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Insteon vs X10, Zigbee and Z-Wave - Best home automation E-mail
Written by Peter   






Rating: 5 out of 5


Rating: 3 out of 5

The promise of home automation is enticing. Press a button, watch the curtains close, lights dim and your favorite movie play – What’s not to like?


Helping to bring this orchestra of technology to the forefront is the decreasing cost of devices offered by a variety of vendors. You can still spend upwards of $50,000 on an integrated home automation system, but those are advanced systems installed by those with more money than time. If you're like me however, with the opposite situation – then devices such as Insteon, Zigbee and Z-Wave should pique your interest.


The reality of prior home automation (also called domotics) has been sketchy.  With subpar signal reliability, devices unable to communicate across your house power phases and a dedicated support team required to create and operate the software correctly, it's no wonder it never made the mainstream.

Insteon Deals

One of the early producers of affordable home automation (and the one that made it closest to widespread adoption) is X10. While X10 brought new concepts and abilities to the forefront of many people’s minds, reliability issues plagued the standard causing many to abandon their investments entirely.  After all, how many times can you press a button that is supposed to shut off a light, but doesn’t, before you get up and switch it off manually? (The answer is 6, followed by some profanities as you get up...)

Enter the next generation of devices, based on either refined powerline communication (devices communicate via phase-shifted frequencies on your powerline, similar to X10 but improved), wireless communication, or both. When I began my search for an X10 replacement, I looked carefully at all three technologies and settled on Insteon for a couple of reasons:

1. Relying primarily on powerline meant that nearby houses, WiFi signals and other devices would not interfere with my system’s functionality.

2. Insteon is backwards compatible with X10, so old devices don’t need to be thrown out or abandoned.

3. There are many more devices for Insteon than there are for Zigbee or Z-Wave, and they are more reasonably priced.

Insteon 6-button switch

I wasn’t planning on using many of my legacy X10 devices, but there are a few things that work well (such as the IR543 infrared receiver, used to allow my Logitech Harmony remote to dim the lights when I watch TV) and quite a few items available for X10 (since it’s been around so much longer than anything else) that aren’t yet available for Insteon. Having access to the full repertoire of devices out there makes it much easier to build the system that suits one’s individual needs.

If you’re wondering how to get started, there are several starter kits available that create a solid foundation for future expansion. For controlling plug-in type lamps, this starter kit contains 2 access points, a remote controller and 2 lamplinc light controllers – which just plug into the wall, with the light to be controlled plugged into them. The two access points basically act as the conductors of the home automation orchestra. The access points bridge the commands sent between the wireless remote controllers, the two phases of power in your house (hence the need for two access points - one on each phase - which is usually accomplished by plugging them into different floors on your house) as well as acting as repeaters for the signals received. The repeating aspect is key, as Insteon actually gets stronger and more reliable with more devices. This is due to the repetition as well as the two-way communication which allows devices to signal when they’ve received the commands successfully.

Insteon switch

If you are looking to control lighting that is currently on switches rather than plug-in type lamps, this kit contains two Insteon switchlincs (which also function as dimmers), two access points and one six button keypadlinc switch (pictured above).

Wiring the switches is easy, even if you've never done it before (a picture-rich tutorial is here). The six button switch allows you to control a local light (just like the other two switches, bringing the total controlled lights to three for this kit) but also allows you to establish scenes and control other lights from the switch. I have a six-button switch in my house, and I’ve used some of the scenes to pair light combinations, for example pressing the “B” button on my switch turns on all the lights between the switch and my bedroom, so that I have a lit path to bed at night from my living room. The “A” button does the same for the lights leading to the kitchen. Scenes are very easy to create, and don’t require a computer to establish them. As my needs for Insteon grow I will be buying the serial interface (there is some debate as to which interface works better with the variety of applications out there, some say USB, but many say serial) and establishing triggers based on doors opening/closing, motion sensors and keyfob inputs. The ability to access these inputs will come from the Elk M1 Gold.

My wife has been asking for an alarm system for a while now, and I finally found the alarm system that links beautifully with home automation (the Elk M1), allowing all the sensors in the alarm to act as inputs to the Insteon system. One button on a keyfob to disarm the house, open the garage door and turn on the lighting, music and anything else that you can think of. There are several external companies willing to do monitoring for the Elk, and events can be triggered based on alarm condition; So for instance if you wanted webcams to take pictures of a particular zone when that zone triggers the alarm, you could do that. Sure, it may be a movie of your cat jumping up on your counter thereby triggering the motion sensor, but at least you’ll know exactly what happened.

Of course, there are many other devices one could integrate into their home automation systems, including low-voltage controllers (for controlling garage doors, gas fireplaces, sprinkler systems etc) thermostats and recently added Dakota Alert devices (long-range motion sensors amongst other things). One is really only constrained by imagination and budget. That being said, the best way to get started is by purchasing a starter kit and adding devices as needed afterwards. By starting small and building outwards you'll be able to identify high-value areas to target for automation, and the cost is more manageable as well.


I've used Insteon for about a year, and I don't think I'd want to return to a house without it. Would you?



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Chris  - So far, so good   |July-01 14:33:35
I just got my insteon starter pak for father's day and so far it's been great.

Going to get one of the 6 button switches next, looks pretty cool.
Len Castelli  - VP Sales   |February-15 22:44:44
I've been disappointed in Insteon. Their triacs burn out frequently when used
to control magnetic transformer based low-voltage loads, despite what their web
site says. They are slowly adjusting their specifications to make buyers aware
of this, so be careful. You cannot dim low voltage lighting with Insteon as of
this posting.
Peter   |February-16 02:03:50
I'm surprised to hear your experience with low-voltage lighting has been so
problematic - I've had several low-voltage lights dimming by Insteon for over a
year now with no issues.

Is there a specific lighting load that is causing
your issue? I'd be interested to hear what the load specs are - is it outdoor
garden lighting, under cabinet, plugin or in-wall, etc.
otto_Maddick  - ENGINEER   |December-07 11:40:00
Triacs are not made to control inductive/ capactive loads, they will burn up
every time. they can only power resitive loads.

Inductors ( transformers)
Capacitance ( fluorescent lights) exhibit was is called reactance. This
behavior is detremental to triacs ( od any fast switching semiconductor)

to incandescent bulb and you will be okay
Christopher   |July-26 11:03:25
I too have lost a couple Insteon switches dimming low voltage lighting...
specifically having multiple low voltage track fixtures on one insteon dimmer..
meaning 4 fixtures each with a 50 watt bulb.. well within the specs of the
insteon... it starts out where the light wont dim correctly and eventually ends
up in the insteon device going dead altogether...

wierd thing is I never lost
any 2380W's on these lights....
Steve   |October-26 16:35:50
There were some diode issues with batches of Icon switches earlier this year but
as far as I know all the Switchlincs have been problem free for months now.
MIke  - Kids Director   |November-29 10:52:57
I was a frustrated long time X-10 user. I was frustrated with it's
undependability...sometimes it would work, most of the times not.

I converted
my whole house over to Insteon and am very pleased to say IT WORKS! No more
drops, all the devices work...all the time, and when partnered with Indigo
software I was able to create scenes that rock. Now with the touch of one button
I can turn every light in the house on at a preset level of brightness. Glad
someone figured Insteon out...I highly recommend it!
John  - Attractive   |January-24 21:50:33
Are there any attractive switch modules that can be used with Insteon? Such as
stainless steel / chrome switches... fed up of all this plastic!
Justin   |February-01 08:00:49
I agree with John. I'd have filled my home with this stuff if it wasn't all so
gimmick-looking. Why can't they separate form from function: the carcass of a
light switch is all that needs to change, not the look etc.. That way all cool
designs could be kept and the tech could be changed.. Just a thought.
Dave  - Switches   |March-05 10:35:12
There are switchs that look just like regular (non decora) switchs. Just a
little night light on it.

I personaly like the new look of the switchlink (6's)
They are laser etched and have a nice lighted look.

Of course with any of
them you can use any decora style wall plate. Brass or otherwise
Terry   |February-05 14:48:54
Does Insteon have any of the ghost issues I am experiencing with DHC/X10? I
have DHC/X10 lights come on randomly, daytime/night time, different lights,
different times. And yes, the reliability is inconsistent. Help!
Peter   |February-06 00:41:14
The ghost issues you experience are the result of powerline noise and the X10
devices receiving false 'on' signals.

The X10 codes sent over the powerline
are fairly simple spikes in the signal, whereas the Insteon control codes are a
more complicated pattern. This results in the chances of a false insteon signal
being much less likely. In fact, in two years of having a 25+ device insteon
network, I don't think I've had a single ghost signal.

Primarily with
powerline technologies such as insteon (or UPB) people worry about the opposite
problem - the signal not making it through. With a few dual-band phase couplers
to bridge the signal across RF and powerline there's less of an issue for this
as well (especially with the new dual-band lamplinc devices that have come out).
Howard  - contractor   |February-15 01:22:14
Has anyone had any experience with a large application? I have a house that had
an old X10 type system removed years ago and replaced with a Litetouch Hometouch
system that has failed. I want to put the new Insteon in but it would require up
to 100 devices and controllers. Any suggestions?
Don  - All Insteon Switches have failed   |February-14 22:43:59
I purchased Insteon switches when they first came out, and every single on of
them have failed. They don't turn on manually anymore. Some still work via
automation or control panel, but all have failed after making a considerable
investment. I have over 30 of them and so you can do the math. Also when
Insteon switches and controls are being activated all of the lights associated
with the switches dim and go bright or flash when a command is sent by a switch.
I am told by Smarthome that the warranty has expired on the switches and I will
have to purchase new ones. What an expense and a hassle. I purchased my
switches in 2006. Is this normal? Have they improved their switches?
Dave  - Failure   |March-05 10:44:19
I have 20 switches, about 8 switchlink controlers, and about 20 lamplinks
(control modules for lamps)

I have about 1 failure every other month. The lamp
units go the most. The wall switches are fairly reliable but If you get a
short, like when changing a light bulb in my old chandelear.. bye bye $39.

easy to change them out but still a pain when they fail.

I have a drawer full
of the stupid things (mostly x10). The NEW v3 insetons seem a bit more

I've had this for 6 years now and still not 100% happy with the way
they are programmed and the way you loose the programming when you loose the
switch or module. You'd think your computer could remember that button 3 by
the front door is supposed to turn off/on the 3 lights in the living room and
that button 4 should turn off ALL lights.

Instead you have to go and reprogram
each switch with the new module every time one fails.

I've tried homeseer
and a few other's (including home link) that all fail to capture the

Its not so much the module that is expensive, it's the aggravation
of hitting 'all off' and the new one not turning off.

This tech is great, but
not perfect.
Anyone have anything better.
Nathan Brazil  - Warranty says it all   |March-26 00:21:11
Like so many, I gave up on X10 years ago and have kept an eye on the technology
hopefully. Not ready to jump back in yet due to reliability issues.

I'd be
willing to pay $100+ for a module with a 10-year or lifetime warranty. Does such
a beast exist in any system?

Tim   |April-18 04:20:04
I have the same concerns Nate, turns out you can get an extended warranty for a
few bucks extra, it's a little checkbox when you add the item to cart. 7 years
extra warranty and well worth the money if you're concerned like I am. It's not
an obvious checkbox, I almost think they don't want you to get it, lol.
julian   |March-27 07:21:41
Call Smarthome! they are very good about replacing switches that are broken.
they do have a few known issues and will replace certain models no problem years
after purchase.

it sounds like you have V3.5 switches they are aware of that
issue and will replace them.

and yes they have gotten much better. I have a lot
of their products and they all work great.
Don J.   |November-29 12:06:16
I have a large Insteon installation of more then 75 devices. I too had
troubles with the physical switches failing to work, starting about 5 or 6 years
ago. After speaking with the tech guys at Insteon, I understand there was a
problem with the materials used for the switch contacts. Smarthome replaced all
of my switches at their cost. In fact, since we knew they would all eventually
fail, I would swap all switches in any single wall box once any switch failed.
This saved my own labor time. Since replacement, I'm quite happy with Insteon,
and the reliability is excellent.

Yes, the lights on the switches blink more
then I would like, but the functionality is worth it.

I'm using Insteon with
HomeSeer embedded software running on a HomeTroller dedicated system. This works
well for me as HomeSeer integrates nicely with other devices such as my Z-Wave
Quikset locks, my Russound Whole House stereo, and my rain8net sprinkler
Khalid  - 3x3 square size dimmers   |May-19 18:06:26
where can I find 3x3 inches square size dimmers (not the US standard 2x4) that
works with insteon devices?
Andrew P.  - re: Triac burn-out   |July-27 14:25:20
Len Castelli wrote:
Insteon ... triacs burn out frequently when used to control magnetic
transformer based low-voltage loads ...

Unless a triac-based controller is designed for inductive loads, the load
should have an R-C snubber installed across it, and the Insteon device
would do well to also have a metal oxide varistor (MOV) of an appropriate
rating installed across it. A better choice for driving
inductive loads such as transformers and motors would be a relay with
mechanical contacts. In the X-10 world these are called "Appliance
Modules", and they don't support dimming commands, just on
and off. In the Insteon world they're known as SwitchLinc Relays.
Barclay  - Fluorescents?   |November-16 05:12:14
I've abandoned all my x10 stuff because every time I changed a incandescent to a
fluorescent the light would turn on but not off. I was told it was because the
noise created by the fluorescent. Is this a factor in Insteon?
Sami khan  - Power supply issues   |December-13 22:19:37
I have read and heard a lot about insteon but I am having issues finding
products that actually work in the European region with 220v/50Hz

Do you know
of any company that sells modules etc for such power supplies.

Any help is
Al  - Insteon/Elk Combo is Great   |October-28 04:09:42
I have used Insteon for a year. Recently I install and ELK M1G and ISY994i
system to control the Insteon,update my security, and fire. The combo
works great. It is all controlled by the ELK. Insteon works flawlessly
once you get it linked up. I have 25 devices and
reliability increases as you add devices.
rlfleming  - cabin temp   |January-26 02:02:58
I won a cabin 50 miles from my home and all I want is a way to know what that
temp is from my home. I recently ran out of propane and my backup heater did
not work either. That cabin has no internet connection available so I need
something to work from my smartphone. I do get good cell phone system there.
Any suggestions?

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