Automating on a Tight Budget

Jonathan Somers

HTINews Article

Automating on a Tight Budget
"How I stopped worrying and learned to gradually raise my house's IQ

by Jonathan Somers

I enjoy reading about the trends in home automation, and I try to keep up with the steady flow of magazines and articles as best as I can. I even followed the Usenet newsgroup religiously until the volume passed 100 articles per day; after that, I simply didn't have the time. Still, I think the biggest part of any do-it-yourself automation project is inspiration from seeing what is possible - the extreme high end of intelligent dwellings.

That said, I never stopped for a moment to contemplate where I would raise $10,000 or more to automate my 33-year-old contemporary in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Home theater, scene lighting, zoned climate control, and so forth are all wonderful luxuries, but I was not about to dive heavily into debt just to have them. So I spent many months scanning the catalogs and periodicals - partially wishing, it's true, but partially planning too. Percolating. Evolving ideas. Building a game plan.

Several forces in my personality helped in this regard. One is what Norm Abram deems "Yankee thrift" - I try very hard not to throw anything away, no matter how useless or worthless it may seem. (While I live in Georgia today, I was born in Pennsylvania, so "Yankee" is not too far out of place. Besides, Atlanta is not truly part of the South any more, just as Florida never was.) For example: I quickly learned everything that the JDS TimeCommander could do, which was quite a bit; still, I had this old 286 sitting in a corner collecting dust, so why shouldn't I use it as the basis for a home automation system? After all, most of the actions in a smart house really don't need that much computation. Today, much of my house is automated by equipment I had lying around, or built from parts I had lying around.

Second is a deep distaste for owing anyone money. In my mind, it is more sensible to spend a hundred dollars at a time to buy small pieces of equipment as you go, rather that buying everything at once and paying a hundred dollars at a time in loan payments. If you get in a squeeze, you can skip one small catalog order much easier than you can skip a loan payment. The end results are largely comparable; you simply don't have the use of all the equipment from day one. My role as both a DIY'er and a family man means that I wouldn't have had time to install all the equipment at once anyway.

Now, if you are building a home from scratch, I would not offer the same advice. You can roll the automation costs directly into the mortgage; you can pre-wire audio and video runs before the sheetrock goes up; you can have professional installers do it right, and save yourself the time and hassle of a piecemeal install. But for existing homes, I heartily endorse the "add as you can" approach.

So when the time came, I started small. I bought a handful of lamp modules and a Marrick LynX-10 interface for my 286. My first order was well under $100 - I even bought the LynX-10 in kit form to save money! There were plenty of inexpensive control programs on the market, but as a professional software engineer, I had no trouble rolling my own software to behave exactly as I wanted - costing only my time. Before long the living room lights were turning themselves on and off, making our house look lived-in while we are away, and saving energy by not burning all night long.

Every few months - and with rare exceptions, only $100 at a time - our house grew smarter and smarter. Eventually I became connected with a group of students at Georgia Tech who are researching intelligent spaces (aptly dubbed "Domisilica"), and now our house also serves as one of their testbeds as well. I also started designing custom components to add my own types of "intelligence" to our house.

Today we constantly get compliments from our friends - a nice fringe benefit - and my family feels safer and more comfortable than we ever have before. We never intended that the energy savings should recover the costs of automation - yet we know that our utilities have dropped. And I still follow my humble beginnings, adding in small increments as time and budget allow.


After the Marrick card and the living room lamp modules, my next project was to make the house "greet" us as we arrive at night. I chose the X-10 motion sensing spotlights for this task, as well as a fluorescent three-way Decora-style wall switch (and its paired remote switch) from ACT. The spotlights and carport lights switch on as we roll into the driveway at night. Cost: under $100.

After the motion sensing was in place, the front porch and foyer lights seemed like a logical follow-on. I set the address of the porch lights to turn on at dusk; our house looks quite beautiful when lit at night, so I don't mind spending a little electricity to offer the aesthetics to the public. The foyer light adresss is activated by the motion sensor; we always have a subtle cue when visitors approach at night. ACT wall switches performed both tasks. Cost: under $100.

Last summer, the only thing my wife wanted for her birthday was a ceiling fan in the master bedroom. I knew that once I was up in the attic adding the wiring runs, I might as well go the extra mile to automate everything too. There was an existing single-gang box to control the wall-mounted fluorescent lighting, so I replaced this with an ACT 4-switch transmitter to control everything from the wall. I used a $10 X-10 appliance module to switch the fan on and off. (We do not feel the need for subtle nuances of fan speeds; we leave the fan in its middle setting, and just switch it on and off remotely.) Another X-10 appliance module now switches the lights. A third appliance module serves our ancient color TV (the "good" one lives in the family room). We each have an incandescent lamp on our nightstand; two lamp modules control these. An X-10 minicontroller on Jan's nightstand gives her complete control of the room. The five X-10 modules cost $10 each; the minicontroller and ACT wall switch brings the total to just under $100 for automating the entire master bedroom.

The kids share a bedroom, and the same process was repeated almost identically there. An ACT three-way-plus-dimming wall switch fits the old single-gang box; an appliance module controls the existing ceiling fan, while a lamp module serves the ceiling fan's incandescent bulb. Another lamp module controls a small desk lamp. The total comes to well under $100. My children were ages 5 and 3 when I did this install; not only did they master the switches effortlessly, but they also delighted in having more control over their environment.

Many projects just required additional time. I had a Bigmouth telephone processing card in the 286, so controlling the house via phones was just a matter of writing code. We have never been happy with our answering machine, so now we rely exclusively on the computer to take calls. We also use it to control the house while away from home - and after installing the PBX, we made the 286 an extension so we could also control the house from any other extension. Eventually I added a One For All infrared remote to a spare serial port, so that the 286 could operate the audio and video components throughout the house. Since the 286 knows when there is an incoming call, it can optionally pause the VCR and mute the TV and stereo if we are in the mood to accept calls.


Here are the highlights of our house after two years of slow but steady growth:

- Roughly half of the lighting in the house is controlled via X-10, as well as ceiling fans and other sundry appliances.

- Infrared repeaters let us operate the stereo and VCR from every room.

- The VCR feeds both the family room and our master bedroom, letting us watch movies from the comfort of our bed. (This was purely a matter of wiring.)

- A Panasonic KXTD-816 digital telephone network distributes two analog CO lines and serves as voicemail, intercom, paging, and background music as well. (This is the only high-dollar item I had to purchase all at once, and it is a very recent addition. Even so, I am still adding extensions one at a time!)

- Cat5 cable throughout the house carries our computer and telephone networks.

- The security system includes interior motion sensors, and is connected to the lighting controls.

- Our climate control is supervised by X-10 appliance modules and partially zoned via duct dampers and boosters.

Not too shabby, given the house's humble beginnings. Computer-savvy friends still chuckle when I tell them that a 286 is responsible, but there hasn't been any need for more horsepower - until very recently.


The 286 house controller shares a network with a 386 and Pentium, each running Windows 95. These other machines have served principally as workstations for Jan and I, who both work from home at least part of the time. I'm working at home less and less, however, so as the 386 has fallen idle, I began looking for new uses for it. I'm reaching the limits of a DOS box for auomation purposes - for example, I now need direct access to six serial ports from a single machine. (The six peripherals are: LynX-10, Panasonic KXTD, infrared remote, dialup modem, Pilot dock, and CEBus interface. More on these later.)

I never got around to implementing a scripting language for my tiny DOS-based controller. When I first began considering the 386, this problem partially disappeared. I started writing 32-bit modules supporting OLE automation, so that the house can be scripted from just about any language, including C++, Visual Basic, and - perhaps most importantly - Java. The nice part about this conversion is that I don't need to rewrite everything at once. I converted the One For All infrared remote code to a Windows program by itself; the rest of the equipment remains behind on the 286, still performing its normal duties.

After completing the OFA program, I turned my attention to a module I've wanted to add since the beginning - a pager interface. I carry a text pager as part of my work, and I'd love to receive notifications of interesting events at the house - such as "Someone just entered the house using a guest security code." A simple little program to do this took less than four hours to write, using some shareware libraries I found on the Internet.

One of the current research projects I'm pursuing with the Domisilica group at Georgia Tech is the use of subliminal awareness to enhance one's lifestyle. Put simply, the research aims to find ways of using less interruptive techniques to make us aware of important events. One example to which most people can relate is the telephone and doorbell. Sometimes these are important interruptions - you may be expecting a call or a particular visitor. Other times, however - when watching a movie, perhaps, or when sitting down to dinner - you probably don't want to take the interruption. Instead of those annoying bells and beeps, is there a more subtle way that the house can notify you of such events during these times - a way that is more easily ignored?

To that end, I am wiring up the 386's sound card to both the stereo system and the telephone network. Interesting events will be represented by playing various wave files. At different times of day - based on what room we are in, and what we are doing - the computer will use different "sonic icons" to inform us of interruptions that might or might not need our attention. For example, the computer might perpetually play a seashore sample through the telephones as background music; a phone call might then be represented as a distant foghorn among the crashing waves, soft enough to be ignored if desired, obvious enough to be heard if one is expecting it. There are many such "soundscapes" that can be devised, based on the desired mood and the occupants' preferences.


There's never a shortage of projects to do. The Domisilica group at Tech received a shipment of USRobotics Pilot computers, and our advisor asked what interesting things we could do with them. I'd like to read the Pilot scheduler from my 386 machine and have the house initiate actions based on my daily schedule. For example, the house could turn on my nightstand light at 6:30am on days when I have early appointments.

I'm also developing a set of CEBus controllers. Each module will have its own power relay, temperature sensor, infrared transmitter and receiver, and various other features. My goal is to put one in every room, to provide detailed telemetry on climate and occupancy. Watch for more information on this in future editions of HTINews.

We still have plenty of lights that are not controlled; our kitchen and dining room draws almost a full KW in lighting alone, so turning it off when the house is empty will almost certainly be our biggest dollar saver. There are still rooms that do not have phone extensions. There are still rooms that do not have stereo speakers. I'll continue to add all of these and other features - one small piece at a time.

If you're interested in more detailed information, you can visit my house's Web site at If you have any comments at all, feel free to write me at - I'd love to hear from you.

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