July 08, 2011
by Steven Castle
Tom Callahan of Sawyers Control Systems in Frenchtown, N.J. has seen it all in home automation—from some of the earliest push-button systems that would seem primitive today to the sexy sophistication of today’s bells-and-whistles touchscreen controllers.
One of the very first systems his company installed, in the home of Arthur Kurz in 1987, is still in use today. The Kurzes’ HyperTek HomeBrain system controls security, fire detection, thermostats in five zones and some lighting. “The hot technology was having your home display on the computer (via a graphical display showing all aspects of the house), and X10 [lighting control over the home’s powerline] was very new and exciting,” Callahan said.
Callahan started the job while still working for HyperTek—Kurz did much of the installation himself—and Callahan programmed the system through a PC that connected to the HomeBrain’s microprocessor. HomeBrain is controlled via two in-wall touchpads and X10 light switches, and connects to other systems and sensors via relays or hardwiring. It could also be controlled by a touchpanel, but Callahan says Sawyers only used that in some commercial installations.
State-of-the-art at the time, the system suited the Kurz family just fine. So much so, Sawyers installed HomeBrain systems in Kurz’ company, AKStamping, as well as relatives’ homes. The system in Kurz’s business is still in use as well.
“It works,” says Kurz, who has not thought about upgrading to another system in his house. It does all the things I’m looking to do. I know the future is Wi-Fi, and I know phones can control home systems now. But at a certain stage we’re looking to move out, as the kids are grown up and out of the house.” Then, he says, he’ll upgrade to a newer system.
One thing his kids didn’t like about the HomeBrain system, Kurz adds, is that after he armed the security at night, it recorded the times when his kids got home and entered their security codes.
Maintaining Older Systems
So how can that nearly 25-year-old home control system still be working today?
“The core components of an automation system really do not change drastically,” Callahan explains. “Yes, iPhones and Internet access are convenient, but the day-to-day running of the house needs to be robust, simple and effective. This system has those elements that make it still relevant today.”
However, as Kurz and Callahan explain, the DOS-based HomeBrain programming software has not kept pace. Kurz must maintain a PC running an older Windows operating system to program the set points of the thermostats, for example. The software cannot be used with newer operating systems.
Sawyers still has several HomeBrain systems working, and when clients finally do upgrade to new home automation systems, the company removes the systems to use for spare parts. But eventually, Callahan says, Sawyers won’t be able to service the older systems any longer.
The cost for a typical HomeBrain system in the late 1980s, says Callahan, was about $7,500 to $10,000 for security, fire, HVAC control in three to four zones and about a half-dozen to a dozen X10 lights.
A comparable home control system today, he says, would probably be in similar price range, though the cost of living has gone up and cost of technology has gone down.”
And although those older systems can keep working for 25 years or so, today’s systems offer much sleeker control with LCD touchpanels and iPad control, as well as Category 5 Ethernet cable connectivity to thermostats and the like. The systems today also have to be much more sophisticated. “People pull music off computers, Pandora, Internet radio, Netflix on demand … that’s really where it’s becoming more complicated.”
On the exterior of the HomeBrain wiring panel are switches to override automated thermostat settings. If the homeowners had guests, for example, they could switch off the HomeBrain system for that zone here and allow local control. The HomeBrain processor is below.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates