July 01, 2005
| by Rebecca Day
When Ed and Lena Fedishon want to watch a movie in their Newport Beach, CA, home theater, they turn on the lights to find their seats. They also lower the shades, release the lift holding the projector, drop the motorized screen, turn on all the audio/video equipment and finally dim the lights to darken the room. That’s a lot of preparation. But fortunately, they only have to raise a finger to do it.
“We put two buttons on a touchscreen at the entry to the theater,” says Derrick Thames, president of installation company Prime ECS of Tustin, CA, which designed the electronics in the Fedishons’ home. “One says on and the other says off.”
It couldn’t be simpler, and that’s exactly what Ed and Lena requested. Like a growing number of other not-so-tech-savvy homeowners, the Fedishons have discovered whole-house control. Their AMX control system handles the details of their daily routine, such as setting the temperature for various times of the day, turning all the house lights off and bringing a DVD movie up on the screen from any TV in the house—so the couple can reap the rewards.
Better Than the Old Days
Ed, a retired electrical contractor, did the homework to find a control system when he and Lena began planning for their 10,000-square-foot home on the water. “When you’re building a home like this,” he says, “you want to put in the best things that you can.” He settled on AMX and called the company to find dealers in his area, interviewing several local electronics installers before selecting Prime ECS and Thames for the task. “Derrick went over the whole system and told me about some better things that were coming out, including wireless touchpanels,” Ed explains.
Thames programmed the AMX system to do only what the Fedishons needed, such as set the lighting scenes, control the HVAC system, select music in every room from an AudioRequest music server and snatch a movie from the AMX multimedia server. Not a bad setup for a couple of folks from the analog age.
Lighting scenes have come in handy for the Fedishons, who love being able to press a single button to light a pathway through the house rather than flip switches as they move from room to room. At night, the lights shut off throughout the house with a tap of the off button from any keypad.
The system is so easy to use, even the couple’s friends and neighbors have gotten the hang of it—without tutorials in home control. “I’ll hand a controller to anyone who comes to the house, and I’ll have them try it themselves,” Ed says. “They all pick it up right away.”
The Fedishons’ full-blown AMX system sits at the high end of the home control price range, where systems typically start at around $10,000 and extend into the six figures. The type, size and number of touchpanels accounts for much of the cost in such a high-end control system. Another big variable is programming time—more customization means a higher price tag. However, having one overall control system can be a lifesaver, both for ease of use and aesthetics. Homeowners can select a subsystem from a single touchpanel rather than having to learn how to operate multiple controls. You won’t have banks of light dimmers next to an audio keypad followed by a security panel.
“It’s the unification theory,” says Rick Gratz, director of technical and customer service for Elan Home Systems. “We’re talking about one graphical user interface that allows you to control everything in your home from any room in your home.” Elan offers not only touchpanel or keypad control but also control from any telephone in the house.
The benefits can be appreciated on a daily basis even with the most mundane tasks, Gratz notes. “Without a control system, when the doorbell rings, you get up and walk across the house to answer it. With a control system, you hear the doorbell, view the visitor on any touchscreen or TV and then pick up any phone to speak to the guests and let them in.” Then there’s the garage door scenario: Just as your head touches the pillow at night, you wonder whether you remembered to shut the garage door. With a control system, you can close the door from the bedside phone.
As homes increase in size, and as technology expands, a control system is as much a necessity as it is a luxury. “People are spending more time at home, and they want to enjoy what technology affords them,” says Bill Schafer, national sales manager at Crestron Electronics. “Some of the technology available today is beyond their grasp. They can’t wrap their hands around it, so automation makes it all more enjoyable and easier to use.”
Home Control for All
Competition is making automation more widely available in more flexible configurations. Crestron, for example, which has a track record of being an expensive, high-end control system manufacturer, is now offering lower-priced systems as well. “We can do a very nice system with lighting, music and HVAC control for around $10,000 [not including installation],” says Shafer. Wireless technology, too, is opening opportunities for people looking to retrofit their homes with control systems.
Lighting control company Vantage Controls offers both wired and wireless setups for new and existing homes. The Vantage system uses a central processor that allows for the creation of a variety of macro operations. A good night sequence, for instance, shuts off specified lights, turns on night-lights or a path to the kitchen, arms the security system and sets the thermostats back while positioning motorized drapes to come down in one room and go up in another. The Vantage system also has an astronomical timer that can be used to set landscape lighting according to sunrise and sunset times, saving users from adjusting on/off times as the seasons change.
Many people can’t afford to spend five figures for control, nor do they have a need for whole-house control beyond a few lights and appliances. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a family that wouldn’t welcome simplified control of an audio/video stack. The pile of remotes on the coffee table alone is a cry for help, and so modest three-figure solutions from Philips, Universal Electronics and others that combine the functions of various remotes into one unit are an increasingly popular choice.
The Fedishons’ installation company, Prime ECS, suggests Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI) for homeowners who only want to automate electronics in a media room. RTI remotes start at $299 for a button-only controller and go up to $1,199 for the company’s new T3 model. “I think control is the most critical element you can invest in when it comes to home electronics,” says Pete Baker, vice president of sales for RTI. “Too often it’s just one person in the home who understands how to use the system, and that’s typically one of the kids. What really makes the difference in a truly enjoyable home theater is how easy it is to use for every member of the family.”