Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting Started With Insteon and Home Automation


I already loved the htguys and their excellent HDTV and Home Theater Podcast, but it recently only got better when they finally got the Insteon and home automation bug. It reminded me that I have not shared any starter tips or blogged my current setup for quite some time.

I got into Insteon seriously back in 2006. Since then I have slowly added more and more devices and now have most of my home automated:



7 x KeypadLincs (8 button)
10 x SwitchLincs (Relays for the Fans and Dimmers for the lights)
8 x LampLincs
1 x Garage door sensor
1 x USB IR emitter for Home Theater control

When I started I was a windows guy and so used a PC as my main controller running PowerHome (http://www.myx10.com/). The software is great, great community support and very stable. Since then I have gone all Apple and will probably eventually switch to Indigo.

You don't need a computer for Insteon to work. You can link switches and modules, even your thermostat, to each other and all works great. The big value of a computer software based controller is that it records all the links you make and allows you to make links and write them to the devices. This is a huge timesaver especially when a device fails or needs resetting. You can simply rewrite it from the computer. If you don't want a computer on all the time then you can just buy the PLC controller and download some things such as timers to it directly and it will run them when the computer is off.

At one point I added a 7" touch screen controller which I documented here.

Unfortunately the screen broke and so I was forced to rethink. About the same time the iPhone and iPod Touch came out and made portable touch screens cheap. I decided to move to the iPhone for my music remote control and started to try and retarget my home automation to it too.

To do this on a pc or mac can be a lot of work involving screen design, etc.

Then just last week I bought the 2412N Controller module and its simplicity blew me away. It is not as flexible as a pc but it instantly gave me access to all my lights and thermostat from my iPhone or any browser and from anywhere in the world. Huge spouse approval factor. We can turn up the AC on the way home and it is cool by the time we get there. Go this route and you don't even need a computer.

Here are a few tips on things that I found out as I went along:

(1) Insteon communication is incredibly reliable. Unlike X-10 you get close to 100% response rate. However its big enemies are UPSs, Computers and Receivers. They suck the signal out the line and reduce the effectiveness, in some cases killing it completely. The result is a dead zone within your house. The solution is simple. You can buy filters, similar to the Insteon modules, called FilterLincs, that you plug between the offending devices and the power socket. As they go up to 10 amps you can put a bunch of devices on a single filter. If you are worried about blowing it you can use a Kill-a-watt to measure the current drawn by your devices or UPS when on.

(2) Smarthome does regular specials and sales. Often worth waiting for these. I have also gotten a few things via their auction site at a good discount.

(3) If you want to get serious with a computer software controller then you will need a spare insteon device to use as a trigger device (Indigo may work without this). Keypad buttons have to be linked to something to generate a trigger. You can then listen for these events on the computer and act on them. For instance I have a button that tells the computer the house is vacant. A cheap Lamplinc is great and you can use it for all your keypad triggers.

(4) You will keep finding new things to control. Powered speakers are great for control from a keypad. Holiday lights too. My favorite, my PC pings a couple of websites every 30 minutes such as google and if it cannot get a response it reboots the router. I also have a button that lights up every tuesday to remind me to take out the trash. I also have halogen closet lights that I don't want to be left on by accident. When they are turned on the computer sets up a turn off command for 10 minutes later.

(5) The Keypads used to come with clear buttons that you could print out custom labels for. They replaced these with solid white ones which cannot be customized. They want you to buy custom etched ones but until your system is stable you won't know what they should say and if you leave them as A,B,C etc your family will hate you. However you can still order the clear button kit for just under $6. I also use the color change kit to make them all soft blue and the red ones are perfect for alert buttons such as Garage Door Open or Take Out The Garbage.

(6) By default your switches and lamplincs will just turn the lights on and off. Change the ramp rate and you will get a nice gradual dim up and down. Surprising what a difference this makes and people really notice. Plus you can easily override when needed by double tapping the switch.

If you are just starting out then I recommend getting one of the Insteon starter kits initially. Many of them come with the RemoteLinc remote control but personally I don't use mine, find it a little ugly and it eats batteries even when it is not used. An iPhone or universal remote make a much better control.

My only warning? Once you start you won't be able to stop and this could prove to be an expensive hobby........

8 comments:

Nisha Acharya said...

What are the costs?

Martin said...

I would be lying if I didn't say it was significant. Basic lamp modules start at $10 and switches starting at $35 to Keypads at $70. However you can build slowly over time. Compared to having a custom installer come in the costs are minimal, assuming you have some technical smarts.

Zona said...

Martin, great write up!

I'm just looking into starting up and doing my initial research. I have a few questions for you.

To me, there would be a huge benefit to getting the thermostat control and the garage door monitor. Since I’m going to be using insteon, I also started thinking of the benefits of controlling my lights with the system. This is secondary for me but I can see how my system would grow with time.

I have a pc at home and a blackberry. The only apples in our household are the ones you eat.

My questions:
1) I don’t recall seeing mention of the software Does the software come with a starter kit or is it a separate purchase?
2) Is the homelinc the software to go with or are there better options out there?
3) As I will need the 2412N to control the thermostat remotely, do I still need to get the software or is it redundant?
4) Will I be able to access the system with my blackberry?
5) If I just start off with the garage module and a keypad linc, do I need the Access Points at this point? From here I was going to move onto the thermostat and then the light controls.

Thanks in advance for your advice.

Martin said...

Zona,

I always suggest to folks that the best starting point is exactly that. A Garage sensor, Thermostat and a starter kit. Most people would like to be able to control their A/C and heating remotely such as turning on the A/C on your way home from work, and the garage door is a no brainer.

Some answers to your questions:

1) I don’t recall seeing mention of the software Does the software come with a starter kit or is it a separate purchase?

The simplest setup is to buy the Starter Kit which contains the 2412N controller or SmartLinc. This little plug in device contains a web server and also a free service from SmartHome so you can access it from the internet. On your blackberry you will then be able to login and turn your lights on and off, monitor and change the thermostat and control the garage door.

If you want to get into more serious home automation you may want a PC or MAC controller at some point. I use a PC running the excellent PowerHome software (http://www.myx10.com/). With this I can program it to send me email based on certain events, turn off closet lights after 15 minutes, etc. The possibilities are endless once you have a programmable controller. But for most people the SmartLinc is fine.

2) Is the homelinc the software to go with or are there better options out there?

As I say I use PowerLinc. If I had a Mac it would be Indigo.

3) As I will need the 2412N to control the thermostat remotely, do I still need to get the software or is it redundant?

It is redundant until you want to do something more complicated. For now I would say wait.

4) Will I be able to access the system with my blackberry?

Yep, and any browser on any device.

5) If I just start off with the garage module and a keypad linc, do I need the Access Points at this point? From here I was going to move onto the thermostat and then the light controls

It depends. Those two devices can talk to each other over the powerline and so in theory they don't need help from the RF linc. However depending on the wiring in your house they might be on different phases and in that case you need the RF lincs to bridge both. For that reason I would recommend the starter kit. Going forward you will only spend more money on Insteon and the starter kits are the few opportunities you have to save money. Once you have some of the components that option is gone.

Zona said...

Thanks Martin, appreciate your insights.

I just ordered my garage door control and status kit, the 8 button keypad and the access point & Phase Coupler.

Any advice on labeling the buttons on the keypad?

Martin said...

I should have said. I recommend folks order the old style clear button kit. They don't like to advertise it but you can find it buried on the website. This lets you print your own button labels using their template and use them until you are aready to order permanent ones. I am still using them all over my house as the custom etched are really expensive. They do have some preprinted ones which are cheaper but I have too many custom buttons.

Dallas home automation said...

An automated home is about the convenience of saving your time and effort by having your home automatically do routine functions such as watering your grass (but only if it has not rained recently), or turning off all lights, setting the thermostat to economy mode and arming the security system when you retire for the night.

Martin Lister said...

The first step to Home Automation is Home Control. You cannot automate what you cannot control. Of course the a key goal is to automate both basic and complex functions in your house but the real goal is a smart home that encompasses both automation and full house control. You can automate your heating with a simple 7 day programmable thermostat. But what you really want to do is to have full remote control and be able to manage it from anywhere you are, turn on the A/C on your way home from the beach, etc.