Home Control on a Budget

Unhappy about the high price of home control, a determined couple searches for an affordable option—and finds it.

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A portable Control4 10-inch touchscreen presents a menu of control options for the lights, audio/video equipment and security system. Photo by Steve Bering Wegener.

Justin and Aimee Higgins did their homework before outfitting their new 5,000-square-foot home with electronic systems. They spent countless hours scouring the Internet and interviewing numerous home systems installers in search of a system that would be simple to operate, automate important functions of their home, require a minimal amount of cabling and, most important of all, would cost no more than $35,000.

Despite months of digging for a promising solution, the recently married couple had come up empty-handed. “Most people told us we’d need to spend at least $50,000 to get everything we wanted.” Justin recalls. “Still, we knew there had to be something out there for us.” So he and Aimee pulled up their bootstraps and dug in one last time.

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Poking and Prodding
A chance discovery on the Internet led Justin and Aimee to a relatively new home automation company called Control4, a Utah-based outfit that claimed to offer affordable control solutions. What also intrigued Justin about Control4’s line of products was its ability to operate on a wireless mesh network. As the owner of a computer consulting and networking firm that designs and installs wired and wireless computer networks for businesses, Justin instantly understood and appreciated Control4’s approach to home control. So he and a colleague headed off to a Control4 road show, where they met with chief technology officer Eric Smith. “We asked him some very pointed questions about the underlying technology inside Control4 systems. The answers we received convinced us that not only did Control4 know its stuff, but the company was just like us—network engineers and software programmers. Plus, we could relate to the company’s business strategy because it was similar to our own.” Justin also confirmed that Control4’s pricing was significantly less than that of any other control company at that time.

All the poking and prodding paid off in more ways than one. At the end of the meeting, Justin had not only found the perfect system for him and his wife, but he had also discovered a new business opportunity. “My partners and I decided to launch a spin-off company and become Control4 dealers.” When he was ready to install Control4’s complete line of products, the timing couldn’t have been better: Justin would install his first Control4 system into his own home.

A Plan with Purpose
With the $35,000, Justin and Aimee would be able to afford not only a home theater but also a security system, a lighting system, a whole-house music system, and a combination of remotes, keypads and touchscreens to control them. As a Control4 dealer, Justin got a discount on the products, and his new company did all the labor for cost. But he and Aimee still watched their pennies closely. “We planned our electronics design around our budget instead of the other way around,” Justin explains. “When you do it the other way, where design dictates the budget, you can end up wasting your money on unnecessary items.”

Determined to stay on track, Justin and Aimee focused on features they could envision using every day. “We have a large music collection of more than 15,000 songs, both on CDs and downloaded music, so being able to enjoy our tunes everywhere in the house made sense,” Justin says. So did being able to have the lights turn on and off at certain times of the day. Another necessity for the energy-conscious couple was having their home’s four thermostats self-adjust according to the household schedule. As for security, they wanted events like an alarm going off or the opening of a door or window to trip the lights or transmit an email message to them remotely.

In a Routine
Justin and Aimee expected that like most homeowners, their household routines would revolve largely around their comings and goings. Using software provided by Control4, Justin programmed his home’s Control4 light dimmers, security sensors, thermostats, music system and TVs to react a certain way based on the time of day and the position of the door. Now when the door opens in the evening, a wireless sensor from CardAccess signals the lights in the foyer, great room and kitchen to activate. After two minutes, the foyer lights turn off and the other lights dim or turn off.

At sunrise, the Control4 system pipes music from a preselected album on the Control4 Media Controller to in-wall speakers in the master bedroom. The bedroom lights gradually brighten as the songs play. “It’s such a great way to wake up that we don’t even use our alarm clock anymore,” Justin enthuses.

Of course, some spontaneity had to be worked into the system. “We’re not the kind of people who exercise at the same time every day,” Justin admits. For impromptu activities Aimee and Justin can set the lights, thermostats and music from Control4 keypads and touchscreens. When Justin presses a button on the keypad in his office, for example, the temperature in the room adjusts to 67 degrees, the lights brighten all the way, and the 42-inch Samsung LCD TV tunes to CNBC at a low volume. When he’s ready to work out, he can touch a button on the kitchen touchscreen to set the lights, music and temperature in the downstairs exercise room.

Justin installed only a few keypads and touchscreens in the house to help cut costs. “The Control4 handheld remotes are a lot less expensive than the built-in controllers and are actually more convenient to use,” he explains. The remotes feature built-in screens to display information about the home’s electronic systems, but for a bigger view, Justin and Aimee can bring up and navigate through the information on any of the home’s five TVs.

Even after outfitting their house with all the comforts and conveniences of a unified home control system, Justin and Aimee still had enough money left for a dedicated home theater. The modest setup, which includes a 100-inch Da-Lite video screen, Mitsubishi projector, 7.1 Onkyo amplifier, Sony 400-disc DVD changer, built-in JBL speakers and Control4 dimmers and controllers, occupies the bonus room over the garage.

A Trio of Networks
By using Control4 products, Justin was able to create a wireless network on which commands from sensors, remotes, touchscreens and keypads could travel to lights, thermostats and A/V equipment wirelessly. The same network could stream music from the hard drive of a Control4 Media Controller to speakers throughout the house. The computers, meanwhile, communicate over a separate WiFi network. A third network, which runs on Ethernet, resides in Justin’s home office. “Having three separate networks ensures that audio and video signals traveling throughout the house won’t interfere with the Control4 home control commands,” Justin explains.

With three networks available, there’s plenty of room to add fun new equipment. Already, Justin and Aimee have put an Apple TV box on the WiFi network and a Slingbox tuner on the office’s local area network. The Apple TV links the home’s computers to the 60-inch Sony SXRD TV in the family room so Justin and Aimee can show digital photos on the big screen. The Slingbox feeds TV from the cable box and analog security cameras to the screen of any computer in the house.

By refusing to take no for an answer, the Higginses found exactly what they wanted for their new home: convenience, comfort, energy savings and fun—at a cost they could afford. Justin’s spin-off business has started offering Control4 products to residents in his area, giving the tech-savvy couple another reason to feel great about home automation.

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