Internet Access to Home Controls

Background

Since 1980 home automation enthusiasts have been using X10 devices to control lights, appliances, home theater equipment, garage doors and just about anything that uses electricity in the house. Since X10 is a technology that uses the house electrical wiring to transmit signals, the ability to turn devices on or off, and control the brightness of lights are at the core of this signaling protocol. The array of DIM commands for brightness control can also be interpreted to mean something different to more sophisticated devices, such as an HVAC control system.  Even the operation of non-X10 devices, such as a rain sensor connected to a lawn sprinkler control system, can be monitored and controlled through the use of an X10 low voltage probe and control relay. The probe advises you when the rain sensor is engaged, and the relay functions as a bypass switch in the event you really want the sprinklers to operate on any given day. The benefits to the homeowner of all this is convenience, simplification, and/or cost reduction above and beyond the "coolness" factor.    

Much of the "control" side of home automation can be accomplished with either wired or wireless "standalone" controllers. However, homes with a security and alarm system with a wall console, a video surveillance system connected to the TV, a digital thermostat for HVAC, and X10 controls for lighting and appliances, typically have four different control devices located in different areas of the home to handle each of these functions. And this doesn't include the myriad of controllers required for the home theater system. Except for the security and alarm system controllable via the telephone, none of these five functional areas mentioned are easily controllable remotely from outside the home unless they are integrated into a single control point.  

Your home personal computer is the most flexible device available to you capable of providing a single control point for most of the devices in your home. This includes your home entertainment, security and alarm, video surveillance, HVAC control, and lighting control systems.

The same Media PC that integrates all of your media content in one place can easily be extended to integrate access to these other systems to truly achieve a single control point for your home.  Since your Media PC is also a web server, you now have access to this control point from any location with any device that can access the Internet.   

If you own one or more vacation homes, this control point can be extended to each property providing a single point of access to all your real estate holdings. The cost reduction possible just by remotely controlling HVAC equipment when your property is vacant and outdoor lawn sprinklers when it's raining can be substantial. Add the ability to monitor and control the other systems as conditions change, and you have a compelling solution made possible by use of the home PC and the Internet.

Software is the Key

As stated the home PC provides the single point of control for most home devices, but the software package selected to run on the PC is the key to satisfying your home automation requirements. JCL Automation has identified the major "off-the-shelf" software packages, as well as complete automation systems that enable remote access via the Internet. If Internet access is not a requirement, you can install other available PC software not covered here to control your devices locally only.

The existing software solutions with a web interface include: Home Control Assistant, Homeseer, and HAI Weblink II.  Each of these solutions requires a broadband connection to the Internet, and a web server configured on your PC. If your ISP provides only a dynamic connection to the Internet, you will also need to take advantage of the dynamic DNS solutions provided by No-IP.com and others for maintaining the relationship between your Internet address and the IP address of your PC.

If you're interested in a whole-house automation solution, or just have concerns about the reliability of your home PC, which is typically used for many other functions, we recommend you consider Control4 and/or Life/Ware systems. While these systems are only available from authorized Dealers, they do offer remote access options.

Control4 home controllers are standalone "special purpose" computers that plug into the home data network. The Composer Home Edition Software runs on your PC, and allows you to add or change custom programming, media files, lighting scenes, and many other system features. Then download these changes to the home controller via your home data network. This approach allows you to control some of the features of the automation system from your PC, while isolating the actual daily execution of those functions to the Control4 controller. Control4 includes a license to the 4Sight Service which allows you to access the system remotely using the Web Navigator available from your online 4Sight account.

Life/Ware (L/W) Media Servers run standard Windows Vista with Media Center software plus L/W software extensions for home automation. The media server hardware looks like another A/V component, but is a PC with custom I/O connections for interfaces to lighting, climate, and security sub-systems. Your Dealer will configure and install all associated hardware, including the associated automation devices in most cases. Remote access via the web to this system can be done by enabling the Remote Desktop feature of Windows Vista.

The following matrix shows the major home automation requirements versus the capabilities for each PC software package/automation system as of January, 2009. The light blue shaded rows represent the requirements of the JCL Automation Demo House, which has an HAI Omni II security system, a Life/Ware Media Server, and Control4 components and wireless devices installed (green columns).

Home Automation Requirements HAI Weblink II

Home Control Assistant  7 Plus

Homeseer Life/Ware Media Server Control4 Composer Home Edition
Control Access Web based via home PC Web based via home PC Web based via home PC Local & Remote Desktop Web based via system controller
Alarm System Integration Replaces security system None Caddx, DSC, Elk, GE, HAI, Napco, OnQ via plug-in DSC, GE, Honeywell via serial link DSC, Elk, GE, HAI, Honeywell via serial link
Disaster Recovery (flood, fire, wind, rain) Complete Security System functions via X10 Universal Controller Yes, with HAI panel plug-in Can monitor all security system zones Can monitor all security system zones
HVAC temperature control Yes, w/HAI thermostat controller w/remote temp. and humidity sensors RCS X10 thermostat HAI, RCS, Wayne-Dalton thermostats Aprilaire, Honeywell, RCS, Vantage Q thermostats Control4 wireless thermostat
Direct X10 appliance control Yes, on/off & status Yes, on/off, & status Yes, on/off, & status via security system or X10 converter via security system or X10 converter
Wireless lighting control No No w/Insteon or ZWave plug-ins ACT, Centralite, Cooper, Insteon, Intermatic, Leviton, Lutron devices Control4 Wireless Switch/Dimmer
Event or time-based lighting control Events, flags, & counters Multi-schedule controls Event & timed triggers Events, variables, & timed triggers Events, variables, & timed triggers
Home Entertainment Controls w/HAI Home Control for Windows Media Center software w/IRLinc interface w/Media Center plug-in Windows Vista Media Center & IR emitters entertainment components controlled via IR emitters
Scene/Sequence lighting control Yes Yes Yes w/events Yes Yes
Multi-modes (home, away, vacation) Yes No No Yes, via mode variables Yes, via mode variables
Sprinkler control Rain8 Sprinkler Control & rain sensor Rain8 Sprinkler Control & rain sensor Rain8 Sprinkler Control & rain sensor Global Cache relays & rain sensor Contact/Relay extender & rain sensor
Video surveillance built-in, need PC tuner card No basic capability w/webcam plug-in via web camera server or Axis, Lumenera, Panasonic IP Cameras Axis, Panasonic IP Cameras
Email notification alerts Yes No Yes Yes Yes w/4Sight Service
Telephone-based commands & dial-out alerts Yes No Yes, with telephone plug-in No No
Voice Alerts Announcements only No Interactive voice No No
Pager text alerts No No No No No
Browser User Interface Browser only Browser/ Windows GUI Browser or Windows GUI or Media Center plug-in Windows Remote Desktop only Web Navigator Browser Interface
Comments Industrial Strength Solution. Best choice if installing only an Omni System. Weather Station support Very flexible package, but some functions are rudimentary Media Servers provide award winning user interface Complete product line for whole-house automation w/security system interface

Notes:
1. HAI Home Control for Windows Media Center software is separate from HAI Weblink II. If you install the latest versions, they can co-exist on the same PC.
2. Control4 Composer Home Edition software will not allow you to add new devices to the system, modify device drivers, or update the system software version. Only an authorized Dealer can install the original system and perform those restricted tasks.

The above provides a quick overview of PC-based home automation solutions, and the advantages of using your PC as a single control point versus using several different "standalone" controllers for your home devices. To identify unfulfilled requirements you may have for home automation, think in terms of what devices or systems in your home you would like to control differently, and the associated value this would bring to you. In other words, how could your controls be more convenient or simpler to use, or save energy? We have just touched on the possibilities in this brief. If you would like to understand better how home automation can benefit you, or how we can help satisfy your requirements, contact us today!