Home automation was once an area relegated to techies. X10 was essentially the granddaddy of all home automation systems and was one of the earliest home automation systems to hit the market and which could be used with a home PC. The x10 home automation system has had little or no competition, but several companies are now offering similar systems which do very many of the same things that the x10 did for less money.

Radio Shack, one of America’s oldest and most dependable electronics outlets, is now offering a home automation interface kit which includes a CD-ROM of the software and a programmable AC outlet interface module. The kit is simple to use and very inexpensive.

The Home Control Center from Radio Shack comes with a CD-ROM, a cable with a RJ-11 connection on one end and a serial port connection on the other, and a computer interface module which plugs into any standard household 3-prong (with ground) outlet. The software which comprises a fairly small program was written originally for the Windows 95 operating system, but I have found that the software shows no visible problems or errors in Windows XP Professional Edition.

The first step in setting up Radio Shack’s Home Automation kit is to attach the RJ-11 end of the cord into the RJ-11 connector on the AC outlet module. Next step is to remove any devices you may have plugged into your PC’s serial port (this reviewer had a Palm Pilot V plugged in) and then plug in the serial port connector. Be sure to tighten both of the connectors thumb screws before proceeding. Finally, plug the module into any three prong AC wall outlet or surge bar. Place the CD-ROM in your drive and run the setup. The only part of the software’s setup that is a bit tricky is whether or not to allow the installation software to place the program in your startup. If you do not use your serial port for anything other than the Home Automation kit, this is fine. If you have a Palm Pilot cradle that you plug in or some other device, opt not to load the program in startup. By doing so, the Home Automation kit will only occupy the serial port (COM 2 on most PC’s) when your double-click the icon and run the program. Once your have finished using the software, you can exit the software and thus release COM 2 for your other device or devices.

Once this hookup is complete, you can proceed to program home appliances using the programs simple to use interface. Depending on the type of appliance you wish to turn on using the Radio Shack kit, Radio Shack produces a host of modules for all different sorts of appliances including lamps, air conditioners, lawn sprinklers, etc. The Radio Shack Home Automation kit includes a sample file which allows you to test the software and hardware with a lamp. Simply plug the lamp into the lamp module (module # LM 465) and then plug the module into an AC outlet. You can then program this module from the software. Once programmed with an on./off time, the Radio Shack interface module sends a signal through the home or office electrical system to the lamp module to turn on and then off.

The interface screen is clear and simple to use utilizing graphics of switches to represent the on/off positions of the various devices. More advanced users of the software can create home automation macros which can turn on a series of devices with the click of a button. The software features a thorough and detailed help screen and also provides a pictorial catalogue of all the modules produced by Radio Shack and which home devices or appliances they support.

All in all, the Radio Shack kit is simple to use for most end users and more affordable than the x10 kit. However, the software and hardware are not without their shortcomings. The fact that the kit utilizes the serial port was not a big issue when this kit was first introduced (the box reads 1997), but over the years the serial port has been very popular to upload and download to PDA’s. This may cause you some problems and some annoyance since you will have to remove the Radio Shack kit’s serial connector to hook up your PDA. It would be more convenient if Radio Shack released a updated kit with USB connectors.

Also, sometimes the kits did not operate successfully the first time tested. You may find yourself having to redo the on/off schedule once or twice before the unit seems to get it right. The modules themselves although lightweight can be hard to handle and they plug in very tight to AC outlets. It can be a hassle and “finger breaker” to free them if you need to move them for some reason. Also, the main module depends on two AAA alkaline batteries which if you do a lot with the system do not last very long.

If you are in the market for a cheap and easy to use home automation kit, check out the Radio Shack kit. If nothing else, the kit can be a starting place for an end user till he or she expands to more sophisticated kits like x10.

Related websites: www.radioshack.com