IR and RF: Control Hidden Equipment

Learn how infrared and radio frequency offer full control of tucked-away devices.

Niles RCA2 Remote Control Anywhere kit

DIY folks can use IR kits, such as the Niles RCA2 Remote Control Anywhere system, to create their own infrared set-ups.

Hidden home theater components might be just what your decorating scheme needs. With the help of infrared (IR) devices that let you re-route remote control signals to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible, such a decorating scheme is a distinct possibility.

The tech speak used to explain IR devices — infrared sensors, repeaters, and blasters — can be fairly esoteric, but never fear; we’ve broken it down into manageable steps.

Once the fundamentals of IR are established, even the average home electronics hobbyist can install a comprehensive setup, says Dallas Simon, sales adviser for Crutchfield, a home electronics retailer. “The majority of our customers are do-it-yourselfers,” says Simon. “We can usually teach them how to use it themselves right on the phone.”

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First, a quick recap of basic IR technology. When you punch a button on a remote control, the command — channel up, channel down, volume mute, etc. — is encoded in the infrared light, and the receiving home theater device then reads the command piggybacking on the back of the light signal. If all goes well, the device follows through on the command.

Infrared light is just a small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, and it’s very effective for remotely controlling home electronics due to its low energy requirements and absence of harmful radiation. But there’s one drawback: Infrared can’t penetrate opaque or solid obstacles.

So then, how do you get that light signal around a solid piece of wood cabinetry or through home walls? Actually, it’s pretty easy.

Picture a stream flowing down a hill. You can dip your bucket in the water, drink, and dip again when you’re thirsty. The major drawback here is that as long as you want to drink, you have to sit next to the stream.

This is similar to a normal remote-to-television setup. The IR signal from the remote hits the TV, changes the channel, and as long as your remote is within range and pointed in the right direction, you can control the TV as much as you want. You can do this indefinitely, but you’re “chained’ to one spot — i.e. your bucket has to hit the stream.

Now, picture the same stream with an efficient, concrete irrigation system that siphons the water to any location in the house. Your bucket is hitting the stream no matter where you go, because you’ve set up a system to channel the water.

This is the fundamental principle behind IR sensors, repeaters and blasters. “Many people don’t realize that they can do this,” says AJ Carr, president of Simplicity Sells, a home electronics boutique. “They think components have to go on an open shelf. But with IR repeaters and blasters, now if all you want to see is the TV mounted on wall, the components are somewhere else and you still have control.”

The different components that act as channeling systems for infrared light — IR sensors, repeaters, and blasters — are significant, but not complicated. They’re all part of the same mechanism, and they all work together to get your signal to the component.

Let’s take a look at the Niles RCA2 Remote Control Anywhere kit while discussing how a remote-control signal is sent to a hidden central setup.

IR sensorFirst, look at the smooth black piece of plastic (left). It looks like half of a very small hockey puck. This is the IR sensor. It mounts next to your television, or, if you’re going for a whole-house setup, sensors can be placed in all your main rooms. When you point the remote control at the sensor, it picks up the remote signal and shoots it along to where the hub is hidden.

IR repeaterThe “hub” is the IR repeater (left), and the repeater is tucked away in an unobtrusive location. Its job is to grab the initial remote-control signal from the sensor and repeat it along. Picture the IR repeater as a streetlight handling traffic — it manages the incoming signals and then sends them on to the components.

IR blasterThe remote-control signal goes from the repeater out to the “blasters.” These are the three small jewels that look like tiny mice (left). The blasters are mounted inside the cabinetry holding the actual components. The tip of the each blaster’s nose mounts directly in front of your hardware and “blasts” the signal into the device.

Throughout the sensor-repeater-blaster process, the original remote-control signal has stayed the same — it’s just gone on a detour. Your stereo, DVD player, CD changer, and other components handle the incoming blaster signals as though they came straight from the remote.

Presto. Just like that, your components can be tucked into a rack or closet.

Another Option: Radio Frequency
A less labor intensive method for controlling a central component rack comes via radio frequency (RF). Instead of installing IR hockey puck sensors all over the house, an RF device lets you control all of your devices with one remote.

Now, your individual theater components don’t operate on RF. They still operate on IR. But here’s where it gets cool.

With an RF setup, the controller works from any room in, or outside of, the house. It beams a signal — picture your controller as a cellphone — to an RF hub — the cellphone tower — which then takes the signal and translates it into IR.

From the RF hub, the remote-control signal is translated to your IR repeater — the device that acts as a traffic light– which then sends the signal on down the IR blasters mounted in front of your electronic devices. The components receive the signals and act accordingly.

RF is beneficial because it gets rid of the hassle of hardwiring individual sensors in each room on the house. The RF signal streams wirelessly straight to the RF hub, which means the setup is easier. It also streamlines your controllers into one package, letting you snap up just one remote when you head out to the pool.

The RF setup works best for houses that have a variety of receiving devices (speakers, TVs) in multiple rooms. For homeowners who have a simple central setup in their main living room or media room, the IR sensor-repeater-blaster system is the most economical and efficient way to go.

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