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Zigbee vs Insteon – Home-Ready or Hype-Riddled? E-mail
Written by Peter   
Insteon SwitchControl4 Switch

Insteon

Zigbee

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Rating: 5 out of 5

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Rating: 2 out of 5

There are a plethora of products out there that claim to be able to convert your home into the dream house you imagine it to be.  Auto-closing curtains, lighting that adapts to your mood, you know the drill.  For years, Zigbee has been working on refining its wireless, ‘self-organizing mesh network’ technologies outside of the scope of home automation, preferring to target the commercial groups and applications by providing kits for product developers rather than the end-user products themselves. 

 

Zigbee has always been more of a standard (802.15) than a brand name, which is why you won’t find much when searching for ‘Zigbee products’ and they’ve created an entire framework for development with the Zigbee Alliance, Zigbee PRO standard and Zigbee Home Automation application profile.  The idea is that by making life simpler for product developers we will see a variety of competing brands offering every product the consumer could imagine.  It’s taken about 9 years for the Zigbee concept to ratify itself into a standard, but now that it’s there, who is using it and how does it stack up?

Who’s using it?

Arguably the most prominent company utilizing Zigbee technology behind its product offering is Control4, who makes a variety of lighting switches and controls.  The difficulty with the Control4 product lineup (and most Zigbee products) is that they are primarily sold offline through installers who would like nothing more than to provide you with a $20,000 quote for your home automation needs.  While there are some advantages to having a professional do your installation, the majority of people researching Zigbee for their home are looking for a DIY solution as installing a light-switch isn’t overly complicated for this crowd.  This is where Zigbee falls short when comparing to other technologies in the arena. 

 

How does it stack up?

Regarding the technology itself, Zigbee has always had a focus on ultra low power consumption which made it ideal for battery operated devices or locations where wiring would be difficult.  Extending this methodology to the home isn’t a difficult stretch, many homeowners would love to be able to add light-switches to new locations without running wires, and Zigbee has an advantage for battery life over the other technologies in this arena.  Another advantage is that Zigbee is an open standard, so a single manufacturer going out of business isn’t going to leave a bunch of unsupported devices in its wake, something that may be especially likely recently given our economic times.

The single biggest strike against Zigbee that I see is that the sheer quantity and availability of other competing devices in comparison makes Zigbee look like it has lost the fight.  Delays in standardizing while other technologies like Insteon, Z-Wave and X10 brought products to market has left Control4 and other manufacturers to play catch-up.  An example of this is lighting switches, of which Control4 offers a total of (ironically) four.  Essentially you get your pick of a basic in-wall dimmable switch, a non-dimmable in-wall switch, or the two-corresponding plug-in devices (for lamps etc).


Comparing this to Insteon, you have approximately sixty possible products to fit your need.  Timers, different colors & styles, different wattage loads, relay or triac, the number of products is dizzying but what it amounts to is selection and the ability to configure your house without compromise, something Zigbee currently can’t offer. 


Did I mention that the Insteon switches are, on average, 50% of the cost of Zigbee?  That can add up, and for many users it can make the difference between doing the install or not. 

 

Summary

I’m a big fan of open standards, and I hope very much that 2009 is the year that Zigbee emerges from the shadows and begins to compete on the home automation stage in a big way, but it has a tremendous amount of catching up to do.  Surveying the landscape, I would suggest that we’re going to see two camps emerge: Those companies who figure that home automation is too complicated for average people to install (and therefore will only sell to installers) – This market will continue to be dominated by the likes of Creston, AMX, HAI etc. 

Then there are those companies who believe that a market exists for DIY home automation, appealing to the same homeowners who renovate their houses and believe that a remote controlled light-switch shouldn't cost $200-300 – This market, and corresponding brands like Insteon, Z-Wave and UPB will experience tremendous growth in the coming years.  Can Zigbee manufacturers shore up their product line ups and convince buyers that they’re worth the premium?  Only time will tell.

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Anonymous   |August-01 16:03:06
good stuff, thanks. I always though Zee-bee being an open protocol was good
(complicated), but I liked the selection of Z-wave. I have about $1000 into
Z-wave.
Mike  - Insteon   |September-14 15:40:13
The one biggest problem I have had with Insteon is reliability!

I did my last
house completely with Insteon, replaced every switch. I did my absolute best to
make sure I had NUMEROUS Insteon repeaters all over the house and on both AC
phases, going as far as to label EVERY light outlet in my house with the correct
phase, and I shut circuits off at the breaker panel furiously, thinking that I
might have some "noisy" device causing all my problems. Couldn't find
one. And yet I still had major reliability problems! Possibly a 15% command
loss rate. Even if I plugged a power line repeater onto both circuits that were
trying to communicate, still it magically did not work. Very
frustrating.

There is no magic troubleshooting gadget that can help you
locate the source of the problem. (I tried buying the X10 troubleshooter from
Smarthome... wasted my money, it can't understand Insteon signals). I was able
to do a little bit of trial and error (for example, I determined that my plasma
TV would degrade Insteon reliability on that one circuit) but even with every
appliance unhooked or its breaker switched off, there was no way to make it even
99% reliable.

I moved out of that house and have bought a small amount of
Control4 gear for my new place, all of which has worked perfectly. I have sworn
off the concept of powerline communication as worthless. How do you explain to
the non-technically-oriented user of Insteon that if the "light switch at
the top of the stairs" stops working, it might be because they just plugged
in a new electric toothbrush that's disrupting the communication between the
switches, and they need to buy some gadget just to use the toothbrush and lights
at the same time?

I removed the Insteon gear from the last house before I
sold it. Now I have a big bag of 37 Insteon switches I will probably just put
on eBay. Since that Control4 stuff is twice the cost, I sincerely wish I could
consider my Insteon stuff to not be trash.
Peter   |September-15 00:33:07
Interesting experience - What's unfortunate is that you switched houses at the
same time as HA manufacturers, so there's really no way to tell which change
solved the issue. I've experienced houses where X10 was 99% reliable and houses
where it was barely 30% reliable, so the wiring of a house and RF interference
in the area can make a HUGE difference.

I agree that explaining powerline
interference to automation newcomers is a difficult task, but Control4's
offerings are not immune to this - in fact IHS has a whitepaper discussing WLAN
interference with the Zigbee/Control4 frequencies. Here's an excerpt: "The
measurements demonstrated that control products using IEEE 802.15.4 technology
are seriously compromised and often inoperable even within the most basic
residential WLAN, according to the white
paper."
http://electronics.ihs.com/news/zwave -zigbee-wlan.htm

The
bright side about Insteon is that it does employ the dual-mesh technology to use
both powerline and wireless communication to reduce the chances of interference.
Given your experiences, I'd have doubts about Control4 working at your previous
house either. Perhaps you could contact the new owners and have them do some
testing? ;)
Mike  - Insteon   |December-23 06:16:30
I may have the best of both worlds. Since Control4 allows serial drivers to be
written, I might try my hand at making the Insteons accept serial commands from
C4, and then use them in places where the only functionality I desire is to
remotely shut them off (e.g. closets) and where a missed command wouldn't be
critical or embarrassing.

I have owned my Control4 stuff long enough to be
able to report that yes, I can indeed induce interference in the Control4
products as suggested by the white paper in order to disrupt them, by sticking a
wireless router on the same channel right next to the equipment I want it to
interfere with.

On the other hand, I point out that any problem I can cause
with Control4, I can also solve. If putting a Control4 server right next to a
WiFi access point causes interference, then by golly, I can move one away from
the other, or put them on non-interfering channels. And since all powered
Control4 devices act as smart repeaters, having enough of them simply ensures
that a radio message never has to travel more than 10 or 20 feet to be heard.
If there's unexplainable interference, then I can go use standard radio
equipment to track down where it's coming from. Of course, it helps that I live
far enough away from my neighbors that their wireless routers are unlikely to be
a problem, which I concede might be different for someone living in an apartment
or a condo.

With Insteon, if I go buy a new appliance that soaks up the
signals, then I also have to buy a wall-wart filter to fix it. If the wall-wart
doesn't fit behind my new TV, too bad for me. If my fluorescent light ballast
is causing the problem, I'm screwed, as I can't incorporate an Insteon filter in
the in-wall wiring and have it still be up to code.

If signals are getting
soaked up and I can't explain how or why, there doesn't exist a troubleshooter
product to help me figure it out. At least there exists such a beast for crappy
ole X10. In my last home, I saw Insteon signals get soaked up with all the
breakers in the whole house off (save for the circuits being tested). So much
for the process of elimination. Maybe my neighbor's house was soaking it all up
through the main.

And the dual mesh technology is a fallacy. It's only a
dual mesh if all of the nodes on the network can participate in both meshes....
Peter   |December-27 10:00:53
I'm interested to hear how your hybrid Insteon/Control4 network goes, keep
us updated!

So far as the absorption of signals goes, I've yet to
have a problem using Insteon with several plasma devices and older
appliances in our house, and fluorescent light ballasts can be
addressed with an inline powerline filter.

That said, I can certainly appreciate how frustrated you must have been
to have troubleshooted it to that level without success.  

While
dual-mesh may have only applied to the access points and a few other
devices before, there are now many more modules including the Lamplinc
and others that repeat all signals on both powerline and RF, which should
help dramatically and make Insteon one of the few true dual-mesh
systems.

Hopefully the trend continues and all the products are
eventually available in dual-mesh versions.
BarneyM   |January-07 10:40:37
I installed an extensive Insteon system controlled by an Elk M1G. Had about 20%
response and couldn't figure out why. Finally chased it down to one CFL light.
Change the CFL (still working) and the system has been operating at 99.5% for
the last 3 years. Very happy with it.

Had 4 switches that had the manual
operation (paddle) problem and SmartHome replaced them without hesitation.
Mike  - I did it!   |February-19 05:40:42
I am thrilled to report that my Insteon-Control4 hybrid system is now a
reality.

I have written a driver for Control4 for the Insteon PLM that allows
Control4 to see all of the Insteon switches natively in the Control4 system.
Now I can mix & match depending on what I want and where. It is VERY sweet.
Those Zigbee switches are very nice, especially in places where a color
indicator is useful for any reason.

After extensive research into the Insteon
developers kit which I bought, I came across three things that may have been
nice to know when troubleshooting my past home's problems. I am having minimal
problems with my Insteon setup at my new home. briefly,

1 - location of RF
wireless access points - putting them VERY NEAR each other and NEAR the breaker
box, preferably on circuits not shared by appliances (rather than spreading them
throughout the home) greatly favors reliability... I never understood to do this
before

2 - the Insteon PLM protocol includes a PING command, and the two
message hop counters in the ping reply's "flags" byte is an extremely
useful metric in testing the quality of the link and for determining whether any
given action (adding a filter, moving an access point, etc.) was of any
benefit

3 - using the dual band (RF+powerline) PLM should improve
communication substantially, since insteon packets can only hop 3 times, and
without it, when RF is the only available route to deliver a message, one
valuable hop is wasted getting the message from the originator to the first RF
access point.

Also to comment on the Zigbee switches... I upgraded my
Control4 system from version 1.7 (which uses a somewhat dumbed down protocol
stack called "Embernet") to version 1.8 (which uses a standardized
"Zigbee Pro" and is a complete firmware replacement for the Zigbee
hardware in each device). The communication on the Zigbee switches are FAR more
robust with the new firmware. The Control4 v1.8 software also now allows me to
view very detailed performance counters per device, and all the routing tables
for the mesh network - also extremely useful troubleshooting info that, if
needed, can make the difference between hair pulling and finding a
solution.

Needless to say, I'm happy that for any given light switch, I can
freely pick which technology will serve ...
Sidney Lisser  - Insteon Driver   |March-29 04:16:47
Mike, any chance that driver will be going up for sale. I have a very reliable
insteon network but would be interested in the C4 driver.

Sid
Patrick D'Onofrio  - Owner   |August-05 12:44:50
Would you share / sell the driver you wrote to integrate C4 & Insteon?
Larry Flores  - insteon driver   |November-26 13:42:39
Is your Insteon driver for Control4 for sale? I have my whole house full of
insteon dimmers and I am in the process of upgrading to a Control4 controller.
Andrew   |February-14 03:55:34
Did you ever decide to share this driver?
Thank you!
Paul  - Hybrid Driver Status   |February-17 06:20:19
Mike

Can you tell us how the driver has worked over the last year?

Have you
packaged and sold this driver or is a free version around somewhere?
Adam  - Play   |December-10 06:44:41
I would be interested in buying all of your old insteon stuff. Let me
know.
adambenjamin@sprintmail.com
Sean  - Insteon supplies   |February-18 08:48:24
do you still have that big bag of Insteon supplies...I might be interested.
email me at sean@seanford.com

thanks
John  - Mr   |November-26 02:23:10
I have used X10 reliably with AHP for 8 years. I decided to try insteon and
ISY99i because of the thermostat control. The thermostat failed out of the box.
In the first 3 years I used it, 4 pieces of hardware failed, 1 was warranted.
Now after 3.3 years the PLM has also failed Therefore nothing works, and going
on vacation tomorrow! Back to AHP.

3.23 Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."