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Home Remodeling & Maintenance

Make Your House a Smart Home

New products make home automation easier, wireless and more reliable.

As Doug Burton pulls his Mercedes into the garage of his Hollywood Hills, Cal., home, the symphony of automation has already begun. Outdoor Malibu lights, programmed to shine at sunset, illuminate the exterior. As he enters the house and disarms the security system, a lighted path guides him through the kitchen and hallway to the master bedroom. Music plays over speakers throughout the house. Says Burton, a 44-year-old mortgage broker who installed 95% of his home-control setup: "The house runs itself."

Get smart

For most of us, home automation has been more dream than reality. Historically, the market has split into two segments -- the filthy rich and propeller-head hobbyists -- bypassing the mainstream. At the high end, mansions may have sophisticated, six-figure home-control setups that manage security, lighting and entertainment systems. At the low end, do-it-yourself handymen take the piecemeal approach, installing inexpensive -- and often unreliable -- gadgets that turn on porch lights at dusk.

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So what's new? Home automation has received a 21st-century upgrade. New systems use wireless signals alone or combine them with signals that travel along power lines. Although many components are plug-and-play, installing some others still requires a basic knowledge of wiring. For example, installing an in-wall LCD touch screen that manages a home's lights, temperature and security isn't a task for a total novice -- you may need an electrician.

Ease of use has also improved. Says Burton: "In my house, if it doesn't pass the 'Can my mother use it?' test, it ain't worth having."

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Home-automation systems can run just about anything inside and outside your house, including lights, security, music, and heating and cooling. You can even use them to feed the cat and water the flowers. And not only do they turn the security system off at sunrise and feed Fluffy at 7 a.m., but they also let you control devices from afar. For example, if you are standing upstairs, you can change the track on a CD playing downstairs using a wireless, handheld remote. Web integration gives you control over your home's systems from almost anywhere. Burton once adjusted his home's thermostat while vacationing with his wife on a cruise ship near Tahiti.

But the true power of automation shines when multiple devices work together. One such scenario: Before going to bed, a homeowner presses a single button on a remote. Instantly, the window blinds close, the thermostat resets, the house lights turn off, and the security system turns on.

Several choices

Standardization and competition drive improvements in home automation. Many manufacturers sell -- or plan to sell -- devices that work with three new home-automation standards: Insteon, Z-Wave and ZigBee. Each uses two-way communication to ensure that one device knows the other received a command. Each also uses a mesh network, which improves reliability and range.

If you want to put in a home-automation system today, products compatible with Z-Wave and Insteon are your best bets. They're easy to install and you have many to choose from. A module that lets you turn on a lamp remotely costs as little as $20. More-sophisticated gadgetry, including handheld remote controls, can run into the hundreds. Z-Wave creator Zensys, a wireless-networking company that designs control and sensor applications, offers more than 50 products that are compatible with Z-Wave (see www.zen-sys.com). We found about 20 Insteon consumer products, but none from ZigBee as yet. ZigBee devices should be available by year's end.

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One caveat: You can't mix and match devices from these standards. So if you install a Z-Wave lamp controller, it won't work with an Insteon module.

Z-Wave. The Z-Wave platform has the early lead with dozens of compatible devices from Intermatic, Leviton, Logitech, Smart Products and other vendors. To try out a basic home- automation device, we tested the $125 Intermatic Lighting Control Starter Kit, which uses Z-Wave to exchange information between its tabletop controller and two lamp modules. Additional modules cost $45.

We found the kit fairly easy to install. Each lamp module is a bit wider and thicker than a deck of cards and plugs into an AC outlet. You can plug a lamp into each module. Next, you "assign" each lamp module to the master controller, a device slightly wider than two handheld remotes placed side by side. This step is a no-brainer: Press one button on the module and another on the controller, and you're done.

But programming the lamp modules to perform specific tasks -- such as turning on the living-room lights at dusk -- is trickier. You'll need to study the manual that comes with the product to figure out which buttons to press on the controller. First-timers may find this confusing, but it gets easier with practice. Overall, it took us about an hour to install and program our two-module Intermatic setup.

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At the higher end, the $400 Logitech Harmony 890 Advanced Universal Remote is an infrared/Z-Wave wireless handheld remote. With a little programming, it lets you control a stereo, television, lights and appliances in rooms up to 100 feet away.

Insteon. Designed by home-control vendor SmartLabs, Insteon uses both radio and power-line signals to send commands. This dual-band system doubles the chance that a signal will find its target. Another benefit of Insteon devices is that they are compatible with X10, an older, less-reliable home-automation standard that's still popular with hobbyists.

We tested the $100 Insteon Wireless Lighting Starter Set, which includes a tabletop control keypad and two lamp dimmers, all of which are roughly the size of their Intermatic counterparts. The Insteon kit also comes with two signal extenders -- modules that plug into an AC outlet and strengthen Insteon's signal throughout the home.

The Insteon kit was easy to install, but its control keypad lacked useful features found in the Intermatic product, including an LCD screen and the option to program lamps to turn on and off at set times.

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TECH 411: Where to Find 'Em

Do-it-yourself home- automation products are available both online and at hardware and electronics stores.

Insteon: Available at Amazon.com, HomeDepot.com and SmartLabs' SmartHome.com site. Also at Home Depot stores later this year.

Z-Wave: Available at some Lowe's stores, Fry's Electronics, and online at Costco.com and SmartHome.com.

ZigBee: The Hawking HomeRemote System is expected to be available this summer at CompUSA, Fry's Electronics and Micro Center, and on sale on the Web at BestBuy.com and CircuitCity.com.