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Control4 HC-250 Review, Part 3: The Expansion Begins [Video]

Sections: Lighting control, Remote control, Reviews, Security, Smart Home

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Control4 HC-250 BackWhen’s the last time you really sat down and thought about the plumbing in your home? Chances are good that it was the last time something went wrong, right? Or maybe when you were remodeling or renovating your home. Other than that, you just sort of accept that it works and that this is the way homes are supposed to function and everything is right with the world. And that’s sort of how I’ve started to think about my Control4 HC-250 Home Controller.

Of course, I don’t mean it as an insult to compare an advanced, IP-based home automation system to a bunch of PVC and galvanized tubes buried in the walls and foundation. But my dad grew up without internal plumbing. At one point in his life it was a luxury. Now he simply takes it for granted. And until very recently, unless I was called upon to write about it, I started to take for granted that my home just knows what time of day it is and if the sun is up or down, and whether or not it should turn on the foyer and den lights when I unlock the front door. I started to accept as entirely natural the fact that my bathroom vents and laundry room lights would turn themselves off automatically when no longer needed. My Control4 control system and Lutron RadioRA 2 lighting control system became as essential (and as axiomatic) a part of my home as indoor plumbing and central heating.

Until…

Until my wife started complaining about all of the things that Control4 didn’t do around the home. Not the things it couldn’t do, mind you—I mean the things it wasn’t installed or programmed to do. When I first signed on to review Control4’s HC-250 Home Controller, my goal was to see just how far you could push a single controller that was designed to control a single room. And I pushed it pretty far, not only in terms of home theater control, but also fifteen loads of Lutron RadioRA 2 lighting control around the home, Yale Real Living locks on my front and back doors, and even IP security cameras (mostly so I could keep an eye on Bruno when I’m away from home).

Control4 SR-250 RemoteThat left a whole separate home theater system in the bedroom at the mercy of another control system, though, which my wife slowly came to despise, not only for its constant lockups—which started about three or four months after I installed it—but also for the fact that once you get used to Control4’s SR-250 remote, everything else kinda pales. It may not be the single prettiest remote control on the market, and yes, I know I grumped about the button layout in my original review, but both of us have gotten so used to it by now that we can pause, rewind, skip tracks, pull up the DVR, and everything else without even looking at the buttons. And its battery life continues to amaze me.

So, yeah, back to my point: woe is me, right? I’m the guy who had to add more electronics to his house because his wife pestered him into it. Here’s the thing, though: extending the Control4 ecosystem really made me step back for the first time and think about how my Control4 system was organized. Much the same way that adding a room to your home would force you to step back and give some serious thought to your plumbing.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order here. The Control4 HC-250 originally installed in my home theater was programmed by my local Control4 dealer, with the understanding that I would be doing any future programming and modification to the system myself (a privilege I had to go through Control4 dealer training to earn). Since he didn’t actually install and integrate the Lutron RadioRA 2 system, and since his work only covered one room, my system was set up as one zone. In other words, if you looked at the Control4 programming and UI for my home and tried to reconstruct a floor plan, it would look like one giant room with fifteen lighting loads, one entertainment system, and two exterior doors.

And that’s served me pretty well, having all of the lights in one big list, labeled with their actual room names. The only problems that caused in hindsight were the fact that I had to dig a bit to find the exact lighting load I wanted to control, and it made setting separate Wakeup schedules for my wife and myself problematic. (If you’re not familiar with Control4’sWakeup functionality, it basically turns your lights and entertainment system into the world’s smartest and gentlest alarm clock. But it works on a room-by-room basis.)

Given that I would be doing my own programming for the addition of the second zone, I knew I wanted to break my home down into additional zones—beyond merely “Den” and “Master Bedroom.” After trying out several different configurations, I ultimately settled on having one additional zone, named “Main,” that included my locks, the foyer and living room lights, as well as any and all outside stuff.

Control4 System ExpansionI’ve written a lot about how easily expandable and scalable Control4 is, allowing you to start small with a one-room system and expand as your needs and desires grow. This was my first chance to put that to a real test in a real home, though. And I was outright shocked by how easy it was. My original, professional Control4 installation took the better part of a morning, not including the Lutron lighting system (which I programmed and integrated myself in about an hour). The recent addition of a second HC-250, all of the wiring required to add an addition TV and Blu-ray player and surround sound system to the Control4 environment, all of the reprogramming and adding rooms and moving lighting loads to different locations within the system—all of that took me about ninety minutes, start to finish. And when you consider the fact that I basically doubled the complexity of the system, not to mention rearranged nearly all of the existing programming, that’s pretty amazing.

One of the reasons it went so quickly is the utter intuitiveness of the Control4 Composer Pro software, which I know most consumers will never see—again, this is a custom installed system—but if you’re thinking of integrating your home with Control4, it’s worth knowing just how easy it is to make modifications down the road. I simply dragged-and-dropped rooms from a list into my existing project, then dragged lighting loads from one room to another. What’s amazing is that those lighting loads brought all of their programming with them. So I didn’t have to re-program automated events. I didn’t have to change any lines of code. It’s all—as Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn puts it—“auto-magic.” The programming that tells my foyer light to come on if I unlock my front door after sundown followed that load from the catch-all zone I had before to the specific “main” zone I moved that light into.

In terms of day-to-day use, what this change means is that now I can tell my MyHome app which room of the house I’m actually located in, and I only see, by default, activities directly related to that room. It’s kinda like how iOS 4 added the ability to create app folders, so if you wanted to play a game you didn’t have to dig through all of your non-game-related apps to find it. If I’m in the bedroom, though, and want to turn on the back patio light, it’s easy enough to hit the All Rooms button at the top of the screen or just navigate to the “Main” zone that contains said light. That’s turned out to be a huge time saver, and it makes me wish I had set up multiple zones to begin with.

If all of that is a little TL;DR for you, here’s a quick video I made, which encapsulates most of the changes I’ve made to my system since my last review:

(One booboo in the video: at one point I accidentally referred to the Control4 Composer Home software as MyHome. Those are two separate things. MyHome is the control app for iOS, Android, and computers. Composer Home Edition is the software that allows you, the end user, to tweak media settings, create lighting scenes, set up automated events, etc.)

A few things I didn’t cover in the video, though. Firstly, adding a second HC-250 and SR-250 to my system have greatly strengthened my ZigBee mesh network. Control4 uses ZigBee for most of its control communications, and in the past, for whatever reason, there would be times when the signal from my home theater HC-250 to my front door lock would be a little weak, and would occasionally take a bit to respond. Now all of my ZigBee devices have a rock solid connection to one another and the doors respond to control commands instantaeously.

Control4 Wireless Ceiling Fan Speed ControlSecondly, I’ve also added one of Control4’s new wireless ceiling fan controls to my system, attached to the den ceiling fan. And yes, that means I’m mixing and matching Control4 and Lutron RadioRA 2 lighting. So far, that hasn’t caused the slightest problem, and you’d never know it in the day-to-day operation of the system. The Control4 wireless ceiling fan control just gives me more control in terms of speeds for automated ceiling fan events, most of which revolve around automatically turning on that fan when needed, at different intensities depending on indoor and outdoor temperature.

What I did mention in the video—but something that’s worth repeating here—is the fact that the addition of a second zone has sparked renewed interest in further expanding my automation system. I’m definitely eyeing those automated Lutron shades a lot more closely now, and have all sorts of ideas about how to use them in my system.

And with all of this new expansion, all of this additional control, all of these new devices in my home, I still have a whole home control system that would cost you—with programming—about what a really nice top-of-the-line AV receiver would cost.

We really do live in the future.

Contact info:
Control4

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6 Comments

  1. Does the Hc-250 controller broadcast zigbee waves continuously like a wifi router works or only on pressing the button. Are zigbee waves harmful?And how is control 4′s wireless lighting and automation different from the wired counterparts .

    Varun
  2. Varun, ZigBee is a mesh network that carries not only control signals, but also status feedback pretty much constantly. It’s an incredibly low-power (and not terribly long-range) RF signal, though. Totally safe, of course.

    The difference between the wireless and wired solutions (which Control4 also offers) is that with the wired solutions offering this much control, you’re typically only going to install them in a new home, since the wiring all has to be run to a centralized control panel. That’s why they’re often called “centralized” or “panelized” lighting solutions, instead of simply “wired.”

    Wireless solutions are way easier to retrofit. You (or your electricians) simply pull out the old, dumb switch, connect the wireless switch in its place (it does require electrical wiring, of course), and then identify it in your control system.

    I’ll stop now rather than run the risk of overwhelming you with TMI, but if you have any other questions, feel free to ask!

    Dennis Burger
  3. Thanks for the reply,it cleared most of the doubts.Actually I am planning to have the control 4 wireless automation in my home hence all the queries.The things I am planning to integrate are two zones of home theatre (two 5.1 system /av receivers/projector tv etc) , entire lighting(Four rooms plus living and dining area) ,curtain control , security cameras and the 7 split ac units for which the dealer said that I would have to run a cat6 wire from each of the ac unit to the hc-250 controller.The area is about 2300 sqft and the dealer suggested going for two Hc-250 units to prevent loss of range.
    I have a few queries with respect to the above specifications.

    1.)Is this wireless system as reliable as a centralized system.The centralized system is much more expensive and the unit will take up some space.The wireless is easy to upgrade.The main thing is it should be easy to use without any breakdowns.

    2.)Will these two units run properly with the above specifications.

    3.)Does the zigbee mesh or rf waves continuesely remain in the space like a wifi signal or are active only when given a command?

    4.) As per your experience with the system are there any pointers I should look out for while installing or programming apart from the one’s in your review.

    5.)The dealer said that even if my internet is down I would be able to use this system with the keypads (switches) on the walls or with the sr 250 remote.

    Thanks.

    Varun
  4. Hey Varun. Great questions, all!

    1.) I actually only have one of the Control4 Wireless Lighting products in my home now (the ceiling fan speed control). The rest of my lights are Lutron RadioRA 2. So while I can’t tell you for 100% certain from personal experience that the Control4 Wireless lineup is flawless, my experience with the one load so far has been entirely seamless and hasn’t given the slightest problems.

    2.) Two HC-250s certainly sound sufficient. They have more than enough processing headroom, in my experience, and with two HC-250s you’ll have ample Zigbee antenna coverage to fill that space. (My home is slightly smaller at roughly 1900 sq ft, I think? But all of my Zigbee connections are now green, which means full signal strength).

    3.) Zigbee is always only, always communicating, so that your Control4 system (and your controllers) have constant feedback from your lights, remotes, etc. If you dim a light using the switch on the wall, that change is immediately reflect in the Control4 system. The new Gen 3 wireless lighting products also deliver constant information about energy usage to the Control4 system. But it’s a WAY less powerful RF signal than Wi-Fi.

    4.) I would say the most important thing is to not be afraid to ask your dealer questions, and make sure he or she knows exactly what you expect the system to do. I would include any future expansion plans, no matter how unlikely, in your discussion with your dealer now, just in case something needs to be wired differently in preparation.

    Also, give some serious thought into whether or not you may expand your home theater system in the future. There are days (usually when I have extra review gear in my theater), when I wish I had gone with the HC-800 in my main home theater, just for the extra I/O ports (mainly serial RS-232). Just know, though, that if you do expand in the future, your dealer can add an IO Extender without having to replace the controller. That adds eight IR ports, four RS-232 ports, and I believe eight contact closures and relays for about the same cost as an HC-250. If you think future home theater expansion is likely to run you out of IO ports on the HC-250, it may be more cost-effective to bump up to the 800 in that room now.

    5.) That is correct. While you may have issues with the panelized (wired) lighting solution if the network connection goes down (I’m still trying to get an answer on that from Control4), the wireless lighting products don’t communicate with the home network at all. If your router goes kerflooey or your network connection drops, you won’t have remote access when away from home, and you may lose control of local IP-controlled devices (unless you have a local network switch between them and the HC-250), but other than that, you’ll be fine, in my experience. If it’s just your internet that’s down, and not your router, all you’ll lose is offsite access.

    Dennis Burger
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  6. “…with the understanding that I would be doing any future programming and modification to the system myself (a privilege I had to go through Control4 dealer training to earn)”

    I’m just about to pull the trigger on a new control4 system for my new home. However, as a tech geek, I don’t care much for the fact that I’m tied so much to a Control4 dealer to do anything beyond what Composer Home offers. So my question is, can anyone choose to go to the training you went through? If so, where is it given and how much does it cost?

    Robert Lamaster