Let me introduce myself. I’m Mark McCall, 30-year-old father of Kirsty and husband to my beautiful wife Helen (can I have the money now dear?). I live about 10 miles South of Belfast, Northern Ireland, near a town called Lisburn. By day I work in our family mens’ wear business — McCall’s of Lisburn. By night I’m â€˜U.K. Home Automation Man’!
Control4 Home Automation
I discovered the world of home automation when I first went online in February of 1995 and found the comp.home.automation news group. However, I soon realised there was a complete lack of relevant British material on the Web. So my mission in life became spreading the word about these wonderful technologies to the people of the United Kingdom. I decided to try and put some information together myself and in November of 1996 I launched the UK Home Automation web site (www.ukha.demon.co.uk/). Since then, I have seen interest in the subject grow dramatically and the site now gets around a thousand hits per month. There are currently about 200 subscribers on my UKHA mailing list of which a significant percentage come from European countries other than the UK as well as further-afield 220-volt countries like Australia.
I’ve always found it strange that a technology invented here (in Scotland to be precise) has still never caught on this side of the Atlantic. Ask 100 people on the streets of the UK what X-10 is and I reckon the two top answers would be: 1. It’s a sci-fi movie. or 2. It’s that cream for hemorrhoids isn’t it? Up until very recently X-10 had only been available from a couple of mail order specialists. Then, about 12 months ago, products finally became available â€˜over the counter’ in Maplin stores (something like your Radio Shack) across the country. Despite recent price cuts, modules are still very expensive. A lamp module, for example, is around 30.00 UK Pounds (the equivalent of just under $50!!). You can imagine how sick we feel when we see US units advertised at around $10. But at last X-10 is slowly starting to get exposure in the UK.
I’m starting to build my new house, so my present home has been a test bed for the various home automation technologies. With this in mind I brought the first HomeVision into the UK in July 1997. What an amazing piece of equipment it is. However, trying to source other UK-compatible HA gear like security systems, thermostats, CCTV cameras etc. is proving very difficult. Even your marvelous (and sickeningly cheap) multi-disc CD players are either not readily available in the UK or else they’re available at hideously inflated prices.
Home theatre (or Home Cinema as we call it over here) is very big now in the UK. I think it has been a blessing for hi-fi shops as it’s meant we all have to rush out and buy new gear. Home automation integrates well in the home theatre environment. I only have to press one button on my Marantz RC-2000 remote to tell the HomeVision to switch on the TV, AV amp, DVD player, Satellite tuner and (if it’s dark) turn on the lights. Pretty standard HA stuff but practically unheard of in these parts. More and more specialist hi-fi dealers are starting to realise they can sell multi-room and automated lighting products in addition to their normal product ranges. We even have a UK chapter of CEDIA now.
I don’t know how home automation is perceived amongst Americans, but this side of the pond it’s still very much seen as a hobbyist interest. In order for it to become really big over here, I believe we need to explain the benefits of the technology to people as well as the technology itself. I find myself waxing lyrical to friends and family about the way my system works. You can see their eyes glaze over as I rant on. But when they see my garage light come on as I walk in or a reminder message pop up on my TV screen that my favourite program is about to start on the other channel then they become interested!
Although I’m a confirmed technology junkie, I’m afraid I’m more of a â€˜buy it over the counter – take it home and plug it in’ type than your â€˜build it out of old bits lying around’ man. In fact, before all this started, I was the guy who thought CAT5 was someone’s fifth feline pet!
“So, bring on the other half of this double act – my mate Keith Doxey (aka Krazy Keith). Keith flew over to stay with me for the weekend in January of this year and we had what we reckon was the UK’s first HA users symposium (all be it a two man affair!). Keith was born with a soldering iron in his hand! While my web site deals with the consumer side of Home Automation in the UK, Keith’s world of DIY home automation is very much the place to go if you’re the “Hands On” type. Over to Keith to explain more…”
I have been interested in Home Automation since before I knew it was called HA. One of my earliest efforts, about 25 years ago, was using a time clock salvaged from a scrap electric oven to switch my hi-fi on every morning. My HA experience really took off when I got onto the Internet and discovered comp.home.automation, just over two years ago.
The Home Automation scene in the UK is severely limited at the moment due to the lack of HA products for would-be automators to purchase. Whilst it is possible to buy equipment from overseas, there are many problems to be aware of and to overcome. Without doubt the biggest source of HA goodies has to be the United States, but there are many compatibility issues to be solved.
The main differences between the US and UK/European markets are that the mains voltage here is 230V/50Hz vs 120 V/60Hz in the U.S. Our TV systems is different as well â€“ PAL/625 lines (SECAM in France) vs. NTSC 525 lines in the United States.
Prices & Availability
UK home automation equipment prices are typically between 4 and 10 times the U.S. price.
Whilst it is possible, with care, to modify 110-volt X-10 equipment for operation at 230 volts, the problem of physical compatibility rears its ugly head. Plugs and sockets in the US are different from those used in the UK, which, in turn, are different from the rest of Europe. This also extends to light switches. A normal UK single-gang light switch box is typically 3 inches square by less than 1 inch deep, so having successfully modified a US wall switch module, you face the problem of how to mount it neatly in the wall. The majority of UK houses typically have brick walls as opposed to the drywall construction methods employed in many homes in the US.
Audio equipment presents less of a problem as generally all that is required is a step-down transformer to convert 230v to 110v. The difference in mains frequency should cause no problems whatsoever. One thing to be aware of though is the difference in AM and FM radio station frequencies.
In the US, the AM channels are spaced at 10kHz intervals whereas the UK/European spacing is 9kHz. Whilst this may sound a trivial difference it could present serious problems if you buy a Digital Tuner which can only be tuned in 10kHz intervals. Consider trying to listen to 675kHz AM (Radio Tien Gold, a Dutch “Oldies” station). A tuner which had fixed 10kHz steps could only tune to 670kHz or 680kHz, both of which are closer to the adjacent stations 666/684 than the station you want!!
I seem to remember from my last vacation to Florida that the FM radio in the hire car had a similar limitation in that it would only increment in 0.2MHz steps e.g. 103.1 103.3 103.5. That would be useless in the UK as my local stations are 99.3 102.4 103.4 106.1 etc.
Video equipment such as colour security cameras purchased in the US will be NTSC and, whilst many modern UK/European TV sets can accept NTSC signals, very few VCRs would be able to record the pictures from them. Beware also of the very attractive multichannel RF modulators used to add your own TV channels to your RF distribution as the modulation standards and frequencies are different.
Some equipment is becoming available for the UK/European market, the PAL version of HomeVision being one of the first, but I feel it will be quite a while before we have the choice that is available to automators in the US.
Plans for The Future.
Because of the lack of products available in the UK and the compatibility issues regarding imported equipment, my preferred route down the Home Automation Highway is a D-I-Y one. My intention is to have a PC known as KHAN (Keith’s Home Automation Network) looking after the automation systems that I will be installing in my house.
For system reliability, I will be basing the design on systems like Crestron where KHAN will sit at the â€˜top of the tree’ in a graphical fashion overseeing and instructing the individual elements of the system, (e.g. : lighting, heating, security, AV) each of which will be capable of stand-alone operation in the event of a main system failure.
I plan to have an interactive web-based home control system whereby any PC on my LAN can check and control any part of the system. Local control will also be provided by wall-mounted keypads, IR or RF handsets and telephone keypad.
Several of the key elements have already been prototyped and tested, including a system for sending composite video, stereo audio and IR data over a single CAT5 cable. The process of â€˜bolting the bits together’ will take quite a while to complete and the evolution of the system will be an ongoing process. I intend to make most of the elements available to my fellow enthusiasts for them to adapt for their own systems. HA