Reader's Voice: An Introduction To Home Automation


I learned a lot in the process of writing this article, and I hope it will encourage many of you to consider bringing HA into your own lives. I'll admit that wiring up light switches is not the easiest of tasks for someone who hasn't done it before, but the plug-in devices are a snap to set up and make for an easy entry-point to working with the technology.

Most people are very timid the first time they have to replace a component in their PC and, in the same way, there is a learning curve to HA. And although the components you're dealing with are not as sensitive as those inside a computer, there is a risk anytime you are working near electric circuits (in this case more of a risk to yourself).

Once I finished with the installation, the only signs of the work I'd done was a set of nicer wall switches and a handful of extra adapters plugged into the wall. The only way it could have looked more professional was if I had finished the whole house with Insteon- and Decora-style switches to match the ones I changed. I could have also swapped the wall outlets to Insteon rather than using the lamp adapter, but then I couldn't use the adapter for my Christmas tree when that time of year rolls around. I like having the choice of moving it. 

I won't try claiming that anyone can manage a home automation installation, so if you're uncomfortable around electronics, don't know what you're doing in a breaker box, or are particularly accident-prone, don't even risk it. I would think that if you've soldered wires before, though, then you probably have enough knowledge and common sense to take on a task like this.

In the future, I plan to add a controlled thermostat, tie into a security system, add a wireless controller (the kits simply weren't in stock when I was ordering), and add more controlled lights. I might even add lawn irrigation control.

So what did I think about the project and the hardware I used? In short:

The Bad:

  • Working with electrical wiring can be hazardous to one's health, especially if one is clueless.
  • I occasionally had to move around the access points to perform pairings, and this might make you wonder if a given device is functioning properly.
  • The controllers I chose did not provide feedback as to the on/off state of the devices. This is hardly a con, though, as I could easily have picked a controller that displays status.
  • I couldn't find a full-wall video phone (not that I could afford it if I did).

The Good: 

  • My entire house has become a toy for me to play with and tweak.
  • Great to show off your house to friends, neighbors, and family.
  • Laziness (convenience) is taken to a whole new level. Did I leave the light on in the living room when I've already crawled into bed? Hit the off button and I don't have to go check.

The Verdict: I want more! My computer may not be getting upgrades for a while, as I'll be too busy playing with my house. 

Update: I recently returned my Smartlinc controller and instead purchased a ISY-99i controller with a PLM to remedy the status being displayed. The Smarthome support staff was very understanding and helpful. The PLM in the package translates the Insteon signals for the 99i controller. The 99i allows me to do much more than the other controller, and it supports if/then routines. Of course, I had to pay for it and it was much more expensive than the  previous  controller.

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  • Sounds like a lot of fun, though my Grandpa wouldnt like it , he likes to work too much. =/ He might like setting it up though.
  • IMO, the problem with "Home Automation" is that

    (a) it's fragmented

    (b) most applications can be accomplished in most homes with less expensive, individual systems than with any integrated system - even if one existed.

    HVAC: Unless you have a large home requiring multiple HVAC zones/thermostats, and unless parts of the home are unoccupied for varying amounts of time, a programmable thermostat is an adequate solution. Setbacks (eg while you are at work) don't seem to save much money with modern HVAC systems in most US climates.

    Lighting: If "security" means cycling lights so the house looks occupied, again simple timers are adequate. Unless you have a large, multi-source lighted home, few need automated lighting and "scenes".

    Irrigation: If you have any sprinkler system, once again timers and rain sensors do the job well enough.

    And so on.

    FYI, I have a large primary residence with a networked security system that also controls multiple thermostats. A dedicated PC has replaced a stand-alone DVR to monitor security cameras. A low-voltage, microprocessor controlled system controls lighting.

    If these 8-year old systems talked to each other well, maybe I could use the motion detectors to automatically turn lights on and off. And maybe I wouldn't be better off using standard internet cameras to monitor security as I travel between homes.

    Its all cool technology, but as a substantial user and tech-lover, I just don't see significant, practical application in most homes.
  • Please forgive the double-post, but I couldn't resist pointing out one savings I learned about from all of this.

    I use a lot of 130V bulbs in the fixtures controlled by microprocessor controlled lighting system. Most of these bulbs are also oversized for their purpose, and are therefore set to run at, eg, 60% or 75% of maximum voltage when turned on.

    I don't know whether I've saved any electricity or not - I doubt it lol - but I have saved a tremendous amount of money on bulbs. EG, there are 11 such bulbs in my kitchen ceiling and they run a minimum of 12 hours per day. I have not replaced a bulb in that set since they were installed over 8 years ago.
  • Buying proprietary systems is bad. Go with equipment that goes by industry standards and the whole issue with home automaton being a long-term investment goes away for the most part. Unless some company's proprietary technology always leads industry standards by leaps and bounds, but this is rare.
  • What industry standards? HAI's? Lutron's? X10's? Standards from what era?
  • I suggest you to use KNX
  • If you want the real deal, go for Crestron.
    Sure it costs money but so does liquid nitrogen cooled overclocked gaming rigs.
  • On the life of light bulbs . . . .
    Lamp life is very sensitive to operating voltage - for 120 volts Ge quotes 125 volts as shortening the lamp life to 1/2 and 130 volts to 1/3. The inverse is true - if you put a 130 volt lamp in a 120 volt circuit you can expect over double the lamp life, and if you have a dimmer to soft start then it can last a way lot longer.
  • How can you not mention, the largest DIY home automation site out there.
  • cocoonerHow can you not mention, the largest DIY home automation site out there.

    It was mentioned on page 3:
    Many of the searches for further guidance landed me at, and reading other people's guides and questions helped me through the process.
  • I researched HA a couple of years ago, but I found that my house is really not large enough to justify it, the standards and the equipment are subpar, and it's very expensive (which again can't justify it). Unless if the components and system are completely "plug in and play" with complete across-the-board industry standards, HA will never become mainstream. After reading the efforts involved in this article, I see it is still in that condition.
  • Sadly, I think there are two, very basic, problems with "home automation"...

    First - With no set "standard" to work with, we (the consumers) are left to piece together a system from a hodge-poge of available components. By definition then, an "integrated" system is all but impossible to create, unless you have a fair amount of money to permit not only hardware modifications to be done (and paid for), but also programming / software writing. A "expensive" proposition...

    Second - The "industry", for all our "talk" does NOT think home automation is even remotely a priority for the "masses". A "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer.

    Without the second, you will not get the first.

    Sadly... The second (to me) is the simple result of no one really outlining what the REAL benefits could be. Sure, we see a bit here or there, but it is about as disjointed as it can be. Until someone decides to truely invest in the idea of HA and promote it accordingly, it will not take root, to any appreciable amount.

    As consumers, we need to be told what this will do for us in a way that we can understand and see real benefits from. Not "off the wall" concepts of futuristic homes, but down to earth, realities that we could feel, today...or even tomorrow (short term). Not to mention, at a price point which is do-able for the majority.

    There are also "some" issues with using existing wiring, etc., that need to be addressed... ie., for this sort of thing to take hold, it has to be available, not only for new construction, but also to be retrofitted into existing buildings, without having to rip out walls, etc. It's there, in other forms, it just needs to be adapted for this type of use.

    Could any of it be done? I believe so, but I think, at this moment, there is no one company, no group of companies, who will bother. The ROI just is not there.
  • sublifer, I somehow missed that reference, my apologies.
  • I have been Home Automated for quite a few years now and really can't live without it. Just the lighting control saves time turning this and that on for all times of day (Morning and Evening). Also supplies passive security and with newer motion detectors and nice jump up in performance.
    Getting the right hardware/software combination is critical. I have gone from X-10 to the latest "Insteon" products and reliability has improved 90%.
  • jbierrieA "techno-geek", here or there, yes, but not the average consumer

    I've enjoyed my system greatly so far. Yes, I'm a tech geek and not an avg consumer... you hit the nail on the head with that BUT that is how innovation starts. Enough people jump on board or get involved, even just making suggestions to the companies that are involved, and that is how it will grow into commonplace. Do you think the future homes, as are portrayed in the movies, will come about without prevalent HA technology? Nope. Its just gonna take baby steps to get there.
  • Insteon is FAR superior to X10.

    I ran X10 for years and had reliability and interference issues.
    99% of these are gone with Insteon, the appearance of the devices is much nicer and the programmability is superior - using the ISY99 from Universal Devices.
  • No mention of LinuxMCE which brings all these protocols together as well as your network, home cinema _and_ much more? As far as I've heard they're even coming out with a beta very soon for the new version.

    The author should seriously refrain from giving electrical advice:
    ... White is neutral (hot) and is ...
    I really hope this was a typo, because it kind of suggests that the author doesn't know (very basic!) difference between hot (black) and neutral (white).

    In the name of not having any Tom's readers electrocute themselves, I'd reccomed saying nothing more than "installs like standard electrical hardware." and leave it at that. If they have to ask, they either need to hire someone, or at least get a good book and spend some serious study time! By the way anytime you see a red wire comming out of a box, if you KNOW its a 3-way lighting circut, thats fine, but also be aware that red is also used as "hot" in split-phase 220v wiring, so that you've got ground (bare or green), neutral (still white), and TWO hots (black and red), each at 110v AC with respect to neutral, bat out of phase with each other to give a combined 220 v AC. 110v hurts ... 220v is a lot more likely to kill.
  • Also, perhaps only relevant to Europe I dunno but cable color codes have changed through time and older houses might provide you with installed runs of cables that do not match the current standard at all.

    Sometimes you'll happen upon different colors used for the same thing just because an older standard wasn't specifying a color for certain things at all, or the technician ran out of white and didn't care...
  • cldebuhrSAFTEY WARNING!!

    Good point, neutral is not hot, its the return (completes the circuit) but not really a safety issue. People afraid of touching the neutral won't hurt anything, besides, the author already covered making sure that power was removed from the circuit.