Homeowners in the midst of building a new house usually can’t help but dream big. They envision granite countertops and marble flooring. They think about buying an entirely new bedroom suite and finally having that huge heated workshop. Many also think about which state-of-the-art luxuries to incorporate, such as a whole-house music system and an architectural lighting system. These “new” systems are traditionally installed into a home as it’s being built. If a home’s wall studs are exposed, it’s prime time to pull in the low-voltage wiring that makes these systems work. However, given advances in wireless home technologies, there’s absolutely no reason why a mature, well-established house can’t benefit from the same modern systems.
Wireless computer networks have come a long way in a very short time. Just a few years ago, your only option was to route Ethernet cabling throughout your home to connect multiple computers together. The benefits of computer networking are compelling enough to start drilling into the walls: Multiple machines can access the Internet simultaneously, swap files and share peripherals. Also, wireless networking systems offer a simpler way to connect.
The hub of a wireless computer network is a router. This modem-sized box, which attaches to your existing modem, splits your high-speed Internet connection so that multiple computers can access the web simultaneously. Routers come in a variety of flavors. Two of the most important features to consider in a router are the range and the speed. If you live in a large house or plan to use your laptop all over the property, look for a router with a long range—around 150 feet is currently the longest range you can find. That kind of power is typically found in routers that distribute signals over the 5-GHz frequency bandwidth.
The speed of a router determines how much information can be transferred at once. Faster routers may be slightly more expensive, but they are the best choice for most families, says Ismael Matos, a networking specialist at The Geek Squad. The two fastest types of routers utilize either 802.11a or 802.11g technologies, both of which zip information around the house at about 54 Mbps (megabits per second).
The router can reside with the rest of your office equipment, or you can hide it away inside a closet. It’ll work just as long as it can plug into the appropriate wall jacks. Keep the range of the router in mind when you select a spot, however. If you tuck it in a bookshelf at one end of your house, the laptops at the other end may not be able to reach it. To ensure that your entire property is covered, locate the router in a central spot.
One of the most appealing features of a wireless network is being able to access the Internet from the outdoors: Surf the web while relaxing on a deck chair, tinkering around in the toolshed or roaming the backyard. For outdoor computing, you’ll probably need to extend the range of the router. This can be accomplished by adding an access point to the network.
Finally, you may need to purchase an adapter for your computers if they don’t already have a wireless card built in.
There is a way to hear your CD player in every room of the house without cranking up the volume. Probably the most common method of transporting music from a stereo system to multiple speakers is by adding speaker wiring to the house. Coaxial cabling, meanwhile, can carry video from a single DVD player to every TV in a home. Again, wireless systems exist for people who’d rather not bother with wire. A wireless media adapter, for example, can distribute the music files stored on any PC to your home stereo system. Instead of listening to the tunes on small computer speakers, let the better speakers in your living room play the music. Using software, you can organize the music into categories such as jazz, blues, country and rock. Just select the genre, and the media adapter does the rest. It’s a great way to set up a whole evening’s worth of music for a party.
Other types of wireless music distribution systems require no PC to get the music going. Instead, they use a machine that rips your entire collection of CDs onto its built-in hard drive. The unit then streams the stored music to smaller units located throughout the house. The receiver units of some systems have speakers built in, precluding the need for stand-alone speakers. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Just pick the rooms where you’d like to have music, and plug in a receiver unit.
The fun isn’t limited to music, as video-streaming capability is being built into everything from DVD players to LCD TVs. Today, you can purchase progressive-scan DVD players and digital video recorders that can stream movies wirelessly to other TVs. Like most wireless music systems, a wireless video system will usually require a receiver unit at each remote TV location.
TVs themselves are also becoming wireless; with battery-operated models, there are no wires to worry about. A transmitter, which does need to be plugged in, sends audio and video signals to the TV. You can locate the set anywhere in the house—even outside on the patio.
Wireless phone systems have become a very common amenity in most homes. Besides the obvious advantage of mobility, they also eliminate the need to run a phone wire to every room in the house. Some of today’s wireless phone systems can perform many of the same tasks as the wired phone systems you’d find in an office. For example, they can distribute calls from multiple incoming phone lines to several cordless stations in the house. You may also be able to use the phones like intercoms to page family members.
Although wireless phone systems are generally very reliable, they do need power to operate. In the event of a power failure, they will not work—although some systems may have a limited battery life to keep them operating during short power interruptions. Either way, it’s best to have one wired phone that does not require electrical power.
One of the most effective ways of making a house look and feel younger is to furnish it with a lighting control system. With the skillful hand of a home systems installer, a lighting control system can bathe an art collection in the soft, beautiful light it deserves. It can accentuate architectural details that may have been hiding in the shadows for years. Just as important, it can give your family a more convenient way to manage the lights.
The obvious benefit of a wireless lighting control system is that it can be easily retrofitted into an existing home. Because no new wiring needs to be added, installation time and labor is reduced significantly. The only change you’ll need to make to your house is trading traditional light switches for smart ones and installing keypads for control. Each button on a keypad can be programmed to brighten and dim a different group of lights. For example, a button labeled home could activate the foyer and kitchen lights to a 75 percent intensity, while entertain could set the lights in the family room to a soft level. The signals travel either by radio frequency (RF) airwaves or a home’s existing electrical wiring from the keypads to the appropriate wall switches.
Because the components can be installed at any time, a wireless lighting control system is ideal for homeowners who prefer to upgrade their homes gradually. Start with just a few switches and keypads, then add more as you see fit.
Once your home is outfitted with several wireless networks, it makes sense to put them all under the control of a single system. Instead of utilizing separate controls for each system, you can use one wireless touchpanel, laptop computer, cell phone or PDA to do the job. For example, with the right software, your computer can display the status of every system in the house. From there, you can engage a lighting scene and activate the whole-house music system, among other tasks. From a wireless control device, you can also communicate with individual wireless components such as surveillance cameras and thermostats. It’s like using a remote control, but for every system in the house.
Just as with a wired home control system, it’s important that a wireless control system fits your lifestyle and daily routines. For example, if you watch the news while you get ready for work, a command that activates the bathroom lights, TV and coffeemaker might come in handy. A home control system can be programmed to handle just about anything, so make sure you communicate your desires with your home systems installer.
It’s clear that yesterday’s wired home is increasingly becoming tomorrow’s wireless home. This is not to say that wire is going away any time soon. In many cases, running wire is still the preferred solution. For new construction or extensive remodels, professional home systems installers will almost always recommend running data, video and voice cabling to every room of the house. However, for existing homes where running wire would be costly, difficult or simply infeasible, selecting one or more wireless systems could be the only way to bring your home into the 21st century.
By Lisa Montgomery, senior editor for Electronic House magazine. To see more articles from the editors of Electronic House magazine about the connected home visit www.electronichouse.com.
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