Triotech Tuscany villa – the house of a lifetime7 March 2014
A couple in their sixties wanted their first automated home, and they got it – thanks to a flexible KNX-based system that encompasses far more than just entertainment and lighting. Paddy Baker reports
In June 2011, integrator Giovanni Aiello of Italian company Triotech met a couple in their sixties who were planning to knock down their existing home and build a new three-storey villa in its place. They wanted ‘the house of a lifetime’, although they had limited experience of home technology, or even of using computers. Through meeting Aiello and visiting his house, they became interested in the idea of automating their new home.
One important idea that he had to communicate to the client was the sheer scope of what was possible. “For example, an intelligent switch isn’t connected to the electrical system like a traditional light switch is – it can make do whatever you want it to do,” he explains. “Putting in a home automation system would allow them to reconfigure the entire technological system in any way they wanted.”
The scope of the project was very wide-ranging, taking in not only entertainment and lighting, but also security, energy management, HVAC control, calling the lift, and even systems for watering the garden and pumping groundwater from the cellar.
It was immediately clear to Aiello that the project required integration of different systems at different levels, and that it was important that the core management system was flexible. Before he became an integrator, Aiello worked in industrial automation, where he gained an appreciation of the advantages of open standards. “You are not bound – unless you really want to be – to a particular supplier or manufacturer,” he explains. “And if one manufacturer does not produce a particular feature or module, it’s likely that you will find that another manufacturer does – as long as the two ‘speak the same language’.”
He decided to base that the core solution on KNX. “The amount of software and hardware available from many manufacturers makes this standard very interesting, and there are always new products available to approach and solve a specific request,” he adds.
Having decided on KNX, the next step was to select the management solution that would be the ‘brains’ of the system. Although the name is more frequently encountered in industrial automation, what is required is a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system. There are several SCADA products on the market; Aiello shortlisted three products and finally chose a solution from NetX Automation. “I chose NetX Automation because I found that their cost is very reasonable for what the product can do – it is extremely powerful,” he explains. “And despite the fact that it can handle very big projects, such as Beijing Airport, the company have been very flexible with me, very supportive.”
The KNX bus has an Ethernet interface that allows it to connect to an OPC (open platform communications) server. The server is where all the KNX functionality comes together, and eleven touchscreen ‘clients’ communicate over IP with the OPC server. All the KNX programming scripts to handle specific custom tasks are centralised on the OPC server – the touchscreens are ‘thin-client’ communication devices, and can be switched off if desired without affecting the functioning of the system.
Let’s run through the different system functions. On the security side, there are four external Mobotix CCTV cameras on the exterior of the property, and a Mobotix T24 entryphone – and IP camera with VoIP phone, which is integrated with the house telephone system. An El.mo alarm system is interfaced to KNX for visualisation, but not for management. As Aiello explains: “No-one offers a full alarm system that works on KNX, so the right approach is that the alarm system is self-contained. The alarm system has its own keypads, so it isn’t managed from the KNX system. However, they KNX system can display the alarm status, or use movement detected by a sensor to switch on a light, for example.”
There is a total of 150 lighting points – internal and external – in the property. These are all controlled from the various touchscreens around the house – along with the window blinds. There is a 15in TCI touchscreen on each floor, which manages ‘everything you can possibly manage in the house,” according to Aiello. In addition, there are numerous 10in TCI touchscreens around the house, mostly for managing aspects of the room in which they are located. The 15in screens are running Windows XP Embedded, while the 10in models are on Windows CE. This, says Aiello, comes back to the fact that the system was designed two years ago; for a similar project today he would probably use Android-based hardware.
The customer specifically requested that the touchscreen graphics were simple to understand. “Other people – such as relatives – may visit the house, so you have to do things in such a way that even somebody who has never been there before knows at a glance how to switch a light on or watch TV,” he observes.
The home theatre system is based around an Integra Blu-ray Disc player and a Sky TV box. The outputs go through an Integra receiver-amplifier and are distributed around the house on Cat6 cabling via a 4×4 HDMI matrix switch and four HDMI extenders. There are four Panasonic TVs in the house, the main one being a 60in model. The video source is selected via a 10in touchscreen, and there is also an iPad to manage the overall system.
The infrastructure is in place for a six-zone multi-room audio system. However, the chosen manufacturer (WHD) does not have representation in Italy, and ‘in the end the cost of the equipment was too high,” says Aiello. “We would have spent €10,000 – and the customer wasn’t willing to pay that just to listen to the radio in the bedroom.”
Fortunately he was able to suggest a compromise. Because the Integra receiver has a two-zone output, it is being used to manage audio from an iPad, iPhone and other devices over Wi-Fi. “Integra has apps for Apple. Through the iPad I can mix the KNX system, the TV (with Panasonic apps) and the Integra.”
When it comes to interfacing with the KNX system, the home entertainment system was the hardest part, Aiello remarks. “The only part of the project that could not be easily handled by KNX is the audio/video devices. One approach here is to use a dedicated management solution, with the only requirement that it has to be interfaced and managed via KNX. For the management of the video, HDMI matrix and the home theatre system, I chose a Crestron QM-RMC and a b+b EIB-MT-Gateway IP.”
The Integra receiver, Blu-ray player and matrix switch are managed via their RS-232 serial interfaces. “However, there’s no easy way to automate a Sky box – it’s the trickiest part. The only way is to use infrared but it’s one-way only, so you can’t ask the device which channel it’s on.”
There are 30 zones for heating and air-conditioning, each managed individually by the KNX system. The heating and A/C systems are interfaced with a meteorological station: exterior wind speed, light levels, rainfall and temperature are all monitored. KNX thermostats and actuators, both from industrial control giant ABB, are used to regulate heating and lighting. (Weather station data is also used to manage the automatic watering system for the garden.) Standard Daikin air-conditioning units have been fitted with a KNX interface from Intesis.
In Italy, the maximum electrical load that a residence may draw is governed by the package that the household has signed up for with the supplier; if this is exceeded, the supply will trip. For this reason, the KNX system has also been set up to manage energy consumption: it can switch devices on and off that handle critical loads – such as the oven, washing machine or aircon units – in a preset sequence so the house does not run out of power.
Another useful feature of the KNX system relates to the cellar, which has flooded in the past. The new cellar has been fitted with KNX-enables moisture probes and pumps. “I monitor the pumps using ABB devices which switch them on and off and sense the amount of current being drawn,” explains Aiello. “If a pump should fail, an alarm registers on all the screens, a sound plays and the customer is sent SMS messages.”
With so much riding on the KNX system, it’s important that it is properly protected. For instance if the central server were to fail, the touchscreens would stop working. The server is a small Acer box – it doesn’t need a large amount of computing power, but it has built-in redundancy with disc mirroring (via a RAID controller) and a double power supply.
Power to the house is protected by a 5kW uninterruptible power supply, configured for full load for one hour. “This is vital when you have large amounts of electronics – not only for back-up in case of a short blackout, but also to protect against surges or spikes. Here in Italy in the past year we have seen an increase in thunderstorms and electrical phenomena,” says Aiello.
Remote monitoring is another key feature. “I monitor the alarm system, cameras, server, UPS and touchscreens for vital signs and for major warnings and alarms that may be significant for me – so I can intervene and not wait for the customer to phone me up. I want to address issues before they become a problem for the customer.”
A major benefit of the way this system has been designed is that it is very easy to change – either to accommodate additional technology or to adapt to new requests from the owners. Aiello comments: “What I’ve explained to the customer is that you can change the graphic anywhere you want. For instance, if they want to manage the Blu-ray player from a different room, it’s just a matter of changing the graphics. It’s a layer between the hardware and the customer that is completely flexible – you can mix and match in any way you want. That is what makes the money you spend on the systems worthwhile.”
Overall, Aiello says he is “extremely happy” with his choice of KNX for this project. “The more I’ve used it, the more I’m convinced that it is the way to go,” he says. “Often we see home automation as being limited to a few specific tasks – such as audio and video, or just lighting. But the beauty of a home automation system is that you should be able to integrate as much as you can. This way the customer also gets the most out of it – he can see results that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
“Because you have KNX, and more than 500 companies that develop KNX devices, there is really no limit on what you can integrate – and I think it’s a pity not to do it.”
- Panasonic Viera VT60 55in, 60in plasma TVs
- Panasonic Viera E6 32in LED TV
- Integra DTR-30.3 Blu-ray player
- Sky TV box
- HDAnyware HKM44 4×4 HDMI matrix switch
- KeyDigital KD-HDDA1X2 distribution amplifiers
- PTN TPHD402 HDMI over Cat6 extenders
- Mobotix DualDome D15 and MonoDome D25 CCTV cameras
- Mobotix T24 entryphone
- Integra DTR-30.4 receiver-amplifier
- KNX bus
- NetX Automation SCADA system
- TCI 10in and 15in touchscreens
- Crestron QM-RMC room media controller
- b+b EIB-MT-Gateway IP
- Alarm system – €12K
- Home theatre, TVs, matrix, touchscreens, iPad – €25K
- Cameras and entryphone– €8K
- Networking – router, switches, cabling – €6K
- Software and licences – €5K
- UPS – €3K
- Server – €2.5K
- Total – €61.5K