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Home Automation with Mac OS X, Part 1

by Alan Graham

When some people hear the words "home automation," they think about the Jetsons or multi-million-dollar concept homes of the future. Others think home automation is just a geek fantasy that wouldn't add any real value to their lives.

They would be wrong.

Home automation is actually relatively affordable to set up. Anyone with very basic Mac OS X skills can design and program their own system. In this series I'll discuss why to use home automation, what you'll need to set it up, and advanced topics such as home video surveillance and remote administration. And if you happen to be a fan of the Homemade Dot Mac series, we'll tie that in, as well.

Why Home Automation?

Have you ever been interested in:

  • Having more control over lighting levels on lamps and fixtures without dimmers?
  • Changing how receptacles work without rewiring?
  • Controlling groups of lights with one switch?
  • Automating your waking or bedtime routines?
  • Controlling appliances from remote locations?
  • Better regulating your utility costs?
  • Protecting your home while you are away?
  • Controlling holiday or landscape lighting or create lighting effects?
  • Controlling electrical devices and lights that are difficult to reach?

All of this (and much more) is possible, but to get a better "real world" idea of the value of home automation, let's take a look at how it is used in my house.

My Setup

First Floor:
I have light controllers on the front porch lights, the stair lights, and in the living room. There is a motion detector on the stairs going up to the second floor. I have an appliance controller on the fountain in the back yard. There are also two security cameras on the first floor.

Second Floor:
There are light controllers on all of the lights in the nursery, on the landing light, and in my office. I have an appliance controller on my color laser printer. There is a motion detector on the landing and in the nursery. There are three security cameras on the second floor.

The basement has a light controller on the switch. There is also a motion detector on the stairs going down to the basement.

How Do We Use It?

Coming Home:
When my wife and I get home from shopping, for example, we use a keychain remote to turn on the front porch lights. This sets off series of events that:

  • Turns on the living room lights.
  • Turns on the stair lights (going upstairs), to 50%.
  • Turns on the upstairs landing light, to 50%.
  • Turns on the nursery night light.
  • Turns the other nursery lights to 35%.

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Why? Often we get home at night and the baby is asleep in her car seat. This allows us to go upstairs with our hands full and not have to worry about flipping on lights or dimming them. We can put her straight to bed.

After ten minutes the nursery lights dim to off (except the night light), the landing and stair lights turn off, as do the outside porch lights. This ten-minute delay also gives us time to unload the car.

Watching a Movie:
We have one floor lamp and two table lamps in the living room. When we want to watch a movie, we press one button on the TV remote control. One light turns off, and two dim to about 25%. Another push of the button and the lights are restored to full. Additional settings include romance/fireplace (as if we still use that -- we have a baby), away from home, and going to bed.

"Going to bed" is one of my favorite settings. When you press the wall switch, the upstairs lights turn on, and the downstairs lights dim. After five minutes, the downstairs lights turn off one by one.

Going Upstairs/Downstairs:
How often do you go up or down a flight of stairs with your hands full of laundry or a baby (and baby-related gear)? Who hasn't struggled with trying to flip the lights on with the back of their hand or arm? In our home (at night), when someone goes up or down the stairs, the motion detector automatically turns the stair lights up, and later turns them off automatically. This is especially helpful in our basement, where the light switch is at the bottom of the stairs. (What genius thought that up?) This way, the moment you open the basement door, all of the lights in the basement turn on, and later off, by themselves.

Middle of the Night:
When the baby is crying, or you need to make that late night trip to the bathroom, who enjoys fumbling for light switches or having bright lights in your face? I always have a number of obstacles (dogs) to walk over, as well, so I hate stumbling in the dark. When we get up, a motion detector automatically sets the upstairs landing light to 35%. After ten minutes, it turns itself off.

I wanted more control over the lighting in the baby's room, so I installed a number of lighting controls to work with a motion detector. Now, when I stumble into the nursery in the middle of the night, I don't have to fumble for light switches. The lights automatically come up to 35%.

I have a vacation setting for the home that has a series of random lights going on and off at different times of the night. This works better than a single predictable timer on one lamp, giving the house the effect that people are living there. I also turn the outside motion detector on so that people who might approach the house from the back get a dose of "activity" when they get near.

I prefer to cut the power to the fountain on the back patio when I have to clean the filter. However, the wiring for the plug is in the basement. I use to have to go down a flight of stairs, unplug it, go back upstairs, clean the filter, and repeat. Now I use an appliance controller to turn the fountain off from upstairs on the patio.

Our color laser printer sometimes requires you to power it off and on to reset the cache (which sometimes gets buggy). Well, if you are downstairs, it can be a real pain to drop everything and head upstairs to shut it off. Now we just hit a switch on the TV remote and the printer resets.

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