Blog posts made on 25-Aug-08
From X10 To Insteon

In my prior post I introduced the basics of home automation via X10. X10 is not a new standard and specification, it has actually been around since the 1970s. And over that time is has not evolved much, if at all. X10 is incredibly popular, because of its simplicity and extensibility and low cost.

But X10 also has some very real problems:

  • X10 signals are not 100% reliable and can be affected by other plugged-in devices. Erroneous and seemingly random signals are not uncommon, and are hard to truly eliminate.
  • X10 signals lose their strength over distances, so the bigger your house the less reliable the signals. You can buy repeaters and signal boosters, but these are not perfect.
  • X10 has a very limited address range, and if your next door neighbor gets into home automation you can end up bumping into each other. And the likelihood of this happening may be higher than you think. As such, you may need to install signal filtering on the AC feed to your house to block signals from passing in and out.
  • Getting X10 signals to pass between the two electrical phases in a typical U.S. AC installation can be rather painful. There are bridges that can help with this, but their installation is not for the feint of heart, and they don't seem to work perfectly.
  • But the biggest drawback to X10 is the poor error correction. X10 signals are kind of tossed over the wall, a broadcast, perhaps telling device F2 to turn on. But X10 does not provide a failsafe way to check that that the signal actually reached device F2, and that device F2 truly is on. So, while things usually work and work well, when they don't there is little you can do automatically or programatically.
Still, as already said X10 remains very popular because, well, for the most part it does indeed work. And it's cheap (at least to get started).

Over the years we've seen a variety of home automation technologies appear on the scene, and I've tinkered with most. But the one I've grown most impressed with, and have started to migrate to, is Insteon (created by SmartLabs). Insteon is relatively new (the first Insteon devices started appearing in mid-2005) and works much like X10 but with some very important differences:

  • Insteon never suffers from signal loss because all devices are repeaters, so the more complex and sophisticated your home automation network, the stronger the signal.
  • Insteon uses 3 byte device addresses, and devices have manufacturer defined addresses (a bit like NIC MAC addresses). So device addressing conflicts are a thing of the past.
  • Insteon is a dual-mesh specification, featuring AC signaling like X10, but also supporting RF.
  • Bridging the two AC phases with Insteon is easy, just plug one Access Point (a little white box) into any outlet on one phase and a second on any outlet on the other, and you're done. The Access Points have LEDs that will show you if they are wired correctly (on two different phases as opposed to the same phase), and you can just keep moving the second around until the LED indicates success. And as an added benefit, the Access Points act as signal repeaters and RF receivers. too.
  • Most importantly, error detection and correction is built in. Devices can be easily queried, and simply publish their current state, and signals are automatically retransmitted if they were not correctly received.
  • And best of all, Insteon is fully backwards compatible with X10. In fact, just about every Insteon device can also have an X10 address allowing them to respond to both signals, and most Insteon controllers can also send X10 commands, too. While not actually required by the Insteon specification, most Insteon device vendors seem to be providing X10 compatibility.
  • Insteon is also much faster than X10, and thus the "inst" in Insteon.

Insteon is installed and configured in much the same way as X10 is. To install an Insteon switch you'd simply remove the original switch and replace it with the Insteon equivalent. Same for outlets, and any other devices. Addresses do not need to be defined, as every device has a preconfigured address (that is usually on a label on the device itself). Controllers can query the entire home network and find new devices automatically. And devices also identify themselves so controllers can respond intelligently (so that, for example, a switch used for fluorescent lighting that does not support dimming can identify itself so that controllers know not to try to send it dimming commands).

The biggest limitation with Insteon right now is that there are far fewer devices available for it than there are for X10. But, with X10 backward compatibility, that is less of an issue. For new installations you can buy X10 devices (realizing that you'll not get the same level of functionality obviously). And for those of us with significant investments in X10 already, Insteon provides a vastly superior home automation network while not requiring tossing out any existing devices. (Of course, if you are anything like me, you'll find it hard to resist replacing those existing X10 devices once you get used to the richer functionality of their Insteon counterparts).

In other words, to me, Insteon feels like what X10 should have been in the first place, and is thus the heir apparent to X10.

To learn more, visit the Insteon links above. And for the largest selection of Insteon (and X10) devices, visit Smarthome (use the Insteon and X10 categories on the top left).

In future posts I'll highlight some of my favorite devices, including my new all time favorite home automation controller.

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