Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 70 / MARCH 1986 / PAGE 26


Kathy Yakal, Assistant Features Editor

Perhaps you already have some "smart" appliances in your home—a coffeepot that comes on automatically at a preset time every morning; a clothes dryer that senses what kind of fabric is being dried and acts accordingly; lights that turn on at dusk and off at dawn to discourage burglars when you're out of town; or a microwave oven that does everything but get in the car and drive to the grocery store.

The next step, it would seem, is to have all of these individual appliances controlled by a central unit, allowing you to talk to them through one keyboard, and which might even let them communicate with each other. The efforts of several manufacturers toward standardization is bringing this science-fiction scenario closer to home.

Many different home control units are now available. Some work through a personal computer and others are stand-alone units. They range in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, and vary in the degree of technical expertise required to install them. Some are simple systems that work through existing household wiring via inexpensive plug-in modules. Others require some knowledge of programming and skill with a soldering iron, but are suitable for more sophisticated applications. Despite these different features, the three most common functions of these systems are appliance control, energy management, and home security.

Home control can be a full-time job for a computer, especially if you're using it to manage energy consumption. So unless you bought your computer specifically for home control, you're limited to buying a stand-alone unit or a second computer, either of which can be major investments.

Several home-control systems have been designed for the reasonably priced Commodore computers. You can still pick up a discontinued VIC-20 for under $100 at some stores, and a Commodore 64 for under $150. Dedicating such an inexpensive machine to one major function has proven very appealing to both manufacturers and consumers.

For instance, the X-10 Power-house is a very easy-to-use, inexpensive home control system that runs on the Commodore 64. The package consists of an interface box that plugs into the computer and software that runs the system. Up to eight different appliances can be set to turn on or off at specified times. The appliances must be plugged into modules available directly from X-10 USA for $16.95 each, or similar modules found at many electronics or hardware stores. (BSR modules are the most common.)

No programming knowledge is necessary to use the X-10's software. The opening screen shows nine icons representing different rooms in a house. After choosing a room, you "install" your own icons to show where appliances in your own house are. Then you simply set up a schedule for turning things off and on. The only time the system ties up the computer is when you're initially setting up or changing the schedule, so you can continue to use your computer as you normally would.

The X-10 Powerhouse is also available for the Apple IIe and IIc, Macintosh, and IBM PC series. The Macintosh version lets you draw your own house plans with MacDraw and MacPaint instead of using the boilerplate menu. All versions retail for $150. And if you want to do more than simply control appliances, additional modules and controllers include a burglar alarm interface, a thermostat setback controller, a telephone responder (which lets you control your home from any phone), and a heavy-duty 220-volt appliance module.

Many of the modules that work with the X-10 are also compatible with a home control system called Home-Minder, from General Electric. The HomeMinder software also displays graphic icons to help you set up the system. But unlike the X-10, the HomeMinder is a stand-alone unit that plugs into any color TV. Suggested retail price is $499. GE also sells a 25-inch color TV with the home control unit built-in for $1,200.

Savergy, Inc., markets two home control units compatible with the Commodore 64 and VIC-20. The PowerPort, which sells for $99.95, can control up to eight small appliances. The CIM 112, selling for $479, can handle larger appliances such as washing machines and water heaters.

Genesis Computer Corporation also has a line of inexpensive home control units for the Commodore 64 and VIC-20. The VICcontroller ($69.95) uses BSR-type modules to automate lights and small appliances. COMsense ($69.95), used in tandem with the VIController, lets you set up a home security system by hooking up the computer to switches on doors and windows. It can also be programmed to sense things like temperature or moisture levels in the air or ground, which would signal the VIController to turn on the lawn sprinkler or turn off the heat.

The COMclock ($69.95) is a battery backup for the system. It automatically reboots the software used by the VIController if there is a power interruption. Super Schedule Plus is a software package that integrates the operation of all three products. (COMsense and COM-clock are compatible with Savergy's products.)

The Energy Manager, from Powerline Software, does not actually control appliances, but is a software package that helps keep track of and analyze energy use in homes and small office buildings. It runs on the Commodore 64 and retails for $59.95.

To justify the expense of adding a controller to your collection of home electronics, there has to be some reward. If it's primarily a home security system, or even just a unit that turns lights on and off, the rewards are obvious: security and convenience.

Another tangible reward can come in the form of monetary savings, if you buy a system geared toward economizing your energy usage. John Helwig, of Jance Associates, Inc., has designed an inexpensive, easy-to-install system that can save substantial amounts of energy, especially if you have an all-electric home.

"The utility companies are in a bind," says Helwig. "They sell electric, and the electric they sell comes from the plants they build. Of course, they want to get away from the idea of building more plants. They want to sell you more electric, but they want to sell it to you at off-peak hours, because it is actually cheaper for them.

"During the day, when every-one wants power, they have to run their most inefficient plants. They only run their most efficient plants at night. So although they want to sell more power—like any company, they want to sell more of their product—they want to sell it in off-peak hours. So the kick in it for them is, very simply, if they can get their customers to use electric at night, it's to their advantage."

Helwig's energy management system, REDUCE (Reduction of Electrical Demand Using Computer Equipment), takes advantage of the time-of-day rates offered by many utility companies. (By lowering the hourly rates in evenings and on weekends, time-of-day rates encourage people to limit their heaviest electric use to off-peak hours.) REDUCE shuts things down during peak hours to make the most of these lower rates. In Helwig's own home, the system cut his electric bill by 40 percent last year.

Helwig's system so impressed Pennsylvania Power & Light that the utility company is test-marketing it with a group of consumers who have a wide variety of house sizes and lifestyles (and no computer background). The testing is designed to see how much money REDUCE can save, and whether it creates any inconveniences.

Compatible with the Commodore 64, REDUCE costs $250. In addition, Jance offers a Security Control System—a home security system with some home control features—for $195 (wired version) and $349 (wireless). It works on the 64 and VIC-20.

All home control systems have one thing in common. They must take analog information—anything read according to a scale, like degrees, volts, and pounds—and convert it into the digital information that computers can understand.

One such converter is the ADC-1 Data Acquisition and Control System ($449), from Remote Measurement Systems. It can be used with any RS-232-compatible computer, including the Commodore 64.

One application for an analog-to-digital converter is thermostat control. If the temperature outside drops considerably, a house takes longer to warm up. The ADC-1, using a smart thermostat program, wouldn't let it cool down as much, so it costs less to reheat it. Or if the ADC-1 is connected to security sensors and it detects a back window vibrating, it might wait to see if the window vibrates again. If it senses another vibration, or if the window breaks, the unit might turn on a sequence of room lights to make it appear that someone is walking in that direction to investigate.

The ADC-1 is currently being used for a tremendous variety of purposes in homes and business across the country. Amana, a major appliance manufacturer, has reduced the time required to test room air conditioners from 20 minutes to 2, using an ADC-1 and Commodore 64. A southern California architect uses the system to manage the components of a custom-designed solar heating system. And an arboretum on Bainbridge Island, Washington, uses it to keep track of meteorological measurements.

The low cost of Commodore home computers prompted designers at Proteus Electronics, Inc., to develop the Simple Interface Data Acquisition System (ADAC) for the Commodore 64, 128, and VIC-20. The system consists of an interface ($34.95) and an analog data acquisition conditioner ($64.95). The system can digitize up to 16 channels of analog signals, making it appropriate for functions such as heating, cooling, solar control, voltage measurements, robotics, and weather station monitoring. An Apple version should be available by the time you read this for about $150.

For a home control unit to appeal to many people who don't own personal computers, ease of installation and use is crucial. Manufacturers realize that, and continue to work toward that goal.

Voice recognition may be one method of operation that could appeal to people not enamored of keyboards. Magician Gus Searcy and West German programmer Franz Kavan have developed a home control system that uses voice recognition. Marketed by Mastervoice, the system is called Sidney, the Butler in a Box. Working through existing household wiring, Sidney can dim and brighten lights, answer the phone, act as a security guard, and turn household appliances off and on—all at the sound of its master's voice. A stand-alone unit, Sidney retails for $1,195.

It's been predicted that eventually we'll all have some kind of universal controller in our homes, a unit that ties together all of our electronic appliances, entertainment equipment, and telephones. Fortunately, we can get a taste of the future right now with the easy-to-use products already available.

For more information about products mentioned here, contact:

General Electric Consumer Electronics
Business Operations
Portsmouth, VA 23705

Genesis Computer Corporation
1444 Linden Street
P.O. Box 1143
Bethlehem, PA 18018

Jance Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 234
East Texas, PA 18046

10523 Humboldtn Street
Los Alamitos, CA 90720

Powerline Software
P.O. Box 635
New Hartford, NY 13413

Proteus Electronics, Inc.
RD #2, Spayde Road
Bellville, OH 44813

Remote Measurement Systems
2633 Eastlake Avenue E.
Suite 206
Seattle, WA 98102

Savergy, Inc.
1404 Webster Avenue
Fort Collins, CO 80524

X-10 USA, Inc.
185A Legrand Avenue
Northvale, NJ 07647