Remote Control for the Home

It’s the next best thing to being there—monitor and control your home from anywhere in the world.

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Imagine adjusting your home's security system, thermostats and lights while you're lounging by the pool at your favorite resort. It's possible with an Internet-enabled home control system.

There’s something about control that is irresistible. Once we achieve one level of it, we yearn for more. n And so it is with home control. It’s easy to become accustomed to controlling everything from lighting to whole-house audio to the security systems and more, from a few touchpads or touchscreens conveniently located around the house. Once you can do that, why not be able to control everything remotely? n These days, you may be hearing more about remote home access. Not only can you control your electronic systems from inside your home or even out on the patio, you can also control them via a web browser at the office. Turn lights on and off in your Connecticut kitchen from Hawaii or Taiwan or Timbuktu—as long as there’s a decent Internet connection. Have the driveway lit and music playing to welcome you home after a hard day. Fire up the spa on your way home at night, or check in and see how the kids are playing in their rooms, all from your office or a hotel room a continent away.

Say you have a second home that’s far away and you want to know if there are break-ins or if a pipe has burst. Or maybe you need to prepare your vacation home by firing up the heat or air conditioning before arriving. It’s convenient, but many are opting for remote home control not just because it’s the next cool layer of control. After all, there’s nothing like having peace of mind.
Let’s look at two control systems: one in the altitudinous high end and another that’s functional and a bit more affordable.

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Mountainous Control
Anson Fogel of Electronic Systems Consultants (ESC) has provided several high-end homeowners in the Aspen, CO, area with remote home control. Although the technology appears to be ideally suited for those with expensive second homes, Fogel says most of his clients use the systems for their primary homes in the beautiful mountain area.

Several of ESC’s clients have the ability to control and monitor all the electronic systems in their homes from remote locations, whether from across the world or from down the street. All they have to do is get on the web, access a secure web page via a login name and password, and they can control almost anything in their homes. “They can monitor every last thing in the house,” Fogel says. “They can see what lights are on and off, the current temperature in each room, see and control what TVs are on and off, the current temperatures of the pool and spas and look at the security systems on a granular level.”

By that, Fogel means the homeowners have feedback to whether doors and windows are open or closed, armed or disarmed. They can look at images provided by cameras throughout the property. One particularly security-conscious client has 37 different cameras, inside and out, providing constant monitoring of the entire property. Video from any of these cameras is available via the remote web page. All the homeowner has to do to see what’s going on in any room is take his pick of cameras. With cameras, ESC’s clients also have the ability to look at the environment remotely and see if it’s snowing or whether the contractor plowed the driveway, for example.

In all, the systems in these Aspen homes and the amount of control the homeowners have over them remotely are very involved. Because of that, Fogel uses AMX’s powerful NetLinx home control system to coordinate the control inside and outside the houses. The NetLinx system can control lighting, security, audio and video, heating and ventilation—you name it.

Although AMX’s high-end NetLinx system uses its own proprietary computer language, it can easily be controlled from a web page. In fact, Fogel says the robust and flexible architecture of NetLinx is ideally suited for this. It’s not all NetLinx doing the job here though; ESC’s software runs on AMX’s hardware. Through this, homeowners can also get weather alerts and stock information sent to them at their homes or via the remote control page.

There’s more to remote home control of security systems, for example, than merely setting up a home control system and linking it to a secure web page. One must remember that an array of motion sensors and contacts must be installed and integrated into the control system to show that certain windows or doors may be open. These sensors must work properly, especially when the home is being monitored from afar. “Some clients also want to be alerted by email when security is triggered,” Fogel adds. Say you want to know when a child is home safely from school while you’re at the office, or you want to know if there’s a breach at night while you’re away. The connection ESC establishes to each of its homeowners helps in even more ways, allowing Fogel and his staff to monitor the electronics systems in the homes and help catch and prevent problems. “If any network device drops off the network, an email gets sent to us,” Fogel says. “We know it before the client knows it.” ESC can also use its remote connection to update the programming in the home control system and make any changes, say, in the lighting scenes or security per the request of the homeowner.

New Jersey Light
Mike Granoff might think he’s in his northern New Jersey house each time he sees his home’s private control web site. He can virtually tour his home remotely via controls for the family room, kitchen, library, master bedroom, second bedroom and exercise room. He can turn lights on and off and access music and play it in any zone in the house at any time.

The colorful and intuitive web site contains separate pages for lighting control, music control and media access. He uses the remote access capabilities of his home’s control system to program the lights on Fridays and Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. “We don’t engage in electronic activity from sundown Friday to after sundown on Saturday, so after dinner at a certain hour, for example, the lights dim automatically,” he says.

Now, you may be wondering why Mike has remote control of the audio system as well. He can sit outside on the patio with a tablet PC, for example, and select music for that zone or switch it to the library or control the lights as needed. The Granoffs also use this for playing music for their infant daughter while she is sleeping. Mike has 8,000 to 10,000 digital music files he has downloaded from Apple’s iTunes Music Store, but before he had this system, he could only listen to them on his Apple computer or portable iPod music player. “The week we were contemplating this control system was the week iTunes was made available to Windows users, so now I can enjoy them on the system throughout the house. Mike explains”. He has four audio sources for the home-wide system, including a Sony CD player and a cd3o network MP3 player.

Controlling all this is Lantronix Premise Systems software residing on a PC-based web server. This sort of IP (Internet Protocol) control is becoming a more affordable home control option. Because all the electronics are already on a home-wide web, it’s easy to connect via a real web page for remote access. The server connects to the Leviton lighting system, and the Premise software contains the necessary drivers to communicate with the system, either inside the house or outside via the web server.

The kind of control offered by Lantronix Premise Systems can be very affordable, says installer Jay Ram of LifeStyle Networks and Param Technologies. He estimates that this system runs less than $3,000 without the hardware. It may not be as powerful as a high-end AMX NetLinx system, but it can do some basic things well enough for many people like Mike Granoff.

Next up for the Granoffs and their home control: a web-based camera so proud grandparents in Toronto can watch their baby granddaughter.

Feeling More Secure
One of the chief criticisms of lower-cost IP-based control systems, as opposed to more costly systems such as those from AMX, is that they place much of your home control on a computer hard drive, which is a moving, spinning part and prone to eventual failure. Ram counters this by saying that any critical system, such as lighting, is redundant with wall switches. In addition, operating systems such as Windows XP have become much more reliable, making them better suited for home control than previous versions. However, whenever computer hard drives are being used in home control, redundancy should definitely be considered.

One suggestion Fogel and Ram have for anyone seeking remote access to a home control system is to make sure the electronics professional has experience with these types of systems and that at least a couple of people on the staff have expertise in computer networking. Also keep in mind that there should be a lot more going on behind the scenes whenever you are accessing home control through a “secure” web page via a login name and password. The electronics professional should be using encryption, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), firewalls and other means to keep computer hackers out of your home control system. Having an experienced and knowledgeable professional here isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity.

If you’re considering a wireless network, Fogel generally likes using higher-end Cisco routers instead of the less expensive ones available in retail outlets. He also sets up the network so it is not accessible from outside the home.

Both Fogel and Ram also use Java, a programming language for web use, so the control system interface can be used across various platforms.

It seems that there is a lot more to consider when accessing your home control remotely—and that’s actually a very good thing.

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