A DIY Green Machine of a Home
A smart sensor network drives lights, thermostats and motorized shades in this San Francisco do-it-yourself treat.
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November 02, 2009 by Julie Jacobson

Tahl Milburn has no problem admitting to his geek-hood. By day he manages a strategic IT consulting practice in San Francisco, “but my top hobby has been home automation since I was 12 years old,” he says.

A couple of years ago when he moved into a new 2,600-square-foot home with panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, Milburn repeated the same DIY performance that put him on the cover of the March 2003 issue of Home Automation magazine, formerly an EH sister publication.

This time, though, he decked the pad with all manner of energy-saving mechanisms, including photovoltaic (solar) panels. He wasn’t convinced that solar energy would ever pay for itself, but when San Francisco added a city rebate to the California and federal rebates, he took the plunge. Also influencing him was the fact that his energy use was 300 percent above the baseline for the area. Ah, the price of geekiness.

The photovoltaics, however, are just one element of Milburn’s energy-saving home technology.

Zoning Out
Solar energy is nice, but it isn’t terribly fun. On the other hand, Milburn takes great pride in the 50,000 lines of code he’s written for his home automation system. That system starts with a pair of highly capable Stargate systems from JDS Technologies, one of the original purveyors of home control systems. On top of that, Milburn uses StarCOM software from Pine Tree Systems, which makes software servers specifically for JDS products.

His own implementation of home automation adds a software layer on top of StarCOM, and Milburn calls the resulting solution Liam, short for Lifestyle-Integrated Automation Machine.

Milburn has partitioned his home into zones—office, exercise room, bedrooms, kitchen and so on—and Liam uses occupancy sensing and “neural network algorithms” to determine which zones of the house to set back at any given time.

Devices like thermostats and lights adjust to each zone’s occupancy, but so do electronics like printers, monitors and A/V gear.

Sounds risky? Not for Milburn, who says his algorithms are advanced: “It will go from knowing for sure that a zone is occupied to probably occupied to certainly unoccupied.” The system errs on the side of occupancy, and “I get a page on the ‘probablies,’” he adds.

The do-it-yourselfer uses a variety of standard security sensors (motion, door/window, etc.) to gauge activity in a zone, but he supplements those with some nontraditional triggers. For example, the JDS Stargate system can sense when a phone is off the hook—a sign that a certain area is occupied. In the exercise room, a power sensor connected to Milburn’s massage chair lets Stargate know to keep the room revved.

The Perfect Temperature
A guy like Milburn would never settle for your basic setback thermostats. He even scoffs at some of the better communicating thermostats that integrate with automation systems.

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Julie Jacobson - Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.

At a Glance/Equipment

Solar panels with installation: $45,000
City rebate: $6,000
Federal, California rebates: $8,000
System cost after rebates: $31,000

HOME SIZE: 2,600 sq. feet

Monthly electric bills: $12 (In 2010 the utility will owe the owner money)
Panel life: 25 years+
Inverter life: 15 years
ROI: About 10 years

4.7-kilowatt photovoltaic system
RCS Thermostats
JDS hardware, software
and always-on PC server/media server
Hunter Douglas motorized shades
Powerline Control Systems X10 devices
Davis Weather Station
RCS keypads

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