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Opening Your Home to Automation

With very little hassle, you can install useful devices that will increase convenience or security or reduce your utility bills.

November 23, 1996|DAN LOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The industry keeps telling us that the fully automated home will be here any day now.

Our appliances will communicate over an in-home electronic network and take care of the mundane chores--keeping us safe, cozy, entertained and unconcerned. If we raise a finger, it will be to push a remote-control button. If we forget to turn off the lights, no problem. We'll turn them off with a phone call.

So far, the public hasn't been overly impressed by this vision of home automation.

Granted, it would be nice to have a top-of-the-line security system, a centrally controlled entertainment network and a computer that cuts down on wasted power, fuel and water.

But paying $6,000 or so to save a few steps hasn't attracted many customers. Electronic House magazine estimates only one-third of 1% of U.S. homes are automated.

Many people are intimidated by automation. But if you have experienced the pleasures of a VCR's recording programs while you were away or a motion detector's turning on the lights as you drive up, you may be ready for other devices now available.

With very little hassle, you can install useful automation devices that will increase convenience or security or reduce utility bills. These devices, which plug into existing wall receptacles, can be added one by one.

By far, the most popular plug-in automation devices come from X10 USA Inc., a New Jersey-based manufacturer that has sold an estimated 100 million devices since 1976. Other manufacturers make devices that conform to X10 specifications and, therefore, can work together.

Some distributors, such as Home Automation Systems in Costa Mesa, offer catalogs full of ideas for automating the home. Your home computer can operate all your stereo and video equipment, water the yards, program your air-conditioner and automate the watering and feeding of your pets. You can install smart thermostats, drapery controllers and disguised video cameras.

Starter kits give householders a taste of automation technology. Novices usually start with a couple of lamp modules and a mini-controller.

A module is a cube about half the size of a cigarette pack that costs $10 to $13. You plug the module into an electrical wall socket, then plug a lamp into the module. There are similar modules for appliances.

Now you can turn the light on and off with the mini-controller--a pocket-size, battery-operated radio transmitter like a garage door opener's. It can control modules from anywhere in the house and even from outside.

This is a boon for operating lamps and appliances whose power switches are difficult or inconvenient to operate. For example, you can turn on the air-conditioner in the living room without getting up from your desk in the den.

You can move up to mini-controllers with timers that will turn lamps and appliances on and off at whatever times you want. This can make your home conform to your routine. For example, you can have the interior and exterior lights already shining as you drive up on a winter evening. You can have the furnace and the coffee maker already going when you roll out of bed.

And if you're out of town, you still can run your home as if you were there, as long as you have a touch-tone phone.

The personal computer, now estimated to be in more than a third of U.S. homes, can be used to run the automated home. With software designed for the purpose, the householder creates a floor plan of the home, indicates where the remote-control devices are placed, then creates an operating schedule for each device. The computer translates and feeds the schedule into an X10 controller, which runs the household devices, even when the computer is turned off.

Home Automation Systems has developed software for computers using Windows.

IBM's Aptiva line of personal computers has X10 technology built into it. IBM's Home Director software can learn your habits and control lights and appliances accordingly.

If plug-in modules sprouting from your wall outlets seems unsightly, you can replace your wall switches and receptacles with X10 compatible units.

This sort of automation is handy, convenient and available, but the next generation of automation is more likely to capture the fancy of consumers, says Orrin Charm, a Woodland Hills consultant on home automation.

If automation is going to gain a foothold in the typical household, it will be for managing the impending explosion of video and motion picture entertainment over the Internet, Charm says. That demand will make virtually all of today's house wiring obsolete.

Though most homes have electrical outlets in every room, few have telephone and cable outlets spread throughout. Within 10 years, however, electronics connections in every room will be considered a necessity, says Coto de Caza's Barry Weidenhammer, owner of Lifestyle 2000 Home Automation. Sooner or later, fiber optic cable will become common too, he says.

The upshot is that within a few years, new homes will be wired to the hilt to make the most of what's going to be available in automation in the increasingly sophisticated electronics age.

More information on X10 technology is available on the World Wide Web at : http://www.smarthome.com/smarthome/x10faq.html

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