Home Automation for the Budget-Wise
 
Can you automate your home without breaking the bank? Are there off-the-shelf technologies to control your home's heat, lights, audio and video equipment, security system, and home office network that don't require special wiring and an MIT engineering degree to install? The short answer: Yes.

For most people, there are numerous ways to delve affordably into home automation. You don't need a new home with "structured wiring"?or advanced data and entertainment cabling?to reap the benefits of greater home controls. Such cabling, category 5 and RG-6, allows "greater connectivity between existing devices," says Dominic Ainscough, of the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm. But, he adds, only a tiny number of houses in the United States have structured wiring, even though it's a growing trend.

So, if you're like most people, you live in a house that has standard copper wiring. That's all you need to integrate basic home automation affordably and without much fuss, Ainscough says. Here are four scenarios to spotlight how you can get home automation affordably:

Scenario 1: An automated home security system

Scenario 2: A network of your home PCs and peripherals

Scenario 3: A multi-room audio system

Scenario 4: A whole-house automated system to control everything from one panel, from heat and lights to security

Home Security System

Scenario 1: An automated home security system

Level of difficulty: Easy to medium

Cost: From $150 to $1,000

How to get it: Stroll into Radio Shack or just about any other major electronic and home improvement retailer (including Home Depot, Lowe's, and Best Buy). The shelves are lined with automated home security systems with prices ranging anywhere from $150 to $300. A basic package includes motion and window sensors, a siren, an auto dialer that calls a central monitoring station, or a key chain remote for disarming or arming the system from a car.

You can add affordable accessories, too, including surveillance cameras. Additional cameras cost about $80.

Many of these security systems operate over radio frequency airwaves or the home's existing electrical wiring, so no additional wiring is needed. They're easy to install, too. Some merely require you to plug devices into electrical outlets or to load batteries.

The Xanboo System Controller kit is a relatively affordable security system priced at $179.95. The kit includes a color video camera with built-in microphone for use with recorded video clips, audio and motion detection, a 60-foot extension cable, and all the necessary software to install the system.

If you want an automated security system with greater functionality, you may need to hire a professional installer. Security systems based on wireless radio frequency require no new cabling, which reduces installation costs. (Some systems can be operated by a touch-tone phone.) But a professional installer can help you figure out which areas of the house should be armed, while keeping other areas unarmed. Costs of such systems can range anywhere from $800 to $1,000.

Home Computer Network

Scenario 2: A network of your home PCs and peripherals

Level of difficulty: Easy to medium

Cost: About $300 to $500

How to get it: If your goal is to network multiple PCs, along with peripherals such as printers, scanners and fax machines, computer drives, and multi-player games from PCs that share the same broadband connection, you've picked one of the easier things to do.

Today, there are several wired and wireless home networking solutions:

An Ethernet network. One of the least expensive ways to connect all of your computers is with an Ethernet network. You'll need a network interface card for each computer, special cables to connect to your modem, and an Ethernet "hub." The cables run into the hub, a central device into which you plug all the cables from the various computers on the network. Ethernet networking has a drawback: If the computers are in different rooms, you'll have to run cable wires across the floor to the hub. You may have to drill holes in walls to string the cables from one room to the next. Cost is affordable: $50 to $80. A bundled package of Ethernet cards, cables, and a hub runs from about $80 to $100. A home phone line solution. Using a home phone line is affordable and easy to install. All you have to do is plug a special device into a phone jack. To get the computers networked, you must install a Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA) card into each computer. To get them networked, the analyst says you must run phone wiring from the phone jack to the HPNA card. In the end, you'll need multiple phone jacks around your house to network the computers together.

Wireless home networking solutions. With wireless home networking, you basically have three options: Home FR, Wi-Fi, and Blue Tooth.

Cost is from $150 to $400, depending on how many computers you are networking. The beauty, Ainscough says, is that there are no wires or cables to hook up. Data is transmitted "through the air" for computers that are networked within a range of about 150 feet. Wireless networking cards are often standard accessories when you buy a tower PC or a laptop.

Multiroom Audio System

Scenario 3: A multi-room audio system

Level of difficulty: Easy to medium

Cost: $200 to $2,000

How to get it: Want to play Mozart in your study while the kids listen to Britney Spears (with the door shut) in their room? There are a couple of ways to automate your musical needs around the house. Of course, the most economical way is to run wires from additional speakers to the amplifier of your stereo.

But if wiring is an unappealing prospect, there are "wireless" home automation kits on the market. You can add an infrared distribution system, which allows you to select a CD, skip tracks, set volume control, or issue other commands from anywhere in the house. (You program what music you want to play through your existing coaxial or copper cabling, so no new wiring is needed.) Cost of such a system ranges from about $200 to $2,000.

If, however, you're renovating or building a new house, it's the perfect opportunity to get a multiroom audio distribution system. In a renovation, you can hire an electrician to wire up a room or rooms and build a system that fits into an entertainment cabinet. You can then control several speakers and distribute the music from a single source, for example, a CD player. Keypads are often mounted into each room so you can select a track on a CD and mute or raise the volume, to name a few features.

Hiring an audio installer has its advantages. But implementing it can also cost upwards of $500 a room, including installation fees.

Ainscough says that in the near future, consumers may be able to take advantage of their broadband connection to send music around the house. Currently, several companies are developing "media servers" that enable a consumer to download music off the Internet or play MP3 audio files from a broadband connection to your speakers. It's not on the market yet, but it's not far off, according to Ainscough.

Whole-House Automation

Scenario 4: A whole-house automated system to control everything

Level of difficulty: Easy to medium

Cost: $75 to $500

How to get it: Say you want to control nearly every major electrical function in your house?thermostats, lights, security, audio, and video?from one keypad. The great thing about an off-the-shelf, easy-to-install home automation system is that it operates on an older home's electrical wires or radio frequency airwaves.

You can do it affordably, too, Ainscough says.

All you need is a standard electrical X-10 controller. (X-10 is a communications language that allows compatible products to talk via the existing electrical wiring found in most homes.) You also need a few X-10 plug-in modules to operate your electronic devices from a single button. (Both are available at Radio Shack and other electronic equipment retailers.)

The end result: From a control button in your living room, you can switch on your bedroom lights. In the morning you could turn on your coffee maker, hallway lights, or even the thermostat if it's a chilly day.

Another option to consider is using software for home automation. You can, in fact, automate much of your home's controls with software that loads onto a PC. The software allows you to establish times to turn off your lights, appliances?anything electronic. Again, no new wiring needs. The controller plugs into a standard electrical outlet and transmits signals to X-10 modules throughout the house, which then instruct the connected electronic devices to turn on and off.

These are all ways for the average homeowner to get some connectivity or automation. However, if you want to your home's connectivity to run more seamlessly, you'll eventually want to consider a higher grade of wiring, Ainscough says.

With high-communications wiring/cabling, you'll be able to "reap the benefits of (future products) and have enhanced efficiency and productivity across multiple devices throughout the home," he says.

Overall, there's much to look forward to in the world of home automation. Ainscough says that broadband service providers are continuing to develop and roll out connectivity applications, and consumer electronic manufacturers are continuing to incorporate home networking into their devices.

"With those two things happening, the current landscape of connectivity will expand beyond the home office to all rooms in the house. In other words, your broadband connection will become increasingly leveraged for home automation," he says.

 
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