Automate your holiday lights

by Gordon Meyer

Ho! Ho! How many times this season have you either forgotten to turn on your holiday lights, wasting all that time you spent decorating, or left them on all night or during the day, wasting all that energy? Based on my experience, and from just looking around the neighborhood, you've done it more often than you'd like.

A common solution to this problem is to use a simple light timer. That's not a bad approach to automation, really, and will suffice for a lot people. (Here's a tip: Use a power strip to control multiple sets of lights with just one timer.)

But if you've been itching to try out X10-based home automation, holiday lights afford you the perfect "excuse" to get your feet wet. You'll get a flavor for what it's like with a minimal investment. Here's what you need:

Start with an X10 Mini Timer. Compared to the timer mentioned above, it offers a lot more flexibility and features for just a few dollars more. For example, you can use it as an alarm clock, and it has four separate timer functions, each with two schedules per day. But perhaps its greatest advantage is that you don't have to physically connect the lights to the timer box -- instead it sends X10 commands over the power lines. This means you can easily control multiple sets of lights, each with their own schedule if you wish, and during the rest of the year you can use it to control other things -- such as a coffee pot, indoor lighting, or a cooling fan.

You'll need an X10-capable appliance or lamp module for every item that you want to control. If you're just automating a strand or two of lights, use one appliance module and a power strip to turn them all on at once. If you also have a motorized snowman and a rotating, flashing, and blinking wreath, you may want separate modules for each of those, too. Thanks to the versatility of the X10 timer, you can put each on a separate schedule with ease. One important note, make sure that you use an appliance module for anything that shouldn't be dimmed, like an electrical motor, and many low-power holiday lights. If you use a lamp module, and it's accidentally dimmed, it might cause damage or create a fire hazard.

If you don't need all the fancy timing capability, and just want your lights to come on when it's dark and go off at sunlight, there's a solution for you, too. Instead of the mini-timer, get a Photocell Mini-Controller. This inexpensive box will handle it all for you, and you can use it to manually send X10 commands at any time.

So there you have it, a short shopping list for a "smarter" approach to holiday lighting. Give it a whirl, and you might just get hooked on automation. Don't say I didn't warn you.