Home Automation the Wireless Way

By Gerry Blackwell

August 14, 2007

New technologies are hitting the market that let you remotely control things electrical. We check 'em out.

While wireless network equipment developers continue to push the range and bandwidth limits of Wi-Fi and WiMAX, another whole market is quietly emerging for short-range, narrow-band wireless networking to control lighting, HVAC (heating/cooling), security systems, and audio-video in homes and small businesses.


Quasi-standards such as Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Insteon are vying for the attention of both do-it-yourselfers and A/V and home automation installers. The pros have traditionally rejected wireless as too unreliable and insisted on installing Cat-5 cabling, but some are beginning to come around.


How difficult would it be to automate your home or office using these new technologies? Not very, as I discovered recently when I undertook a simple test project using Z-Wave and Insteon gear in an integrated network controlled by my home office PC.


The traditional appeal of home automation was convenience and the “cool” factor. But conservation, security, and safety are better reasons for doing it. At the simplest level, you could create a program to turn off all lights in the house with a single button push as you leave in the morning. Or install motion sensors to automatically turn lights off after you leave a room if you forget. Products are now coming to market that let you wirelessly control and regulate everything from thermostats to sprinkler systems to security surveillance cameras.


The coolest part: Some Z-Wave and Insteon products let you control your home or office, or view real-time video from surveillance cameras, remotely over the Internet, including on a smartphone.


But I started very small.


Z-Wave was developed by Zensys Inc., a Danish company now headquartered in the U.S. It uses the 900 MHz ISM radio frequency band and employs mesh networking techniques to extend range throughout a building. The Z-Wave Alliance now includes more than 25 manufacturers making certified Z-Wave products.


Insteon was developed by SmartLabs Inc. which still makes most Insteon products. It uses a combination of powerline and 900 MHz wireless mesh networking. Like Zensys, SmartLabs has licensed its technology, but the Insteon Alliance so far only includes a handful of manufacturers making compatible products.


I tested a Z-Wave-compliant HomeSettings in-wall dimmer switch ($40) and plug-in units ($40 each) from Intermatic Inc., a home lighting manufacturer. The products are available at select Home Depot stores and from online retailers and professional installers. The plug-in units allow you to control standard lamps or appliances over a Z-Wave network. 


My test network also included an Insteon plug-in unit from SmartLabs ($35). To tie the Insteon and Z-Wave gear together, I used two products from HomeSeer Technologies LLC, the company’s PC-based HS2 Z-Wave home control software ($200) and the Z-Troller ($140), a hardware interface that plugs into a serial port and relays commands from PC to Z-Wave (and Insteon) nodes.


To create a Z-Wave network, you first need to physically install the nodes. Installing the plug-in units is as simple as unplugging the lamp or appliance you want to control, plugging in the Z-Wave unit in its place and then plugging the lamp or appliance into the Z-Wave unit. One potential problem: plugging in the blocky Z-Wave unit could cover the other socket on the plate.


Installing a Z-Wave (or Insteon) dimmer is exactly the same as installing any in-wall switch. The instructions that came with the Intermatic product made it very simple. Time to install: about 20 minutes. Just be sure to turn power off to the switch box. (Or bzzzzt!)


Then you need to add the nodes—the plug-in and in-wall units—to a Z-Wave network. For this, you need a controller. It could be a handheld remote, a wired table-top console or an in-wall console. Intermatic and others make them. In this case, I used the HomeSeer Z-Troller and HS2 software in a two-step process.


When untethered from the PC and operating on AA batteries, the Z-Troller performs some of the functions of a Z-Wave controller. You use it to create the network and add nodes. I took the Z-Troller to each Intermatic device, pressed the Add/Scan button on the simple control panel, and then pushed the Program button on the Z-Wave device. (On the plug-in units, it’s a little button on the top surface that doubles as a manual on-off switch. On the dimmers, it’s the main rocker switch.)


When the Z-Troller adds a node, it gives it an ID number, which flashes on the four-character LED display. You have to write it down and make a note of the device to which it’s assigned, which is not terribly high-tech, but works.


One problem. Because I had previously installed the dimmer switch and added it to a Z-Wave network using another controller (a Creative Harmony 890 universal remote), the Z-Troller would not add it to the new network. This was perplexing until I spoke to the good folks at HomeSeer. Turns out the Z-Troller was making the perfectly reasonable assumption that since the dimmer already had a network name and ID number, it might be part of somebody else’s network.


Solution: I had to press the Delete button on the Z-Troller, then the Program button on the dimmer. This detached the dimmer from the old Harmony 890 network and I could then add it to the Z-Troller network.


If you use one of the other types of Z-Wave controllers—handheld remote, table console, etc.—you also use it to program the nodes, to automate turning lights on or off, for example. However, you can only use the Z-Troller in conjunction with a PC running the HS2 software. So the next step was to import into HS2 the information about the nodes I’d added with the Z-Troller.


The first problem was connecting the Z-Troller to my PC. Like most modern PCs, mine lacks a serial port. Computer manufacturers have replaced the RS-232 (serial) interface with USB for attaching peripherals, but serial remains in widespread use in home automation products. Luckily you can purchase (for about $30 at any Radio Shack) a USB to serial interface cable.


The browser-based HS2 software is very powerful, but not really designed for casual users. It’s more for professional installers and serious do-it-yourselfers. The interface is a little clunky and cluttered, and not terribly intuitive. Still, with a little reading (I hate that!) and perseverance, I figured out the multi-step process for sucking information off the Z-Troller and into HS2. The Z-Wave devices now showed up in the HS2 View Devices page.


To add the Insteon device, I had to first download and install a free Insteon plug-in for HS2, which the program’s excellent update utility managed seamlessly. Then I had to go into the Setup page, click the newly created Insteon Configuration button and manually enter the code stamped on the Insteon device to add it.


Now the Insteon device also showed up on the View Devices page. I could turn any of the lights on or off—or dim them—by clicking on the buttons in HS2. This is not particularly useful by itself, but now that they were enabled in HS2, I could start programming devices.


My starter project was a burglar-prevention program that would turn lights on automatically when I wasn’t home, at about the time they would come on if someone were home—i.e. about 45 minutes before sunset. First I had to tell HS2 where it was in the world so it would know when to expect sunset. From the home page, I clicked Setup, then the Location tab. From the drop-down list in the Location field, I selected my city. HS2 automatically populated longitude and latitude fields and immediately posted sunrise and sunset times from an online database.


Next, I clicked the Events tab and then Add Event. The Edit Properties dialog that popped up let me name the event and type in a voice command if I wanted. (HS2 has a voice control option, which worked imperfectly in my limited testing.) I then clicked the Trigger tab and selected Sunset from the pull-down list. In the next dialog, I was able to select the days I wanted the event to run (every day) and the offset—the number of hours or minutes before or after sunset. I also clicked the Security checkbox. This randomized the program so lights wouldn’t come on at exactly the same time every night.


Clicking on the Action tab allowed me to select the type of action HS2 should take when it encountered the trigger. From the pull-down list, I chose Device Action. This popped up new page elements that let me select the two living room lamps from pull-down lists, then select the command to be sent—On. And that was pretty much it.


I waited anxiously until about 8:30 that evening, and sure enough, the lights came on as scheduled. Hurrah!


You can do much, much more with the HomeSeer products, including setting up remote control of devices over the Internet and creating complex home automation scenes. And the cost to add Z-Wave or Insteon devices is relatively low. Both Insteon and Intermatic also sell under-$200 starter kits that include controllers, plug-in and in-wall devices.

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