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Turn On the Lights and Start the Coffee Pot

May 05, 1986|Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid is chairman of Know How, a San Francisco-based microcomputer education company

About 10 years ago, I read an article about the coming home computer revolution. Personal computers, it was predicted, would someday be the command center for every home--controlling lights, appliances, utilities, alarm systems and financial transactions.

Those early pundits may have been a bit too bullish. With the exception of games, most home applications are mirror images of what people do with their office computers--word processing, spreadsheets, database management and data communications.

I've always wanted to use my computer to control appliances, but until now it's been impractical. The methods available have been expensive and required that the computer remain running 24 hours a day. Besides, the idea of having to load in special software just to turn on a lamp never really appealed to me.

X-10 (USA), a Northvale, N.J.-based company that specializes in electrical control devices, has developed a moderately priced unit that, with the help of a personal computer, controls lights, appliances, heaters and most other electrical devices. A computer is required to program the X-10 Powerhouse, but, once programmed, the 7-by-4 1/2-inch device can be disconnected from the computer and moved anywhere in the house.

Powerhouse systems are available for the IBM PC, Apple II, Apple Macintosh and Commodore 64 and 128. The device, including software and cable, has a suggested retail price of $69 for all machines except the $79 Macintosh version. The manufacturer, X-10 (USA), can be reached at (800) 526-0027.

The Powerhouse sends its signals to the lamps and appliances through normal household current. Each appliance must be plugged into a special remote module. Modules, sold separately, include a wall receptacle, a wall light switch, a plug-in appliance module (500 watts maximum), a heavy-duty appliance module and a plug-in lamp module.

Lights can be programmed to come on at full intensity or dimmed. Dimming the lights, according to an X-10 spokesman, saves electricity. The PC and Macintosh versions control up to 256 modules. The software for Apple II and Commodore versions control 72 and 95 modules, respectively.

The individual modules, whose prices range from $15 to $20, can be purchased from Radio Shack, Sears and other stores.

The company also makes a compatible thermostat controller for heating and air-conditioning systems.

I tested the IBM PC and Macintosh versions and read the manual for the Apple II version. For each, you begin by installing a nine-volt battery and plugging the device into the computer's serial port via a cable that is supplied with the system. Using the supplied software, you use your computer to designate which appliances you wish to control and the times you want them turned on or off.

The Macintosh software takes advantage of that machine's graphics capability to allow you to draw a floor plan of your house and place graphic icons, representing each of your appliances, in the appropriate places. The IBM version, which is functionally equivalent, uses text rather than graphics to designate appliances and their locations.

Personally, I prefer the plain vanilla approach used on the IBM software to the Macintosh software. The graphics used on the Macintosh version are cute but actually make it more difficult to program. On the PC version, you simply type in the name of the appliance, its location and the "appliance code" assigned to each module.

The X-10 can be programmed to turn appliances on and off as many times as necessary throughout the day. You can specify a program for "today," every day or certain days of the week. Lamps can be programmed to come on at full intensity or can be dimmed.

Once the Powerhouse is programmed, it can be removed from the computer and plugged into any wall socket. The battery keeps the memory alive (up to 100 hours) while the unit is being moved or in case of a power failure.

The settings can be saved to a disk so that you can reset the Powerhouse at any time. You could, for example, create several programs for different times of the year. As the days grow longer, you can tell the system to turn lights on later.

If you leave the Powerhouse connected to the computer, you can use its "now" mode to control appliances from your keyboard. On all machines except the Mac, this requires running the X-10 software each time you want to control an appliance. The Mac version comes with a "desk accessory" program called Instant Powerhouse. This accessory, once installed on the Mac start-up disk, allows you to control appliances and dim lights without having to exit whatever application program you're running.

The Powerhouse itself has eight on/off switches that allow you to override the program. Individual appliances and lamps can also be controlled via their own switches.

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