When we began performing our custom residential electrical work and home automation system installations, we quickly realized that the system controls or interface must be simple…simple…simple.

The lighting controls we use now may be a multi-button switch, a touch screen, a remote control, a thermostat, a light sensor, a motion sensor, a pressure pad, a telephone keypad, automobile alarm remote, or…

Time and time again one of the biggest obstacles in selling ‘computerized’ systems, is the perception of the homeowner that this system, that can perform complicated tasks, is very complicated to operate. They hear horror stories from friends and neighbors who have (badly thought-out and installed) systems, on how they will have to use a flashlight to see the switch and figure out how to turn on the lights, and how this sleek modern switch begins to look pretty ugly when you can’t figure out how it works.

Nothing can be further from the truth, if you use the right company and the right equipment to perform the installation.

It should be every installer’s objective to install their systems so that the home owners entire family including their children, and the occasional houseguest can operate the lights with no questions, let alone manuals. This includes putting lights on and off in their bedrooms, dining room and living room, exterior lights, scenes, path lights, etc. One shouldn’t have to press a button, and wait to see what happens, and where. You should be able to press one button, typical to each room switch, that will put a majority of the room lights on, to a very comfortable level. Thus all you need to do is relate this to your houseguest once, and she/he can move from room to room with no confusion.

We actually like to set up our switches so that there is a separate on button and a separate off button for each room. Thus if we set up a multi-room scene, such as a living room – den – kitchen after dinner scene for company, one can still shut off the kitchen lights if they’d would like to, without either shutting off the entire scene, or figuring out which lights can be shut off from which switch. (A scene is typically a pre-determined dimming level for several lighting fixtures in the same or several rooms. It does not matter that these lights are controlled by different switches.) As there are several additional buttons, we also set up room scenes, that can be used, or not.

Keep it simple!

The above graphic is of a switch station, a sample of one that we use, where several people will be at the home. By using easy to understand wording and simple functions, we can program for simple on and off, additional scenes, dimming, etc., while greatly simplifying the interface.

If the homeowner and other occupants can effortlessly use the system and feel that it is as easy or easier to use than standard toggle switches, while still performing their desired functions, you have done your job.

Of course there are systems where the use of touchscreens with several ‘pages’ allow you to greatly increase the number of scenes or functions you can control from the location. Usually these are utilized where you want to have additional control of the audio or video, motorized draperies or skylights, pool equipment or sprinkler equipment, etc.

A ‘page’ on a ‘touchscreen’ is just that. As you look at the screen what you see on the screen is called a page. If you touch a button on the ‘page’, it either performs a function, i.e., dims a light; puts on or shuts off a single light or a scene; opens drapes or skylights; starts or stops the sprinklers, etc., or it will transfer you to another page, which will do the above.

A ‘touchscreen’ provides for an almost unlimited number of button presses. If you wanted to you could actually review each room’s lighting (what is on/off), drapes (open/closed), HVAC (the actual temperature), Audio/Video (what station is on), is someone in the room (via motion sensors), or ??????? for each and every room in the house.

While they are quite expensive compared to the multi-button switch shown above, used in the right locations, they avoid the installation of several multi-button switches.

The above touchscreen was utilized to set the actual dimming scenes in a few rooms for a party. The touchscreen is in the home office, and this page will allow you to move your finger over the virtual dimmer slider, and set dimming values in real-time. You need not leave this room to change all lighting in the entire home.

The ‘page’ from a touchscreen below is one we actually in use to control the sprinklers at a home. We utilized a Low Voltage Relay Station (8 normally closed or open contacts) to control the 6 sprinkler zones. By pressing the ‘virtual’ button’ on the ‘touchscreen’ ‘page’ one could start the sprinklers on a rather dry day, stop the sprinklers if you observed a leak in the pipe, cancel the sprinklers for 2 days if it rained the day before, or put on any zone if more water is required on that zone only. On a home that we are in the process of designing a system for, we will interface a weather station with our system (via RS232 communications), that will automatically start or stop the sprinklers based on actual weather conditions. (It wall also open and close skylights and motorized window shutters based on the wind and the weather conditions.)

We also feel that a part of the ‘interface’ is automatic control of lights, drapes, HVAC equipment and skylights.

A thermostat automatically sets the temperature in the house on energy savings, the drapes are open/closed based on the intensity of the light coming thru the window, skylights are closed automatically each night unless overridden. Each night at sunset hall lights come on to provide path lighting, automatically dimming down to 1% or 2% at 11PM to provide night lights until sunrise. This enables the homeowner to free up buttons on his switches for other tasks, or lessen the number of buttons on the switch. (They also avoid using those tacky plug in night-lights.)

Also a major consideration is the look and feel of the switch, and it’s buttons. A lightweight plate or flimsy buttons usually means low quality. The equipment should be solid, and must be ‘good looking”, and functional.

These are just two models of switches available, but extremely well made, and functional. Many homeowners feel that a ‘system is a system’, and only want to see the visual portion of the system, the switches. They assume (sometimes incorrectly) that the ‘brains’ of the systems are all the same. They want a switch that looks good, fits their decor, and comes in enough colors and finishes to fit into their designers color scheme. A well designed system is one in which the only time the homeowner calls is to invite you to dinner.

Jack Goldberg, president of Westco Electrical, in Los Angeles, California, is an electrical contractor specializing in the sale and installation of Vantage Home Automation and Dimming Systems. He is a registered Professional Electrical Engineer active in the industry for over 30 years. His projects have included special residences spanning from the New York Olympic Tower penthouse of Adnan Kashoggi (the richest man in the world), to huge estates for the highly discriminating west coast entertainment industry elite. Many of these projects are highly visible and have been profiled in Architectural Digest, and various other periodicals. He has also had the pleasure of working with many architects and designers of world renown on award-winning commercial buildings. A native New Yorker, he thrills to the challenge of concepts, applications and installations that others say “can’t be done”.