Category: Other Rooms

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.”

Creating Your Home Office Plan

A few simple steps can improve the organization and efficiency of your home office.

Home Office Design

Photo: Flickr

Evaluate Your Home Office Needs
The first step in creating a home office plan that works is to evaluate what you plan to do in the space.

Say, for example, your work requires you to prepare client packages or corporate gift baskets. First, think about how you work. Break down your work day into the individual tasks you do and the spaces in which you do them. Each one of these spaces will be known as a work zone.

Your home office work may be at a computer on a desk with a stack of CDs and reference materials close at hand. This is Zone 1.

Assembling package materials or collating information packets requires horizontal layout space. Necessary inventory items and business samples can be kept in nearby bins. This is Zone 2.

Your work may have you meet with clients in your home office. That meeting space, with its couch, two comfortable chairs, a table and floor lamps, is Zone 3. You may find you have other zones. Detail each one and prioritize it according to how necessary it is to the work you must accomplish.

Thoroughly and honestly evaluate your work. As Frank Isaacson, architect and owner of Techline in Appleton, WI, an independent studio providing commercial and professional home office solutions, says: “Being honest with your space needs can even take in how many dogs you have. In other words, it’s all very personal.” Will you need a zone for the kids to use? A zone for reading and review? It all depends on what’s going to go on in your office.

Do the Math
Now take out your tape measure, pencil, and paper and get to work. Measure the length, width, and height of the equipment and furniture in each of your work zones, including tables and floor lamps, the stereo, and TV, if you use them in your home office. Write down the access space needed for your printer and your scanner. Getting the numbers on paper now will add to the success of your home office design project.

In your layout and collating space, take the time to lay out sample materials and place them as you would when you work on them. Actually place those 8-1/2×11 sheets of paper, those rolls of colorful wrapping cellophane, whatever you use, exactly as you would in a real work situation. Then measure how much room those materials take.

When you’ve got all your numbers together, it’s time to add—zone by zone. Zone 1 might need 12 square feet for a desk, 4 square feet for a chair, 3 square feet for a file cabinet, and 1.5 square feet for a computer tower. Zone 2 might call for 16 square feet for a table and 2 square feet for bins.

Zone 3, your meeting space, will probably need some additional space included. Besides the couch, chairs, table, and lamps, you will need that comfort factor for potential clients. Call in some friends or family members to act as models and to provide some real distance checks. How far apart should the chairs be? Is there sufficient leg room? You want to build a comfort zone into this area and not have clients literally meeting you nose to nose. Figure in those factors and Zone 3 could have a space need of 48 square feet.

These three hypothetical zones would require an office space of about 57 square feet. In addition, you’ll probably need a bit of leg room to get up and move about.

Design a Home Office Plan
You know what space you need and you know what space you’ve got. You’ve prioritized your work zones and have considered the options. Now you need to create a plan for your home office.

Try creating a simple small-scale two-dimensional model of your office space. Cut out paper squares and rectangles and label them to represent the items in your office. Create a same-scale layout of your intended office space on a sheet of paper. Move the labeled items around in their appropriate predetermined zones to find the best fit for your work.

If you want the benefit of experience, contact a professional home office designer through your local office furniture store. There are many products available to help save and maximize space. Computer equipment can stack vertically in specialized towers. Extended work tables can fold up and roll away. Client meeting tables can take added leaves to make extended work space. With the information that you now have in hand, a designer should be able to devise a home office plan to meet your comfort, productivity, and safety needs.

Taxes:  “Office at Home” or “Home Office”?
When deciding on your home office, consider possible tax deductions. While you should be able to deduct expenses from your home office used exclusively for your home-based business, you also may be able to deduct some expenses if you meet certain IRS requirements. Those requirements include working at home for the convenience of your employer and storage of supplies.

To qualify to claim expenses for business use, the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) generally requires that a home office be for exclusive and regular use as a place of business or to meet or deal with clients or customers. The area can be a room or a separately identified space within a room.

If your children use the office computer or desk for their homework, you won’t meet the requirements. There’s no mixing of business and personal uses. The only exceptions would be if you use part of your home for storing inventory or product samples.

If your home office space does qualify, the IRS provides two methods to determine the business percentage of your home and its resulting deductible operating expenses. They are:

  • Divide the area (length multiplied by the width) used for business by the total area of your home.
  • If the rooms in your home are all about the same size, divide the number of rooms used for business by the total number of rooms in your home.

Talk with a tax professional to determine your individual home office situation.

Childproofing the Home Office

Create a safe environment for your family and eliminate potential home office hazards.

Photo: Flickr

Statistics show that almost 75 percent of Americans have some sort of home office. And as these dedicated work areas have become more common, so have injuries associated with them. Most adults have endured the occasional stapled finger or nasty paper cut, of course, but the dangers for children inside the home office are often overlooked.

Parents who have offices at home need to be more aware of these potential problems, since an office can be a fun place for children to try and explore, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, based in Washington, DC.

“Parents and grandparents who have children around their home office really need to look at the room from the child’s level,” Appy explains. “Getting down and seeing the area from a child’s perspective can help adults better identify the potential problems in the room.”

Shredder Danger
While it sounds obvious that shredders can be extremely dangerous for children to be around, many people still don’t take proper precautions with these strong slicing machines. “Shredders really need to be off the floor and out of a child’s reach at all times or even kept in a locked bookcase when not in use,” says Claudia Romo, program manager for the injury prevention department at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.

Keeping shredders turned off and unplugged when not in use is another step toward preventing the horrific injuries they can cause, says Appy, but she says never to underestimate a child’s determination when they want to try something. “I wouldn’t even use a shredder in front of a child,” says Appy. “They do look really cool, and an industrious child might become really determined to give it a try. I recommend only using the shredder away from children and keeping it out of their reach entirely when not in use.”

Appy says households with children should also consider investing in a shredder, like Fellowes’ “SafeSense” sensor, that allow it to determine when the sensor is being touched by a human or animal.

Careful of Cords and Wires
Wires are part of the plugged-in lifestyle: from printers, scanners and monitors and the CPU to computer essentials like speakers, a mouse, and other USB devices, a home office can quickly become a wiry mess.

“Loose cords and wires are a hazard to people of any age,” Romo says. She recommends taping or tacking down wires near the perimeter of the room whenever possible and securing the rest with wire covers like the Cable Turtle or other conduit-type covers.

Electrical Hazards
Once your cords and wires are secure, consider the timeless child appeal of electrical outlets. Just because most of the outlets in a home office area are likely to be in use doesn’t mean they don’t present a danger to children.

Children can easily unplug devices and still harm themselves with the outlets, Appy says. “Any persistent child can get those little plastic covers off, and once they’re off, they’re actually a choking hazard because of their size and shape,” she explains. She recommends outlet plate covers that are affixed to the wall like a regular cover, but that slide closed as soon as an appliance is removed. For power strips, try outlet covers that hide the plug and the strip and are tough for even the most curious little ones to crack.

Mind the Small Stuff
The big items may grab your attention first when you begin to childproof your office, but this is one place you really should sweat the small stuff. Paperclips, thumbtacks, staplers and staple removers, letter openers, and scissors can all be tragically attractive to a small child. Place these items out of reach and sight of children who might sit at your desk, says Romo. Or, even better, store them in a locked cabinet when a child is present.

Another set of small-sized items that can cause big problems are the inks and toners in most home offices. For people with color printers who store inks, the cyan, magenta, and yellow ink cases can look yummy to a toddler but contain toxic chemicals that should obviously never be ingested. Correction fluid, laser printer toner, and even permanent markers (with their noxious fumes) can be hazardous, as well. Store these items out of sight and reach of little ones. If you suspect a child has ingested any of these substances, call the poison control hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Careful of Bookcases
Fall hazards are one of the most common, and most deadly, dangers for children inside the home. “It’s critical that parents secure tall bookcases and furniture — anything a child could climb — to the wall,” says Appy. “Too many tragedies have occurred because a child tried to climb a bookcase or dresser to reach a forbidden item.” When you’re storing so many appealing dangers out of reach in your office, consider the eventuality that your child might try to scale a bookcase or table to reach them, she says, and secure each piece of furniture accordingly.

And while you’re securing items, be sure to firmly affix any television or computer monitor to wherever it is located, be it a shelf, the wall or even a desktop. “Kids can grab onto a desktop and pull a monitor over on themselves and cause serious injury,” says Romo. “These new flat screen monitors, with their lighter weight, are easier to pull off and can still cause injury to a child.”

Control Entrances and Exits
One of the most effective child safety devices in a home office isn’t actually inside the room, says Appy. “An outdoor-quality lock on the outside of the door is a great investment for a home office,” she says. “No one can possibly watch a child for every single moment of the day, but having to use a key to unbolt that door will keep children out more effectively.”

Quick Tip: Boost Child Safety at Home

Follow these simple steps and no-cost ideas to make your home safer for young children

Child Safety

Photo: Flickr

Childproofing: What Do You Need?
Most new parents know they need to take steps to protect their child from household dangers, but it seems like there’s a new childproofing gadget invented every minute. How do you know what you need? Every home is different, and every child, even from week to week, will have different abilities and interests.

See Your Home Through Your Child’s Eyes
To begin, get down on your hands and knees and tour your house from your child’s point of view. Open everything you can and look for hard corners that can bump heads as well as anything that can burn or shock, or that contain water. Look for any openings wider than two inches where a child could get stuck or fall in, like stairways, railings and operable windows.

Make a Hazard List
Take notes as you go and keep in mind that even if your child can’t quite reach it now, it’s only a matter of time until he can. Once you have your hazards list, do some online research to find the best solutions.

Don’t Forget the Whole Family
You can child-lock or shield anything, from toilets to refrigerators to electronics, but you want to find solutions the rest of the family can live with.

Childproof the Whole House
There are several ways to keep cabinets and doors closed, including magnetic locks you can’t see. Rather than the plug-in socket shields, which some children are able to remove, try more permanent sliding outlet covers. Furniture anchor straps are great for keeping TVs, dressers and shelves from being pulled over. Safety gates are essential at stair openings, but you might also want one around the wood stove or fireplace.

Get Started Today
Some child safety measures don’t cost anything. Turn your water heater’s thermostat down to 125 degrees to prevent scalding. Lock your windows. And move all toiletries and medicines out of reach. While you’re at it, remove any toxic cleaners and chemicals from the living areas of your home altogether. Replace them with non-toxic biodegradable products. These are better for your family and the environment, and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about poisoning.

Conduct Regular Check-Ups
No matter what you choose to install, do a safety check every six months to be sure you’re still covered as your child grows. And remember that no gadget protects your child better than your teaching and supervision.

Bob Vila Radio: Choosing a Mattress

If getting more sleep is one of your New Year’s resolutions, it might be time for a new mattress. Shopping for a mattress is a little like shopping for a car or a truck: Do a little research before you shop and determine what options are important to you.

New Mattress


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What’s your normal sleeping position? If you’re a back sleeper, you need a firm mattress. Front sleepers need something a little softer and side sleepers need a mattress with plenty of give for full support.

Body type is also important: heavier folks need firmer support while skinny folks generally find softer ones easier on the pressure points. Consider thermal comfort—spring coil mattresses allow more air circulation for those who get hot at night while foam mattress will help insulate chilly sleepers.

The only way to tell whether a spring coil, foam, or latex mattress is right for you is to test them all out in the store for at least 15 minutes each. Make sure you have the option to exchange the mattress if it doesn’t work out once you’ve slept on it.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

For more on furniture, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Sofa Beds
Bob Vila Radio: Buying Furniture
How To: Paint Your Furniture

Bob Vila Radio: Sunrooms

What better home improvement to consider on the darkest day of the year than a sunroom addition?



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