Help is at hand ...

Interestingly I did have one problem while I was playing with Cortex - it would not recognise my LPS module (Light sensor and PIR) no matter how I tried to add it to the system. Cortex normally automatically recognises new modules and adds them to the system as you connect them to the network. But for the LPS it kept saying it couldn't identify the module type.

I sent at email to Idratek for support in the morning and got a response back about 5pm. I tried everything it suggested but still now joy so I emailed back a reply. This was about 6pm. I was very surprised to get another response back and exchanged a number of emails with one of the Idratek guys, Vivian, during the evening. He worked out that the problem was being caused by a back level file on their website which didn't contain the definition for the new LPS v2 module that I had. Vivian uploaded the proper file onto their website and everything started working about 8:30pm. At 10:30pm and 11pm I also got other emails from people in Idratek who, not realising that the problem had been fixed, were offering to help. This is a British company, and a I believe quite a small one, yet these guys were emailing and offering help when any sane person would have left the office and headed home.

To get that level of support so early on is very re-assuring. If anything else goes wrong I have a lot of faith that the Idratek guys will be there to help!

Next: It's hotter than you think ....

My Brain Hurts

OK, so I've got the hardware installed and I've got Cortex running on the Core Server. OK, OK, it's the server running Cortex and it's also running my music and file server so I decided that it should be called the Core Server. This also means the permanent home for the system will probably be call Node-C. This follows on x10 installs where the heart of the system is often referred to as Node-0. I know that people favour Node-I for Idratek, but I'm just a rebel at heart so I prefer Node-C 'cos it's going to be the core of the system ;-)

Cortex is not hard to install, though there are a number of packages that need to installed especially if you want to use the speech synthesis. When you order the starter kit you automatically get a 30 day eval licence for all the software functions. There isn't a manual as such for Cortex, but there is a very good tutorial which takes you through the set-up of the initial Cortex database and then tells you how to add the components of the Starter Kit and how to set-up various things like alarm systems etc. If your serious about trying Idratek and Cortex out I really, really recommend you take the time to work your way through this. By doing that and then looking in the help files you do get a really good feel as to how Cortex works. Once you've got your head around how it works, manipulating it's very easy and to be honest it does a lot of the behind the scenes stuff for you.

For example it has the concept of "presence" in a room. So if a room has a motion detector, a light sensor, and a light in it, all you have to do to make the light come on automatically at night is tell Cortex to turn the light on when a presence is in the room and it's dark. You don't have to link in the motion detector to the light at all. Cortex uses the fact that the motion detector is in the room to work out that if it triggers there is a presence in that room. Neat.

Now, for all this to work effectively you need to spend a bit of time on set-up. One of the key things you need to do is create a plan of your house showing the rooms in Cortex. Then you put all the Idranet components in the relevant rooms and link the rooms together by doorways and stairs. OK, it's a bit of a pain doing this, but it's one of those jobs that only needs to be done once (just remember to back it all up!). Doing all this allows Cortex to make some surprisingly  intelligent assumptions about your house. For example if there is a PIR triggered in one room, then a door to the next room opens and the PIR stops being triggered and the PIR in the other room starts, Cortex will work out that the "presence" ie you, has moved from one room to the next.

Doesn't sound like much but think about this. Suppose you have the house fully wired for Cortex and you're upstairs at night and you have a limited alarm running so the ground floor is covered. If a burglar opens a window the alarm goes off, but if you come downstairs and open the window, the alarm doesn't go off. Why? Because Cortex has seen your "friendly" presence come down from upstairs and now knows that the downstairs is occupied so it should ignore any alarms from it. Neat, huh?

Next: Help is at hand ...
  • Current Mood
    cheerful cheerful

The Man with Two Brains

Haven't posted for a while as I've been too busy drilling holes in walls, laying cables and generally trying to automate everything in sight. Heaven knows what will happen if the dog sits still for too long :-) But back to the plot. One the last update I'd got the basic hardware for automating the hallway lights installed and was about to install Cortex (the controlling software for Idratek).

I have to admit I'd thought long and hard about the platform to run Cortex on. Cortex runs under Windows so it needs to be a PC of some sort, but it's going to have to be on 24x7 so ideally it needs to be quiet, reliable, with a low power consumption and not too hot. It must, repeat MUST, have a native RS232 port on it to allow it to talk to the Idranet system. It would also be useful it was small and could be mounted on a wall. As the system was going to be running 24x7 I also decided I wanted to run my music server (Slim Server) on it and to have it act as a central file server, hence it'd need gigabit Ethernet and I'd need to be able to fit a fairly large hard disk to the system.

All of these lead me to look at the mini-ITX form factor (http://www.via.com.tw/en/initiatives/spearhead/mini-itx/). For those of you not familiar with these, they are small form factor x86 motherboards with low-power consumption CPUs which means they can run unmodified Windows. They're aimed at the embedded market for building into other things where you need a PC as the controller. They're a little bit more expensive than standard motherboards but come with the CPU already fitted so all you really need to do is all memory and a disk.

The board I decided to use was the Via EPIA EN 12000G Fanless C7 Mini-ITX Board (http://www.via.com.tw/en/products/mainboards/motherboards.jsp?motherboard_id=399). The advantages being a relatively high CPU speed (1.2GHz), DDR2 memory, SATA and Gigabit ethernet. While there is a slightly faster 1.5GHz model, the 1.2GHz one is fanless. The power consumption for this board is 25W, add about 10W for the disk drive and the system uses somewhat less than a 40W light bulb - not bad for a PC :-). 

While there is a fine tradition of building mini-ITX boards into some really obscure things (http://www.mini-itx.com/projects.asp) I decided to use a commercial case and went for a Travla C137 Mini-ITX Case - Black 120W (http://www.travla.com/Products/products.html)

It's small, neat, takes a 3.5" HDD and a CD-RW drive and comes with brackets to allow it to be bolted to a wall. Perfect! Well nearly ... the EN12000G motherboard is quite new and it turned out that when you fitted it and the CD-RW drive to the case it doesn't quite fit. However a certain amount of swearing, bodging, and fairly heart stopping flexing of the memory DIMM later, it all fitted. <phew>

The CD-RW, USB and a Compact Flash slot are mounted in the side of the case and you can see the wall mounting brackets below.

I deliberately went for one with a CF slot so as CF capacities get larger and cheaper I can think about moving to a "diskless" system with the O/S and Cortex running from the CF. Additional data such as music files would be held on the HDD.

Once the hardware build was finished the O/S (Windows Server 2003) went on relatively smoothly and Cortex was loaded. I also loaded my music server (Slim Server), and enabled the web server in Windows. Apart from that I left it alone. Over the years I've learnt that Windows can actually be a very stable O/S. The secret is to limited the number of jobs it's doing and not to fiddle with it.

Next: My Brain Hurts ...
  • Current Mood
    happy happy

Land of the Instant Perm ....

The idea with this was to just try automating a very small part of the house and see if it worked. If it does, great I can roll this out to the rest of the house, if it doesn't I roll it back and go back to a boring, mundane existence of turning on light switches by hand.

So I decided on the the hallway lights. I had this happy thought that if you came home late at night you could just push the front door open and the lights would come on in a welcoming (and automatic) fashion. No more fumbling for the light switch while tripping over the dog (did I mention I have a small but incredibly cute black lab puppy?). The hallway is a small enough project that if it all goes horribly wrong I can replace everything very quickly and easily.

So with this in mind I got out my screw driver and decided to attack the light switch in the hallway. I did take the precaution of turning OFF the power at the fuse box first. You tend to do things like that if you managed to electrocute yourself while taking a desk light apart when your 8 years old. Fortunately the bed I hit as I flew across the room was quite soft. Friends would say this explains a lot :-)

Installation of the DRB was simply a matter of unscrewing the existing double light switch and replacing it with the DRB.

And then screwing it back into the existing pattress on the wall.

The green cable is the Idranet cable which is used to control the various components. Assuming all this works as expected this will be chased into the wall along with various ethernet cables. The nice thing about Idratek is the cable it uses is standard cat 5. I just choose one with a green sheath so I could easily tell the difference between the Idranet cables and the data cables.

That took care of the switches and the relays to operate the lights. However to make the lights automatic you need to have a way of sensing if someone is in the room. Idratek use PIR modules (Passive Infra-red Receivers) to do this. There are different ideas about where PIRs should be mounted in rooms for optimum coverage, but the Idratek sensors are supposed to be most sensitive to XY moments (across the sensor) rather than Z moments (towards the sensor), so mounting in the ceiling gives them the greatest chance of getting a "hit".

On this basis I mounted the LPS (Light level and PIR Sensor) module in the ceiling of the hallway.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that I've not installed the sensor into the ceiling just yet, it's been screwed into a surface mount pattress. It means I can test it without having to cut large holes in the ceiling.

With the basic hardware installed the next step was to get Cortex running and see if it would work.

Next:  The Man with Two Brains ....
  • Current Mood
    excited excited

One man and his screw-driver ...

Hooray, the bits have arrived. Very securely packed and sent by Special Delivery. This is the bit I love, it's sort of like getting Christmas but in mid summer. The modules themselves come in identical small white boxes.

When you open them up you get your first sight of the actual module.

There are going to be a lot picys in this update - the excitement of getting new toys was too much I'm afraid. There was four modules in the basic starter kit plus the cable that lets you attach connect everything to the PC.

Upper left is the IR transceiver so you can use a remote to control Idranet components, it also allows Idranet to control things like TVs, SKY boxes etc. Upper right is the interface box that allow the Cortex software running on the PC to talk to the Idranet components. Bottom left is the power distribution unit - 'cos Idranet is a cabled system it's able to power everything from a central point. And finally bottom right is the DRB unit which has two button, two relays and two digital inputs.

I think I've started to work out the naming convention of the units. All the units have 3 letter and three number in the id. For example the button unit above is a DRB001. DRB? - I think it's Double Relay Button box. The other unit I got (in the box above) was a LPS001 - Light level PIR (Passive Infra Red motion detector) Sensor. So I think the three letter give you a good idea of what the unit does.

One of the first things that strikes you about these units is that they feel well made, OK I know it's only plastic, but it feels like good quality plastic. This is reassuring when your dealing with something that is going to have mains voltage near it like the DRB. The unit themselves generally have a front plate and a PCB with components on the back, for example the DRB ...


The blocks at the top are the two 4A relays, the green block on the left is a screw terminal for the digital inputs, and the green socket on the left is for the Idranet connection itself. 6 wires, two for data, two for audio and two for power.

The DRB sort of epitomises the design philosophy of the IDRATEK equipment. It's designed to fit into a standard UK patress so it can be used as a direct replacement for a normal light switch. In fact if you program it so the button's toggle the relay's that's exactly what it does. This was the reason for choosing IDRATEK - it makes all this hoe automation lark very easy. Replacing the light switches with DRB's and your halfway there and you haven't had to touch the mains wiring at all.

Next stage is going fitting it together and seeing if it works <sharp intake of breath> ...

Next:  Land of the Instant Perm ....
  • Current Mood
    cheerful cheerful

A Flying Start ...

A Flying Start ...

OK, so I decided to have a play with IDRANet from IDRATEK (www.idratek.com). IDRATEK is a small UK firm based in the north of England. Big advantage - their stuff is designed to work with UK equipment and fits in a standard UK style pattress. This is a major plus if your trying to retro fit it into an existing house (like me). IDRANet itself is a modular system with unit talking to each other across standard cat5 cable. Modules can have switches, relays, sensors, IR transceivers, audio functionality etc builtin to them. Modules also have some basic intelligence builtin to them so you can configure a switch to talk across the network to a relay and turn a light on without having to involve anything else. These simple type interactions are called Reflex actions. However the real power comes when you run IDRATEKs control application - Cortex (Reflex, Cortex, get it?) on a PC and link it into the network. Anyway Cortex is the brains of the system and adds loads more functionality. For example Cortex has the concept of presence. So if you operate a switch in a room or trigger a PIR sensor Cortex knows there is someone in the room ie a presence. If you open a door and trigger the PIR in the next room, Cortex knows you've moved to another place in the house and can turn the lights out in the first room. Pretty neat huh? For more info see http://www.idratek.com/public/datasheets/IDRASYS.pdf

But how does it work in practice? Time to part with some hard earned cash and buy the starter kit. The starter kit has 4  modules, cable and Cortex software and I decided to add an extra module with the PIR and Light Level sensor in it so I could play with the presence detection and automate the hallway lights. You know the sort of thing. Open the front door and the lights go on automatically, but only if it's dark. Don't have to worry about leaving them on 'cos they automatically turn off as you leave the hallway. So the kit I ended up with had:

  • DRB-001 : Dual 4A Relays/Buttons/LEDs/Dual Digital Input   (To control the lights)
  • LPS-001 : Light Level Sensor and PIR sensing   (To detect people in the hallway)
  • ITR-001 : Infrared Transceiver
  • MPD-001 : Mini Power Distributor
  • PCA-001 : PC/IDRANet RS232 + Audio Interface

Next: One man and his screw-driver ....


The journey begins ...

I've always like the idea of home automation. A house that could make intelligent decisions and behaved as a single entity rather than a whole series of separate parts. But up until now I've not had the opportunity to try it. Various things have prevented me. Lack of a house, cost, the thought of what I'd have to do fabric of the house. However most of these are solved now. I have a house, it's reached the point where I'm going to have to re-decorate it, and the technologies advanced to point to where you can get some serious bangs for your buck.

For years the defacto standard for home automation has been x10. It has a major advantage, it sends the control signals over the existing mains cables. This limits the amount of re-wiring you have to do. However there are problems. It's subject to interference. You may have to install filters to "protect" your installation from stray messages coming in from the outside world. Also for some reason I've never been able to fathom, the vast majority of x10 modules only receive, they don't send acknowledgements and they don't provide feedback on their status. This means you have no way of knowing if a command worked or not, and no way of finding out whether a light is on or not for example.

Various alternatives have appeared on the market, for example Z-Wave which uses wireless communications and relies on each unit re-broadcasting the signal to create a redundant network. However even Z-Wave appears to suffer from interference and modules have been very slow to appear. And anyway I've always preferred the idea of a cabled control network. It's inherently more secure and much less susceptible to interference. The downside is you need to install the cables into the house. However since I was planning to retro-fit the house with cat5 cable anyway this is less of an issue than it might be.

Why install cat5. It's so darn useful. Cat 5 has become the Ford Transit of the cabling world. You can send virtually any form of data over it, network traffic, telephone, video, audio etc. Once the house is wired with cat 5 you can just route the data from anywhere to anywhere. So if your going to go to the bother and disruption of "re-wiring" a house do it with cat5.

So I wanted a system that was wired, would use cat5 cable, whose modules would acknowledge commands, could work in the UK (alot of HA equipment is US orientated), was modular, could switch lights without a neutral feed, was internet enabled and could be retrofit to an existing house with as little disruption to the mains wiring as possible. Amazingly, I actually found something that fitted all these requirements. IDRANet by IDRATEK Ltd (www.idratek.com). Here it seems are a bunch of guys who think the same way I do.

Next: A Flyng Start ...