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Strategies for Adding Home Automation Features

In the excitement to get your home automated, you can easily start buying equipment with no real plan as to how everything will work together in the end. This chapter will help you form a strategy for home automation to ensure that you wind up with a working whole, rather than disparate parts.
This chapter is from the book

In this chapter

  • Determining Your Home Automation Budget
  • Skills Checklist
  • Deciding When to Call in the Pros
  • Just Do It!

Because do-it-yourself home automation standards such as X10 are so easy to build up, it's all too easy to start buying X10 equipment and find yourself sitting on a pile of equipment with no clear idea of what to do with it; or, worse, a pile of equipment that might not be the best choice for your home. This chapter helps you harness your enthusiasm by showing you how to plan your automation projects, budget for them, and it points you in the right directions to get started.

Determining Your Home Automation Budget

Budgets are an important part of any project, but let’s face it: It’s easier to develop a budget for a task you’re already familiar with. If you’re an experienced woodworker, for example, you probably won’t worry about making a budget for your next cabinet or table. However, if you’re new to home automation (and you probably are!), building a home automation budget might strike you as a bit more difficult than building a budget for a more familiar subject.

If you want to get the most bang for your buck, I suggest this strategy for your home automation budget:

  1. Decide what you want to automate.

  2. Decide how much you want to spend.

  3. Decide how you want to control it.

  4. Decide what features you must have, what features you’d like to have, and what features don’t matter.

  5. Look for versatile components that can do more than one job if your needs change over time.

  6. Consider add-ons and accessories that will help you get the job done right.

  7. Don’t forget to budget the time needed for each task. Although some X10 automation devices are as easy to install as plugging them into the wall, others require rewiring or programming.

  8. If the answer to step 1 is "automate my whole house" or "automate my life," break down your project by room or task and create a budget for each project.

Let’s look at each of these steps in order.

Selecting Where to Start

Automating your entire home is a big project. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of controlling the lights, adding security devices, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) controls, and so forth. Instead, turn your dream of home automation into a reality by dividing your master plan into sections. You can do this by

  • Automating room by room

  • Automating task by task

Automating on a Room-by-Room Basis

If you decide that you want to automate a particular room, you first need to decide what to automate. Some possible answers might include

  • Lights

  • Appliances

  • Draperies

  • Fans

  • Security

The list of possible automation subjects for even a single room can be a long and somewhat complex one. To automate every possible task in a single room would involve a lot of different types of X10 modules, some specialized devices, a fair amount of expense, and some potential for problems. It might be better, especially if you plan to do the entire project yourself and have a limited budget, to automate particular tasks. This, in fact, is the approach I took in automating my home.

Automating on a Task-by-Task Basis

If you decide to automate on a task-by-task basis, your list of potential starting points might look like this one:

  • Lighting control

  • Appliance control

  • HVAC

  • Security

  • Outdoor lighting

  • Outdoor devices

The lists are similar, but by focusing on a single type of automation throughout your home, every part of your home can enjoy automation, and you might find the installation and setup process to be easier as well.

For many home automation beginners, lighting is the most obvious first project to tackle. But, no matter what you decide to tackle first, you have a few more decisions to make.

Evaluating Products and Price Ranges

As with many other home improvement and electronics endeavors, X10 has a low entry cost: You can pick up a basic home automation kit for less than $30. However, it’s also true that the sky’s the limit. If you decide to go with top-of-the line two-way dimmer switches, for example, you can spend hundreds of dollars just to control lighting in your home. Consequently, as you decide what to automate, decide how much to spend on automation.

Before you specify a particular dollar figure, spend a few minutes looking over some of the premier X10 online stores such as X10.com and Smarthome.com. Take a look at starter kits, individual components, and bundles. If you’re considering lighting for your first project, you’ll probably develop a list of possibilities that looks something like Table 3.1. The prices in Table 3.1 are in U.S. dollars.

Table 3.1 Price Ranges for Typical X10 Lighting Projects

Price Range




Less than $50

Basic one-room automation (lamp, appliance, remote)

Most modules don’t include two-way features or scene storage; check wattage ratings carefully for large fixtures

Scene-enabled modules; three-prong modules; additional remote controls


Two-way automation for two lamps, dimmer switches for one or two lamps; timer or Maxi Controller

Check wattage ratings carefully for large fixtures

X10 computer module and msoftware; scene lighting option for modules


Scene lighting for several lamps, computer control


Table 3.2 is a similar table, but it’s blank. Use it as a model for building your own price-range estimator for your preferred X10 home automation solution. You might want to leave this form alone until you’ve finished this chapter, or even the entire book, but don’t worry: Whenever you want to use it, it’ll be waiting right here for you.

Table 3.2 Blank Template for an X10 Home Automation Project

Price Range (A)

Components (B)

Vendors (C)

Limitations (D)

Upgrades (E)


























Project Goal: _____________________________________________________________________________________________

Location: ________________________________________________________________________________________________

In column A (Price Range), put down a range of prices for your project from low to high. In column B (Components), list the components you’d need for the job you want to do. In column C, Vendors, jot down the vendor name and contact information (website, phone). In column D (Limitations), write down the real-world limitations of the devices in this row. In column E (Upgrades), record what types of devices or what features you’d prefer to get if possible. Why use Column E? You might find a deal on a discontinued, open-box, overstock, or auction device that has the upgrade features you want for less money than your original selection!

Deciding on a Control Method

After you’ve decided on what you want to control and how much you want to spend, you should decide on a control method or methods. X10 was originally 100% electric-wire-controlled; the wireless remotes popular in many starter kits were introduced later. Table 3.3 compares the prices and features of some typical X10 controllers; see Figure 3.1 for a visual comparison.

Table 3.3 Sample X10 Controller Features and Price Ranges

Controller Type

Sample Product

Price Range




Wired Mini Controller

Smarthome Mini Controller


All lights on/all devices off; dim/bright; 8 devices

Can’t send house/unit codes for programming some types of modules

Wireless remote; Controller

Basic wireless remote

X10 Palm Pad controller


Controls16 devices; dim/bright

Lacks all lights on/ all devices off; can’t send macros

Maxi Controller

Wired Maxi Controller

X10 Maxi Control Console


Controls16 devices; all lights on/all devices off; dim/bright; programmable codes and macros

Learning remote

Five-in-One remote


Controls TV, VCR, and other devices as well as X10

Might not control all functions of a DVD player; requires separate IR/X10 interface or X10 wireless transceiver

More powerful learning remotes with greater DVD and home theater capabilities


X10 Mini Timer


Controls X10 devices by time or random (security), all lights on/all devices off, sleep

Can’t send macros

Computer interface module


X10 telephone responder


Controls X10 remotely via touch-tone

Controls10 devices via phone (8 via touchpad); not compatible with some answering machines or voice mail services

HAL Deluxe (voice activation)

Computer Interface



Controls X10 via RS-232 serial port interface

Some PCs don’t have serial ports

USB interface; with onboard memory/timer




Controls X10 via USB port interface; also includes all-house-code transceiver


If your major concern in starting out with X10 is saving a few steps, a basic wired or wireless remote will be sufficient. However, if you want more powerful automation, you need to consider more powerful control systems like those listed in Table 3.3.

figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 X10 wireless, wired, and computer-based controllers.

Choosing the Most Important Features

No matter which X10 home automation job you decide to tackle, you can spend almost any amount of money on it. You can buy a basic on/off switch with remote dimming support for about $12, but a deluxe dimmer switch with two-way and scene support is about $70. You can always spend more, but should you?

My rule of thumb is to spend more only if it buys me more useful features. As I mentioned in the sidebar called "Limitations in the Real World" earlier in this chapter, a low-end device isn’t a compromise if it does what you need it to do. In other situations, you should spend more money to get a better solution. For example

  • If you don’t want nosy visitors to know the details of your X10 setup, choose modules that are programmed through a remote or have a cover over the dials instead of modules with visible dials. Units without visible code dials also look better.

  • If you want an electrical outlet that can’t be overridden by someone’s flipping the on/off switch on the lamp or appliance, choose an outlet that doesn’t support local control.

  • If you want positive feedback that an X10 module has received a signal (very useful for remote control via computer interface), choose a module with two-way support.

I’ll point out additional examples like these in following chapters. You get more capabilities with higher-end modules and remotes, but it’s up to you to decide whether you need the additional costs of deluxe modules and switches. In my own X10 installation, I use a mixture of entry-level, mid-range, and high-end modules. I choose the module, outlet, or switch that fits the situation.

How to Select Versatile Components

Although you can save money if you select a module that has only the features you need for a particular job, you could also spend more money in the long run if you change your mind. If you’re the type of experimenter that likes to be on the move with devices, it might make more sense for you to spend more money up front to buy devices with more features. Here are some ways to provide more versatility for your X10 projects without spending a huge amount of extra money:

  • If you’re using plug-in modules, use modules that support three-prong (grounded) outlets (see Figure 3.2). They don’t cost much more than two-prong modules with similar features, but they enable you to control devices that can’t be connected to two-prong modules.

  • If you’re always short of electrical outlets, use three-prong modules that have pass-through connectors. The pass-through connector supplies regular uncontrolled power for one device while the X10 outlet controls another device. Figure 3.2 illustrates a three-prong outlet with a pass-through connector.

  • If you’re planning to set up programmable lighting scenes later, get a controller that can send the additional codes necessary to program modules and switches (such as the Maxi Controller shown in Figure 3.1) instead of an entry-level Mini Controller.

figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 An X10-compatible three-prong (grounded) module with pass-through outlet.

Vital and Useful Accessories

What do you really need to implement X10 home automation? Use this checklist to remind you of items you might forget about as you create your first project or move to another project:

  • Voltage sensor (see Figure 3.3); if you’re going to install X10 light switches or outlets, this device can save your life! Learn how to use this in Chapter 4, "Using X10 to Control Home Lighting."

  • Spare batteries for your remotes; a dead remote can prevent you from controlling your X10 installation.

  • Straight-edge and Phillips-head screwdrivers; if you’re working on wall outlets or light switches, you might encounter both types of screws.

figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 A typical AC (alternating current) voltage sensor.

Selecting Your Next Goal

As you work on your first X10 project, consider your next project. If you’re automating your lighting, ask yourself, "Which room would best benefit from automation?" You might want to tackle a bedroom, den, or other room that could benefit from scene lighting and dimming after you’ve worked on an easier area such as the living room or porch.

Budgeting Your Time

How much time should you budget for an X10 project? Table 3.4 lists typical suggestions for some simple projects that you might try. Allow more time for complex projects.

Table 3.4 Estimated Time for Typical X10 Tasks



Install and configure plug-in lamp/appliance module (dial controlled)

5–10 minutes

Configure dial/button remote control for house code

5–10 minutes

Install, configure, and test dial-set light switch

30–45 minutes

Install, configure, and test wall outlet

30–45 minutes

Configure X10 timer

15–45 minutes

As you can see from Table 3.4, it doesn’t take long to perform basic automation tasks. However, if a project involves rewiring more than one outlet or light switch or several outlets, you could easily spend several hours in the process.

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