you can't have a touchscreen. And you probably won't have to buy an expensive home control system to get one. Some companies have developed stand-alone touch-screens that work with just about any brand of home control system - from the most economical to the most expensive.

Option 4: Big Systems Slim Down
A touchscreen may look cool, but it isn't really necessary when all you need to control are the lights and the thermostats. Touch-screens really start to add value when several subsystems (such as music, lighting, security and video) enter the picture. In most cases, a professional installer will recommend that you put one super-intelligent control system in charge of the various subsystems. It's a design that makes a lot of sense. For starters, you can use one type of interface rather than several to manage your home and press only one button instead of a half-dozen to change the settings of several electronic systems simultaneously. Unfortunately, this level of control has traditionally come at a very high price, making sophisticated systems a luxury afforded only by the wealthy. However, that's changing. The home control powerhouses are reaching out to the average consumer by scaling down their systems, using the Internet as a communications platform, Ethernet cabling to transmit information and developing smaller, less expensive touch-screens.

More affordable
Home control systems are no longer a pie-in-the-sky dream afforded by only the rich and famous. New system designs and Ethernet compatibility have made them a possibility for nearly anyone. For as little as $1000, you can prep your house for a system, then add features and functions as your budget allows. Even if you're ready to invest in a complete home control system up front, there are plenty of affordable options that have many of the same bells and whistles that you'd expect from a higher-end system. Just like those who live the high life, you can use a slick touchscreen to operate your home's lights, thermostats, audiovisual equipment and more - all without going broke. The touch-screen might be smaller and the system might control fewer products, but for a modest-sized home, they can be a perfect fit.


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