4 Home Auto­mation Systems­ for $200 or Less


Easily seize remote control of your lights and appliances with any of these four affordable starter kits.

Nov. 14, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Home automation is all about control, and who wouldn’t want to control household lights or appliances from their bedroom, or even their car? And don’t you want your home to look lived in, every day of the year? Still, most home automation is sold as individual components, so it can be difficult to know what you need to get started. We decided to see what a few hundred bucks would buy. We reasoned that a starter package would be the best value, as these are often discounted to increase market share. Each system is designed around one of the four most popular communications protocols, which use a combination of power-line (A/C) and wireless (RF) signal paths to provide whole-house control. Here’s what we found:

X-10 (Click here to view product)
X-10 is the granddaddy of home automation, having been developed in the 1970s. There are more types of X-10 devices for sale than for any other protocol, but X-10 is not without its flaws. It can be less reliable, is more sensitive to power-line noise, and is usually “one-way,” meaning that the sender can’t tell whether a command reached its destination. 

Major X-10 retailer X10.com sells an eight-piece starter kit (CM15A-SD-KMP-PS110) for $99. It starts with their ActiveHome Pro Software and USB Computer Interface. This allows your PC to act as the brain of your system, issuing timed commands and even conditional “if then” commands, like “if motion is detected, turn on this light, but only if it’s Thursday.” Their newest interface communicates with both powerline and RF X-10 devices.

However, a controller is useless without something to control, so they also provide a sampler of “responders.” The included Lamp Module plugs into an outlet.  The lamp you plug into the module is then under X-10 control. Their “Socket Rocket” does the same thing, but screws into an existing light socket. Their Appliance Module works like the Lamp Module, but has no dimming function and is meant for, well, appliances (like that coffee maker you want to turn on from your bedroom). 

On the wireless side, the package includes a small key-chain remote, so you can turn your lights on as you enter your driveway, a “PalmPad Remote,” giving you more complete control of your house from wherever you leave it, and an EagleEye Motion Sensor, which can tell the ActiveHome Pro software when there’s someone in front of your house (or when it’s dusk or dawn). 

However, a phase coupler is not included. In most homes, the electrical power is segmented into two subsystems or “phases.” Powerline automation signals can’t cross from one phase to the other without a phase coupler. Prices for active X-10 phase couplers vary, but a good choice is the Levitron HCA02-10E, $70 at Smarthome.com.

INSTEON (Click here to view product)
Several years ago, the folks at Smarthome, a major home automation dealer, decided to design the next generation of X-10. They kept the general paradigms (as well as X-10 compatibility), but greatly improved reliability, made everything two-way, and erased several of X-10’s other warts. For $99, they sell a five-piece basic starter kit (Item #2490), consisting of a control keypad (Controllinc), two “Access Points,” and two Lamplinc modules (similar to the X-10 Lamp Module). The Access Points solve the powerline phase coupling problem. You plug one into each an outlet on each phase and they connect by RF. Thus, you could put the Controllinc on one phase, and have your Lamplincs on the other phase, and all would work very well.

Missing from this package, though, is the computer-based control. The PC interface (#2414U) can be purchased for $70, and there are many software choices, including the free InHomFre, Powerhome ($69 at MyX10.com), and the recently released Houselinc-2 from Smarthome (#2412UH, $169 including interface). 

UPB (Click here to view product)
UPB is another two-way powerline technology designed to supplant X-10, invented by Powerline Control Systems in 1999. Focused more at the builder market, we were unable to find any kits for less than about $200. At that price point, the kit we found (SADKIT01, $225 at Homecontrols.com) consists of 3 smart light-switch replacements. Two dimmer switches work like regular light switches but can also be controlled remotely, and the Universal Dimmer-Controller Base is a smart controller capable of enabling and dimming the other switches in a variety of user-defined configurations. 

A wide assortment of UPB devices are available, but at higher prices than those for other protocols. A UPB computer-based controller (FS100011083) is available for $149 including software. A phase coupler (PCSPRx) costs $299. 

Z-wave (Click here to view product)
Z-wave avoids the various powerline issues by being an RF-only protocol. All devices communicate two-way and wirelessly. Their Green Zwave Starter Kit sells for $99 and consists of two Lamp Modules and a stand-alone controller. No phase-coupling devices are required. A starter kit with a PC Interface, software, lamp module, appliance module, and a remote control is $149 (HA102M). Find these kits at Zwaveproducts.com.   

If you’re looking to get started in Home Automation, you’ve run out of excuses. There are plenty of choices, and in most cases, the price point is within reach.

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