Easy home automation projects for the weekend warrior: part one

This first installment in an ongoing series will cover everything you need to know about lighting control.

People have long viewed home automation--the ability to monitor, program, and control your home's lighting and entry locks, its heating and air conditioning, and other systems--as a technology that's "just around the corner." The Home of Tomorrow has been a fixture at state fairs, industry trade shows, and Disneyland; but for years it remained always a little out of reach, except for those people who could afford to invest tens of thousands of dollars to hire a professional to install a custom system.

Well, consider that corner turned. Home automation is finally becoming both affordable and simple enough for a do-it-yourselfer to install and set up. In this series, I'll cover everything you need to know to turn your own home into the home of the future, and I'll specify how much each device will cost (using street pricing, unless otherwise noted).

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If you've never delved into home automation, I recommend starting with lighting control, not only because it delivers the most "wow," but because it can enhance your home's security and reduce your energy consumption. The wow factor comes into play when you can control the lights in any room in your home by using a remote control. Your home's security is enhanced when you can program your lights to come on automatically at various times while you're away to give it a convincing "somebody's home" look. And you can reduce your energy consumption by ensuring that lights turn off automatically when you don't need them.

A number of manufacturers are building lighting controls with radio frequency (RF) technology these days, but I'll concentrate on two of the biggest players: GE Jasco and Leviton. You can find their products in home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, as well as on Amazon.com. As you expand your home-automation system, your lighting controls--the dimmers, switches, and receptacles, at least--will stay put; but you'll likely replace the master controller at the heart of your system when you want to control more than just lights.

The fun really starts when you pull all of the subsystems together and add a controller so that you can manage the system from your PC, tablet, or smartphone over the Web. When you open a door to a fully automated home (without having to pull out your keys), interior lights automatically turn on to illuminate your path. When you turn on the TV, the lights in your home theater automatically dim. When you leave the house in the morning, your thermostat automatically adjusts so that you won't waste money heating or cooling an empty house. And that's just scratching the surface of what's possible.

Future installments in this series will cover keyless entry systems, thermostats, advanced master controllers, all-in-one starter kits, and more.

Control Your Lighting Without Having to Deal With Wiring

If you don't want to fool around with your home's wiring--whether because you're an apartment dweller or because you don't want to worry about getting shocked--buy a plug-in module such as the GE Jasco Lighting Control & Appliance Module or Dimmer Module (model 45602 and model 45603, respectively; $45 each), the Leviton Vizia RF+ Plug-in Appliance Module ($65), or the Leviton Vizia+ Plug-in Lamp Dimming Module ($70).

Be sure to buy a dimmer module if you want to control the level of light that your lamp puts out. Appliance modules are simple on/off devices; they're designed to control things such as coffeepots and fluorescent lighting. The modules mentioned above are designed for simple two-prong plugs, but you can also find heavier-duty models that are compatible with appliances that draw more current, as well as modules designed for outdoor use (if you'd like to control a water fountain, for instance).

The lamp and appliance modules aren't very useful on their own, so you'll need to buy a controller that you can program to manage them. Controllers range in price from less than $50 to more than $300, with the higher-priced models being more robust (capable of controlling more devices and a wider range of devices) and easier to program (because you can connect them to a computer).

If you just want to dabble in home control, and you're starting out with lighting, a device such as the GE Jasco Wireless Lighting Control Advanced Remote ($40) or the Leviton RZCPG-SG Vizia-RF Remote Control Programmer/Timer ($139) should do nicely. These devices work just like your TV remote, except that they turn your lights on and off, dim your lights to preset levels, and can be programmed to control your lights according to a specified schedule. I'll cover more-sophisticated controllers in a future installment of this series.

Next Page: In-Wall Switches, Dimmers, and Receptacles

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