Getting Started with Home Automation

I’m going to be doing a series of posts on home automation, starting out targeting beginner concepts and getting more in depth from there. My hope is that when these are complete, someone with some technical and home improvement acumen can read back through the series as an instruction manual of sorts.

What Is Home Automation?

Home automation is somewhat hard to define. Out of curiosity, I poked around and found as many different definitions as places offering definitions. The definition I most liked came from ehow:

Home automation [allows] individuals to automatically control appliances and security systems within their home through the use [of] technology.

Other sites talked specifically about the use of computers and various products, but this one is nice and general. To my way of thinking, home automation is the use of any technology that helps automate tasks in the home. This may include turning on lights, starting appliances, opening blinds, etc. So, anything from the “home of the future” to The Clapper can be considered home automation.

A Brief History

The concept of home automation has been around for a long time. In the early 1900s, the “house of the future” was the stuff of speculation at world fairs and in the studios of inventors. No doubt many interesting concepts came out of that, but nothing particularly interesting for our purposes here (though one might pedantically argue that appliances such as dishwashers or devices like thermostats are a form of home automation). As the 1900′s wore on, the concept of remotely controllable devices, such as televisions emerged, providing a relatively early snapshot.

In 1975, a Scottish company called Pico Electronics developed the X10 protocol. This was a way to use existing electricity wiring within a house for communication between a sender and a receiver. This protocol was used to transmit simple messages across the wire. A controller could send an “On” message and a device elsewhere in the house would receive this message and execute some appropriate action. For exmaple, a “lamp module” plugged into a wall and with a lamp plugged into it could turn on the lamp at the request of a signal sent from another room.

Over the course of time, the uses of X10 technology expanded from simple on and off to signals allowing control over home security, heating, air condition and ventilation (HVAC) and other home technologies. X10 is reliable and established, but it does have some limits, and those limits have become more obvious lately as the number of devices using house power have skyrocketed. Devices, especially modern ones tend to produce “noise” on the electrical lines, and the more devices we plug in the more noise is generated.

A number of other protocols and technologies have emerged as a result of this, including Insteon, Z-Wave, Lutron and more. And, there is still X10 itself, which is a little confusing as it is both the name of a protocol and the name of an organization that sells devices that implement the protocol. The newcomers tend either to use a different protocol over the electrical system (some being “backward” compatible with X10 and others not) or else to use wifi communication. Often these are more effective than the original X10, but also pricier.

For a time in the 80′s and 90′s, big box stores like Radio Shack and Home Depot carried X10 products, but that seems not to be the case anymore. Some of them now carry the higher end competitors such as Lutron and Insteon. But, if one is interested in purchasing any of these devices, you can find them in many places for ordering online, including ebay.

The fact that you don’t find these items for sale in big box stores does not mean that the home automation trend has cooled off, per se. As society expects more and more things to be automated, the home is no exception. The reason that these items are not carried so much anymore, in my opinion, is that the average consumer is not a combination of electrical engineer and carpenter. People want devices that they can plug in and have “just work” with a minimum of configuration. So, people hire contractors to wire these sorts of things up for them, rather than simply buying them at the local hardware store.

Our first crack at home automation..

So for anyone still reading, sold, and ready to jump in, I will introduce a first home automation project that you can execute as an absolute beginner. You’re going to buy two items, and it’s going to cost roughly $25 to $30, depending on where you order. One item is a keychain, and the other is an X10 “lamp module” with a wireless transceiver. They are pictured together here:

(You can buy this setup on Amazon for $30 at the time of writing, though a quick google search showed prices as low as $16, though that may be omitting a shipping charge).

When you get the devices in the mail, take out the lamp module and observe that it has a red dial on it. The red dial corresponds to the “house” code, one of 16 letters. All X10 devices have a house code and a unit code, and these together form the “address” of the device. The house code, as mentioned, is one of 16 letters, and the unit code is one of 16 numbers. This means that X10 addresses are A1, D12, J4, etc. Your lamp module has all available house codes, but only has unit codes “1″ and “9″. These are the unit codes that it will respond to if you were sending commands over the electricity, but it will respond to any unit code sent wirelessly, which is how your remote will work.

If you now take out your remote and its instruction manual, you will see that you can set it to send signals to any house code and unit code. The unit code is essentially irrelevant here for your purposes. You just want to make sure the house code matches the lamp module’s. At this point in your home automation ventures, these are the only devices you have, so just leave them both at house code A.

Now, plug a lamp into the lamp module and the module into the wall. You should now be able to turn your light on and off using the keychain. The range on this should be comparable to that of your home wifi, so you could turn the lights on in your house from your car in the driveway or garage, which is handy.

So, to recap, you can basically just unwrap the devices and set them up without messing with the unit or house codes at all, since your lack of other home automation stuff means you don’t need to worry about compatibility. You now have home automation going for $25 or $30. If you’re interested in doing more, no worries – I’ll have plenty more segments on this.

More Info

For now, I’ll leave off with a series of links that I’ve found over the course of time that will hopefully be helpful, but not too overwhelming.

And, no worries if I haven’t covered all bases – I’ll have plenty more posts.


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  • Ana Agüero

    It´s only been one and half years and the sentence “The reason that these items are not carried so much anymore, in my opinion, is that the average consumer is not a combination of electrical engineer and carpenter. People want devices that they can plug in and have “just work” with a minimum of configuration.” does not apply anymore. There are so many new options for plug and pay automation systems available for the customer. It´s an exiting moment we are living in. Who will win the mass market in home automation? Which solution is the best?

  • Erik Dietrich

    To be honest, I haven’t much looked at the shrink-wrap products from telcos and other retailers because they don’t interest me much. In the first place, given my interest being exclusively in DIY and customizability, this would be like asking a hobbyist furniture maker which IKEA pieces were the best. And secondly, all of the home automation products I’ve seen from companies like that are geared more toward being add-ons for their core business than products in and of themselves, as in “buy our deluxe cable package and we’ll throw in something that lets you see your house temperature from your cell phone.”

    The kind of system that most interests me isn’t vendor or device specific, but rather a nerve center for your house that isn’t made by a company with a vested interest in selling you retail hardware. This nerve center would interact with all other vendors equally, without prejudice, in the same way that you can install major apps on your phone regardless of what kind of phone it is. But if telcos control the nerve center, it’s like a world where app authors for the phone had to pick one and only one platform for their apps.