First Steps with Home Automation and LED Lighting

I’ve been thinking about home automation — automating lights, switches, thermostats, etc. — for years. Literally decades, in fact. When I was a child, my parents had a RadioShack X10 control module and one or two target devices. I think I had fun giving people a “light show” turning on or off one switch and one outlet remotely.

But I was stuck — there are a daunting number of standards for home automation these days. Zigbee, UPB, Z-Wave, Insteon, and all sorts of Wifi-enabled things that aren’t really compatible with each other (hellooooo, Nest) or have their own “ecosystem” that isn’t all that open (helloooo, Apple). Frankly I don’t think that Wifi is a great home automation protocol; its power drain completely prohibits it being used in a lot of ways.

Earlier this month, my awesome employer had our annual meeting and as part of that our technical teams had some time for anyone to talk about anything geeky. I used my time to talk about flying quadcopters, but two of my colleagues talked about home automation. I had enough to have a place to start, and was hooked.

People use these systems to do all sorts of things: intelligently turn off lights when rooms aren’t occupied, provide electronic door locks (unlockable via keypad, remote, or software), remote control lighting and heating/cooling via smartphone apps, detect water leakage, control switches with awkward wiring environments, buttons to instantly set multiple switches to certain levels for TV watching, turning off lights left on, etc. I even heard examples of monitoring a swamp cooler to make sure it is being used correctly. The possibilities are endless, and my geeky side was intrigued.

Insteon and Z-Wave

Based on what I heard from my colleagues, I decided to adopt a hybrid network consisting of Insteon and Z-Wave.

Both are reliable protocols (with ACKs and retransmit), so they work far better than X10 did. Both have all sorts of controls and sensors available (browse around on smarthome.com for some ideas).

Insteon is a particularly interesting system — an integrated dual-mesh network. It has both powerline and RF signaling, and most hardwared Insteon devices act as repeaters for both the wired and RF network simultaneously. Insteon packets contain a maximum hop count that is decremented after each relay, and the packets repeat in such as way that they collide and strengthen one another. There is no need to maintain routing tables or anything like that; it simply scales nicely.

This system addresses all sorts of potential complexities. It addresses the split-phase problem of powerline-only systems, but using an RF bridge. It addresses long distances and outbuildings by using the powerline signaling. I found it to work quite well.

The downside to Insteon is that all the equipment comes from one vendor: Insteon. If you don’t like their thermostat or motion sensor, you don’t have any choice.

Insteon devices can be used entirely without a central controller. Light switches can talk to each other directly, and you can even set them up so that one switch controls dozens of others, if you have enough patience to go around your house pressing tiny “set” buttons.

Enter Z-Wave. Z-Wave is RF-only, and while it is also a mesh network, it is source-routed, meaning that if you move devices around, you have to “heal” your network as all your nodes have to re-learn the path to each other. It also doesn’t have the easy distance traversal of Insteon, of course. On the other hand, hundreds of vendors make Z-Wave products, and they mostly interoperate well. Z-Wave is said to scale practically to maybe two or three dozen devices, which would have been an issue for me, buut with Insteon doing the heavy lifting and Z-Wave filling in the gaps, it’s worked out well.

Controlling it all

While both Insteon (and, to a certain extent, Z-Wave) devices can control each other, to really spread your wings, you need more centralized control. This lets you have programs that do things like “if there’s motion in the room on a weekday and it’s dark outside, then turn on a light, and turn it back off 5 minutes later.”

Insteon has several options. One, you can buy their “power line modem” (PLM). This can be hooked up to a PC to run either Insteon’s proprietary software, or something open-source like MisterHouse, written in Perl. Or you can hook it up to a controller I’ll mention in a minute. Those looking for a fairly simpe controller might get the Insteon 2242-222 Hub, which has the obligatory smartphone app and basic schedules.

For more sophisticated control, my friend recommended the ISY-994i controller. Not only does it have a lot more capable programming language (though still frustrating), it supports both Insteon and Z-Wave in an integrated box, and has a comprehensive REST API for integrating with other things. I went this route.

First step: LED lighting

I began my project by replacing my light bulbs with LEDs. I found that I could get Cree 4-Flow 60W equivs for $10 at Home Depot. They are dimmable, a key advantage over CFL, and also maintain their brightness throughout their life far better. As I wanted to install dimmer switches, I got a combination of Cree 60W bulbs, Cree TW bulbs (which have a better color spectrum coverage for more true colors), and Cree 100W equiv bulbs for places I needed more coverage. I even put in a few LED flood lights to replace my can lights.

Overall I was happy with the LEDs. They are a significant improvement over the CFLs I had been using, and use even less power to boot. I have had issues with three Cree bulbs, though: one arrived broken, and two others have had issues such as being quite dim. They have a good warranty, but it seems their QA could be better. Also, they can have a tendency to flickr when dimmed, though this plagues virtually all LED bulbs.

I had done quite a bit of research. CNET has some helpful brightness guides, and Insteon has a color temperature chart. CNET also had a nifty in-depth test of LED bulbs.

Second step: switches

Once the LED bulbs were in place, I was then able to start installing smart switches. I picked up Insteon’s basic switch, the SwitchLinc 2477D at Menard’s. This is a dimmable switch and requires a neutral wire in the box, but acts as a dual-band repeater for the system as well.

The way Insteon switches work, they can be standalone, or controllers, responders, or both in a “scene”. A scene is where multiple devices act together. You can create virtual 3-way switches in a scene, or more complicated things where different lights are turned on at different levels.

Anyhow, these switches worked out quite well. I have a few boxes where there is no neutral wire, so I had to use the Insteon SwitchLinc 2474D in them. That switch is RF-only and is supposed to have a minimum load of 20W, though they seemed to work OK — albeit with limited range and the occasional glitch — with my LEDs. There is also the relay-based SwitchLinc 2477S for use with non-dimmable lights, fans, etc. You can also get plug-in modules for controlling lamps and such.

I found the Insteon devices mostly lived up to their billing. Occasionally I could provoke a glitch by changing from dimming to brightening in rapid succession on a remote switch controlling a load on a distant one. Twice I had to power cycle an Insteon switch that got confused (rather annoying when they’re hardwared). Other than that, though, it’s been solid. From what I gather, this stuff isn’t ever quite as reliable as a 1950s mechanical switch, but at least in this price range, this is about as good as it gets these days.

Well, this post got quite long, so I will have to follow up with part 2 in a little while. I intend to write about sensors and the Z-Wave network (which didn’t work quite as easily as Insteon), as well as programming the ISY and my lessons learned along the way.

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