How to Select, Design and Install Home Automation Products and Systems You Need
Calling a Family Meeting
It’s time to get everyone involved. Everyone who lives in your house, spends a lot of time there or would like to know how to turn the lights on and off: Involve your kids, your parents, your employees. Serve snacks and brainstorm, and write down all your ideas. What do you want your new electronic house to do?
At first, you might balk at the idea of including friends and staff in your planning process. But we’re not recommending you ask the nanny for her opinion on what carpet to buy for the foyer (unless she’s got really good taste). She should, however, know about any electronics that the kids will have to operate or security measures you plan to install. And your gardener or landscaper might have some good suggestions about outdoor lighting, such as places that could be visually appealing and safe if they were more brightly illuminated.
Beginning the real work
Security, lighting and heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) control are usually the first decisions to make. These three systems work best when they work together. For instance, a “good night” button on your security keypad might be programmed to turn off all the house lights, arm the security system and turn down the thermostats.
This week, you’re going to research these subjects and determine your home’s needs. Some places to find this information are the book Smart Homes for Dummies and the Home Automation and Networking Association’s Web site, www.homeautomation.org.
Securing your home
When it comes to making your home safe and secure, you should start by thinking about what your home security needs are and then discussing them with your family. To make your home smarter, you’re going to want a system that can talk to the other systems in your house. Connected security systems generally consist of a central processor-the system’s brain-that’s housed in a metal box hidden in a closet. Connected back to this processor are wall-mounted keypads for arming and disarming the system, and a number of sensors that can alert the system of a security breach or a fire.
Where do you want to install sensors? A sensor in the greenhouse can detect and respond to freezing temperatures. One near the swimming pool can trip a sensor and alert you to an unexpected splash that might mean trouble.
How do you want to receive security alerts? On your pager? On your cell phone? At work? You can even receive alerts when your kids get home from school, and they enter their security code on the keypad.
Do you want to control your system remotely? Dial-in capabilities add about $150 to the cost of a security system, but they allow you to check on your house from the road. Surveillance cameras cost about $300 each and can monitor indoor and outdoor activity-whether it’s the baby’s room or the front door, for instance. You can pre-wire for security cameras and add them later if they’re not currently in your budget.
Researching your lighting options
Lighting control in the home serves several purposes. First, walk through your house today and make notes, thinking about the rooms in which you would like to have lighting control. What kinds of scenes would you like to have programmed into your keypads?
A lighting system works very closely with security by flashing lighting in the even of a break-in or turning lights on and off randomly while you’re away, to give your house a “lived in” look. Such features are built into many home security systems, adding between $150 and $200 to the total cost. A more sophisticated lighting system can set a mood, enhance a movie-watching experience, highlight artwork or architectural detail and create ambiance. If you’ve got room in your budget, hire a lighting designer who can help you plan the perfect lighting levels for every room. The International Association of Lighting Designers (www.iald.org) can help you locate a professional in your area.
A hard-wired lighting system, which requires its own network of dedicated low-voltage cabling, starts at approximately $5,000 and must be installed before the walls are closed on new construction.
Running hot and cold
Certain areas are lived in more than others. You probably haven’t gone down to the basement in a week. Your son’s bedroom most likely hasn’t been used since he left for college. And no one’s in the living room after bedtime. A zoned heating and cooling system divides your home into different sections, allowing you to target your energy dollars only where they’re needed.
Tradition single-zone systems consist of one HVAC unit and one centrally located thermostat that serves the entire house. A multi-zone system still uses a single HVAC unit, but it also includes a communicating thermostat for each zone and a network of motorized dampers that direct the optimal amount of warm or cool air to the appropriate zone when necessary.
Zoning a 2,500-square-foot house into two areas adds about $1,000 to the cost of an HVAC system. But because partitioning allows the system to service only the occupied areas of a home, zoning can save from 15 to 30 percent on your energy bills.
When deciding what kind of an HVAC system to install, ask yourself these questions: How many zones do you need? How narrowly do your want to target your energy consumption? What are the most highly trafficked areas of your home?
Paying for it
The final cost of your system will depend on the size of your house, the extent of automation, the ease of installation and the cost of labor. However, there are some ballpark guidelines so you can get an idea of what you can expect to pay for the basic systems.
Security: $1,000 to $1,500 for a 2,000-square-foot home; $2,500 for a 4,000 square foot home. Each interior security camera adds roughly $300, whereas weatherproof cameras for outdoor applications can each cost between $500 and $700.
Lighting: Each light usually costs from $13 to $15 when tied to a power-line carrier (X-10) security system. And the price of an architectural dimming system is at least $5,000.
HVAC: A communicating thermostat costs about $300; a two-zone heating/cooling system goes for $1,500.
Electronic systems that are built into the structure of a house and are not easily removed can often be rolled into the mortgage of a new home. Systems that are retrofit into existing home rarely qualify for independent financing, but some companies have third-party financing programs.
Wiring your home
Wire is the backbone of any electronic system. Certain services like digital satellite, high-speed Internet and digital TV also require high-performance cables to allow full access throughout the home. Structured wiring systems, which include RG-6 coaxial cable for TV and video, and Category 5 communications cable for telephone and data, can prepare a home for any technology you may want to add later on. The security, lighting and HVAC systems you install, however, will generally require special cabling. For data and entertainment-heavy areas, such as a home theater and home office, consider fiber-optic cabling. Research home wiring further at the Wiring America’s Homes Web site, www.homeautomation.org/wah.html.
Finding an installer
If you are technically savvy, then you can certainly tackle some jobs yourself. As you research various home systems, you’ll get a better idea of which projects you’ll feel comfortable handling: Perhaps you’d like to convert your basement into a home theater or connect all the PCs in your house via a wireless network.
However, integrating all your home systems so that they work together seamlessly is a job that most people would rather rive to a professional. Such a person might be called a custom installer, systems integrator, or dealer. Whatever your installer likes to be called, that person needs to be proficient at dealing with different systems and making them work together-rather than being an expert in one area.
Organizations such as CEDIA (www.cedia.org, 800-669-5329) and the Home Automation and Networking Association (www.homeautomation.org) can help you locate qualified installers in your area. Other resources include a local “parade of homes” or “home and garden” shows. Gather a list of prospects today, so that you can start locating your smart home partner.
Day 9, & 10
Making phone calls
Spend the next two days calling installers. By now, you should be able to paint a mental picture for them of what you want to have done. Briefly describe your major priorities, as well as the size of your house, and any specific functions you want to include.
Ask installers (call at least three) how long they’ve been in business and the average cost of the job they work on. What associations, such as CEDIA or HANA, are they affiliated with? Do they have a showroom or can they at least show you work that’s been done in a client’s home? Seeing the technology in action can give you a real feel for an installer’s capabilities. Finally, get references before hiring an installer.
Planning for a home theater
A home theater can be as modest as a big-screen TV and a surround-sound system in your family room – or as elaborate as your local multiplex. If watching movies is a favorite pastime, you might want to consider dedicating a room for this purpose. A basement, a spare bedroom, or even a garage can be converted into a full-fledged home theater. Pull out your home plans and see where a home theater might fit.
Do you want your movies projected onto a screen from a video projector in the floor or ceiling-or displayed on a big-screen TV? Generally, a two-piece projection system (a projector and a screen) is more expensive, but it more closely replicated the experience of going to the movies than a television can.
Is home theater a possibility for your smart home plan now? Or is this an upgrade you’d like to save for later? As long as you wire for speakers – and provided you have the space – a home theater is one system that can be added to your house practically painlessly at any point.
Day 12 & 13
Regrouping and replanning
You’ve been researching and planning for your smarter home for two weeks now. Have any of your original plans changed? Have you discovered new systems or functions that you’d like to add to your plan? Share your new knowledge with the members of your household. Then review your notes from your original family meeting, and discuss any changes you would like to make.
Planning for audio
Home entertainment doesn’t end with a home theater. A distributed audio system spreads music from a single stereo system to speakers installed in several rooms of the house. On the low end, you can simply add more speakers and run more speaker wire from your existing stereo system. However, if you’re building a new home, you can have a professionally installed whole-house audio distribution system that runs on its own cabling. The beauty of this type of system is that a wall-mounted keypad gives each room access to a different music source. Typically, the more sources and rooms you specify, the more expensive the system will be.
Selecting and placing speakers
If you’ve decided to install a distributed audio system, you’re going to need speakers in every zone/room. Speakers come in all shapes and sizes. The type that’s best for your home depends on the listening environment. For instance, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are designed to disappear and not to interfere with the dÃ?Â©cor; however, these speakers are rarely used as the main speakers in a home theater, where box-style speakers perform best. Meanwhile, waterproof speakers are the choice for damp areas like the master bath or the pool patio.
Map out the places where you would like to place speakers in your new, smarter home. Are there areas that will require special kinds of speakers? Think this step through carefully.
Home office planning
More and more people are working from home. Some telecommute to outside office; some maintain an office for weekend or after-hours work. While others even run small businesses out of their homes. What do you plan to do in your home office? How many multimedia outlets will you require?
Consider how many phone lines you need; do you need a separate fax line? Modem line? Do you need voice mail or an intercom to communicate between rooms? If so, you might want to consider an integrated digital phone system.
If you have several PCs in your home, consider installing a PC network so each PC can share the same printer and modem and exchange files. A wireless network will allow you to sit by the pool with your laptop, surf the Web, and print out your latest expense report -all without wires.
Choosing high-speed Internet access
High-speed, “always on” Internet access readies a home for a host of new, interactive services. You can download movies or even have your refrigerator repaired via the Internet. To tap into broadband services, you’ll need a cable modem, a DSL modem or satellite Internet service.
A cable modem is generally provided by your local cable company; satellite service can be purchased through your satellite-TV provider, and DSL is most often provided and installed by your local phone company. Shop for the best DSL price and speed at www.dsllife.com. Research cable-modem availability and technology at www.catv.org/index.html. For more information on satellite Internet access, check out the DirectPC Web site at www.directpc.com.
Set up a meeting with at least two installers this week. Try to visit a few hi-tech homes that have system in which you are most interested. For instance, if your primary focus is energy management, you don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at well-installed in-wall speakers.
The installation of electronic systems is extremely detailed and will require extensive documentation. Ask to see the job files and blueprints of an installation in progress. If the installer refuses, or hands over a disorganized mess of papers, move on to someone else.
Make a list of any components you own that you would like to incorporate into your home system. Perhaps you have a turntable that you want to tie into an audio distribution system or a couple of PCs that you would like to integrate with your security system. Are there any components-such as televisions or computers-that you could purchase yourself at a lower price? Often it’s less expensive to purchase your own TVs, CD players, DVD players, and the like, rather than acquiring them through an installer, However, installers will guarantee the reliability of the equipment they purchase and install. If you do your own purchasing and installation and the equipment fails, getting service could be difficult.
Day 20 & 21
You’ve spoken to quite a few installers by now. During those meetings and phone calls, you’ve gathered several references-names and numbers of clients for whom they’ve worked. Call every one of those customers!
Don’t be afraid to ask them very specific questions: Did they like working with their installer? Did the installer finish the job on time? On budget? How long have they lived in the house since the completion of the project? How has the system performed since it was installed? When they encountered problems (and every home has some problems), has the installer responded quickly?
Day 22 & 23
Consider your home’s future
What events will be taking place in the near future? Will the kids be moving off to college soon? Are plans in the works to have an aging parent move in? Are there functions or systems you should include with these events in mind?
Many systems or components can be added later if you prewire for them now. Will you be adding surveillance cameras? Extra speakers in the kids’ rooms? Might you turn the nursery into a home office? If so, run wire to these locations now.
Day 24 & 25
Assembling your team
It’s time to talk to your builder, architect, electrician, cabinet-maker and interior decorator about your smart home plans. They must be involved in the planning process from the beginning. Encourage them to communicate and coordinate with your home systems installer, once you’ve hired that person. Your interior designer might be able to suggest a painter who could camouflage speakers, keypads and sensors. Your electrician’s schedule will need to be coordinated with that of your installer. And the architect simply must know where electronics will be installed in order to plan for the space. Getting your team to work together can make the difference between a dream house and a house of horrors.
Holding a family meeting!
It’s time to choose an installer. You’ve met the candidates, or at least spoken to them on the phone. Who do you feel you can trust? You’re going to be seeing a lot of this person, so you need to make sure both of you are compatible with each other. Do you feel comfortable discussing your budget and priorities, or do you feel as if your installer is always trying to sell you more stuff? What about neatness and courtesy? How about availability in an emergency? If you leave a message, how promptly do you get a response?
And is your installer excited about your dream home? A well-integrated electronic system will require long hours of hard work. If the excitement isn’t there now, you’re not going to see a sudden burst of energy six months into the job.
Go through the candidates as a family and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each until you’ve settled on the right person for the job.
Preparing your materials
It’s time to gather your resources for your first meeting with your newly hired installer:
*You have a plan that includes systems you would like to install now and upgrades you would like to make over time.
*You have a list of all the key members of your team (electrician, builder, architect, interior designer, cabinet maker) and their phone numbers.
*You have a ballpark budget.
*You have blueprints of your house, as well as specific details about where you would like to have music, Internet access, TVs, lighting control and security cameras.
*You have a list of existing components you would like to integrate into your home system and a list of components you plan to purchase yourself.
Day 28 & 29
Calling your new installer
It’s time to have your first official business meeting with your new installer. If you can, bring your builder along. The more the builder understands the process, the better off you are.
Now you’ll begin discussing the business specifics, such as payment schedules, warranties and documentation. Determine exactly what you’re paying for and what the labor fees are, and never be afraid to ask, “Is there anything else I could be charged for?” Make sure the installer carries at least a $1million liability policy.
Find out whether the installer has a privacy clause, about the documentation for your system and when you can expect to see a written quote, detailing your system.
You should be proud of yourself! Armed with knowledge, an experienced team, and a well-thought-out plan, you’re on the road to a smarter, connected home of your dreams.