If you ever saw a “Home of the Future” exhibit and thought you’d never be able to enjoy such awesome levels of home automation, well, your wait is over. With equipment available right now, you can assemble a do-it-yourself home-control system capable of managing everything from your lighting and ceiling fans to your heating, air conditioning, door locks, security cameras, and even your garage-door opener.
These systems can automate not only the bothersome tasks of turning on security lights or turning off heating, but also give you remote access to your domestic infrastructure via the web or even from your smartphone. Want a security camera to check if you closed your garage door? A modern home control system can do that – and allow you to close the door from afar.
The first step is deciding on which of the three most common command-and-control protocols you want to use: Insteon, Zigbee, or Z-Wave. Insteon and Z-Wave are proprietary technologies developed by SmartLabs and Zensys, respectively (Zensys was later acquired by Sigma Designs). Zigbee is an international standard managed by the IEEE (the same body that controls the 802.11 wireless networking standard). While we generally prefer open standards like Zigbee, Z-Wave is the clear market leader when it comes to do-it-yourself residential home control, so we’ll focus on that ecosystem here. It’s what we editors use ourselves.
Z-Wave technology consists of low-power radios (they operate on the 900MHz frequency band) embedded in devices such as light switches, thermostats, garage-door openers, door locks, motion detectors, and a host of other devices inside your home. Low-power radios are used to ensure that network commands remain isolated to the home they’re intended to control and don’t leak to neighbouring homes. A mesh network topology is used to ensure that the network has sufficient range to control every Z-Wave device in the house.
Once you’ve deployed your Z-Wave devices, the next step is to enroll those devices into a controller. When the controller issues a command addressed to a particular device, that command is broadcast to every device within the controller’s range. If the devices receiving the command aren’t the intended target, they’ll rebroadcast the message to all the devices in range-acting like a digital bucket brigade.
The command will cascade throughout the network until it reaches its target, and then the target device will send a message back over the network to inform the controller that it executed the command. Devices can also send commands to each other. A motion-sensor in your stairwell, for instance, can send a command to a nearby switch to turn on a light to illuminate the stairs whenever your approach.
The best way to get your feet wet is to buy a Z-Wave starter kit that includes a Z-Wave gateway/Ethernet bridge that can tie your Z-Wave network into your Ethernet network. Avoid starter kits that include only a handheld controller, because they don’t provide any means to control your Z-Wave system from your PC or smartphone or via the Internet.
The Schlage LiNK system ($250) is a good choice. It includes the Z-Wave gateway/Ethernet bridge, a keypad-controlled deadbolt for your entry door and a plug-in lamp module. The LiNK system can be expanded with a Z-Wave thermostat, a wireless security camera, and as many other Z-Wave lighting controls as you care to install. You can control your Z-Wave devices using Schlage’s web client on a PC, or with a Blackberry, iPhone, or Android smartphone. You can read our hands-on review of the Schlage LiNK system here.
Schlage’s system is easy to use, but it also limits your options. You can connect only Schlage security cameras, for instance, and Schlage charges $US9 monthly service fee to access the system over the Internet (which is the only way you can control it). For those reasons, you might consider eventually upgrading from Schlage’s controller to the Mi Casa Verde Vera 2. The Vera 2 ($US250) is considerably more powerful and is capable of controlling any Z-Wave device-including Schlage’s keypad deadbolt and thermostat, and most any manufacturer’s IP security camera. Mi Casa Verde doesn’t charge any subscription fees, either. On the down side, the Vera 2 has a much less user-friendly interface, and it takes some time to master. You’ll find our in-depth review of the Vera 2 here.
Once you’ve set up your Z-Wave controller, you can use your PC to set up triggered events (e.g., turn on garage lights and selected house lights whenever the garage door opens). You can also schedule recurring events (e.g. turn off the HVAC system when you leave for work, and back on again before your regular return time), and create “scenes” (e.g., whenever the TV is turned on, dim the lights in the media room to 30 per cent).
We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with today’s home-control systems. Once you’ve whet your appetite, you’ll want to expand the system to control more and more devices inside your home-everything from your window shades to small appliances. We say, go crazy! Just stop short of trying to flip your pancakes from a remote interface. That technology remains untested.