Smart Home Technology: Part 2

Reprinted from PN January 2010

PN contributor Kurt Larsen discusses common computer technologies for the home and the combination that works best for him.

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The October 2009 PN contained Part 1 of this article, and I promised to research and share my findings and experience for setting up a more convenient home. So, that’s what this article is about, and I’ll also update Google Voice.

Common Technologies

When trying to outfit for a “smart” home, it is easy to jump in and start adding things to a shopping cart. But first you’ll want to know what works with what. I quickly found I really didn’t have a clue and needed to do some research. I’ll describe some of the more common technologies available and designed for the typical homeowner. But first, let’s get really basic.

The concept of smart home technology starts with:

(1) Control modules (sometimes integrated in a switch or product, attached to a device—e.g., lamp or window shade)

(2) A controller (the central command unit, a panel or remote, you use to control the device[s]—e.g., dim a lamp or raise a shade)

(3) A method of communication or protocol between the two

Communication occurs several ways: over power lines (the electric wiring in your house), via a network (Radio Frequency [RF] or WiFi—like a wireless computer network), or both. The protocol for communicating is key when choosing the best solution for any situation.

Several sites sell home automation products, and most of them provide information about the various systems. From the sites I visited, I determined that X10, Z-Wave, and INSTEON are some of the more common technologies. Though there are more than just these, they represent the three different methods for communicating.


This may be the most common technology. Developed in 1975, it is a communications “language” that allows compatible products to talk to each other using existing electrical wiring (power lines) in the home. The products using this protocol are numerous; however, care must be exercised when setting the dials or buttons used to configure the module to one of 256 possible addresses, and this could prove difficult for someone lacking fine motor skills.

Many companies market X10 products (X10, Leviton, Stanley, IBM, JDS, ACT, Homepro, etc.), which are compatible and can be freely mixed and matched. Time-proven and inexpensive, X10 is popular among homeowners because it is simple to install and does not require new wiring; therefore, it is perfect for retrofits.

With all the benefits of X10, there are a few shortcomings to consider. Power-line noise produced by other appliances sharing the electric wires in your home (for example, a TV or motorized appliance) can interfere with X10 communications. Another problem, phase coupling, has to do with the way power in U.S. homes is split into two phases of 110 volts from a single 220-volt line. This, too, can cause havoc with X10 systems. And X10 is a one-way communication—you can’t be certain your desired command reached the device.

Though solutions to these problems exist (power-line noise filters and devices that solve the phase problem), consider the drawbacks before choosing X10 for making your home smarter.


The second technology, Z-Wave, is a low-power RF or wireless network protocol. Unlike a Wi-Fi (802.11-based wireless) network that is primarily used for transmission of high-bandwidth data flows, Z-Wave operates at a lower frequency range and is designed for simple commands such as on-off (as in a lamp or appliance) and raise-lower (as in a thermostat or window shade), with the ability to include other information about devices (is it currently on or off?) in the communications. Because it operates at frequencies different from WiFi, there is little to no interference from other household wireless electronics, such as broadband routers, cordless phones, and Bluetooth devices. An added benefit to the “network communications” of Z-Wave is that the system can be monitored and controlled from outside the home by using a gateway link that combines Z-Wave with broadband Internet access.

As Z-Wave technology consumes little power and is a low-cost addition in manufacturing, it is easily embedded in consumer electronics. Typical products include remote controls, garage-door openers, smoke alarms, and security locks, cameras, and sensors. Z-Wave is currently supported by more than 200 manufacturers and appears in a broad range of consumer products in the U.S.


The third smart home technology profiled here is INSTEON, which can communicate using radio and power lines by virtue of its dual mesh network. It is faster than X10 and, in contrast, is a two-way power-line communications protocol. It, too, has the same noise interference as X10; however, each INSTEON module or switch repeats the signal, and this tends to alleviate problems. It also shares X10’s phase-coupling problem but uses its wireless for bridging phases. Where X10 and Z-Wave are protocols, INSTEON is really a brand manufactured by SmartLabs, Inc., with numerous online and home automation retailers.

Marketed as fast, reliable, affordable, and backwards compatible, INSTEON is a good solution for homeowners who have already invested in X10 technology and want to make their home smarter.

What Worked for Me

In Part 1 of this article, I said I would be researching, purchasing, testing, and ultimately reviewing solutions to make my home “smarter” and my life a bit easier. The criteria I used to guide me included the following:

- Technology solutions chosen must be easily attainable and affordable.

- Hardware and software must be “plug and play”—that is, they didn’t require an expert to set up and configure them.

- The system would allow me to consolidate remotes where possible (TV, satellite, sound system, etc.) and, at a minimum, add control for lights, thermostat, and garage door.

Using these criteria and after a lot of reading, it was mostly down to Z-Wave or INSTEON. However, one factor finalized my decision in favor of Z-Wave—my garage door opener, made by Wayne Dalton, already had the technology built in.

Other reasons were that Z-Wave is a standard and not a brand. Although INSTEON appeared to be a lower-cost option, by choosing it I would have been selecting one company. I also realized several companies had or were developing Apps to control smart home technology for the iPod Touch or iPhone, another major interest of mine. Finally, my search revealed several testimonials about the reliability of these two protocols from folks who installed smart home solutions—the stronger recommendations were for Z-Wave.

Z-Wave decided, it now meant shopping for system components to get me started. I mentioned earlier that a typical setup includes the modules (from my earlier example, connected to the lamp or window shade) and the controller(s). What I didn’t put in that diagram and overview is the inclusion of software for your PC to help configure and control your smart home. PC integration is not essential, and some systems require a computer running all the time. The payoff with software might be more independence configuring and controlling the system—more on this later.


As I mentioned, my garage door already had Z-Wave built in, so, starting small, I decided to order just a few simple lamp modules. I prefer table lamps to overhead lighting, but turning them on is not simple for quads like me. I’m also in the midst of designing a remodel of my home and will be adding devices for security (cameras and possibly sensors and an alarm), lighting (overhead LED cans and Z-Wave dimmer switches), and a compatible thermostat. All these have numerous options and manufacturers to choose from. I still have more research to do to integrate my multimedia (video and music systems), but many options are available.


My whole quest for home automation stemmed from a desire to control things from my iPhone, and my research led me to several options for doing this. But with the Z-Wave protocol already decided, one product stood out as a front-runner. Vera is an entire system or gateway device that resides inside a WiFi router. This means the software used to configure, control, and monitor the home automation system runs on a single device and consumes considerably less power than an always-on PC.

I read all I could about Vera at several sites and in reviews, watched an informative video at www.micasa, and wrote to inquire about customers with mobility impairments. I learned of a few other users—one with a hearing impairment who turned on lights with a Z-Wave-enabled motion detector to signal someone at the door, and another with Parkinson’s disease. I placed an order.

I’m pleased to report that Vera out of the box is really “plug and play.” Of course, I needed a friend’s help to open the box and plug in Vera and the lamp modules, but from there on out I was on my own.

Accessing Vera’s software via the Web browser on my laptop was a breeze. There’s so much more to write about and no more room in this article, but I’ll continue sharing my experiences with remodeling and making my home smarter in my blog.

Google Voice

My October 2010 column mentioned Google Voice for servicemembers deployed abroad. Since that time I was able to get my own account—and just love it. You can test it out, too, and even hear my voice and leave a question or comment by locating the “Call Me” button on my blog. To learn more about Google Voice or get your own account, visit them online.

Next Time

In the next Computer Corner, an additional contributor, Scott Warfield, will write about Windows 7 and how it relates to people with disabilities. Until then, I invite you to send me your insights, suggestions, or questions.



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