Reader's Voice: An Introduction To Home Automation

Home Automation Protocols

What, exactly, can you do with home automation?

The most common project is to automate lights, thermostat settings, and irrigation, but you can also tie HA (Home Automation) into security systems using extra sensors, triggered lights, or other outputs. Your imagination and creativity may be your only limits. As for me, my budget was the determinant in how far I could go. Nevertheless, this is the story of a real-world home automation installation. Some of the options I had to bypass due to monetary constraints included thermostat control, voice interaction, irrigation, and home theater control.

Available Systems

Another factor (besides budget) in the planning process is picking a HA protocol on which to base a new system. There are four major players in HA, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. 

X-10 has been around the longest, and is by far the least expensive. X-10 was originally designed to send its signals through existing power wiring, but was later adapted to transmit wirelessly as well. X-10 has a broad catalog of available devices, but its primary downfall is its lack of robustness. The problem is that the protocol is specified with one-way communication and includes no checks for commands making it through to the targeted device.

UPB was designed to counter X-10's weaknesses by utilizing a higher voltage and stronger signal. UPB is a powerline-only communication protocol, so some devices are much harder to install. In addition, a high cost for the technology has made UPB prohibitive to buy into, and has likely stunted the growth of the technology.

Z-wave is a newer protocol and is dependent on wireless signals at 908.42MHz (though that varies slightly depending on the country in which the device is intended for sale). Due to its wireless nature, it has become very popular for refitting older homes with home automation, and since it operates at ~900MHz there is no need to worry about wireless network interference. Some of the concerns of Z-wave are its proprietary technology, radio congestion with larger deployments, and low tolerance for failed, moved, or removed devices.

Insteon is another newer protocol, and it utilizes both powerline and 915MHz wireless signals for a robust network. Each device acts a transceiver in that it will receive a signal and transmit the signal again if it is not the addressed device. Insteon can also communicate via X-10 signals, an ability that has made it popular for those who have already invested in X-10 and want to update to a newer, more robust protocol.

One of Insteon's caveats is that most of the wired-in devices require the neutral wires to be in the switch boxes. This type of wiring is generally not found in older homes. Insteon also released some switches earlier on that had a high failure rate, although they did extend the warranty on those and have replaced the model with a better switch.

So, now it's time to choose which protocol to use. X10 is not really a valid option for me, as it is not being developed anymore and lacks feedback. UPB is a niche market for the wealthier crowd, many of whom don't know how else to spend their money, and that's definitely not me either. That only leaves Z-wave and Insteon as valid options. If I had to guess, I would say one of these, if not both, will be around for a long time to come. But right now they are both fighting for recognition and market share. For my installation, I chose Insteon due to cost, availability, control options, and robustness.

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  • Gin Fushicho
    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.
  • Twoboxer
    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.
  • Twoboxer
    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.
  • mrubermonkey
    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.
  • Twoboxer
    What industry standards? HAI's? Lutron's? X10's? Standards from what era?
  • sorusbay
    I suggest you to use KNX
  • pratik77
    If you want the real deal, go for Crestron.
    Sure it costs money but so does liquid nitrogen cooled overclocked gaming rigs.
  • Anonymous
    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.
  • Anonymous
    How can you not mention, the largest DIY home automation site out there.
  • sublifer
    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.
  • pkellmey
    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.
  • Anonymous
    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.
  • Anonymous
    sublifer, I somehow missed that reference, my apologies.
  • Anonymous
    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%.
  • sublifer
    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.
  • candide08
    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.
  • Anonymous
    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.
  • cldebuhr

    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.
  • Anonymous
    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...
  • sublifer
    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.