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Do you happen to remember X10, the device-control-over-power-line protocol that was mega-popular in the ’80s? It’s still around, and it’s still super cheap. But after 20 years of over-the-counter and DIY innovation it’s a lot easier to mess with — as is its more modern coutnerpart Insteon. Here’s the short of it: By installing control units between power outlets and your appliances, you can turn everything on and off via remote control. One unit accepts the commands from your remote control, passing commands to the various modules via encoded signals over your power lines.

It’s easy and cheap to get started. A number of online stores sell starter kits consisting of a single receiver/remote module and a couple appliance (read: switch on and off) and lamp (read: includes a dimmer function) units for well under $100. Here’s an example from Smarthome, a shop I’ve purchased from in the past: a kit designed to control home theater lighting for $70.

But Insteon takes the whole concept farther with a much wider range of modules, including computer interfaces, thermostats, security tools, and many in-wall modules to replace lighting controls. Most range in price from around $20 to as much as $200 (thermostats and the line), but all interface together to allow you to program lighting scenes, timed events like external light activation or temperature changes, etc. Cool stuff!

My first experience with X10 was ordering a little single remote/two appliance module kit for around $20 in the late ’90s. After playing with it a bit, it became the “tree button” at Christmas time as we’d hook the tree to it so we could turn the tree in the living room on and off from the bedroom. Now I’m starting to think I could hook some of the contact reader/control boxes into my security system’s sensors to tie it all into my current automation system — and maybe control my sprinkler system, too.

Insteon [Corporate Website]
Smarthome [Corporate Website]


10 Responses to Fun, Cheap Home Automation

  1. Bill Schuller says:

    I came across a steller deal a while back on Insteon KeypadLincs and SwitchLincs (their spelling, not mine). While a baby girl came before I could get _all_ the lights under control, I can now switch my son’s light on to signal the end of what used to be his nap time from the comfort of the couch.

    My holy grail? An “all-off” switch at each exit. No more running around turning off lights before leaving the house…

  2. Toolaremia says:

    Chuck, look a little farther and I think you’ll find X10 has as many if not more module options than Insteon. The X10 system was invented in 1975 and has been actively developed ever since. There are an insane number of different modules. There are even dry contact input (PF284) and output (UM506) individual modules as well as whole relay boards that act like a bunch of those modules.

    That said, I’m definitely drooling over Insteon. I run a dozen things with X10 in my house. Mostly lights. I turn a few appliances on and off too. I have eight lights in my garage, each on a separate pull-chain. X10 means they all go on and off with one button. I also use a couple of EagleEye X10 motion sensors to turn lights on on the stairs and hallway.

    The thing that holds me back from using X10 in more places is the lack of closed-loop operation, aka “two-way” communication. X10 sends a command blindly. Insteon (and the lesser-known 2-way X10 “Pro” protocol) has the ability to get acknowledgment from a module that the signal was received. They can also be queried about their current state (for local control). This would make automated control of heaters and other “dangerous” or sensitive appliances more reliable. Would also mean I wouldn’t come home to lights that didn’t go off when I left…

    A work-around I’ve used for years is to use two modules with different module numbers in series with the appliance. Turn on the first module, then turn on the second module to power the appliance. Turn it off by turning the second module off, then the first. The chances of a spurious signal turning both modules on is very low. But it eats two modules and module numbers, and doesn’t increase reliability of turning things off. Insteon is in my future… Wanna buy some X10 modules? 😉

    For the geekier Toolmongers, Mister House can be used with X10, Insteon, 1-Wire, and other systems all-together to completely control your house. Very geeky and very cool: http://misterhouse.sourceforge.net/

  3. Andrew C says:

    Not so great. Noise on the line will cause your light bulbs to flicker, so you end up having to use relay (=non-dimming) devices. And the controller devices “link” to each switch individually, so if you replace a controller with another, you have to unlink that controller from each switch that controls it, then re-link each switch to the new controller. Frankly, X10 was better except in terms of signal reliability.

  4. Fzzt says:

    Been running x10 modules/remotes for 10+ years and the only problems I’ve run into are:
    – At the holidays it seems a lot more neighbors dig out the modules to control their lights and for a day or so we have to play blind mans bluff turning each others lights on/off until we all move settings around hehe.

    – CFL bulbs do not like being on the x10 dimmer switch modules, something about their frequency totally stops the light switch from working (for on/off, no dimmer).

    – Forgetting to change the batts in the remotes or clean the battery contacts every few years.

    You won’t regret setting up some x10 modules, trust me!

  5. Beaver says:

    I’m a fan of Z wave stuff myself. It’s a tad mroe expensive but its RF!

  6. automationguy says:

    I am not sure what Andrew is using, but INSTEON does not have that problem at all (with the flicker) – as for unlinking devices, his assessment is correct if you are unlinking manually, but this simply requires the holding down of buttons for a few seconds, really easy…however, using a computer interface/program such as an ISY controller or Indigo software (for Mac) makes it even easier as you can do it from your computer

    Important to keep in mind that INSTEON and X10 use completely different communication protocols. INSTEON, unlike other automation companies opted to incorporate X10 coummications in their products to help people with the transition.

    Z-wave is much more limited than INSTEON, and INSTEON uses RF technology as well as Powerline, making it the most reliable automation out there.

  7. Nick H says:

    I’m a building automation/DDC installer and I’ve recently been looking into some residential automation systems to try on the side. The one I was most impressed with was a company called Lagotek.


    Impessive stuff.

  8. Bob says:

    After years of frustration with X10 modules not seeing signals, I finally pulled all of them out. Yes, I know all about bridges, etc. And I found the modules themselves to be pretty unreliable. I still use them to control my shop dust collector and Christmas tree but that’s about it.

    If I get into it again, I’ll be trying Insteon products.

  9. Michael R. says:

    I had played with X-10 years ago, but got into it heavily when I was using aquarium controllers to manage the lighting, heaters, etc on my various big tanks. Unfortunately, I discovered just how crude they are. My controllers would repeat the signals periodically, and if two controllers sent their commands at once, the signal would sometimes end up as a different code and turn the wrong thing on/off. Every light ballast, motor or UPS backup would absorb the signals, requiring an array of filters be installed. While the appliance modules themselves are 20 amps, the filters are only rated for 5 amps and I ended up burning one up (luckily I was home to hear it) before realizing this. The modules have this “feature” where when they’re off and you turn the power to them off and on quickly, it will cause them to come on. This is also triggered by light ballasts and things, and required opening each one up to cut a jumper wire to disable this. Unfortunately later model ones didn’t seem to have that wire and I never did figure out what to do with those. I had several units just stop responding. Finally, I took all out except one set of light controls and converted the other ones to old fashioned mechanical timers, which while less convenient in some ways, don’t turn the lighting on and off randomly day and night like before.

    If you have a single control point and your own detached house, they can work pretty well for you. You can get them for as little as $3 per module on Ebay. But if you have anything complicated, don’t bother.

    I would like to get into Insteon which uses hex addresses similar to computers, as well as Z-wave, but the prices are still a bit high for my level of interest at the moment.

  10. Ann says:

    “Well under $100” is not cheap, you crazy people. $15 for a remote control light switch is cheap. I’mma buy two and connect one to my computer.

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