In August 2004, my parents, Gary and Lynda Breton, bought an unfinished house in Chandler, Arizona, after the builder ran out of funds to finish the project. Before they knew it, Gary and Lynda had almost 8000 sf of house to finish and make their own.

Although the house was structurally complete, there were several digital home elements that needed to be designed, so I flew down and met with their contractors to spec out all of the audio/video, security, and other digital home elements. We decided items such as alarm, whole house vacuum, and theater would be best handled by local electronics contractors, allowing me to focus on the Home Controls & Automation, as well as an IP based Video Surveillance system.

We were somewhat intimidated by the task at hand, given the number of elements to be automated within a home of this size. So we decided to investigate the possibility of having a local installer retrofit the home with a traditional structured-wire automation system. When the bids came in at $20k-$30k, this “must have” quickly turned into a “nice to have” and we dropped the automation part of the system altogether.

Jump ahead to late December 2004…

While visiting me and my family in Folsom, CA over Christmas, my parents were intrigued by my PC-based home automation system, and they revisited the idea of automation with renewed interest. After discussing various options, it was decided that when they were ready to move forward with a home automation system, we would build them a similar PC-based system.

In March of 2005 my parents finally moved in to their new home and quickly discovered that it takes 15-20 minutes to walk around the multi-level home, inside and out, and turn off all the lights each night. This “nice to have” had suddenly become a “can’t live without”.

Project Overview

We decided that we would break up the installation into 2 phases:

* Phase 1: Voice activated and dynamically scheduled lighting control
* Phase 2: Adding controls for pool/spa, security, HVAC, garage doors, gate, fireplace and whole house audio

Phase 1 – Install Dedicated Home Automation Server for Voice Activated & Dynamically Scheduled Lighting Control

The dedicated Intel processor-based PC server to run the automation software was placed inside a media closet with the other structured wiring and alarm components.

For voice-activation we installed HAL2000, a control/automation software package from Home Automated Living. HAL supports speaker independent voice recognition (with no training) to control lights, as well as other devices such as security, thermostats, and much more.

HAL is a voice-activated program and can be accessed using any phone in the home using a custom voice modem. Gary and Lynda can pick up a phone and press “#” and talk to HAL (or in this case, “Sabrina” and tell [her] to “turn on kitchen lights,” or “turn off outside lights,” etc.) And, since HAL can also be accessed via a web interface on any networked PC we also installed the software on a wireless Pocket PC to allow for remote control of 14 major lighting areas from anywhere inside or outside of the home.

HAL can be programmed to provide voice-controlled access to information gathered from the internet at preset intervals, such as weather, sports, TV listings, stock information, and much more. I used this feature to setup the house modes and lighting schedules based on real-time sunrise and sunset data pulled from the internet, so that there is no need to adjust the schedules during the year.

UPB was developed by Powerline Control Systems. The UPB communication protocol is a pulse-position modulated signal, (not frequency-based) that is not susceptible to interference on the powerline, and as such is ultra-reliable and fast, not to mention fully scalable and cost effective. Carlsbad, California-based, Simply Automated, Incorporated is a licensee of the UPB technology from PCS and currently offers a full line of switches, receptacles, and plug-in modules to control virtually anything connected to the existing wiring. It is my opinion that UPB is poised to replace other powerline carrier technologies and in doing so will finally provide a solid and standard home control technology that can be used in new and existing homes.

While HAL supports a couple different communication protocols for lighting and appliance control, we chose to install UPB-based (Universal Powerline Bus) switches from Simply Automated, which have a small LED indicator at the top, they and look and feel similar to standard “decorative” switches.” All the UPB modules installed in the home form a communication network of up to 64,000 devices. These devices are configured using the UPB configuration software, called UPStart , installed on the automation server (PC) connected to the household wiring using a UPB computer interface module.

The UPB installation went great. 8000sft – zero issues! There was no need to install filters or repeaters. The switches were very easy to setup, and since they are all centrally configured from the PC, there was no need to go around and set dials at each switch.

Phase 1 took a total of 2 days to complete and it was a complete success with no issues what so ever. We were so impressed with the ease of installation of the HAL software and the UPB products that we even expanded our plans a bit by adding in control of their outdoor mister system.

A few photos (all the lights you see in these photos are controlled by the system)

Phase 2 – Adding UPB Control Devices

Phase 2 of the automation projects was to add UPB control devices to allow voice-activated and web-based control of the various subsystems around the home.

The first hurdle we had to overcome was the need for multiple RS-232 ports, since the security system, the pool/spa control , and the HVAC thermostat all required a serial interface to the automation PC. The PC had only one serial port, but several USB ports, so we opted to use Belkin USB to Serial Adaptors. They were expensive, at about $49.99 each, but after all the horror stories I had heard of randomly changing comm port assignments on reboots with inexpensive adaptors, we decided to spend a bit more for [what I consider to be] a better product. The Belkin adaptors worked great. I installed the drivers and then just plugged them in. They were automatically assigned ports 5, 6, and 7. These values did not change on reboots.

Wall Mount Automation PC – the Automation server is dedicated and kept in the media closet under the West stairs. At first, I just placed the PC on a small table in this closet but since everything was working so well, I wanted a more permanent & clean looking installation. I came up with the idea of “wall mounting” the PC using shelving. Normally, I might suggest you could go without the monitor, keyboard, & mouse but it is nice to have there for the few times you need it. The result was everything I wanted and looks very clean.

Most of the items we needed had been ordered and were already waiting for me on site, but there were a few items I still needed to pick up. One item of note was a new eMachines PC, (Celeron based at only $362!), which we were adding to the Master Bedroom using the Plasma TV as the display. This system would primarily provide access to the IP based Security Cameras – more on this later. I also picked up four Belkin USB to Serial adaptors as several of the items I needed to control only support a serial interface. I was a bit worried but these adaptors turned out to work great. With one last quick stop at Home Depot for shelving and zip ties, I was back to the house and to work.

Security System Interface – It is important to note that in many of the control spaces, the PC and Automation system expands the interface to and awareness of an existing system. It does not move the functionality to the PC. The security system is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. By tying in to the security system, the Automation System has knowledge of alarm, door, window, and motion status, but the security system still functions on its own. The HAL2000 software we are using for Home Automation supports most of the common alarm systems, so setup was just a matter of connecting the serial cable and configuring each of the “zones” in HAL as sensors. Now, when the house is put in to Night mode, HAL tells you if you have set the alarm or not. HAL could also set the alarm for you, but for now we have left that control in the hands of the occupant. On Mother’s Day, I set HAL to wish a “Happy Mother’s Day” over the whole house audio system every time a motion sensor was triggered. On a more practical note, HAL will now turn on all the house lights and email us if the alarm were to be triggered. A future expansion may include using the IP based web cams to capture and transfer images if the alarm goes off. This could be accomplished via some simple scripting.

Garage Doors Control and Sensors – Controlling Garage Doors is nothing new in the Automation Space. It has been done with x10 contact closure interfaces for years. So far, I had only used UPB on the powerline and even though they are compatible, I had no interest in adding x10 to the home. What I needed was a UPB based contact closure interface, which I found from Simply Automated. If you remember, Simply Automated is the manufacture of the UPB based light switches and computer interface we used in Phase 1 and they were about to ship a new multi function I/O module. With their gracious support, I was able to get a few of these modules early. As you’ll see in the next few areas, these modules are extremely versatile and I truly enjoyed working with them. In this case, I used one of the contact close terminals to open & close the garage door. Since these devices are multi functional, I was able to use the same device to also sense a closed contact. By installing a simple magnetic sensor on the garage floor and door, I was able to get door status info, open or closed. So, with one UPB device I have garage door control and garage door status. I replicated this setup in both East and West garages. The I/O modules are $94.95 (retail).

Gate Control – To control the gate, I also used an I/O module from Simply Automated. I got lucky and found an outlet in the right gate control tower, so installation was a breeze. I just plugged in the I/O module, wired it to the gate’s open and close terminals, and configured it “down-the-wire”. Unlike a common garage door, the gate actually has separate terminals for open and close. No problem for the I/O module as it has two contact ports. Additionally, I used another magnetic sensor to provide gate status info back to the system. Again, I was able to use a single I/O module for all three functions.

Landscape Lighting – Landscape lighting would have been included in Phase 1 but the landscaping wasn’t installed yet. Adding control of the Landscape lighting was as easy as swapping out a light switch, which is exactly what we did. I installed another UPB-based switch from Simply Automated and added it to the system. Now the Landscape lights come on when the house enters Evening mode automatically each night at sunset. There is a fountain or grotto in the driveway, which will also have its lighting control via a UPB receptacle. Lastly, 4 potted plants in the foyer will have lighting control via 4 UPB receptacles. UPB light switches are $74.95 each and receptacles are $94.95 each (retail).

Fireplace Control – Something I would never attempt with x10. I just do not have faith in the protocol or devices to risk handing control of fire. But, after just a few months of experience with UPB and its flawless functionality, I was ready to give it a limited trial. Currently, we are controlling 3 of the 4 fireplaces in the home. These are electric start gas units. Two of them were controlled via an 110v common light switch and while the most seamless thing to do would have been to just replace the light switch, I ended up using 2 UPB based Appliance Modules from Simply Automated. Appliance Modules are $74.95 (retail). These are a little easier to install and I had them on hand. Under the gas part of the fireplace are existing outlets the fireplace plugs in to. Installation was as simple as unplugging the fireplace, plugging in the Appliance Module, and plugging the fireplace in to it. The other fireplace was controlled via a simple contact closure switch, much like the garage doors and gate. In this case, I installed an I/O module and wired it up to the existing switch. This fireplace can be controlled locally via the switch, or via the automation system. Depending on usage, we may go back and replace the two Appliance Modules with wall switches to provide local control as well. With HAL, you can now say, “Turn on the Family Room Fireplace” from any phone in the home, and the fireplaces will likely be added to a “Party” house mode.

Irrigation Control – Like the security system, we didn’t want to remove normal day to day management of this device, but to provide an extension into the Automation System. Irrigation is still normally controlled by an external digital timer clock. This allows anyone providing gardening services to manage the watering schedules while still proving the automation system access. For example, if my dad is walking around and decides the plants could use some extra water, he can just pick up any phone and say “turn on east drip system for 10 minutes”. This is another example where the versatile I/O module came in to play. In this case, I came off the 24v transformer within the existing Irrigation clock, and in to one of the terminals on the I/O module. The 2nd terminal on the I/O module goes to the sprinkler zone I wish to power. The I/O module has room to support two such uses in one unit. In this photo, you see both the I/O module in a waterproof outlet, (top of picture) and the landscape lighting clock. As mentioned above, the landscape lighting clock isn’t used anymore and to the right of it is a UPB light switch.

Whole House Audio – The home already had a distributed audio system whose source was either a single CD player or digital music via cable TV. We tied the Home Automation PC into this system to provide whole house audio feedback and digital music control via HAL2000. I got very lucky and was able to control the amplifier via an Appliance Module. Most electronics do not power back on after their power source is removed, which leaves you with the need to control them via an inferred device. Unfortunately, no UPB based infrared controllers exist, yet. In the case of the Sony unit used to power the house audio, it does return to an “on” state when power is provided. The amplifier is hardwired to the Automation PCs audio output. Now the Automation system can verbally announce (caller-id, etc…) over the house audio as well as play music. HAL2000 has an integrated Digital Music Center and playing music is as easy as picking up any phone in the house and saying “Play Neil Diamond music”, although that isn’t what I would say.

Pool/Spa Control – The home already had a high end Jandy Pool/Spa control system with wireless LCD remote, so while there is a UPB based Pool/Spa controller available, it didn’t make sense to replace the existing equipment. Additionally, keeping the Jandy unit in place allows for Pool/Spa autonomy, which the pool maintenance service expects, while also providing control and status to the Automation system. A Jandy serial interface was used. This was the most expensive addition to the system at about $400.00. Unfortunately, HAL2000 doesn’t currently support this interface so I had to get creative. I’m currently using keyboard stuff scripts that I wrote to launch HyperTerminal and issue commands to the pool equipment. This works, but is a bit slow. I’m working on a Visual Basic based application to provide faster and 2 way functionality and have begun on talk to the folks at Home Automated Living about adding native support for Jandy to HAL2000. The key scenario here has been the ability to call up the home from anywhere and say “I’m going in the spa”. By the time you get home, the Spa is on, heated, the jets are going, and all the lights are on.

HVAC Control – As I mentioned above, I used a hardwired serial HVAC thermostat since a UPB-based unit isn’t currently available. This will change within the next month or so and we will ultimately replace all 6 stats with UPB-based units. The thermostat will be identical to the one currently installed, just the interface will change from serial to UPB. The thermostat I used is from Residential Control Systems, (RCS), is retails for about $269.00. HAL2000 supports this thermostat and allows voice commands such as “What is the family room temperature” and “Set the family room temperature to 75 degrees”. HAL is currently adjusting the temperate per house mode, Day & Night, automatically.

Master Bedroom PC – Although not specifically part of the Home Automation system, I did add another PC in the Master Bedroom. Like the Automation system, this PC is wall mounted in the closet but is connected to the Plasma TV in the bedroom (above fireplace in earlier photo). The system is primarily used to monitor the IP based web cameras throughout the home for video surveillance. As I mentioned above, we used a Celeron based eMachine system, which retailed for $362 after rebate. Amazing!

Project Costs

The net cost of hardware and software for phase 1 was just over $3000 including the new a desktop PC and pocket PC. Here’s a high level summary of the items included in this project. As you can see, the system is significantly less expensive than the installer suggested solution and since it is PC-based, it is much more flexible and expandable.

Here’s a high level summary of the items added in Phase 2. If a traditional installer based solution had been used, adding the elements I did in phase 2 would have been significantly more costly, and in some cases they would have been impossible due to the lack of “wiring” — powerline and PC are key to the flexibility.

In conclusion, during Phase 2, we added $1889.85 to the existing system bringing the total to about $5142.00. Again, this includes 3 new PCs at a total cost of $1265. If you remove those items and used an existing PC, the cost of the total “Automation” project is only $3877.00.

Future Phases

There are still a few items we will be adding in the future.

* Finish the HVAC control when UPB based units ship (all 6 units)
* Power control of Video Surveillance cameras {completed in June}
* Multi Button switches to provide another method to select house modes, macros, & music
* Wireless color touch panel interface(s)
* Wine Cellar Temperature Monitoring


Simply Automated (Manufacture of UPB based devices)

Home Controls (Distributer of Simply Automated, & other automation products)

Home Automated Living (Creators of the HAL2000 Home Automation Software)

Residential Control Systems (Manufacture of HVAC control products)

Powerline Control Systems (Developers of the UPB Protocol)

Mike Breton has worked for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company for 16 years, focusing on IT Infrastructure Services. Mike is interested in just about any area of technology. His hobbies include Home Controls, Automation and integration projects. The following case study describes in detail how Mike designed and installed a very cost-effective home automation system using the existing wiring in the new home.