Hi-Tech Curb Appeal

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so this spring, focus on the entry of your house to create the right vibe for what’s inside. Sure, new shrubs and fresh mulch can go a long way toward establishing excellent curb appeal, but also consider adding a few electronic amenities to make a long, lasting impression that’ll have the whole neighborhood buzzing.

Exterior lighting is a good place to start an electronics spruce-up. Like the fixtures inside your house, landscape lighting can be tied to a home automation system. Sure, you can stick with basic plug-in timers that will turn the lights on at dusk and off at dawn, at the same time every day. A connection to a home automation system, though, adds an element of convenience and elegance day that no timer can match. For example, as a car pulls into the driveway (you’ll need to install a driveway sensor) the system can trigger a pathway of lights to the front door. The system could also activate the light in preset groups based on a button you press on a keypad inside the house, or remotely from your smartphone or tablet. For example, a button labeled “Welcome” could instruct only the lights lining the walk and around the front door to activate, while “Entertain” adds fixtures to showcase the garden, pergola and other eye-appealing parts of the yard.  Another benefit of tying the exterior lights to an automation system: They will be able to operate in synch with outdoor speakers (yes, these are a good addition, too). Now, when you touch a button on a smartphone, tablet or a keypad, the lights can set themselves in a way that accentuates the architecture of your home and the beautiful music can travel to speakers tucked within the landscape. Fountains can join in, too, making the entry of your house elegant and inviting.

5 Effortless Ways to Save Energy

Conserving energy at home shouldn’t sacrifice your comfort or make you feel deprived. It shouldn’t require a change of routine or lifestyle or create a lot of extra work. With an automation system at the helm of your house, you’ll never have to worry about being uncomfortable or inconvenienced, as the system is able to operate the lights, thermostats, and other power-hungry devices with the utmost efficiency. All you do is sit back and watch the system shave money off your monthly utility bill. Here are five ways an automation system can foster energy efficiency:

  1. All Off.  No longer will you leave a light on, a curling iron heating up, or the music playing as you leave the house for work, vacation or to run a few errands. An All Off command, which can be issued from a touchpanel, tablet or your smartphone can tell an automation system to sweep through the house to turn off and adjust as needed. The closing of the front door, the arming of a security system or a signal from a motion sensor can also trigger the housewide All Off edict.
  2. Curtain Call. Sunlight can quickly heat up a room, causing your AC system to go into overdrive. Motorized shades, when automated, can close at certain times of the day or when a sensor notices a heavy amount of sunshine.
  3. Stat Patrol. Thermostats can be finicky pieces of technology. But with an automation system in charge, their built-in schedulers become easier to manipulate. Plus, you’ll be able to sync the stats with the operation of other electronic devices; for instance, when the automation system tells the lights to turn off; the stats can set back too.
  4. Spin Cycle. Ceiling fans help circulate warm and cool air, making your heating and cooling system work more efficiently. By automating the fans, they can turn on and off at certain predetermined times of the day.
  5. Knowledge is Power. When you understand where your energy dollar is going, you can make better decisions on how and when you use the electronic systems in your house. With the right technology integrated, a home automation system can provide a real-time report of your household energy use, even breaking it down circuit by circuit if you want.

Top 5 Features of a Home Automation System

Usually when you buy a home automation system, you’ll want to go with the recommendation of a professional home systems installer. He’ll know, based on the structure of your home, the routines of your family, your comfort level with technology and your budget the most suitable system. However, it never hurts to understand the features most important to a quality home automation system. Here are five that you’ll want to discuss with your home systems integrator to ensure that you get the what you bargained for:

  1. Interoperability. The beauty of a home automation system is its ability to tie diverse electronic devices together so that they operate as one unified system. This is what enables you to press one button on a keypad, remote, touchpanel or smartphone and have the lights, thermostats, A/V equipment and more react. The more “open” a home automation system is, the easier it will be for a wide variety of devices to work as one.
  2. Expandability. Often, it’s difficult to know for certain what types of electronic features to add to your home. Or maybe your budget is tight right now. A home automation system that’s easily expandable let you start small and build on gradually as you find the need or the cash.
  3. Upgradability. The true power of a home automation system comes from its software, more specifically, how well the software has been programmed by a home systems installer. When this software can be easily upgraded to support new technologies, you’ll be assured that your system is always fresh and relevant.
  4. Time-Tested. No one, except for serious early-adopters, likes to be a guinea pig, so choose an automation system with a proven track record.
  5. Reliability. What happens to an automated house with the power goes out? Does the system forget how to operate the lights when the power is restored? Be sure your system has the appropriate back-up protection.

Earth Day 2014: Mixing Music and the Great Outdoors

In honor of Earth Day, go outside and relish the natural surroundings of your own back yard. Are you enjoying it? Are you having fun? After you’ve gazed at the trees and clouds for a while and have wandered barefoot in the grass, are you craving something else? Something, well, more entertaining?

Although electronic systems may seem like the last thing to advocate on Earth Day, when designed and installed appropriately, they can become a natural part of your home’s outdoor environment, enhance your enjoyment there, and inspire you to spend more time in the fresh air than you ordinarily would.

Music can complement just about any outdoor activity, whether you’re relaxing in a lawn chair or grilling burgers. Sure, you could cart out a wireless streaming music player, but a more elegant and effective solution is to pepper the property with several outdoor-rated speakers. This will blanket the entire area with nice, even sound; you can keep it at a reasonable volume level and hear the music as clearly in your garden at the far corner of the yard as you can from the patio connected to your house. Your neighbors will love you for not blaring the music.

An audio/video receiver with dual-zone capability can support the back yard speakers as its second zone (the first being your media room inside), so you can play different music inside and outside … at the same time. Many manufacturers of AVRs offer downloadable apps so you can control the volume, switch stations or skip to a new track from a menu on your smartphone.

Of course, you’ll also need outdoor speakers, and these come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. There are those that can be mounted to the exterior of your house, models that can be tucked within the landscape, and others that can masquerade as decorative rocks or functional planters. If you’re super serious about outdoor audio, you can beef up the bass by having subwoofers planted beneath the ground.  They’ll raise no issue with the landscape so you can feel good about preserving the natural beauty of your yard adding audio that’s easy to control and enjoy.

Banish the “Black Hole”

Is there a black hole floating in your living room? In other words, is that flat-panel TV that’s mounted to the wall creating a visual eyesore when it’s off? While flat-panel TVs have accomplished to provide a sleek, modern, space-saving viewing option, they only really look pretty when displaying movies or TV programs. Otherwise, they’re just a black hole … well, rectangle dangling above the fireplace mantel.

Thankfully, there are several remedies for this problem. With the help of a qualified custom electronics (CE) professional and the addition of certain products, your flat-panel TV can become a beautiful piece of artwork or mirror, display family portraits or completely disappear. There are a handful of companies that offer canvas artwork that can roll over the screen of the TV on command from remote control. The canvas is housed in a decorative frame that installs around the perimeter of the TV. You pick the image that gets transferred to the canvas. If a mirror is more appropriate for the living room décor, it can be placed on a motorized slider that pulls the mirror away from the screen when you’re ready to watch TV and slides it back over the screen when you’re done.

Another option is to hide the TV completely by placing it on a motorized mechanism that moves it away from view. You might have the TV tuck up into the ceiling or even lower below the floor. Naturally, this technique can be very labor intensive and expensive, and depending on the construction of your home, could be impossible to pull off. Still, it’s one of the best ways to keep your living room looking like a living room.

Come to your Senses

Motion sensors, when used in the traditional way, can detect when someone steps into an area, be it your yard, the kitchen or the hallway leading to the bedrooms. When they sense movement they trigger a security system to sound an alarm, flash the lights or send a text message to your smartphone. While this home security feature is helpful to any household, motion sensors can do so much more than keep a watchful eye over the property.

When positioned and programmed appropriately by a home systems integrator, motion sensors can provide handsfree control over a home’s lights. This is particularly helpful for spaces like closets, powder rooms and kids’ bedrooms, and the concept is simple: When someone enters the room, the lights turn on, when they leave the lights turn off. In addition to curbing electricity use, motion triggered lights can provide safe passageways down hallways to the bathroom for young children and down stairways to the kitchen for a midnight snack.

With the help of an automation system, motion sensors are also good trigger devices for motorized window shades, and even complete home theater systems. Imagine walking into your home theater and being welcomed with perfectly dim
med lights, music as a prelude to the movie and the A/V equipment ready to go. It’s a surefire way to impress your friends and family, not to mention extremely convenient. Of course, your home systems installer will need to set up the motion sensors and automation system so that movement after you’ve walked into a space won’t keep triggering the electronics.

And even if the motion sensors are still being used monitor for movement in the house, they needn’t always be cause for alarm. They can simply help keep a record of daily activity in and around your house. For example, a motion sensor could signal a security system to send a text to your smartphone when it notices movement on the front porch (likely an indication of a delivery) or in the kitchen during the afternoon (a sign that the kids made it home from school safely).

So think of the sensors in your house as more than just signals of break-ins. They can help curb energy use, foster convenience, set the mood, and help you monitor what’s happening at home while you’re away.

A Nice Rack

Having a smart house requires a lot of equipment. Thankfully, most of the processors and other black boxes manage the flow of content and commands throughout a home can be hidden from sight (Of course, there’s also the option of keeping the goods out in the open for all to admire). Regardless of whether you choose to conceal or reveal the gear, you’re going to want to stow each piece of gear in a sturdy, specially manufactured equipment rack.

Equipment racks are designed specifically for holding sensitive A/V gear and control equipment, making them a much better option that simply stuffing the equipment inside a cabinet or on shelves in a closet. First and foremost, the “open” design of an equipment rack ensures adequate ventilation to prevent the gear from overheating. It also enables your home systems installer (or you) to easy access the backs of the equipment to make cabling connections. Even if your rack pushed up against a wall or tucked into a cabinet, integrated rollers and sliders allow it to be pulled out for better equipment access. For extra cooling, most rack manufacturers offer optional cooling fans that can be installed within the rack

Another common feature found in electronics equipment racks is a “cable management system.” Made up of lacing bars and grids, it enables a home systems installer to keep the cabling neat and tidy. It not looks better, but because it’s well organized the cabling will be easier for a home systems installer to alter should modifications to your system be necessary.

Lastly, with the addition of decorative faceplates and LED lighting, equipment racks can actually be a thing of beauty. With nothing more than the face of the equipment visible, they frame your electronics investment in a modern, sleek design that’s looks fantastic, whether they’re built into a wall in a media room, tucked into a closet or stowed in a utility room.

Illuminating Ideas

When the lights fixtures in your home are placed under the command of a home control system, you’ll realize benefits that you may have never imagined. The most recognized advantage of controllable lights is the ability to dim and brighten groups of them with a touch of a button. Instead of hitting a slew of individual switches peppered around the house to turn off the lights before bedtime, for instance, you can simply tap a button on your iPad or on a keypad near the master bedroom nightstand to sweep through the entire house with an Off command. This feature in and of itself is enough reason to invest in lighting control, but you don’t sell yourself short. When set up appropriately, a lighting control system can also help protect your home and family, add visual interest to the décor and architecture, curb energy use and even help other systems in your home perform better.

As an element of home security, a lighting control system can illuminate a pathway from the bedrooms to the front door in the event an emergency. Motion sensors in hallways can trigger on the lights for a safe travels in the middle of the night to bathrooms and the kitchen for a midnight snack. The same fixtures can also enhance the appearance of your home by showcasing your home’s artwork and architecture and dimming to a level that visually more appealing than full bright. And while the lights themselves look better, so will the switches on the walls. What used to require a huge bank of individual switches to control the lights can be consolidated into a single, elegantly designed keypad. As for energy savings, simply dimming the lights in your house by 10 percent can equate to a huge electricity savings. A lighting control system can ensure that your lights are operating as efficiently as possible by keeping them at dim but functional levels, activating and deactivating certain lights automatically based on the time of day, the availability of natural sunlight and motion within a room. Lastly, a lighting control system can enhance the performance of other electronic components in your house, most notably the video displays. When the lights are dim, the images on a screen will look clearer, crisper and more impactful. It’s so important to the experience, that lighting control is considered an essential element of any home theater or media space.

When working with a home systems integrator, be sure to utilize lighting control to its fullest potential. No other electronic device in your home can offer so much: convenience, improved aesthetics, security, energy savings, efficiency and enhanced performance.

Find your Best Type of Controller

When it comes to operating the lights, thermostats, A/V gear and other devices, comfort and convenience rule supreme when choosing the appropriate type of controller for the job. So what’s comfortable and convenient to you? Is it a handheld remote? Or maybe it’s a keypad mounted near the entrance to the room? For some, an iPad or smartphone might be the controller of choice. There are a slew of options, so make sure you pick one that suits your personality and lifestyle the best.

Tablets and Smartphones. When you’re here one minute, there the next, you need a controller that goes where you go, and that’s a smartphone or tablet. Just about every manufacturer of home automation system as well as many popular electronics products offers an control app that can be downloaded onto your favorite mobile device, or several devices if each member of your family would like his/her own controller. With the app accessible from your phone or tablet, you can tap and swipe your way through menus and commands as you stroll through the house, relax in the backyard or even while you’re miles away at work or on vacation. To ensure that the portable controller doesn’t get misplaced, it’s a good idea to have a custom electronics (CE) professional install an in-wall docking station for it. You can snap it in there for safe keeping—and to recharge the battery–then pop it out for control-on-the-go.

Portable Touchpanel. A portable touchpanel has the look and feel of a tablet, but is designed and engineered to do only one thing: control the electronics in your house. There’s no need to launch a control app as you would in a tablet or smartphone. A dedicated touchpanel is ready to fire of commands to lights, A/V gear, motorized shades and more as soon as you pick it up.

Keypads and Touchpanels. On the other end of the portability spectrum are wall-mounted keypads and touchpanels. Recessed flush with the wall, they become permanent fixtures of your home—a good thing for families that have a tough time keeping track of remotes, tablets and phones. And don’t worry about keypads and touchpanels mucking up the walls. Sleek, slender and modern, they can actually complement the home design, not to mention simplify quick, on the spot control of lights, music and more. Instead of manually adjusting a slew of light switches, you can just hit one button on a keypad or touchpanel to set the lights of a particular room or the entire house.

Handheld Remotes. You’ve grown up with handheld remotes and like the feel of those tactile buttons. Remotes programmed to operate a variety of electronic devices are probably a good choice for you. Buck the perceived old-fashioned stereotype by investing in a remote that features buttons and a built-in touchscreen.

Combo Platter. Don’t fit exactly into any one of the above categories. Not to worry. It’s acceptable to use a variety of different controllers; in fact, most owners of sophisticated home electronic systems do. For example, in media rooms they might use a handheld remote, while in the kitchen a built-in touchpanel works better. By employing a combination of several different types of controllers, you can be laid back one minute, on-the-go the next, and still be able to appropriately manage your house.

Feeling Appy

Have a smart thermostat? There’s an app for that. Has your front door been fitted with an electronic lock on the front door? You can control it from an app, too. Want to stream music to the loudspeakers in your house? Just peck at the app on your phone. It seems that for nearly any type of electronic component there’s an app that can be used to monitor, manage and control it. And, many of these apps can be downloaded to your smartphone or tablet free of charge.

Feasibly, from one smartphone you could launch several apps individually to control electronic components throughout your entire house, and, in fact, some people are starting to do just that. But as appealing as it sounds to simply use an app to control the lights, another for the thermostat, and an app to operate the audio system, it’s far from being a perfect solution. For starters, it can be rather inefficient and awkward, requiring a user to launch one app to control a certain device, back out of that app then launch another app to control something else, and so on. Also, because each app was designed by a different manufacturer, you’ll be dealing with inconsistencies in the layout and look of the individual control menus and icons.

As you continue to grow your app-controlled house, you may get to a point where it would be more convenient, efficient and effective to unify all of the various apps under the auspices of a central home control system. The biggest advantage of laying a control system over the individual apps is the ability for the various components to seamlessly interact with each other. For example, one command from the central control app on a tablet could tell the lights, the thermostats, and the audio system to all adjust for your arrival home from work. Furthermore, various electronic components can be automated to self-regulate according to conditions like the time of day, occupancy in the home and even the position of the sun.

Another benefit is a consistent user interface, where the controls you see on your phone or tablet to monitor and operate the lights look similar to the controls you use to set the thermostats or security system.  This approach is often preferable as it facilitates a more seamless operation of the devices in your home. So before you load your phone with multiple individual app, consider the merits of tying them all together under the command of a central control system.