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Put Your Home to Work With Easy Mac Automation

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Although it's not exactly as pictured in the '50s cartoon shorts, the intelligent home of the future can be yours today (minus the goofy bacon smasher, of course). Using relatively inexpensive home automation hardware and basic electrical knowledge, Emory Christensen shows you can transform your home from a pile of lumber and drywall into your personal servant.
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It seems so ’50s in a charming way. Imagine the home of the future, which understands what you need and when you need it, and responds to those needs—such as turning on the lights in your garage so you can land your flying car without bumping into the ping pong table—again.

Lack of flying cars aside (damn you, Jetsons, for the false promises), you can have a home that is slavishly devoted to you. And it’s not very hard, either. With a Mac, some inexpensive hardware, and some key software, you can bend your home to meet your every need.

Not good enough, you say? Well, let’s sweeten the pot a bit with a few of the things you might do with a home automation system:

  • Create a vacation setup that turns on lights in a more convincing fashion than a plain timer could ever do.
  • Use a motion sensor to turn on the lights to a dim 30 percent of full brightness when you get up in the middle of the night—avoiding foot-in-dog disease.
  • Gradually brighten the lights in your bedroom over the course of 30 minutes for the most pleasant alarm clock you’ll ever experience. The coup de grace: your soothing water fountain comes on just when you should get out of bed.
  • Have your porch light, hall light, living room light, and bedroom light all come on with the touch of a button on your keyfob.
  • Control iTunes playback using a remote.
  • Control the lights and appliances in your home via a Web browser or even a telephone from thousands of miles away.
  • Control your lawn sprinklers and garden irrigation on a schedule you set.

How It Works

Home automation can’t really pass for rocket science these days, although it can do some powerful and impressive stuff. In a nutshell, it works like this: Your Mac (or some other scheduling device) is connected to a wall outlet via an X10 interface. This lets your Mac use your home’s power lines as a network, and it can send and receive signals to other devices on that network.

What other devices, you ask? Well, pretty much anything you can plug into a wall socket or connect to your home’s wiring. You can install special light switches and wall sockets (as well as other devices) that can receive signals from your Mac and then do something with that information. Each wall socket and light switch has an address that’s unique to it (such as A1, B4, or C6), and groups of these devices can be put together into a zone (for example, all the lights in your living room being put into zone A).

Your Mac acts as conductor to this electronic orchestra, telling each device when to turn on or off (or to dim or brighten) according to a schedule you create. Additionally, you can add motion sensors and wireless remotes to do things such as turn on the lights in that really dark stairwell when you start walking down it (without touching a switch), or letting you turn on your yard sprinklers with a wireless remote (maybe you really hate your neighbor’s dog and the business he does on your bluegrass).

In computer-based home automation, commands (such as "turn on") go from your home automation software (such as Indigo, the icon for which is pictured to the left in Figure 1) to a controller interface (such as the Smarthome PowerLinc USB interface, which is shown in the middle of Figure 1) through your power lines to a device controller (such as the Smarthome LampLinc PLC Plug-in Dimmer—the device on the right in Figure 1), into which a lamp is plugged. When the command reaches the controller, it switches on the device plugged into it.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Basic home automation works like this: Commands are sent from a computer (or other controller) into your home’s wiring system via an interface, and they arrive at a module, which then obeys the command.

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