I'm not ready for full-blown computer-based automation in my house, can I start with something smaller, see if I like it, and then expand?
If you have browsed our pages of Computer Controllers, you will notice a wide range of products. Computer controllers range in price from $50 to $1000. The good news is that all the controllers we offer for home automation send the same commands over the AC lines, X10 signals. This means that changing or upgrading controllers is easy since you will not have to replace the receiver modules.
All the X10 receiver modules we offer are able to accept signals from any X10 computer interface or transmitter. Thanks to all the manufactures sticking to a defined set of standards, all the different brands of transmitters and receivers are compatible with each other. See this previous FAQ for more information:
While the X10 protocol is over 20 years old, there are some movements within the home automation industry to improve upon the speed of transmission, the reliability, and add two-way communications. In the commercial field of building automation, some products exists now, but due to complexity during installation, they have not made their way to the home level. Most homes don't need the same level of lighting and energy control that might be found in a hotel.
Most people who have very extensive home automation systems have all started out with the basic entry-level home controller. The first computer interface, the CP-290 was introduced in 1983 for the Mattel Aquarius computer. Later, software was developed for other computers including PC compatibles and Macintosh systems. At the end of the 1990's, the CP-290 was officially retired after being on the market (and remaining unchanged) for over 15 years.
The entry-level interface of choice today is the Activehome home controller also from the X10 company. This controller is available for under $100 and is offered from Smarthome as a kit with some modules or sold with only the interface and software. This controller added several features the CP-290 lacked; intuitive Windows-based software, the ability to adjust times based upon local sunrise and sunset, and the ability to receive X10 signals. Please visit one of these two web pages to learn more about the Activehome Interface:
Programs for Computer interfaces
Every computer interface sold includes software. The programs may be distributed on CD-ROM or diskette. Most manufactures are proactive at updating their software as new innovations in the industry are introduced. Updates can be downloaded from the Downloads and Demos page on the Smarthome web site. These updates are essentially full-working versions of the program for the interface. If you want to try the software, download the software and load it on your computer. All the software will run in a demo mode when the interface is not attached. You won't be able to control your home since you don't have the hardware interface, but you'll be able to get a feel for the software.
Software for computer interfaces are very much like software programs that one would buy at a store. These programs are usually designed to run on certain type of machines. The vast majority of programs (and interfaces) are designed for IBM compatible computers running Windows. We do have some packages for Macintosh users.
The software that operates the home automation interface falls into two categories:
Most of the packages we offer use the latter type where the software is only used for programming the interface. Once the times, dates, and other actions are defined, the data is downloaded into the memory of the interface. Once downloaded, the interface will begin running the program and executing events. The software may be exited and the computer can be turned off or used for another purpose, or the interface may be unplugged from the serial port of the computer. If changes to the interface are necessary, simply start the program, makes changes, and re-download to the interface.
Some software programs require the computer to remain on and running the home automation program. In this category, the computer is doing the thinking and executing the program. The interface is just executing the computer's wishes. So, instead of the interface processing the information, the computer is doing this job. Here is a list showing if the computer and software must be running:
- The software must be running for the interface to function.
- The software is only used to setup and program the interface.
So, what is the big difference between having the computer running and controlling the home automation or downloading the program to the interface and turning off the computer?
How do interfaces connect to the computer?
Advantages of downloading and having the interface alone control the home.
Advantages of having the computer control the home's automation.
Computer remains off conserving electricity and prolonging the life of the computer's components.
Computer does not have to remain at the site. Interface can be programmed and forgotten about.
Interface is more likely to remain up and running than is a computer.
Programs can be more complex
(more timing events, more conditionals, voice recognition - response).
Possible interfacing to computer's resources (Internet, cameras, monitor).
Possible remote update of the program by modem or Internet.
If computer crashes, so does the home automation.
Automation program may be used with other programs at the same time, slows down system response.
For the most part, since the first days of personal computers and home automation interfaces, the serial port has been the most common connection point between the two. Serial ports are very common to computers. The electrical connections are standardized so that the pin configurations are the same between different brands of computers. This way, an interface can be made for a class of computers, likes IBM PC compatibles instead of being made for specific models, i.e. Dells, Gateways, or Compaqs. The Macintosh's equivalent is the printer or modem ports, both of which are serial-based. Some computers are beginning to appear that do not have a serial interface. It is possible that computers will soon no longer come equipped with a serial interface.
The data flowing between the interface and the computer is very limited so higher flow rates are not needed. The original CP-290 interface used a baud rate of 600. Today's interfaces like the HouseLinc or JDS series of products use 9600 baud. New ports are becoming standard in computers that support higher baud rates and multiple devices. Universal Serial Bus and "Firewire" are two new ports on computers that may someday have automation interfaces connected to them.