Building a Wired Home, Part 2

The second in an ongoing series of articles about expanding the realm of your computing environment to encompass your whole home, this article covers my experience becoming a certified Home Technology Integrator. Though the internet is a great source of information for nearly every aspect of home automation, there’s no substitute for a little formal education.

This article is the second in a series of stories about my efforts to design and install my own home automation system in a home that I’ll be building this year. The previous article, which covered my initial attempts at information gathering, was a great success for me, because OSNews readers were full of helpful suggestions and resources. One of these helpful OSNews readers who emailed me works for an organization called CompTIA (the Computing Technology Industry Association) and told me about a new certification they’ve developed called “Home Technology Integrator” (HTI+). He asked me if I would be interested in becoming certified, and writing about my experience, and I said yes. CompTIA sent me all the necessary materials, and I embarked on not just learning more about home automation technology, but also becoming a certified home automation professional.

Since I wrote the first installment of this series, I’ve done a lot of work on the other aspects of my home construction project (working on the plans, lining up contractors, picking materials, etc) but not a lot on the home automation front. I’ve spent most of my effort in educating myself about technologies, products and techniques, and trying to narrow down my specific requirements. I’ve been greatly aided in this effort by the formal education I received while preparing for the HTI+ certification.

CompTIA created the HTI+ certification because, previously, home automation specialists either operated outside of any formal certification or came from another field, such as the electrical, home theater, telecommunications, networking, or security industries, which each have one or more licenses or certifications associated with them. HTI+ covers a bit of capability from all of these fields, covering a breadth of what one would need to know to design, install, and support a wide range of home technologies. HIT+ covers wiring, home networking, configuring a residential gateway and server, security systems, fire alarms, remote access, remote control of lighting and other appliances, wireless technology, audio/video, HVAC control, and home access, among other things.

I don’t have any way of knowing whether having this certification would actually help my job prospects. I haven’t gone out looking for a job, and I suspect that many employers do not even know that HTI+ exists yet, but it certainly would only help. If I were looking to hire someone for my own home technology consulting firm, though, I would look for HTI+ certified people, because I found the curriculum to be quite comprehensive, and the test was downright hard. In fact, if I didn’t have a relatively complete knowledge of networking, computing, and general electronics, I don’t think I would have been able to pass the test even if I had studied the materials provided to me even more thoroughly.

The materials that were provided to me consisted of a hardcover book, a softcover lab manual, and a CD-ROM. The book is organized into chapters that cover major areas: wiring, security, codes and regulations, etc. Though it’s a great primer on home technology and a great way to prepare for the test, I think that its greatest value to me will be as a reference volume. It even has a lot of practical information about running a business, such as how to prepare a contract, and what kinds of end-user support you should offer. As I’m installing the various parts of my system, I’m sure I’ll have this book nearby, and it will get plenty of use.

The materials that I received were sponsored by the Leviton company, so some of what was in there was slanted toward the way Leviton does things. Now, Leviton is a powerhouse in the electrical industry, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, just as an example, when it comes to lighting control, Leviton has made an investment in power line carrier-based lighting controls (like X-10), so the book and the test covered that quite thoroughly. Other companies, especially ones with high-end products, focus on methods that depend on low voltage wiring to remotely turn lights on and off rather than piggybacking over the AC current. It’s a system that provides superior reliability, but as X-10 is more easily and inexpensively implemented, it’s more popular. In other words, this curriculum will not teach you about every single technology, but it will teach you about most of the ones that are the most widespread.

The HTI+ certification draws a distinction between a home technology integrator, responsible for a broad implementation of home technologies, and a home audio technician or home theater specialist. That is to say, even though HTI+ will give you a thorough background in running all the appropriate cable and understanding the basic concepts, it only briefly touches on complicated issues such as setting up distributed audio systems or choosing and configuring audio and video components. The main focus of the HTI+ A/V curriculum is understanding the uses and benefits of different types of cables and connectors. Quick quiz: which connector offers better video quality, component or composite? (Component). Some important issues, such as acoustics, speaker selection and placement, or focusing a projection TV are not even mentioned. This is probably a good thing. There is so much to know about home theater, for example, that it deserves an association and a certification all its own. And it has one: CEDIA. If you have any doubt as to the depth of knowledge required to set up a top notch home theater, browse around for a few hours. You think Linux geeks are zealous and opinionated? You should see audiophiles!

To be honest, my home automation project is going to contain a pretty serious home theater, and I find myself floundering a bit when it comes to designing it myself. I could probably use some education on that front, but if much of it had been crammed into the HTI+ curriculum, I would have been overwhelmed, and I doubt I would have passed the test.

I’ve been spending most of my efforts in the past couple of months, since I wrote the first installment in this series, working on the house plans with the architect, getting bids from contractors, and working with the county regulators on the various permits I’ll be needing. Most of my home automation and A/V work is back-burnered now. However, my HTI+ training came in very helpful as I was designing the electrical diagrams for my houseplans and in consulting with prospective electrical contractors. A home technology integrator needs to understand much of the electrician’s role, so as to work in harmony with him or her.

There was one area that was not covered in any detail in the curriculum that I have been struggling with: automated window shade control. My home will have some lovely views, and some large windows, but I’d like to avoid having the sun streaming into the house during the summer months, and I’d like to keep the bedroom darkened until a reasonable hour, but keep the blinds open during the day. I find that if I darken a room it tends to stay dark, since going around and lifting a bunch of shades by hand is a hassle, so I’d like to have some programmable motorized shades. Though I ran into a few vendors at the Builder’s Show that offer them, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus in the industry on how to power or how to control motorized shades. I wish I could have learned a bit more during my training. Shades are a niche technology, I guess, and I’m sure other people would have liked to learn more about other niches that weren’t covered. If any OSNews readers have any expertise with motorized shades, I’d love to hear about it.

Home security. Though the HTI+ curriculum covered it at length, I got the impression that it only scratched the surface. Our property is isolated from the neighbors, and bafflingly that makes my wife feel uncomfortable. My point of view is that there are less people around to steal your stuff, but she sees it as nobody there to hear your screams for help, I guess. We’ll call it a Mars-Venus thing. To help ease her mind, I’m planning on installing some measures to help us keep track of what’s going on in our surroundings. In addition to the basic window, door, motion, and glass break sensors tied to a monitorable security system, I’d like to have some other sensors and security features. I plan to install a car sensor that turns on the driveway lights and rings a chime if a car comes up the driveway. I plan to have a few surveillance cameras mounted around, indoor and out. Floodlights will be able to illuminate the exterior, either manually, with a motion sensor, or all at once with a “panic button.” And I’d like the whole thing to be accessible and controllable via the web. I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to get this all working the way I want on the kind of shoestring budget I’m preparing, but we’ll see how it goes. The HTI+ training gave me a little background, but I still have a long way to go. Especially on the video surveillance end.

I’ve found that self-directed internet-based research can bring you up to speed on just about any topic imaginable if you’re willing to spend a long time slogging through inappropriate and sometime inaccurate information on the web. But it’s all out there somewhere. When I’ve wanted to learn about Tivo Hacking, research the best type of siding to use on the house, or I suddenly wonder how it was that the US came to take possession of Guantanomo Bay anyhow, it’s all out there on the internet. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for formalized, authoritative instruction. Though my informal research on the net gave me a great background, I wouldn’t have much confidence to really design and implement this system if I had not taken the HTI+ training. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to start a home automation business or go work for one if I hadn’t been certified, but now, I almost do. I would recommend the HTI+ certification for anyone who’s serious about becoming a home automation professional. For an enthusiast who’s not planning on making a career of it, it may be a bit too expensive, at several hundred dollars for the exams and a couple hundred for the training materials. In that case, you may just want to study some of the HTI+ materials.

The Next Steps:
I’m going to be spending the next couple of months trying to get my permits, finalize my plans, select contractors, and start building. I’m sure I’ll be spending some time doing research as I put together my requirements list in preparation for a formal system design phase. The next installment in this series will probably cover my attempts to finalize the design of my home automation system and begin purchasing equipment.

If you’re interested in the HTI+ certification, more information can be found here.

The book that I used to prepare was this one, which was excellent, if a bit pricey:

You may also want to consider these two books, which I have not read, but which cost less and seem to have been well received by the people who have reviewed them at Amazon:


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