Picture this: You are out of town, left in a hurry and forgot to change your thermostats before you left. The vision of dollars going up in smoke fills your mind when you think of air-conditioning an empty house.

Now imagine that you can lift the lid on your notebook computer, dial in to the Internet from your hotel room and access your home control system to change the thermostats. Oh, and while you are there, you check the thermostats of your kids’ rooms and adjust them, too. You also turn off a couple of lights and check to see that the pool pump turned off on schedule.

Sound far-fetched? Well, this is actually a true story of my travels last week. And while I’ve had the power of a home automation system for the last two years, its value hit me when I realized that I could control my thermostats and check on the house activity from 1,600 miles away.

For me, the path to home automation started two years ago when I found low-cost home automation software called HomeSeer, located at www.homeseer.com . This software can be set up on one computer but uses separately purchased hardware to connect to power lines, infrared devices, radio transmitters and almost anything else in your house.

This software is surprisingly simple to set up, but has incredible power to control just about everything in a home. Wired or wireless, you can connect to it all over power lines.

It is also some of the best written Windows software that I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’ve jokingly told my friends that Bill Gates ought to hire the program’s author, Richard Helmke, to teach other’s how to program for Windows. Helmke has built infinitely extensible software that doesn’t go off on tangents. It is well behaved and as such takes advantage of speech agents, scripting, and runs on just about any version of Windows without a hitch.

With just a Web browser you can control lights, appliances, a security system — almost anything with a power switch. In my home, the system controls the pool pumps and cleaner, opens and closes drapes, and even tells me when someone is coming up the driveway or if I left the garage door up.

In fact, my house talks. The computer running HomeSeer is hooked up to a whole-house audio system and the system tells me when an exterior door is opened or when someone is walking in the back yard at night. During the day, it checks the weather on the Web and reads the forecast to me. It can also read me the technical and business news whenever I want.

My system can also recognize voice commands, perform tasks according to a schedule or respond to something, like the trigger of a motion detector. As it performs activities, it logs everything to a file so I can see what happened and when. It can even be set up to receive or send e-mail.

The cost to get started is low. The software sells on the Web for $79.95. You need an X10 starter kit from online stores such as X10 Home Solutions, at www.x10.com/products/product_list3.htm , for as little as $49.99. If you don’t like X10, no problem. The software supports a wide range of home automation devices. (See the list following this article.)

Once you get going, watch out. You can get a taste of automating with a few lights or an appliance. If you like the idea, you can join me in hooking up just about every device possible to the system.

I’ve got scripts for night lights, art lights and a host of other automated tasks. There are a few caveats, though, in larger homes. The signals sent to devices fade if traveling too far. But these can be overcome with a willing electrician and patience to debug the system. There’s plenty of support at sites such as www.smarthome.com and through e-zines such as this one who can help give people ideas.

Having a little automation not only saves money but also can provide peace of mind. When I checked my house last week, I found that my son returned home by 11:30 p.m., triggered the driveway sensor, opened and then closed the garage door. Another door to the house didn’t open until 7 the next morning.

HomeSeer supports:

* X10 ActiveHome CM11A X10 serial interface (two way interface)
* X10 CM17A RF serial interface (one way, send only X10 interface)
* All CM11A compatible interfaces such as the IBM Home Director HD11A, the Radio Shack plug’n power interface, and the X10 CM12U.
* Applied Digital Ocelot/CPU-XA (X10/Infrared/Input-output serial interface)
* MR26A RF Receiver
* ACT TI103 X10 interface (X10 only)
* SmartLinc HouseLinc home controller (X10 and infrared)
* NIRVIS Slink-e (infrared, Sony Control-S)
* JDS IRXpander (Infrared) .
* Supports SmarLinc SwitchLinc wall switches and PCS wall switches
* Supports the RCS TX15B bi-directional thermostat for HVAC control

Those in the market for relatively cheap, cutting edge X10 control software would do well to consider HomeSeer. Some of its more exotic features may be a bit much for computer novices, and its occasionally quirky interface can be a touch annoying, but if you really want to be in control and you’re willing to do some work, this is the package to get.

HomeSeer’s greatest strength may be a bit nichey: it supports Windows Scripting Host (WSH) nicely. Using WSH, you’re not limited to just turning lights on and off; anything that can be done with VBScript, ActiveX components, and executable programs can be triggered by X10 events.

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Beyond that remarkable capability, HomeSeer is a solid X10 control package. It feels a bit young in its interface, but with the recent upgrade from 1.1 to 1.2, some of the rough edges did get sorted out. And 1.2.5 is already available in beta form. The company also seems very responsive on their message board, and most complaints of “hey, feature X broke” are answered by “Yes, it was, and now we fixed it” within a day or two.

Setting up HomeSeer is pretty typical of Windows programs. After going through the usual InstallShield bit, it’s time to configure the X10 devices that HomeSeer will control. I tested HomeSeer using the CM11A (? The normal computer/serial/x10 control), four X10 basic dimmer switches, two Hawkeye motion/light detectors, two Transciever Modules (set for different house codes), and entirely too many X10 RF remotes (man, do those things pile up).

Getting basic operation out of HomeSeer is pretty straightforward. The program uses a nice Outlook-like interface, and splits the world into Devices, Events, and the Event Log. Devices represent the various X10 devices, obviously enough. Configuring them is as simple as adding a new device, defining its house and unit code, and specifying what kind of device it is. HomeSeer can automatically detect if the device supports bi-directional communication.

Events are where things really happen.. Events can be triggered by time, by an X10 event or manually (that is, you have to click on it). HomeSeer’s scheduling is robust, allowing for rules like “Every Monday through Thursday at midnight.”

Within the Event dialog, you specify what should happen when the event is triggered. An event can affect multiple X10 devices, and can in fact call other events. HomeSeer also allows one element of an event to be delayed; I found this nifty for making an “end of evening” event that shut off all my downstairs lights except the one by the stairs, which would stay on for five minutes before turning off.

Now we get to the really cool part for those willing to do some extra work. One of the tabs in the event dialog allows you to specify WSH scripts to run when the event happens. WSH is effectively an interpreted form of Visual Basic, and allows for great flexibility.

From within WSH, X10 control is available through the “hs” object which HomeSeer provides. So scripts can intelligently and conditionally use X10 devices. But it gets way cooler than that: the WSH scripts can also use any other ActiveX component.

I used the WSH feature to build a bridge to my Slinke installation, a handy jukebox controller for Sony 200 disc changers from Nirvis. The Slinke package also supports general purpose IR receive and transmit.

Using WSH and the Slinkx control, I was able to map a single button on my X10 RF remote to gradually dim all the lights in my living room, turn off the aquarium pump (loud!), turn on the TV, receiver, and DVD player, and set the inputs on the TV and reciver, and finally open the DVD tray. Watching a DVD became as easy as slapping a disc in and hitting play.

Likewise for CD listening, a single preset sets the room lights to 30% (I like it somewhat dark), sets the receiver’s inputs, and starts a random play session on the CD changers.

HomeSeer uses the Microsoft Agent to support voice recognition as well as voice output. I find the former unreliable and the latter annoying. Then again, I haven’t really wired my place for microphones to where I would expect the voice rec to work from the living room.

One more nifty feature on HomeSeer is its web interface. Using it, you can control X10 devices as well as look at their state. Fortunately, HomeSeer can password protect the web interface, as it might grow tiresome to have friends constantly mucking about with your X10 system.

On the whole, HomeSeer is an excellent if slightly young product. Its advanced features make it incredibly flexible and adaptable to all sorts of things X10 was never intended for – which is half the fun of home automation.