Whether you’re looking for a handheld remote that operates your home entertainment system or a whole-house lighting or control system, the two most important things are that it’s simple to use and that it works.
Simplicity can be the hardest part. With the myriad features and functions of today’s electronics, a control system can have hundreds of buttons to confuse you and make something that is intended to make your life easier a royal pain in the sofa cushions—which happens to be where many controllers end up.
Wireless is the big thing among all control and lighting systems today, meaning no more additional wiring is required between a lighting switch and a lamp or system controller. Instead, radio frequency signals are sent to the switches or other devices. Beyond that, wireless “mesh” networks, which can use multiple pathways to send signals to other devices, are finding their way into home control and lighting systems, even handheld universal remote controls. These technologies, among them low-power ZigBee and Z-Wave, are capable of two-way communication, so the controller receives a signal about whether its command was received.
Universal Remote Controls
If you want to remove living room clutter, replace those five or more remote controls with one universal remote. Many come with thousands of control codes for virtually every piece of electronics, and some can receive control codes from the Internet by connecting to a computer. Universal remote controls range from under $100 to over $1,000, so know what you’re looking for.
Remote controls come in two basic flavors: IR (for infrared) and RF (for radio frequency). IR remotes are cheaper, but they require you to point the remote directly at whatever you are controlling. RF remotes don’t require line of sight, so you can store your equipment in a nearby closet or cabinet and control your components without pointing the remote at them. Two-way RF sends a confirmation signal back to the remote. Some of these remotes use ZigBee or Z-Wave technology and may require a base station to relay the signal back to the remote.
See what and how many components the remote can operate. Also see how you can switch from controlling a DVD player to the TV or cable tuner, for example. Memory is important for holding all those control codes but also for enacting macros, in which more than one thing happens when you press a button. For example, you might program a macro button to turn on the TV, the audio/video receiver and the DVD player at once. Some remotes can also control electronic lighting and motorized drapery systems. Check and see how many macros you can program.
Many higher-end remotes feature small LCD screens, even touchscreens. See if your fingers are small enough to press the right buttons, and keep in mind that LCD screens use more power. You may want one with a recharging dock. “Hard” buttons on the sides of LCD screens for controlling basic functions like volume and source control are good to have.
One of the most important factors in selecting a remote is ergonomics. Be sure the layout of buttons is organized and intuitive. Hold the remote in your hand, and see if it feels comfortable. See where your thumbs rest and where the most important buttons are placed. Are they easy to reach without contorting your hand? Back-lighting of buttons is also helpful if you watch TV or listen to music in the dark.
A lighting control system offers tremendous convenience. You can turn on or off a group of lights at one time—even lights throughout your home. You can set “scenes” that bring one or more lights up to certain levels for entertaining, romance or cleaning. You can control outdoor lights, garage lights, and any other lights from a number of lighting control stations in your home. Even better, a lighting control system can save you energy costs—both by dimming lights to use less electricity and by enacting preset scenes that use the lights in selected areas more wisely.
Lighting control systems are operated one of three ways. Less expensive systems can work over the home’s existing electrical wires, or “powerline.” Advances such as Universal Power Bus (UPB) have made these systems more reliable in the past few years, though they tend to be for smaller and do-it-yourself applications. Wireless lighting systems use RF signals between a wall switch (or keypad) and a central controller, or a controller and a lamp module, for example. These are great for retrofits where you don’t want to make holes in the wall to add the control wiring. The most reliable—and expensive—systems are hardwired, meaning they operate over special “bus” wiring, usually installed in new homes before the walls are closed. These are used mainly in whole-house systems in homes of more than 3,000 square feet.
You’ll need to control a system like this, and many different styles of in-wall dimmers and keypads are available. These can replace a wall switch with a keypad containing six or more buttons, each capable of enacting a preprogrammed lighting scene, including all off and all on. To control outdoor lighting, look for systems with astronomical clocks that can turn on lights at dusk, even though that time changes every day. Some lighting control systems can also operate motorized drapery and shading systems and whole-house audio systems and can work in sync with security systems. A vacation mode will enact lighting scenes while you’re away; to do this, the system stores your lighting habits in its memory.
Single-room and less expensive multiroom lighting control systems are also available. You might want to start with these, say in a home entertainment room, and add more lighting control in other areas over time.
Home Control Systems
Whole-house control systems, also called home automation systems, can operate everything: the audio/video system, the lighting and security system, even the heating and ventilation systems. They are typically expensive systems—well into the five figures and beyond—that are operated by wall-mounted touchpads and large LCD touchscreens. Some touchscreens can even be docked in wall mounts for charging, then taken out and used throughout the house.
These very cool, very slick systems used to be the sole province of the rich—and some still are. But the advent of less expensive systems that operate over IP (Internet Protocol) are changing that. An IP-based system puts the home’s electronics and subsystems on a network, much like a computer network in a corporate office. Every electronic device on the network has its own web address, though this web only exists inside the home. The beauty of these systems are their lower costs, ease of operation, and the ability to control electronics in your home remotely—either over a secure web site, by cell phone or via other device. IP-based systems had some early flaws, but the technology has matured rapidly and become much more reliable. Wireless IP systems often use mesh networking as previously described.
In very large custom homes, it is still probably best to go with a hardwired automation system that can control anything and everything. You will also be able to get much more customization—in everything from the programming of your touchscreens and what buttons appear to how the home electronics are controlled. Some smaller one-room solutions for home theaters are also available from these vendors. And some can provide you with everything, from lighting to whole-house audio, from one company.
But more mainstream home control is now available through several reliable IP system providers. These will still cost you in the thousands, but you can add onto them over time—and you don’t have to be dripping with money to afford it.
No matter what kind of control or lighting system you get, the most important thing is to make sure it’s is easy to operate and that it works.