June 20, 2008
| by Rachel Cericola
Pushing a button to turn on the lights, the air conditioning and your TV is very cool. That’s what home control systems do. But trying to decipher all types of home control systems out there—not so cool.
This is a good thing, because no matter how big your home or your budget, whether you are building or just want to add a little zip to your existing control setup, there’s something out there for you.
Home control combines lighting, audio, video, security, and a slew of other electronic devices under one easy-to-use system. With such convenience, it’s no wonder that many people want one device or system to control everything. Others are seeing the benefits of automating lights, heating and ventilation and motorized window treatments to save money on energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now you just have to figure out which system is right for your home. There are a few basic types.
Hardwired systems are typically the favorite in the home control industry—they are also the most expensive. Coincidence? Maybe. But there’s no denying that having signals travel over wiring leaves little room for dropouts, interference and other mishaps. The bottom line: You get what you pay for.
Many hardwired systems transmit over high-speed data cabling. Category 5 cabling includes four twisted pairs of copper wiring. Cat 5e is an enhanced version of Cat 5, adding in networking speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps. And Cat 6 amps up that performance. However, 5 and 5e still remain the most popular mediums for hardwired control systems. Some systems may use their own proprietary “bus” cabling to route their signals.
Hardwiring is a no-brainer for those building a new home. The walls are open and installing such a setup is cheaper and easier. Once the Sheetrock or other wall paneling is up, it becomes more difficult and expensive to add a hardwired control system.
Owners of existing homes aren’t left out when it comes to home control. Wireless systems are getting better and cheaper every day.
Most wireless systems use radio frequency signals to transmit control commands. Some send a signal to a central processor, while others allow users to point and shoot commands at close range. Newer control systems rely on “mesh network” technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave, which use several nodes to ensure the commands are delivered. Besides sparing homeowners the expense of opening walls, these systems usually cost less—and don’t require installation by a professional.
Everyone has power lines to provide electricity throughout their homes. So why not use them to power and deliver the signals of a control system?
Despite its critics, X10 is still a very popular form of powerline control. A perfect example of an X10 device is a lamp or appliance module. Just plug the device you want to control into the module, plug the module into an outlet, and you’ve got yourself the simplest and cheapest home control system available.
An advance in X10 technology is UPB, or universal powerline bus. Designed by Powerline Control Systems (see chart), this technology uses the same principles as X10, with promises of better reliability and increased distance.
IP control systems are becoming much more popular. Internet Protocol (IP) puts all of your home systems on a network, assigning each device its own IP address. Think of it as your private and secure Home Wide Web. Audio, video, climate and other systems can be either hardwired or wireless, making it easy to mix and match products. Once the network is set up, homeowners can control the systems through any web-enabled device, such as a cell phone, laptop, or web-enabled tablet. And because most people are comfortable with computers, using IP control makes total sense. We’re seeing more IP control in medium- to large-size homes and in some very expensive home theaters.
Those who own really big homes may opt for the stability of a hardwired system, but you can incorporate some type of control into just about any home. No matter what size your home or budget, home control offers some always-welcome conveniences.
Over the past 15 years, Rachel Cericola has covered entertainment, web and technology trends. Check her out at www.rachelcericola.com.