Getting Your Home Computer to Chat With Your Thermostat

It's the crazy stories that give home automation a bad name.

How about the hungry homeowner who rigs his bedroom floor to sense his footsteps? That way, the lights leading to the kitchen go on if he gets up in the middle of the night. Or what about the music enthusiast who controls his compact-disc player from computerized touch-screens scattered about the house?

A few examples like these give people the wrong idea. Is home automation merely for Lifestyles of the Rich and Lazy?

Before you answer, consider today's average home. Many cars know whether to turn on the heat or the air conditioning, but your house is stuck with separate systems that don't communicate. ''Automatic'' lawn sprinklers go on even when it's raining. Washing machines aren't ''smart'' enough to start up during off-peak hours, when electricity rates are lowest.

While home automation may sound high-falutin', there are some down-to-earth reasons for the technology, including energy savings and security. And while today's systems are too complicated and costly for most folks, that situation is expected to change. ''Like any technology ... it always starts out at the high end and trickles down,'' says Mitchell Klein, president of Media Systems, a Boston-based installer and designer of home-automation systems.

Actually, Mr. Klein doesn't like the term home automation. ''I don't know anyone who wants to automate their home,'' he says. ''We call it systems integration.'''

At the moment, there are two kinds of systems integrators: those serving the high-end market and those who sell to hobbyists.

Anthony Mann of Denver-based SoftHouse handles hobbyists. These are computer enthusiasts who hook up their machines to their home-electrical system using X-10, an old technology standard.

The X-10 standard allows special signals to piggyback on household current. The signals can be programmed to control an X-10 module plugged into the wall. It's like using automatic timers for lights, except that they are all coordinated by a single computer.

The technology is also cheap. For less than $100, a homeowner can control a few lights and a television from the computer. Enthusiasts are also beginning to integrate computer modems so that they can control home appliances or their security systems even when they're traveling. Another hot area: using voice-recognition technology to turn things on and off by speaking to them.

X-10 is limited, however, to the electrical system and can't handle the demands of many luxury homeowners. Take, for example, the increasing demand for home theaters. These are rooms specially designed around a large-screen television and high-end speakers.

Customers already shell out $4,000 to $10,000 for the basic equipment, so they often want to add other amenities in their home theaters, such as motorized window shades and automatic light dimmers that activate just before the TV comes on. Systems integrators like Klein design custom controls that coordinate several devices with the touch of a button.

Such customization is expensive. Klein's projects average nearly $60,000. ''It's not uncommon for our jobs to run over a quarter of a million dollars,'' he says.

Small wonder, then, that today's automated homes are owned by movie stars and chief executives. But prices will drop dramatically when manufacturers and utilities unite behind specific standards for controlling home devices. Several groups have proposed such standards, such as CEBus and LonWorks. If they're adopted, the automated home may be right around the corner.

* Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or America Online (LBELSIE).

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