Partnering for Controls

Home automation is where the worlds of information technology (IT) professionals and electrical contractors come together. They have a lot to teach each other, and they can have great success when they work together. An electrical contractor can set up a home automation department by training a team of installers to wire and commission these systems. Furthermore, there are many home automation companies that will certify installers and provide guidance as well as hardware and software.

Home automation companies provide the operating system to interconnect TV, audio, gaming, lighting, temperature control, surveillance, intrusion protection, access control and fire alarm systems. In order to be reliable, smooth and fast, the operating system must run on an installed backbone—the best being a Category 5e or 6 Ethernet local area network (LAN). For the most flexibility, there should also be a wireless access point (WAP) for connecting the wired network to devices that are more conveniently run by Wi-Fi.

Setting up the LAN
The wired backbone should be in a star configuration, which means there is a separate home-run cable from the central connection point to at least one RJ-45 connector in every room where there might be a device on the LAN. Typically, the central connection point should be an Ethernet switch.

The beauty of an Ethernet switch is that every line coming from it can carry the full bandwidth. If Cat 5e or 6 unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cable is used, each separate home-run cable can transmit data at a rate of 1 gigabit per second. Since streaming video requires no more than 50 to 100 megabits per second, each Ethernet run will be able to handle a TV plus plenty more at each connection.

The LAN’s in place; what next?
An installer can seek out system components that have Ethernet connectivity and run them from the installed LAN. One way of automating a home is to use a system with all the building blocks that can be assembled step by step. Once the cabling is there, it’s easy to add components at the homeowner’s own pace. If an installer develops a good relationship with the customer, he or she will be called back every time the homeowner wants to upgrade the system.

One reason home automation upgrades is such a promising growth area is that the means are coming within reach of the average homeowner.

“Historically, home automation’s been very expensive for very big homes. We wanted to make it much more affordable and retrofitable. With Control4, the homeowner can start at less than $600, which makes for a much broader market,” said Eric Smith, CTO, Control4.

Other companies, for example, AMX, Crestron, DSC, HAI, Savant and UTC, have similar offerings.

They all have systems that are built on proprietary control units. What is common among them is that they use open-source devices that have a variety of different types of inputs and outputs—digital, analog, infrared (IR) and contact closures—to provide the interfaces for most controllable devices. Control4, for example, has three different levels, varying in cost and capability. When a controller is connected to one of the home-run legs of the LAN, the installer can program it to run all of the Internet protocol (IP) devices that he or she wants to control (e.g., lighting, heating, security, audio and video). All of the connected devices can be monitored and controlled from one or more user interfaces.

Although a TV screen is nice because it offers a large display, a homeowner also can have any number of touchscreens, either portable wireless devices or wall-mounted. Most systems come with a remote that talks to the controller, and the controller operates everything else. It is easy to tie in the TV if the system has an IP or Ethernet connection. Still, if it doesn’t, most of the controllers have IR outputs for operating the set just as one would with a standard remote control. A typical screen might list options such as “watch, listen, lights, temperature and security.” Clicking on one of these would give the user additional choices for monitoring and controlling every device on the network. As long as the home’s Internet access is on the network, the user can view and control everything from anywhere that the Internet can be accessed, from a laptop or many mobile devices such as smart phones or iPads.

Performing the installation
Installing and programming these systems requires specific training because as with so much else, the devil is in the details. A good place to look for training programs is the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). Contractors who have the foresight to add this capability will be able to get in on the early growth stages of a market that is certain to be rapidly expanding in the next few years.

BROWN is an electrical engineer, technical writer and editor. For many years, he designed high-power electronics systems for industry, research laboratories and government. Reach him at or at, an independent professional writing service.

About the Author

Edward Brown

IBS Columnist and Freelance Writer
Edward Brown is an electrical engineer, freelance writer and editor who draws on his years of practical experience designing industrial processing and high-power electronics systems. In addition to writing the Integrated Building Systems column for E...

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