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.
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.
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.
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?