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Vivek Bhargava


Updated July 2, 2007 01:00 PDST

So You Installed a Z-Wave Network, Now What?

By Vivek Bhargava

If your situation is anything like mine, once you get the whole Z-Wave setup working reliably and show it to your spouse, they'll say something like: "That's nice, but what was wrong with using the light switches and the $5 automatic timers with the floor lamps?" I know the various Z-Wave manufacturers have been putting more intelligence into their controllers lately, but there are limits to what you'll be able to do.

That is, unless you consider moving more into true Home Automation (HA). By Home Automation, I mean integration with non-Z-Wave systems to accomplish functionality that your spouse will appreciate including being able to:

  • Automatically turn off all appropriate lights and turn off the heat (or AC) when you arm your security system.
  • Use the motion detectors and door sensors you already use for your security system to turn lights on and off based on occupancy.
  • Use your cell phone to adjust the heat or lighting in your house when you're on your way home.
  • Implement an inexpensive RFID system (less than $200) so that you can automatically turn on the appropriate lights and adjust the thermostat when the system sees you walk up to the house. You can even have it set the lights to different levels based on which person is walking up, or what time of day it is.
  • When you select a DVD on your home theatre PC (HTPC), have it automatically set up the stereo and dim the lights as desired.

Hooked? Well before you get into it, you've got a decision to make up front, and that is whether you want to go with a hardware based HA controller, software based, or a hybrid. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about.

Hardware Based Controller: You could use something like an Elk Automation Panel, which is basically a security system and HA controller in one. It's got a Z-Wave module that connects to your Z-Wave network. It does all the regular security stuff like theft/fire/safety controls, plus some interesting extras, such as irrigation, HVAC, and a newly released Russound audio control module. It's controllable via either a keypad, a keychain "keyfob," your Windows Smartphone, landline, or your PC, so you've got lots of great options there. Plus it's very low power consumption, typically around 40watts or so.

Software based controller: You could use something like CQC by Charmed Quark Systems, which is a software package that runs on a PC. In this case, you'd connect something like the Intermatic USB stick to your PC to control your Z-Wave network. It can control anything that has a PC interface. At this point, that list is quite huge, and covers basically everything that can be done. There are things like whole house audio receivers, DVD changers, RFID, and many more. CQC can be controlled via a PC, or a Windows Smartphone. Plus, if you have something like a USB UIRT IR receiver on your PC, you can even use a regular remote control to control everything. The downside is that you need to leave a PC running 24x7, but it doesn't have to be a powerful PC.

Hybrid Control: You could use both a hardware panel and a software package. In this case you can connect your Z-Wave controller to either the Elk panel or the PC. As long as your Elk is also connected to your PC, you can get the best of both worlds and use any Elk or PC-supported device to perform any action or series of actions you'd like. You can use any mechanism you want to monitor the system.

My personal preference (and recommendation) is to go with the hybrid control system, with Z-Wave controlled by your PC. As new Z-Wave devices and enhancements come out, it will be easier to upgrade software than firmware, plus you'll have access to the super-set of devices that can be controlled.

At this point, there's a long list of software packages that claim Z-Wave support that run the gamut price wise, feature wise, and techie-knowledge wise. Prices range from $35 for an entry level package like HomeZix where you'll need to use C# or Visual Basic, to $700 for a "professional quality" system like CQC where you use mostly point and click to set up your system. At the upper end, software packages will also have extras like secure and network distributed architecture, robust automation rules engines, easy custom GUI creation capabilities, integrated media management, and support for dozens of different hardware devices.

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