Category: Other Rooms

Creative Kids’ Spaces

Because your child's room should be as awesome as they are.


When Dr. Randy Pausch gave his famous “last lecture” in September of 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University, he talked about the creative space his parents gave him when he was a teen, letting him paint his bedroom at will, even if it meant they ended up with the quadratic formula on the walls. He implored parents, “If your kids want to paint their bedroom, as a favor to me, let them do it. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about resale value on the house.”

What Pausch understood, and what kids innately know, is that children need space that’s theirs, where they can let loose and really be creative.

“Engaging kids in active play to inspire creativity is so important,” says Glen Halliday, founder of Windham, Maine-based Kids Crooked House. “There are so many things in kids’ lives today where their creativity is force-fed to them, that doing anything you can create that evokes that imagination and creative play is key.”

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Design for Your Kids, Not for You
One of the first mistakes parents make when creating a space for their kids is not involving them in the process enough. The best way to set out on a project like this is making your kids a part of it from the beginning.

“There are so many times a parent will design a house for their child, and it will have all the bells and whistles,” Halliday says, “but if you ask a kid, they just want the simplest things.”

And giving up a little control can make all the difference in how well-loved the room becomes. “What really makes a difference is when parents allow their kids to conceptualize, and pick the colors and textures, and have a say in what elements they would like in the space,” says Doug Masters, founder of the design and building firm Masters Touch in Medfield, MA.

Color Their World
Paint can be a very evocative substance for kids, who are often passionate about the colors they love and those they can’t stand. Kelly J. Thyen, owner of the Blaine, MN-based kids’ design boutique Wiggles N’ Giggles, says parents should consider not only their child’s interests, however, but also the “psychology of color” in choosing the base shade for their child’s creative area.

“Blue is a fabulous color for a kids’ space,” she says. “It is a peaceful color that actually causes the human body to create calming chemicals and also make you more productive. Green is another great color because of its calming effect.” Thyen adds that although kids often love colors like red and yellow, using them only as accent colors may make for a more pleasant space. “Red stimulates chemicals in your body that create excitement and hunger, and yellow can have a very unsettling effect; even though it’s cheerful and sunny, it tends to make people loose their tempers and children cry, which is definitely not what you want in your child’s play space,” she says.

Beyond just color, however, paint can be used to delineate a space. “It’s important to remember that for younger kids, their eye level is right around three feet or so,” says Ann McGuire, Valspar Color Consultant and founder of Beehive Studios of Buckhill Falls, PA. “Think about doing borders along the bottom of the wall like handpainted flowers for a little girl’s garden or a cityscape for little boys who want to play with their trucks or LEGOs.”

And it doesn’t have to stop with the walls. McGuire says when parents are willing, painting the floor adds a whole new dimension to kids’ play. “Painting hopscotch boards, roads for cars or even four-square sets, especially in a basements, where you don’t mind the bouncing ball, can be great for kids.”

Focus on Kid-Friendly Materials
When designer Sharon McCormick, principal of the Durham, CT-based Sharon McCormick Design, LLC, created a playroom for her clients with a rambunctious two-year-old, she knew she had to choose materials that were both attractive and durable.

She recommends checking out Flor carpets for soft, modular flooring that can be easily replaced. “We made a checkerboard design, but the number of designs and colors are seemingly limitless,” she says. “By buying a few extra tiles, if one gets dirty, you can take it out and replace it in a jiffy.”

McCormick also chose beadboard wainscoting for the room. “It’s tough and much more washable than sheetrock,” she says, adding it’s important to choose high-grade paint that can withstand multiple cleanings before having to be repainted. But even then, having the wainscoting will reduce your work. “Since with little kids, the lower half of a wall takes the brunt of the dings, when it’s time to repaint, you can just repaint the wainscoting instead of the whole room,” she says.

For fabrics, she chose stain-guarded, relatively inexpensive cottons and rugged denim. And instead of choosing fragile tassels for window treatments, she went with a more practical trim. “We used a braid trim on the bottom of the roman shade and saved the tempting tassel fringe for the top of the valance,” she says.

Don’t Neglect Safety
Creating a room that’s just for kids means they will sometimes end up there without much adult supervision, which is why safety is a key concern in any room you design with kids in mind.

One safety issue parents need to address early is making sure the space is completely finished. “Don’t leave any bare studs or loosely tacked carpeting that the child could get caught, cut, or slip on,” says Thyen. “The space should be fully finished.”

Also, Thyen says to make sure any furniture that can be climbed on or that might wobble is screwed securely to the wall. Any large, heavy items like televisions should also be secured. And don’t forget the cords: “Make sure cords are hidden, wound up, and secured,” Thyen says. “And cover every outlet.”

Finally, don’t forget lighting safety. “Watch that light fixtures are fully enclosed and that they don’t get hot enough to burn, especially when creating a playroom under stairs or in another small space.”

Worry Less, Play More
Still worried about the resale value of your house if you install that fireman’s pole your son craves or turn your fourth bedroom into a jungle room? So was Janie Glover, who created a deluxe playroom for her daughter Katherine in their former home in High Point, NC. When the family put the house up for sale, their realtor suggested they remove the room, which had been featured in several local papers and had been a labor of love for the entire family. So Glover decided to wait.

“We decided we would try to feature it as a selling point first,” she says. “We knew that it was a unique feature and felt it would set our house apart. We told our realtor that if a couple was interested and did not have children or grandchildren, we would take it down and repaint the room.”

Glover’s decision was the right one — the house was put on the market on Thursday, and it was under contract on Friday to the first couple who looked at it. “They had been looking for a home for more than a year,” she says. “They had a two-year-old little girl who spent hours in the playhouse while her parents toured the rest of our home. It was perfect for them and they said the playhouse is what sold them on the house.”

Remodeling the Empty Nest

The kids have left home, and you’re left with extra space. If you’re looking for ideas for your empty nest, here are six transformation ideas for a newly vacant bedroom.


Some families prefer to leave bedrooms alone when their children move out after high school; they want their children to have a familiar place to come home to. But for the parents who want to find a new use for that space, experts have some suggestions.

If you plan to stay in your home, says Judith Sisler Johnston of Sisler Johnston Interior Design in Jacksonville, FL, you’d be wise to invest in a renovation that might include built-ins, lighting, and new furniture. Sisler Johnston says the cost to renovate can begin at $10,000 and increase depending on what you want to do and where you live. “But from a practical standpoint and resale value later, it’s worth it,” she says.

If the price sounds steep, it doesn’t have to be. Hardware stores offer do-it-yourself books, products, and ideas that can cost a lot less, but only if you don’t intend to hire designers and labor or to tear out walls.

A Master Suite for Guests
But tearing out walls between bedrooms is common these days. “Most of our residential clients are converting those spaces into multiple guest rooms for the returning adult children and grandchildren,” says Sisler Johnston, who has worked with clients who have transformed spare bedrooms into spas, complete with massage tables, or meditation areas or exercise rooms.

She’s not talking about just any kind of guest bedroom, however—she’s referring to creating a guest suite. It’s the latest trend to provide your guests with the ultimate comfort.

Maintaining a guest room or guest suite is top of the list, says Letty Rozell of Designworks in Denver. It can include adding full bathrooms, king-size beds, and sitting areas. Some homeowners might even add a wet bar and big-screen TV. Rozell, who works with builders who design homes for active adults, says, “It’s not about having more square footage—it’s about having the square footage do more.”

A Room of One’s Own
Some couples might decide to have separate bedrooms in which to retreat and even sleep. “They want their own space,” says Sisler Johnston, “even their own private bathrooms. He gets the shower. She gets the Jacuzzi.” Rozell agrees, saying, “Living together 24/7 is tough. Spouses still want a place to do their own stuff: watch investments, read a book, watch football, smoke a cigar, whatever. So that extra bedroom becomes a nice way to do that.”

Sandye Abele, interior designer and owner of SAS Designs in Las Vegas, suggests creating a relaxation room. “I did this two years ago in a client’s downstairs bedroom,” she says. “The oldest child was getting married, and she didn’t need the room anymore.”

The client wanted a room to read and loved spas. Abele removed everything from the room, installed slate tile flooring, painted the room a light celery color, and added music, dim lights, and aromatherapy. A waterfall affixed to a wall gave the homeowner soothing sounds to listen to while she read. Furnishings included two chaise longues and a side table for her cup of tea. Live plants and palm trees finished the look and gave the client a nice place to unwind.


A Place to Play
Another trend is having a space to set up the card table. “It’s the new cool thing,” says Rozell. More and more baby boomers are playing games like mah-jongg, bunco, Uno, and poker. Without the kids at home, they have more time to host card parties and want a room to play. All you have to do is clear out the bedroom furniture and put in a round table and club chairs, shelving or cabinets, and wooden floors, these experts suggest.

One of Abele’s clients, who had gone back to school to take art classes after her kids moved out, wanted an art room in the spare room. And she wanted it ready to go, says Abele, “We took out the closet doors and put in a small kiln,” she says. “We brought in a potter’s wheel on a bench so she could throw pots. We left easels out on stands. She had her paints out, ceramics out, canvas on the floor, artwork on the walls. It was her place to play.”

Home Work
Other families with less space might keep the spare bedroom but add a work area with a desk in the corner, says Rozell. It gets the computer out of the family room and provides a more private place to go online. If you’re going to do this, she adds, “Pottery Barn makes great bookshelves that don’t take up too much space.”

For those who need more than just a desk area, the newly empty bedroom is also the perfect place to put a home office. For a more professional look, hire someone to design and install custom millwork. That’s what Sisler Johnston did for her husband, who was helping care for their elderly parents. Their son’s bedroom was converted into an office decorated with matching mahogany desk, bookcases, and cabinetry for storing paperwork and supplies.

Store It
Empty nesters alone with extra space? “In theory, that may be true,” says Pat Simpson, an Alabama-based contractor and the host of Fix It Up, a remodeling show on HGTV. “But no matter how many cabinets or closets you have,” he says, “there’s always a shortage of space—especially in the Southwest, where for the most part homes don’t have basements or attics.”

You can make good use of a small bedroom by transforming it into a cedar closet. “It’s a safe storage space we can all use,” Simpson says. Just line the walls of the closet with cedar plank or panel liners, which you can buy at Lowe’s or Home Depot for less than $200, and it’s an easy nail-in weekend project.

“You can position the planks horizontally, vertically, or even diagonally to create a great look,” says Simpson. The benefits go beyond being visually appealing. Cedar planks made of 100 percent eastern red cedar smell wonderful, are safer than mothballs, and have a natural resistance to moths, roaches, and silverfish.

Buy extra cedar planks to trim the rest of the walls in the room. Then the entire space becomes a great place to store seasonal outdoor equipment and clothing that might otherwise take up space in the garage.

Wrap It Up
If you have all the storage space and bedroom you need, Abele suggests a hobby room. For one client she created a gift-wrapping room. “It’s great for families with grandchildren,” she says. She has used organizing systems, including peg boards and pullout drawers, to create a fun place to hang ribbon rolls and store gift wrap bags and ready-made bows. And she discovered that drawer organizers that you’d use for jewelry or makeup make a handy place to store gift tags.”You can get creative or carried away,” she says.

Whatever you do with that extra space, says Robert Weinstein from the Weinstein Design Group in Boca Raton, FL, make sure it blends well with the rest of the house.

Child Safety During Home Renovations

Watch out for potential hazards during your home renovation to keep kids safe.


Safety is an important consideration in any home renovation, but when children live in a home under reconstruction, keeping them out of harm’s way isn’t as simple as it may seem. Kids are curious, exploratory beings, and simply having an area with something new, interesting and dangerous going on is an attractive nuisance.

“Parents really need to talk to their kids who are old enough to understand and lay down ground rules for the renovation,” says Eric Phillips, vice president and general manager at DreamMaker Bath and Kitchen of the Triangle in Apex, NC. “And once the rules are there, parents really have to have the discipline to enforce those rules with their kids.”

The first step, of course, is awareness of the dangers that lurk for children during a home renovation.

Change Home Habits
One of the most difficult things for children to get used to during a home renovation is changing the way they use their home. This is especially true when a remodel is focusing on a room the kids use every day, like a kitchen, bath, or living area.

Phillips says the contractor and the family need to work together to set up alternative areas that will fulfill the family’s basic needs while the job is underway. “If I’m doing a kitchen remodel, for example, we’ll set up a temporary kitchen somewhere like a garage or extra room,” he says. “Just having a refrigerator, microwave, and crock pot in a separate area helps kids stay out of that area.”

For bathrooms, parents need to help kids remember to stay out of those areas, whether it’s by locking doors, putting up physical barriers like plastic sheeting, or adding signs around the house.

Prepare the Air
More and more children (and adults) suffer from allergies and asthma than ever, and the dust and particulates brought into the home through a large remodeling project can be damaging to the health of the air in the household.

Protecting the quality of the air you breathe is one of the most important steps you can take to keep your family save during a renovation, says the carpenter Christopher Ashe.

“Sealing off any HVAC ducting or vents in the area, hanging plastic sheeting, using disposable drop cloths and maintaining a clean workspace by vacuuming all horizontal surfaces with a HEPA-filtered vacuum at least twice a day, preferably more often, can really protect your family from the particulates and dust that can get into the air,” he says. And these steps are particularly important, he adds, if there are any materials like asbestos or lead paint that will be disturbed during the project.

Phillips says his workers seal off areas and HVAC units with plastic sheeting, and they also use “air scrubbers” while doing work like sanding drywall to protect the household’s air. “There’s so much more allergies and asthma in kids than there used to be, it seems,” he says. “We have to be very conscious of the materials, dust and particulates in households.”

Keep Tools Tamed
Many children’s toys have buttons to push and sliders to move that often result in colorful lights, funny noises, or fun moving parts. Now, consider how the average power tool would look to a three- or four-year-old.

“Parents should tell contractors they shouldn’t leave power tools there overnight—or plugged in and within reach when kids are in the house,” says Phillips. “Taking batteries out of cordless tools or moving those out of reach and unplugging corded tools is definitely a good idea.”

Just keeping track of where all the tools are can be a challenge, Especially with large jobs that aren’t necessarily isolated to one area of the house,. “At the end of the day, we like to have a ‘tool gathering’ where we collect all our tools and put them in one secure area,” says Dean Bennett, president of Castle Rock, CO-based Dean Bennett Design and Construction. “That’s good for us, too, because tools can get scattered during a day’s work. But you don’t want a kid finding a tool somewhere on the site and deciding to see how it works.”


Know the Hazards of Unfinished Areas
Even when tools are put away and workers aren’t present, there are still plenty of dangers on an unfinished work area.

“Sometimes parents don’t realize that even when a room looks mostly done, if something like the wall socket covers are off, that can be a real hazard to a kid because the sides of those switches are live,” says Phillips.

When important safety features are missing, a room is still a hazard, agrees Bennett. “Even something like having a toilet off with the wax ring exposed—that looks neat to a kid, but it’s full of bacteria,” he says. “Or, if a stair rail isn’t up on a new stairway, that’s a dangerous situation.”

Stay Out of the Path of Work
Workers moving around in a home with small children can be dangerous to the kids—and the workers.

“When guys are carrying in something like lumber or cabinets, they can’t see a curious little kid who might get in their way,” says Bennett. “Parents really need to keep kids out of the way in those situations so neither the kids nor the workers get hurt.”

Parents also need to realize that when workers are moving large equipment or materials in and out of the home, they probably won’t be too worried about shutting the door behind them. “It’s really easy for a little kid to slip out the door while it’s open and have no one notice,” Phillips says. “It’s just so important for them to be really well-supervised.”

Keep Waste Contained
Bennett recalled one of the few times that a child get hurt while he was working on a home —in that case, a kid was playing in a trash pile and stepped on a nail.

“The parents needed to keep the kid out of the trash pile, of course, but it would be less interesting to a kid if the trash had been in some kind of container,” he says.

Beyond hazards like sharp metal and nails, keeping used chemical containers out of reach is important because even after the contents are gone, toxic chemical residue can remain. Even a small amount of these substances can harm a child, so making sure they have no access, even to empty containers, is a must.

Be Conscious of Allergies
Beyond the dust and particulates that come from any remodeling job, Bennett notes that many people may be sensitive to some of the materials and chemicals being used in the project.

“With paints and primers, you can go with low-VOC [volatile organic compound] options to help reduce sensitivities, especially in kids,” he says. “Carpets are another problem sometimes because they have lots of formaldehyde. Sometimes it’s best if the family can just take a week-or-so vacation after these products are installed to let them off-gas without harming anyone.”

Bennett says the danger is reduced by opening windows and using air filters after painting or installing materials with formaldehyde (like composite-wood cabinets or carpets). There are also materials available that don’t harbor the dangerous chemicals. For instance, look for paints and finishes with “no-VOCs” on the labels.

Ashe says while it may cost a bit more, looking for more environmentally friendly choices can pay off in the long run, especially when children are involved. “You can always find an eco-friendly alternative,” he says. “It may cost more, but sometimes it’s a small price to pay.”

Choose the Right Contractor
While conscientious parents are the best way to keep kids safe during a family’s remodel, choosing a contractor who understands and appreciates the unique challenges that come with remodeling a home with children is an essential step toward ensuring a safe renovation.

1. Choose certified contractors. Too often, people mistakenly hire the contractor who offers the lowest price with lots of assurances, which, according to Phillips, can end up a costly mistake. “There are a lot of operations that are really just two guys and a fax machine, and they’re not reputable,” he says. “It can be expensive to license and insure a contracting business, but it protects you to choose someone who may cost a little more but is regulatory compliant.”

2. Find out about safety practices and record. While everyone wants a safe contractor, families in particular should concern themselves with a company’s safety record because a low injury rate usually means the contractor follows good safety practices, like keeping work areas clean and storing tools safely.

3. Ask how they feel about kids in the house. Before deciding on a contractor, ask about any issues or concerns he may have with children around a construction site. A good contractor should mention ground rules for kids, their own safety practices, and any experiences they’ve had working with families living in a house while it was being remodeled.

The New Family Room

New trends in home remodeling, like the 'family studio,' bring projects (and families) together.


Homes, how we live in and use them, are constantly evolving. Kitchens have opened up to living spaces and become family gathering spots. Spare bedrooms are now home offices. Under-utilized formal dining areas are becoming catch-alls for spillover projects. Chores like mending, ironing, laundry, and homework have become the tasks of family time. Ironing and wash are done during dinner preparation and homework. Bills are paid during science projects, and sewing. Crafts, mending, and hand wash go hand-in-hand with Internet research. This is more than multi-tasking, it’s how families function.

But these are all messy projects that bring clutter and chaos to kitchen tables and family rooms. So, as homeowners evaluate their space and needs, architects, builders, and designers are creating a new kind of living space while big-name companies are devising the products to enhance it.

Friendly Space
The family studio concept is a space apart from the public or show spaces of the home, where the nitty-gritty of daily life can take place without cluttering the rest of the house. More than just a project room, this space functions like an active family room, housing crafts, laundry aids, computers, even music. The goal is to create comfortable family space that accommodates the messy moments in life and the chores that go with them. Counters, a sink, functional surfaces, and project-specific space are critical.

How much space? Functional home studio spaces start at around 8-by-10 feet. To work properly, the family studio does require significant square footage that must be borrowed from existing spaces or added on to the home. Key to the success of these spaces is a location close to the core of the home, perhaps off the kitchen or family room, in a converted upstairs space or lower-level family area.

As with any home enhancement project, add-ons and upgrades increase the cost. Still, this is the room where those add-ons will really pay off. Storage is a key function in a home studio, so cabinets are prominently featured in most designs. However, save for a sink cabinet, designs with fewer built-in features are possible if the space exists but not the budget. The Whirlpool Corporation, maker of kitchen and laundry appliances, is actively promoting the home studio concept by marketing creative appliances to make it function smoothly.

Appliances: A New Category?
Whirlpool’s advocacy of the family studio makes sense: If the concept takes off, a new category of appliances will likely line the room’s walls. The company has developed a suite of convenience appliances intended to make laundry chores less cumbersome. The company now offers a spa-like jetted sink that is designed to swirl water under and around delicate washables, with adjustments for the degree and height of spray. A warm-air cabinet, called the DryAire, puts hand washables in the proper drying position, behind cabinet doors. It features fold-down shelves for flat drying, racks for hang drying, and door racks for gloves, socks, and scarves. A chemical-free cleaning system, called the Personal Valet, is housed in an armoire-like cabinet. The device steams and freshens most fabrics, including machine-washable and dry-clean-only items. To round out the collection, an ironing station and front-loading washers and dryers are also offered. Buying the full suite of Whirlpool appliances can cost around $5,000; the Personal Valet, the centerpiece of the collection, starts around $1,000.

Planning for Projects
Organization is critical. Storage and workspace are the key features of the home studio space. Storage cabinets and cupboards house glues, paints, fabrics, books, and cleaning supplies. Table and counter space accommodates projects large and small. Lighting, task centers, and project-friendly surfaces help the entire space function easily and well.

When designing a home studio space, attention should be paid to specific project areas. Some families will want a large central surface for layouts, projects, homework, and snacks. Overhead diffused light is good for these areas. Counter space should be incorporated for laundry folding, and small task space. Recessed cans can provide task lighting for these spaces, but for delicate work like sewing, quilting, or handwork, special task lighting should be included. Attention to outlets and power requirements is essential. Wiring may be required for certain appliances and all built-in lighting. Other tasks will require ready access to outlets. Some families opt to include music, computers, or even a television. Surfaces should be made user-friendly, both in height and in reach. Hardwood floors, vinyls, or manufactured flooring make cleanup of spills a breeze. Carpet may be warmer, but should have a short, tight pile to allow for easy vacuuming and cleanup.

The most important aspect of all is to create a space that works for the family. Cabinets make for organized chaos, and can neatly store craft, fabric, and project clutter. Shelves can be used for drying, display, and books. Built-in storage cupboards can house appliances, spare tables, boards, and tools. In the end, creating a space that allows for family collaboration makes for productive, enjoyable home time — even when there’s laundry to be done.

Design a Home Gym

Create a workout space that’s safe and structurally sound.

Many homes have a treadmill or dumbbell these days, but a home gym is more than just an accumulation of equipment — it’s the product of a well-conceived design that’s as functional as it is motivating.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much space — nor does it require plumbing or a lot of rewiring — to set up a home gym. It does, however, take careful planning to optimize the square footage and create a sound, safe, and inviting workout space.

Space Considerations
Before you start equipment shopping, settle on the location of your home gym. Space limitations will impact the size, quantity, and layout of your apparatus. According to the American Council on Exercise, free weights require 20 to 50 square feet of space to use properly, treadmills need about 30 square feet, and a multi-station gym necessitates 50 to 200 square feet.

“Maximizing smaller space comes down to choosing the right equipment,” says Jeff Thomsen, president of Fitness Solutions Direct in Hoboken, NJ. Thomsen works with homeowners to design gyms based on their space, lifestyle, and fitness goals. “There are pieces of equipment that are very functional and take up minimal room,” he says. Thomsen also suggests you select a square or rectangular area as “odd-shaped rooms tend to result in a lot of wasted space.”

Basements are a natural for an exercise area. According to Cary, NC-based architect William J. Hirsch, Jr., author of Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect , “It’s best to place the home gym on the lowest floor of the house to reduce noise transmission from the exercise equipment.” Sound is a top issue in designing a gym. Treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines produce droning vibrations that can be transmitted through a wood-framed floor. On the other hand, the concrete slab floors usually found in basements absorb the vibrations. Another plus? Basements are cooler.

Architect Joshua Zinder of JZA + D in Princeton, NJ, recently finished a large basement for a family that included about 250 square feet for a home gym. “Because it was all subterranean, we had to make sure the gym felt light and airy and open even though it was in a small section of the basement that didn’t have windows” says Zinder. who achieved that airy feeling by using bright lighting, reflective white acoustical ceiling tiles, and mirrors. “Lining the room with mirrors made it feel twice the size.” Mirrors play a dual role, as well, since they help you monitor your form to ensure you’re exercising properly. There was also a green aspect to Zinder’s design: The ceiling tiles and rubber flooring were made from recycled materials.

Prior to Zinder’s completion of their basement gym, homeowners Michael and Lori Feldstein had their exercise equipment in the bedroom. Lori Feldstein says it was used “more as a towel bar” than for its intended purpose. “I love that the space is in the basement, in a room intended for exercise,” she says. “When I go down to work out, I can tune out the chaos that my three kids may be making upstairs and enjoy some well-deserved time to do something for myself.”

Attics are another popular location to house a home gym. An advantage of attic gyms is they often have high ceilings that can accommodate tall pieces of equipment. Most have windows, too, and natural light can be especially motivating. One drawback is that vibrations can carry down to the rooms below. If the gym is being planned in a newly constructed home or as part of a remodeling where the floor system is accessible, “then placing sound-deadening insulation in the floor is a good idea,” suggests Hirsch. The walls and ceiling should be insulated for sound, too. “This can be done with fiberglass sound-deadening batts, sound-deadening drywall, or a sound-deadening board installed between the drywall and the studs.” If you opt for a gym in the attic or an upper level, additional bracing might be required to ensure the floor is strong enough to support heavy exercise equipment.

Of course, any space — from a spare bedroom to a small alcove — can be repurposed for a gym. “The important thing,” Zinder says, “is a space that’s going to encourage you to use it.”

Flooring Options
The choice of floor surfaces is critical. Gym floors are susceptible to perspiration drips, so sheet vinyl, tile, or hardwood flooring with a polyurethane finish are low-maintenance choices, Hirsch says. Another smart option is using carpet tiles, which are resilient, sound-absorbing, and easy to replace. And if one gets damaged, there’s no need to replace the entire floor.

If you have a free-weight area, think about heavy-duty mats that will protect the floor. Zinder recommends half-inch-thick recycled rubber flooring available online from retailers who specialize in both residential and commercial-grade products such as Rubber Flooring Inc. “It’s going to be able to take the impact from the dropping of weights a lot easier,” he says. If your fitness area is comprised mainly of machines, rather than free weights, you can opt for flooring that’s more stylish and less heavy-duty.

Air Quality
Engage in a vigorous workout and suddenly a home gym becomes hot and humid. For that reason, many prefer to have the room cooler than the rest of the home. Architect Hirsch says, “It’s a good idea to have the home gym on a separate heating and air conditioning system, or at least be controlled as a separate zone off the main system” so it won’t affect the temperature in other rooms of the house. Installing a ceiling fan to circulate the air will also keep the room comfortable.

Motivational Tools
Televisions, DVD players, and stereo systems are almost a prerequisite in home gyms today. To keep your workout space clutter- and hazard-free, mount audio-video equipment on a swiveling ceiling bracket or recess it in a niche in the wall. Be sure to position the TV at a height that’s comfortable to view when you’re on a raised piece of equipment like a bicycle or elliptical machine.

“The most important thing is designing something that’s integral to the way you use your home,” says Zinder. “For us, aesthetics are everything. If you improve the finishes and make it a place you want to be, it’ll encourage you to use the gym and not feel like working out is a chore.”

Creating Your Ideal Home Theater

Here are some expert tips for your dream media room.

Photo: Flickr

Just a few years ago, a home theater was only for the lucky few who could spare an extra room and tens of thousands of dollars on furnishings, equipment, and accessories. But today, as high-definition has become mainstream and more people integrate wide-screen televisions and souped-up audio systems into their homes, a true media room is within reach of more people. If you’re thinking about adding one of these high-tech spaces, these tips will have you headed in the right direction.

Choose the Right Space
If you want to go all-out, experts say the best way to integrate a home theater is to start from scratch. “It’s always ideal to either work with a client on a new construction, or be able to have the budget to take a room down to the studs and start from there,” says Stuart J. Allyn, president of Irvington, NY-based A.D.R. Studios, a high-end home theater design company.

The sheer amount of wiring labor, as well as the benefit of being able to design the room for the singular effect of creating a home theater cocoon, makes a blank slate room most attractive. Starting from scratch allows the client to thoughtfully consider factors like the area required for seating, viewing distances and angles, room acoustics and so on, says Bobby Bala, CEO and founder of Elite Home Theater Seating in Vancouver, BC.

But not everyone has that luxury, of course. If you can’t do a new room, the best choices are square or rectangular rooms that are enclosed, have standard-height ceilings, and have few windows or controllable light, says Paul Diggin, managing director of Advanced Communication Technologies, a custom electronics integrator in Hingham, MA. “Many people think about putting a home theater in their ‘great room’ or a large room with high ceilings, lots of windows and architectural angles, but this is the worst type of room for a home theater.”

Pick the Right Video System
One of the most intimidating parts of buying for a home theater can be choosing the right television or projection choice. With the many options available, figuring out what’s best for your room can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Knowing your needs is important, so you neither overspend nor underspend, says Bala. “We use this analogy: Just because someone can afford a Ferrari doesn’t mean they’ll be happy with it,” he says. “On the other hand, if he buys a Volvo and wants a Ferrari, then he’s also going to be dissatisfied.”

If you’re buying a television, there are a couple of rules of thumb that can help, says David Meneely, co-founder of Pro-AV, a home theater company in Gonic, NH. “If you’re looking for a screen under 42 inches, an LCD, or liquid crystal display, is the way to go. On the other hand, plasma screens are the most affordable choice when looking for a set over 42 inches,” he says.

Meneely says LCD sets tend to have a longer lifespan, consume less power and don’t have problems with burn-in, which can occur on plasma televisions when an image is left on the screen too long. But he notes that manufacturers are making great strides in correcting burn-in and other problems.

For really huge screens, however, projection is hands-down the best choice, says Allyn, who has designed luxury home theaters for Hollywood luminaries. “When you want a really crisp, large image, projection theaters are the only option,” he says. “And when you’re going with projection, it’s important to consider not only the quality of the projector but also the quality of the screen, which is incredibly important in itself.”

Consider Your Components
Once the exclusive domain of men, the home theater now has to serve the needs of everyone in the household. “These days, home theater products cater to entire families and their friends,” says Bala. “Everything from wall décor to seating design, to user-friendliness of controls and integration of gaming systems for everyone’s enjoyment, is available to create an experience that is fun and flexible.”

Since different members of a household often have different uses for the home theater, choosing the right components is an important factor in having a room everyone can enjoy.

Some components, however, are more important than others when it comes to making sure your room has that “wow” factor, says William Fried, vice president of operations for Anthony Gallo Acoustics in Chatsworth, CA.

“The two most important components in a home theater are speakers and the A/V [audio/video] receiver,” Fried says. “Without the proper power and features you get in a good A/V receiver, you won’t be able to bring out the best qualities in the speaker system.” This, in turn, will affect the overall experience in the room.

Don’t Forget Sound
Experts say people almost always underestimate the importance of sound quality in the design of the home theater. Good sound is about more than great speakers, though having quality products is important. “The goal in any home theater is to re-create a movie theater setting, where you are positioned to watch video or listen to audio in a cozy social environment,” says Fried. “You can have a big plasma, a high-performance audio surround sound system, and powerful A/V equipment, but if the setting is designed for looks, not sound, you will be disappointed in the result.”

Fried says one problem is that good acoustics aren’t always compatible with the decorating style of the homeowner. “In a home theater room, there will always be a compromise on sound quality versus interior design,” he says. The best solution? “It’s always good to have the interior designer and the home theater installation company collaborate on the room design so everybody is happy with the result,” he says.

Lighting It Right
Light is another factor that too often takes a backseat to other more technical concerns when designing a home theater, but it is also a make-or-break factor in a real quality design. “Lighting control can turn it into a real cinema-like experience,” says Diggin.

The key, says Michael Berman, lighting designer for national retailer LAMPS Plus, is to layer the illumination and have full control over all the different layers. “A home theater needs to have a special environment, different from the rest of the house,” he says. “For a home theater, the most important factor is lighting control for both natural and artificial light. All layers of room lighting need independent level control to maximize the viewing experience and comfort of the room.”

Using controllable combinations of recessed and track lights, as well as other indirect lighting sources, can transform any room, he says. And for daytime viewing, adjustable shades or heavy drapes are essential so you don’t have to deal with glare.

Practical considerations are important, as well. “Don’t forget small task lights to accommodate activities while viewing a movie, like eating, drinking and viewing guides, and use night lights as path lights,” Berman says.

Home Theater


Control Your Systems
Whenever you install a high-tech system like a home theater, having controls that work for you is incredibly important. “A good control system is important for maximum homeowner enjoyment,” says Diggin. “Whether it’s a basic universal remote or a touch screen interface, it needs to be easy to use and offer good functionality.”

Universal remotes you buy off the shelf can work for less-complicated systems, but Meneely says homeowners should consider choosing a radio-frequency (RF) remote, rather than infrared (IR) remotes. “With RF, you don’t have to worry about someone standing in front of you, blocking the signal. Or, if your components are behind doors, you don’t have to worry about opening those doors up because the RF control won’t be blocked like infrared will,” he says.

For a true custom experience, however, Allyn says nothing is better than a control made specifically for each client. “When each component has its own remote, it can be a real problem,” he says. “Unless you like having 10 remotes or a remote the size of a 3-ring binder, most [off-the-shelf] controls just don’t have the physical real estate to control all the functions most people want.”

His company makes touch-screen controls to fit the needs of each user. These remotes can control anything the client wants, including lighting, HVAC, media components, and even clocks. “It’s all a matter of what they want because it’s designed specifically for each user,” he says. “Technology should serve you.”

“Future-Proof” Your Theater
One aspect you shouldn’t neglect when deciding on your home theater design and components is what professionals call “future-proofing.”

“Although you should keep long-term use in mind when choosing your initial equipment, there are now a host of upgrades that can be made in the future as technology develops,” Bala says. “I suggest to my clients to take the time and effort and minimal expense to future-proof their theaters, like running extra wires and cable,” for technologies that may come in the future, such as seats that can be programmed for individual users or peripherals for future technologies.

One technology facing change is the high-definition DVD system, says Nathan Adams, the digital technology sales manager for DR Group, a Los Angeles-based home theater specialist. While Adams currently recommends that consumers shell out for a Blu-Ray player, he believes the “old school distribution model” of hard-copy DVDs is headed for extinction.

“I think digital distribution over high-speed Internet will eventually be the delivery method of choice for Americans that have high-speed Internet and a computer,” he says. “Once the studios embrace the immense opportunities presented by Internet distribution and stop clinging to the dying business model of DVD distribution, the consumer and the studios will be much happier.”

Don’t Neglect Creature Comforts
When putting together a home theater, the electronics get the most attention. But all the technology in the world won’t make a room great if you can’t get comfortable in the space.

“Seating’s significance in a home theater is often underestimated,” Bala says. “In a good home theater, a client should expect to spend hundreds of hours of enjoyment in that room. No amount of audio or video technology will compensate for an uncomfortable or improperly designed chair.”

Make sure you leave room in your budget for seating that you’ll want to spend time in. “We recommend that 20 to 30 percent of the theater budget be dedicated to seating and seating-related accessories,” says Bala.

Think Professional for Best Results
If this all sounds complicated and a little overwhelming, the experts say that’s because designing and installing a home theater is a detail-oriented, technical process that is best handled by a professional.

“To get the most out of a home theater, homeowners should hire a professional, industry-certified installer,” says Diggin. “A pro can recommend the best products for the homeowner’s budget and help design the theater room for maximum performance and enjoyment.”

You wouldn’t sit down to design and build a home without an architect and a contractor, says Allyn, and you shouldn’t drop big bucks on a home theater without a specialist, either. “We are the advocate for the client,” he says.

Protecting Your Investment
A home theater is a major investment in your dwelling, and too many times homeowners fail to consider the insurance implications of this type of improvement. Tim Bowen, director of claims for MetLife Auto & Home, offers a few tips on making sure your investment is protected:

  1. Reconsider the basement theater. Bowen says basement rooms are risky because of their propensity for flooding. He says events like sewer backups or flood damage are excluded from many policies and can leave homeowners uncomfortably exposed. He says if you plan on adding a home theater in your basement, modify your risk by getting sump pump or sewer “endorsements” on your policy or choose “all perils” coverage for the contents of the room.
  2. Think about contents. Even in the event of a “named peril,” like a tornado or fire, homeowner’s policies have a cap on the amount of contents they cover. “If you go out and buy a $10,000 television and only have $100,000 worth of contents coverage on your house, well, you only have $90,000 for everything else in your dwelling,” he says. Again, scheduling an item like this by purchasing a rider for your policy can be a good investment.
  3. Consider your electric system. Investing in a whole-house surge protector and making sure you hire a licensed technician may cost a little more, but it is well worth it when you consider how much you’re spending on the room.
  4. Look at your total budget. It’s time to call your agent to double-check your coverage when you spend more than $10,000 on any type of home improvement, including a home theater, Bowen says.

Choosing a Whole-Home Audio System

Follow these guidelines when looking to purchase a whole-home audio system.

Home Audio Systems

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Whole-home audio, or distributed audio, is an increasingly popular way for homeowners in new and existing houses to enjoy music and radio broadcasts in any room. Separate zones can be created so multiple musical selections can be played simultaneously — soothing classical in the den, talk show radio in the kitchen, and downloaded hits for the kids in the entertainment room. Control devices exist to easily manipulate volume, skip songs, and select specific rooms from any number of locations.

When planning a whole-home audio system, homeowners must decide on the system size, controls, and whether the system is to be single-zone or multiple-zone. First decide how many rooms will contain speakers, and how many speakers will be installed per room. Homeowners can install speakers in just one room, or in every room, depending on the budget. For proper stereo sound, two speakers are recommended per room, although it is common to see one speaker in a hallway or small bathroom. Larger rooms may need more than two speakers for the best sound quality. Speakers included in a home-theater system can also be tied into the whole-home audio system.

It is increasingly common to see home audio in outdoor locations, as well. Poolside, decks, patios, and lawn areas are frequent gathering spots for family and guests, where outdoor speakers bring the benefits of an outdoor room. Outdoor speakers often require more power to generate adequate sound and will require weatherproofing. Homeowners may also consider in-ground or hidden landscape speakers that look like rocks and other yard features.

Room speakers can be in-wall (also called built-in or flush-mount speakers) or freestanding. In-wall speakers are installed to be flush with the rest of the wall. They can be painted to match the décor and blend with the rest of the room. Freestanding speakers include cabinet speakers that rest on furniture or bookshelves, and floor speakers that can be placed anywhere in the room for ideal sound. Budget will also dictate the size, quality, and shape of your speakers. In-wall speakers can be round or rectangular, and will vary in size (measured in inches) and capacity (measured in watts). “Camouflaged” speakers are made to look like other home décor items, such as sconces or light fixtures.

“The size and types of speakers can depend on a homeowner’s taste and perception of ‘good’ sound,” says Mike Brunner, Senior Technical Support Specialist for NuVo Technologies in Nubrin, KY. “Also, the type of music to be played can impact speaker selection,” he says. Some speakers don’t carry the total frequency range, so critical listening is out of the question. A speaker that will deliver full-range is more expensive, and will have tweeter, mid-range, and woofer drivers. A cheap tweeter speaker won’t give rich, low notes, so a quality listening experience when playing music is out of the question. Cheaper speakers will be fine for talk radio and lower-quality recordings. What a consumer should look for when selecting speakers is the frequency response range of the speaker. The greater the range, the richer the sound.

Speaker volume, room selection, and audio output can be controlled from the source equipment, from a remote, and/or from individual wall-mounted controls installed in any room with speakers. Wall-mounted keypads or dials can adjust volume, skip tracks, control other audio source equipment, or do all the above. High-end wall-mounted keypads include colored digital displays that replicate an iPod screen so users can scroll through a music collection by artist, album, or song, with album art displayed during play.

Single-Zone or Multiple-Zone Audio Systems
A “zone” can be one or more rooms. Less-expensive whole-home audio systems are typically single zone and play the same music from the designated audio source. A multiple-zone system gives more listening options and audio sources, requires more equipment than a single-zone system, and costs more to purchase and install. Single- and multiple-zone systems require a distribution box (also called the “headend”), one or more amplifiers, additional source equipment like CD and mp3 players, or “docking stations” for iPods. Some installation methods and manufacturers will require additional equipment as well.

Other Considerations
Homeowners looking to retrofit an existing home with a whole-home audio system might not want to open walls and run new wire. Fortunately, wireless systems are available and, though more expensive, allow for multiple-zone capacity and impressive expandability.

The placement of the headend should allow for easy access because it is the origination point for all wiring and audio sources. “Depending on the homeowner’s preference, it is common to see headend and source equipment located in the basement, where it is hidden, or in an entertainment center, like in the family room,” says Brunner. Environmental considerations are equally important since this equipment can generate significant heat. Adequate ventilation is a must — a separate cooling system or fans may be best for larger systems.

Design a Green Home Office

Take advantage of systems and materials that save energy and costs.

Photo: Flickr

As a freelance writer and book author, Linda Mason Hunter spends many hours holed up in her home office. It has all the amenities necessary for the work-at-home life — computers, desk, lighting — but her setup is not something you’d find at your local office supply store.

That’s because Hunter, author of Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home (Melcher Media, 2005) and a long-time supporter of the environmental movement, insisted on using materials that were earth-friendly and limited her toxin exposure. “My main home is an old farmhouse that was built in 1910,” Hunter says. “The structure is not made from synthetic chemicals like drywall, medium-density fiberboard, plywood and all that. My walls are plaster and whenever I paint, I paint with no-VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint.”

Her furniture is all antique solid wood chairs and desks to avoid chemicals used in pressed board. Windows on two of the four walls not only let in natural light but allow for a cross-breeze that cuts summertime energy costs. Her shelves are metal and she uses special outlets, called Smart Strips, to reduce the use of “phantom electricity”—power used when a device is technically turned off. To charge electronic gadgets such as cell phones, MP3 players, and digital cameras, she uses Solio, a solar charger that eliminates needlessly draining energy from a wall socket once your device is fully charged.

Hunter believes that these changes are not only good for the Earth but also good for her health. “I just want to be as happy and productive as possible,” she says. Choosing materials with low VOCs that are sustainably harvested and that help reduce energy needs allow her to do just that.

Here are some tips for designing your green home office:

Paint is preferable to wallpaper, which uses paper and adhesives. Look for brands, such as Safecoat, that do not use VOCs. VOCs are gases that may have short- and long-term health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

For a home office, hardwood is preferred. Bamboo, a renewable resource, is the eco-all-star. “It is a woody grass, which grows quickly and it can be harvested year after from the same plant,” Hunter says. “Plus, it is beautiful.” Cork is another flooring favorite.

Marmoleum is also a good choice. Made from linseed oil, rosins, wood flour, and natural jute, manufacturers say it stands up well to heavy rolling loads and foot traffic. But Paul Novack, environmental product specialist at Brooklyn, NY-based Green Depot, says that no matter what flooring you choose, a rolling chair is going to make its mark.

“You need something between the rollers and the floor,” Novack says. “Bamboo has the same hardness as maple, but believe me, rolling is certainly going to wear it out.” A floor mat made from recycled plastic will help.

Heating and Cooling
If you work from home, there’s a good chance you are heating or cooling your entire house even though you are really only using one room. Green architect Charlie Szoradi, who runs, recommends installing an extra programmable thermostat and dampers that allow you to climate control just that room.

“We normally need to run a furnace for 30 or 40 minutes to bring the house up to three or four more degrees of temperature,” Szoradi says. “You might only run this thing for 10 or 15 minutes to heat your office because it is not blowing air to all those other branches on the tree.”

A radiant floor heating system would be another good choice for warming only one room in the colder months. In the summer, use ceiling fans to reduce your need for air conditioning. Thermal insulated curtains, especially those that use Mylar, can block out the sunlight that quickly raises a room’s temperature.

Energy Conservation
Many electronics, including televisions, are still using 25 percent of their regular electrical load when turned off because they are actually in “standby mode.” You can eliminate that waste, Szoradi says, by plugging these items into a surge protector that allows you to completely cut all power with the flip of a switch. To control energy for the entire room, call an electrician to install a wall switch that will allow you to shut off all the room’s power.

Another good option for reducing energy usage is installing compact fluorescent light bulb (CFLs). They use 60 percent less electricity and have nine to 10 times the lifespan of incandescent bulbs, Szoradi says.

Novack cautions that while CFLs are great at reducing energy, they’re not optimal for the task lighting you would need at a desk. He recommends full-spectrum bulbs, which give you the same color-rendering index (CRI) of sunlight and are therefore easy on the eyes.

Smart Technology
Between computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals, a home office can use a lot of electricity. Consider trading in your desktop PC for a laptop. The Apple MacBook has an energy-efficient LED screen. If you need the memory resources of a desktop model, the latest iMac features recyclable materials and meets Energy Star 4.0 requirements.

If you’re a PC-person, Hewlett-Packard now offers energy-efficient desktops that are 46 percent smaller than previous models and loaded with SURVEYOR, a network power software agent that helps to measure, manage and reduce PC power consumption.

A greener home office will not only reduce your carbon footprint and help you breathe a little bit easier, but also put dollars back into your wallet — both in terms of dollars saved and increased value of your home, says Szoradi. “Just like granite countertops are more valuable, when you tell someone that they will save thousands of dollars a year in utility bills, people’s ears perk up,” he says.

Home Office Wiring Connections

The right setup means time spent on work, not waiting.

Home Office Setup

Photo: Flickr

The days of basic phone and electric service are quickly disappearing. Working at home increasingly requires high-speed Internet access and networking. Those with high-speed Internet access can maximize speed and performance with a move to structured wiring.

Structured wiring is fast becoming the backbone of home offices. It is a data delivery system that can carry phone, fax, broadband, networking, and video/television technologies. For example, phone and fax communications are predominantly analog, but voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), a technology that allows you to make phone calls using a broadband Internet connection, is gaining momentum. With a structured-wiring system, your home will be VoIP-ready when it comes to you.

Structured-Wiring Systems
The structured-wiring system is made up of three parts: a panel or module where all outside service enters the home; wires and cables throughout the house; and connecting hardware. Structured-wiring systems can come prepackaged, but a bundle approach without a plan can leave you with wasted outlets or no outlet where you need one. Develop a home-office power plan before you wire. It should detail where the computers, printers, phones, and media are set up and where conference calls and media viewing will happen.

A system is only as fast as its slowest component. The data capacity of copper wire is designated by the category, or Cat, of the wire and determined by its construction and how the wires are twisted. The main difference between the wiring designations is the frequency the wire is capable of transmitting. Frequency is rated in megahertz (MHz), also known as bandwidth. Cat3, for instance, is rated up to 16 MHz while Cat5 is rated at 100 MHz.

If you are considering structured wiring, it’s probably best to consider EIA-TIA 570-B. The residential telecommunications cabling standard was developed in 2004 as a voluntary guideline by the Electronic Industries Association (EIA) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). “The 570-B is a set of specifications and best practices that detail the technologies to install and the proper methods for the installation,” says Ian Hendler, director of business development for Leviton Manufacturing company in Melville, NY.

The 570-B recommends a minimum of Cat5e (enhanced) for communications. Coaxial cable, used primarily by the cable television industry and widely used for computer networks, as well as RG6, a coaxial cable system recommended by satellite TV system manufacturers, are still part of the specs. Cat 6, a sixth generation of twisted copper wire pairs designed to support communications at more than twice the speed of Cat5e, is recommended. Fiber-optic cable is also becoming more readily available, but compare the benefits and costs of upgrading to fiber optic before making your decision.

Modules or control panels for the system vary slightly in functionality. All reputable manufacturers’ products should conform to the 570-B standard. Look for ease of installation, upgradability and support from the manufacturer when making your selection.

Star Layout
Whether you have new construction or are remodeling, the system is installed the same way. The preferred method is the “star” layout. In this layout, each outlet extends individually to the service panel or module. The advantages are that this allows flexibility, helps to isolate any problem and provides less interference. Pre-wiring all possible locations when walls are open will obviously save time and money.

Structured wiring does not require a certified installer. However, when your home office work is at stake, you want to make sure a system is installed correctly and has the capabilities you want, as well as the flexibility to accommodate expansion. There are specific things to know about installing this wiring, from how far back the cable sheathing can be stripped to how much the pairs can be untwisted when they are connected.

The cost to install a system will vary. According to Leviton’s Hendler, “The capabilities of the desired system and the installation environment [new or retrofit] will affect the price. As an example, in new construction, a complete structured wiring system can range from about 1 percent to 3 percent (or more, of course) of a home’s value depending on the features, benefits, and applications the end user desires.”

There are options for those who have an older home and won’t be opening up walls. Wires can be fished through walls, although that will add to the cost and time. Those who don’t have aesthetic concerns can surface-mount the system and possibly accommodate it in moldings.

For those not in areas where high-speed Internet is available, there is still power planning to do. Be sure you have enough phone jacks and power outlets, even if it means tacking on surface-mounted lines. It’s less dangerous than having a mish-mash of extension cords.

Don’t Forget to Label
The best-laid plans fail if they aren’t organized. When installing structured wiring, be sure to label the various hubs, routers, patch cords, wires, and sockets. Well-marked components will help you find, isolate, and repair any network bugs. Another good idea is to make a master blueprint of the system when the system is installed and the specifications are fresh in your mind.

Home Office Power and Equipment Protection

Protect against surges that put equipment and data at risk.

Photo: Flickr

Lightning Hazards
Several things affect the power that supplies our home offices. First, there’s the obvious: lightning. Those with home offices in Florida may be particularly aware of the risks. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the highest frequency of cloud-to-ground lightning in the U.S. is in Florida, between Tampa and Orlando. Other areas that see a lot of lightning are the areas in the western mountains, along the Gulf Coast and inland west to Texas, along the Atlantic coast in the Southeast, and regions along the West Coast.

In the continental 48 states, according to NOAA, at least 30 million points on the ground are struck each year in the U.S. on average. But equipment doesn’t need a direct hit to sustain damage. Even cloud-to-cloud lightning can cause problems. A spike from a nearby lightning strike may travel through power or telephone lines or enter a building and transfer through wires and plumbing, going straight into your computer, printer, or phone system.

Power Demands and Outages
Surges, brownouts, blackouts — these terms have become common in some areas of the country. Many East Coast states deal with brownouts, or drops in voltage. Other parts of the country are more familiar with blackouts, or total power cutoffs. All can wreak havoc on the equipment in your home office.

A surge, or increase in voltage, stresses the delicate components of computers and other electronic devices. Each incidence degrades the components a bit, making them more vulnerable to interference or damage. It also shortens their life expectancy and reliability.

A brownout starves computers and other equipment of the power they need. The results can be frozen keyboards, loss of work in progress, system crashes, and lost data. Brownouts also hasten the deterioration of electrical equipment.

A blackout will result in the loss of work-in-progress and may mean hard-drive crashes, destroying stored data.

Combined Power Protection
Protecting against power anomalies, from service entrance panel to point of use, is important. That protection can be accomplished with surge protectors, a battery-backup uninterruptible power supply (UPS), and a hard-wired protector next to the circuit breaker.

The first line of defense is the hard-wired protector. The Surgebreaker Plus from Square D, a brand of Schneider Electric, is one example. According to the company, the equipment, which must be installed by a qualified electrician, protects the AC power line, four telephone lines, and two coaxial cables by diverting surges to a ground. Hard wired next to the load center, this one-size-fits-all device can protect against power surges from utility disturbances and nearby lightning strikes. It cannot, however, protect a home from a direct lightning hit. In homes where the telephone and coaxial cable TV lines cannot be routed to the load center, a hard-wired secondary surge arrester is recommended to protect them.

Attacks on office equipment don’t end there, but continue inside the house. Any time that appliances, such as hair dryers, power tools, and vacuum cleaners, are switched on and off, they generate power spikes. Those spikes then travel through the in-house electrical system like shock waves and stress all connected equipment.

Bill Grande, director of safety products for Leviton, a leading North American producer of electrical and electronic products, says protection must cover all conductors. Surge protection is needed not only for the receptacles into which your equipment is plugged but also for high-speed data lines, whether they are cable or telephone. Those with a structured wiring module also should consider a network approach to protect both the electrical and low-voltage (cable/satellite/TV and phone/networking) system and electronics.

When choosing surge protectors, read the specifications to make sure that they are rated for an effective level. The National Lightning Safety Institute, for one, offers suggestions on its website for finding devices that will perform satisfactorily under abnormal power-quality conditions. There have been reports of devices that deteriorate over time or fail because of excess demand, according to a University of Washington report.

Backup Power During a Blackout
Backup power is also a key part of home office protection, says Vlad Konopelko, senior product manager for American Power Conversion (APC), a global leader in power availability solutions. When a blackout occurs, an important phone call may be dropped, an open document lost, or hard-drive data ruined. UPS backup can guard against these unacceptable consequences by providing you with enough time to close down work-in-progress and the computer.

Because a home office often involves communicating over the Internet, it’s important to have UPS backup for a modem and/or router to be able to send email or place VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls, says Konopelko. It’s also a good idea to back up a phone system that requires AC power to run, such as a phone with a loud speaker, as it may be critical or at least very important for your home office to be able to place or receive calls despite a blackout.

Leviton’s Grande says a UPS should be used for critical items, such as a modem, router, and computer, not for devices with heavy electric demands, such as printers. UPS devices are available at almost any computer center, starting at about $50. Some devices even come with software to shut down your system in an orderly fashion if you aren’t there to do so.

Those with mission-critical work will want to look into larger UPS devices and may even want generators as backups. Larger UPS devices, which can range up to $500, will provide more power or a longer time period of coverage, depending on how much power is drawn. Determine your need for backup power by looking at the specification paperwork for your office equipment.

Regulated Brownouts
The best solution for the ongoing equipment insults of brownouts is a UPS with a trim-and-boost automatic voltage regulator (AVR), says Konopelko. The AVR is a transformer that will trim the power if it is higher than 120 volts and boost the power if it is less than 120 volts.

“Transformers can boost or trim only so much so, when the power fluctuations are not within the transformer’s margins, the AVR-featured UPS will switch to the battery, thus ensuring that devices connected to the UPS do not suffer from the power fluctuation,” Konopelko says. “This combination of AVR and battery provides the best solution for poor power environments because it ensures that battery power is used only when needed, prolonging the battery life and ensuring that the battery stays charged.”