Until recently, if you wanted automated lighting control—the ability to raise, lower, turn on, and turn off all the lights in your home at the touch of a button—you had two ways to get it. First was to upgrade all the wiring in your house, an expensive and impractical option for most people. Second was to use the existing power lines to send simple messages to specially equipped light fixtures and other "smart" devices, a technology known as X-10 automation that never really caught on because electrical interference tended to garble the signals.

But with improvements in wireless and power-line technology, it's never been easier or more affordable to take control of your existing lighting—to coordinate lamps, wall sconces, track lights, and other fixtures into unified schemes that you can control from practically anywhere. For instance, when guests are due over, one touch on a handheld remote keypad kills the overheads, brings up the table lamps, and illuminates the spot over your favorite oil painting. And it's as easy as swapping out a dimmer switch.

Gearing Up

To get these systems to work, you need to do two things. For lights that work on wall switches, you need to replace the switch or dimmer with the new automated hardware. For freestanding lamps, you plug the lamp into a special adapter that fits in a wall socket.

Once the lights are set up, you can control them in different ways. For example, the Z-Wave system works with a wireless remote control. Using the remote, you can turn fixtures on and off or dim them from anywhere in the house, set lights to go on and off at a specific time, or activate a "burglar deterrent" mode that operates them at random when you're away.

Other platforms, like Insteon and Universal Powerline Bus (UPB), use plug-in or wall-mounted control panels, which communicate with the light switches and lamp adapters throughout the house via the existing power lines, sending digital signals that are far less susceptible to electrical interference than the old X-10 equipment.

Check out some scenarios where automated lighting controls come in handy, and what you need to do to set them up. Keep in mind that while being able to operate all of the lights in a room, individually or in clusters, is a nice convenience, these systems can add safety to your home, too.

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