Home Lighting Project

This is a picture of our house at night (you can click most of the pictures here for a larger version ... but not this one).  Pretty exciting, huh?  What's worse is that it's somewhat of a neighborhood staple to have some nice landscape lighting.  If you were to drive down my street at night, you'd eventually just see a big "black hole" where our house is, except for a gas street lamp that flickers at the bottom of the driveway.

So a fun weekend project (which is really many weekends) was to install some nice low-voltage landscape lighting.   Not only does it look great if done properly, but it adds safety and security to the property.  When people would come over and we weren't expecting them (hence, the porch light was off), they'd have to slowly stumble their way to our front door.  Or use a flashlight.

Low voltage lights need a transformer, and for my purpose, I decided to install a 600 watt (max) 2 channel transformer under the house (see picture below).  Why under the house?   This location is right behind the front porch stairs, and it's real easy to go outside of either side of the steps with the low voltage cable.  This is a little more work now, but means 1) we don't need to worry about weatherproofing anything, and 2) we can more easily get to anywhere on the property without tunneling under walkways.  The big disadvantage is that this location is not easily accessible (you have to crawl under the length of the house).

Pops and I had to run a new outlet to feed the transformer, above.  Translation: he did it, and I watched, but otherwise, the real work was burying the low voltage cable in the lawn (translation: I did that.  Proof above.).  I called this lawn laparoscopy: I wanted to get the cable buried at least 4 to 6 inches, but didn't want to have to replant any of the grass.

The transformer has a photocell to automate when it comes on, but I didn't want to use this.  For starters, it would come on too early (partly due to placement limitations) but, really, this just isn't enough control for the inner geek in me.  I want to precisely control when the lights turn on, turn off, and I want to be able to override this behavior with a wall switch if I so desire.

So the answer, of course, was home automation.  The first step was to replace some switches with ones I can control remotely via software.  The wiring was a bit wacky, as you can see in the first picture below (they daisy chained the line (hot) in a way that it shouldn't be -- it's hard to see from the picture but there are three wires connected to the line terminal on the switch).  I got that fixed up, and installed the cool keypad that will let me control my front porch lights, landscape lights, garage, patio, etc., all on the same switch -- previously this only controlled the front porch light.  (See middle picture below: custom buttons are on the way -- right now they look a bit barren.)

And, finally, software to manage it all!  I'm currently using PowerHome ... last picture above).  All of the switches and devices I installed communicate using the Insteon protocol, and while you can link these all up manually if you so desire, software makes it much easier and enables some advanced timers and triggering actions to take place.  PowerHome has some great geek-factor as you can program some really complicated logic into the lighting network and control it all remotely, as well.  (I see some cool WCF and WPF samples on the horizon.)

The basic links do not require the software to be running to function (meaning the switches are aware of what they control at the local level), however, the more advanced features do (including timers and events).  I don't mind because I have a server that is always running anyway.  The only thing that missing from PowerHome: the ability to run the core engine as a service.   This is a big negative for me since I usually don't log into my server's console, but it's also complicated by the fact that the SDM (Smarthome Device Manager) that allows interaction to the Insteon network from software runs as an interactive control in a Windows form.  Ick.   Blame Smarthome for that one.  We spent a lot of time in Windows Vista to ensure session 0 isolation, requiring that services have no UI (for security and other reasons).  (EDIT: some users have posted in the PowerHome forum that it is possible to get PowerHome running as a service.  Check the forum for more info.)

With products like our Windows Home Server on the horizon (read a preview here), I think we'll see a lot more "smart" home products become the norm.

So how does the finished product look?  Pretty good, I think!  Pictures are below.  The first is a wide shot, showing the uplights on the walls and trees.  The second is the walkway.

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