Imagine being on summer vacation in Australia while it's mid-winter back home in Boston. Your neighbor has kindly agreed to feed your exotic fish while you're away for three weeks, and you know she'll be visiting every morning and evening. You log onto the Internet from your hotel and, in minutes, you program your New England home to respond to movement at 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily -- the heat turns on temporarily, lights flicker, and soft music begins playing on the stereo in the living room. You make sure you welcome your guest properly, even though you're thousands of miles away.

Though this may seem like a scene from 'Star Trek', it is a reality in today's world of wireless communication. The ever-expanding era of Local Operating Network (LON) technology is permeating our daily lives and gradually changing both the home and building automation industries. The LonWorks platform created by Echelon Corp., San Jose, Calif., is a prime example of an open system that delivers distributed network control technology.

"We've been pushing distributed digital controls for many years, " said Steve Nguyen, Echelon's director of corporate marketing. "In this new world of distributed technology, we've managed to embed a piece of intelligence into a simple device and link it to others across a network so they communicate. It's a phenomenal growth area."

People and devices are connecting every day. Looking around, it's safe to say that data and control networks are integrating at a faster-than-ever pace. "Smart" office buildings can open and lock doors, start and stop elevators and turn lights on and off from a central security system using an Internet server. Homeowners are able to program an array of appliances from DVD players to sprinkler systems using touch-tone phones from any remote location. Intelligent devices are communicating, sensing and processing multitudes of applications and are being used in everything from slot machines to skyscrapers.

How do these devices interact and integrate into an intelligent operating system?

A microprocessor-based method integrates information from everyday devices -- appliances, assembly lines, thermostats, pumps --into enterprise applications such as inventory systems and connects them to each other and to the Internet. A Neuron chip is installed in equipment such as motion or temperature sensors and the devices become linked across a data network through almost any kind of transmission media such as Cat. 5 twisted pair (typical networking cable), fiber optic, power lines and others.

The LON system is especially changing the manner in which electricians install today's office wiring systems. Fixtures are directly wired to branch circuits and microprocessors control each fixture, or they are wired in a long daisy-chain with a simple wire connected to each device. LonWorks-compatible switches are installed and connected using a router, and the system is programmed to mimic a traditional operating system as though it were physically wired together.

Echelon and the National Joint Apprentice and Training Committee are jointly offering courses to educate electricians on the proper techniques for safe LonWorks installation. The classes are offered to members of the National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Echelon's headquarters is itself a showcase for the company's innovative LonWorks system. Superintendents have complete access to the building's network sub-systems from the comfort of their office Web browser. Facility operators are able to monitor and control heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), security, lighting and other functions simultaneously, while employees can create a personalized level of office comfort by setting up individual work space preferences through the Web.

"Employees follow an occupancy schedule that allows them to determine office settings that reflect their typical work week," said Nguyen. "Lighting and temperature settings can be modified and temporary override requests can be made."

Echelon's projections indicate that distributed control systems will dominate the electrical industry over the next 10 years. Manufacturers are obviously finding control technology to be a cost-effective way of building communication and networking capabilities into simple devices, but why are so many reaching out to use this platform?

For one, open systems such as LonWorks enable the use of products from multiple manufacturers in the same application, e.g., a lighting system, provided the products conform to the same industry standard. Key building sub-systems such as HVAC, lighting, security and others use certified products from different vendors, which are integrated into one smart building system. The net result is that companies are no longer tied to proprietary products available from only one manufacturer, therefore encouraging vendors to become partners rather than competitors while providing more freedom and lower costs to the companies that use the products. Labor costs are also reduced because building operations require only one or two people to manage millions of square feet across the country or even abroad.

To view a live demo of LonWorks and experience seamless networking at your fingertips, go to demo.echelon.com. EC

STEFANOVA is an associate editor at ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She may be reached at szs@necanet.org.