Home automation -- not just for McMansions anymore

By: Steve Manes , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, House Styles, Technology

As an old house lover and a high technology fanboy, I have to balance two competing aesthetics. On the one hand, I love old lamps and light fixtures. On the other, I control them with blue-backlit home automation wall controllers.

Years ago, I bought into X10 home automation — an older technology that uses your home’s household wiring to send signals from controllers (typically a switch) to receivers (a device which controls power to a fixture or appliance). I spent hundreds of dollars on X10 hardware and a week rewiring my wall switches to enable X10 here.

In my defense, I didn’t set out with the intent to automate the house. I was replacing most of the old wiring here and there was no easy way to wire the three-way circuits I wanted to control the basement and upstairs lights from two locations without knocking holes in my freshly skimcoated walls. After researching the problem, X10 seemed like a perfect solution because X10 three-way circuits don’t need a traveler wire between the switches. You simply add a receiver to the lighting fixture, set a code, then wire up 1 to N switches and set them to the same code. Presto: instant three, four, five, etc-way circuits.

It’s really not much more involved than that, except that you have to rewire your switch boxes so that you have both a hot and a neutral wire.

It worked. I liked it so much that I wired the rest of the house for X10. The next step was adding computer software to automatically turn the lights on and off at fixed times of day. I wrote some Perl scripts for my Unix box that automatically turned on certain lights at sundown and then off at 1am, when I’m typically done for the day. I also added safety kill commands for my shop, garage and outside lights in case I accidentally left them on overnight. This turned out to be the coolest aspect of X10 because I never had a guest negotiating my front stoop in the dark. X10 made sure that the outside lights were burning at sundown.