The Electronic House Expo offered information on the latest trends in home networking, including remote medical monitoring systems for the elderly and new wireless technologies.

Bristling with sophisticated features, a lot of the new equipment on display uses digital, as opposed to analog, technology. These services — digital satellite, high-speed Internet and digital television — require high-performance cables within the structured wiring system of a home. These include the RG-6 coaxial cable for television and video delivery and Cat. 5, or 5e, twisted-pair copper cabling for telephone and the data network.

In many seminars the “systems integrator” was spoken of as the one who will pull everything together and really drive the market. An integrator is the person familiar with all (or most) of the different technologies. He deals with the home owner and hires the installers familiar with the various technologies, or product groups.

Thus, in many cases, when dealing with the home owner, the marketing focus is about selling the solution to a lifestyle, at least in the more expensive homes. One seminar speaker talked about a shift from just installing products to providing service, envisioning the integrator, or automation specialist, as becoming a “digital gardener.” Consider it being similar to the way a homeowner plants expensive shrubs and trees, and the landscaper comes by to do periodic maintenance on the grounds, thus preserving that investment. An electronic equivalent would be to stop by the home periodically to check on the backup battery supply (or UPS), install new software features and/or perform routine maintenance.

For a long time, a lack of standards has kept home-network wiring and automation from being more than just a niche market confined to high-end custom homes and technophiles. Currently, the TIA/EIA 570-A standard for wiring homes and a movement toward more simplified control software are helping to bring important growth to this market, as was evident at the show.

One example of the hardware and software solutions coming together was seen in the GE/Smart/Microsoft alliance, and the equipment they are going to support. Smart LLC, Las Cruces, N.M., has developed a family of products for the home that can provide numerous features at a reasonable cost. Intelligence and control is distributed, residing in the different electrical components, so there is no central controller to fail. This also can make it easier for a homeowner to do the programming.

The components are the Power-Center (the main electrical circuit breaker panel, made by General Electric, with a power line carrier communications module at the bottom of the panel), the Digital DataCenter (an enclosure that serves as a residential gateway and distributes Cat. 5 cabling and RG-6 coaxial cable), the Digital HomeCenter (it can be PC or a touch-screen display from which the home owner controls the various functions), and the switches and plug-in ports that connect into the AC power line. The power line communications can monitor and control lighting, audio/video components, security, HVAC, appliances and lawn sprinklers and other automated equipment.

The DataCenter integrates and manages the wiring supporting the Internet, the telephone, the home network (Ethernet), satellite TV, home theater and AV control and security camera monitoring. Using modular construction and containing what is called a home server, the DataCenter comes in five sizes, or product lines, so it fits an apartment and various multiple dwelling units, on up to a very large home.

Smart uses the industry standard CEBus protocol and the Microsoft-led Universal [Home] Plug and Play (UPnP) standard, with its XML-based control protocol. On top of these, it also uses a new software product called Simple Control Protocol (SCP), which was developed by Microsoft, Smart, General Electric and Domosys, the maker of a new low-cost microprocessor. One of these processors is installed in each of the electrical switches and in the other products that have automatic control.

SCP is the next generation of CEBus (it is “lighter-weight”). It also connects with the LonWorks and X10 protocols and offers a seamless interface to UPnP products and the Internet.

The computer, or home server, used to monitor and control the whole house, runs on Microsoft's latest operating system, called Windows XP. This software is aimed primarily at consumers, although it is also available in business configurations. The desktop, or main screen, uses various pop-up windows and button-type control panels, making it easy to use. Look for products to be available in the first or second quarter of 2002.

Herman Cardenas, president/CEO of Smart, said a lot of what is being done today will be driven by entertainment. He said he believes that his company is positioned to offer low-cost solutions, true two-way communication and interoperability over multiple mediums.

Cutler-Hammer licenses the Smart system, marketing it as their Smart Convenience Pak system. Home automation functions are set up and operated from a programmable keypad installed anywhere in either a new or existing home. The keypad links with the Power Manager located in the loadcenter, which also has remote controlled circuit breakers for dedicated loads, and sensors that monitor electric consumption at the incoming line and on selected branch circuits. Cutler-Hammer also uses the Smart switches to control lights and other appliances. A security module can be integrated in most home-security systems. All components communicate over the electrical wiring using the CEBus protocol.

In the near future, Cutler-Hammer will manufacture remote-control type circuit breakers that can be retrofitted into other manufacturers' load centers, allowing a host of existing homes to also have the same type of automation. These lighting-control replacement breakers will be UL-listed as “classified” circuit breakers.

Another example of providing software for the control schemes embedded in home networks is Premise Systems, a firm started in 1998 by Microsoft software engineers and automation enthusiasts. Premise has a set of software programs and tools that run on PCs or other residential gateways for controlling lighting and other systems and appliances. Called SYS, the software is standards-based and fully supports Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) for home networking control and OLE for process control, making it compatible with thousands of existing and emerging devices.

Leviton showed its Structured Media Centers, or distribution hubs, that support the wiring for whole-house stereo and a home theater setup, with audio and video carried over Cat. 5 cabling. The firm also announced that Pulte Corp., the nation's largest home builder, will offer the company's structured media technology as a standard feature instead of an upgrade option. This means that builders are becoming interested in and starting to accept network cabling as a marketing tool.

Lightolier's Brilliance II whole-house lighting control system is now available in a version for existing homes using power line carrier signal transmission. Called the Compose PLC retrofit multi-scene/multi-room professional lighting system, it uses the CEBus control protocol. Five programmable lighting scenes and up to 10 dimmers/switchers/master control stations can be set up within a room. An optional cabinet, called a Firewall, can provide line filtering and surge protection for up to eight circuits (two or three phase) in a home. Line filtering prevents the entry of stray power line control signals, originating from a nearby home.

The convergence of personal computers and consumer electronics has created the need for a common digital interface. IEEE-1394, an industry standard for a digital interface that integrates consumer electronics and PCs, was mentioned frequently at the show. IEEE-1394 has been accepted as the standard digital interface by the Digital VCR Conference (DVC). Furthermore, new nonvideo products, including PCs, digital still cameras, printers, network hubs and storage devices are also 1394-enabled. The IEEE-1394b standard has an extensive list of media choices, including Cat. 5 unshielded twisted-pair (UTP), fiber-less optical transmission (meaning optical transmission through the air) and both plastic- and glass-fiber media.