Top Home Automation Project Ideas
If you've had enough of constantly patrolling your home's heating, cooling, lighting and appliances, it may be time to explore a list of top home automation project ideas. There are a number of steps you can take to improve the efficiency of your home and reduce the cost of operations—and they're all available via today's highly sophisticated home automation and control systems. The pricing tiers and levels of complexity for individual systems or whole-house installations vary greatly, so it's a good bet that there's a system that will fit your home's needs and your budget.
Before you replace windows and doors, insulate the attic or install new siding, find out exactly where the home is leaking energy and dollars. The best way to do this is to get a home energy audit-- an evaluation of your home's energy performance. Energy audits generally cost between $250 and $350, depending on how long it takes for the energy auditor, or rater, to get to your home.
Jeff meets with the energy auditor
Jeff Wilson paid $350 for a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) audit, which is administered by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). RESNET trains HERS raters to evaluate the energy efficiency of your home, and they come prepared with tools to help you decide where to start making repairs. "The nice thing about a HERS rating is that it gives you a cost-benefit analysis so you can make better decisions," Wilson says. Wilson learned he might as well be leaving a window wide open, year-round. That's how much air was passing through all of the leaky joints and weak walls and windows of his home. It didn't help that when he knocked out a knee-wall in his kids' bedroom to construct a built-in bookcase, he didn't properly seal the area. A daylong visit from the HERS rater covered every mechanical aspect of the home (HVAC, appliances, lighting) and its envelope (windows, doors, insulation, roof). The rater conducted a blower door test to assess the leakiness of the house, and a duct test to locate leaks in the HVAC duct system. He checked electrical outlets -- for, yes, more leaks -- and compiled all this information into a handy report with charts.
Jeff Knocks a Hole in the Kids' Bedroom Wall
Wilson learned he might as well be leaving a window wide open, year-round. That's how much air was passing through all of the leaky joints and weak walls and windows of his home. He didn't know it at the time, but he had made matters worse when he knocked out a knee-wall in his kids' bedroom to construct a built-in bookcase (as seen in this picture). That's because he didn't properly seal the area afterwards.
Diagnosing the House
Here are some highlights of Wilson's HERS test, what the rater determined about the home's efficiency, and what you might experience if you enlist a HERS auditor. Blower door test: A fan mounted inside the doorway is connected to a digital pressure meter. This way, it can measure any air escaping or entering the home. This is how Wilson learned that his home's "holes" amounted to 160 square inches of total open space—a sizeable gap. Infrared imaging: Wilson got his HERS test in the summer, so the rater used an infrared camera to show where heat was leaking into the air-conditioned home. Humidity is a problem in his region, and the reason most people crank up the A.C. during summer weather, Wilson says. So keeping humidity out can reduce energy use to keep the home "cool," when really the A.C. is mostly removing moisture from the air. Electric outlet tests: By testing individual switch plates, Wilson learned that their recessed lighting is an energy suck.
The HERS rater collected data from tests and, using a software program, compiled a detailed report to help Wilson understand exactly where his home stood on the efficiency spectrum. The Wilsons scored an 87 HERS rating, with 100 being the HERS baseline. Higher than 100 means a home is relatively inefficient; a score of zero means the home uses only the energy it creates, such as through solar or wind power. Wilson wasn't disappointed with his score, 87, but with a goal of net-zero, he has a long way to go with his Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) plan.
Energy Star Insulation
Interested in making energy efficient upgrades, but don't know where to start? Many municipalities and utility companies offer rebates or free energy audits under a variety of programs. Search www.dsireusa.org, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, to find out where these programs are available. You'll find a map where you can search your area for HERS rating or other energy audit offerings. RESNET also administers online home energy surveys. "There is so much conflicting information about the best, least-expensive solutions, what homeowners should do, what contractors should do," Wilson says. "By checking incentives, you can find out which items on your HERS list you could do at a vastly reduced rate right now."
Maximize Your Audit
Wilson suggests these tips for making the most of a HERS test:
- Monitor your home energy use before the HERS test, preferably up to 6 months in advance. This gives you historical data to provide the rater.
- Be at home during the audit so you can discuss your goals with the rater.
- Ask lots of questions during the process.
- Request a range of testing information, from the actual energy use data to solid steps you can take in the short-, medium- and long-term to tighten up your house.
Wilson's rater used a thermal image camera to check the heat leakage around the recessed light in the top of the cabinet in the main bathroom. Wilson learned that recessed lighting can be one of the worst culprits in air leakage into unconditioned space and is correcting it as part of his DER. The Wilsons will have another HERS rating done in early winter to determine how effective their DER was in eliminating leaks. Their goal is to get a score of zero.
At the highest level, home automation systems integrate electrical devices with each other. There are various systems used in home automation, which may be controlled wirelessly or by a hard-wired system connected to the home's electrical grid (this implementation is often present in older systems). In newer home automation schemes, the various systems are often connected to the home or businesses' computer network, allowing them to be controlled remotely from computers or mobile devices.
The top home automation project ideas generally fall into the following categories: lighting: security; HVAC and outdoor sprinkler systems.
Systems that control lighting may operate on a timer, so that some or all house lighting turns on or off at predetermined times. A great potential benefit of lighting automation is energy efficiency, but automated lighting may also be viewed as a security boost for a home or business, as well-lit structures may be less of a target for criminals. Automated home lighting systems will require a connection to the home's electrical grid, and they may be controlled remotely or via in-home control panels or remote controls. A fully integrated lighting control system connected to a whole-house automation can be quite costly, whereas basic standalone systems are extremely reasonable and easy to implement, often involving a simple hub receiver that plugs into an existing wall outlet to control the lighting in a room.
Home security systems are widely available and can be quite affordable. They can be integrated with an existing whole-house automation system, or they can operate independently. They offer varying levels of complexity, from simple detectors that monitor door and window security to complex combinations of motion sensors, closed-circuit cameras and even facial recognition technology.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are often controlled via home automation systems, sometimes with excellent energy-saving benefits. Homeowners can regulate temperatures in their entire homes or even in individual rooms or zones. In addition, they can implement a temperature calendar and schedule based on weather predictions, usage patterns or other factors related to HVAC system usage patterns.
Outdoor sprinkler systems are often offered as part of home automation and control, as they eliminate the need for standalone sprinklers or time-consuming watering. They can often be adjusted to respond to weather changes automatically, ensuring increased watering during dry stretches and shutting down to conserve water during periods of heavy rainfall. As with most other home automation systems, they can often be controlled via a panel directly linked with the home's power grid, or by remote control or wireless technologies.
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