For decades, early adopters have fiddled with their X10 systems and by and large, the best they could do was get things to “mostly” work. A tinker-free system that worked out of the box has been the unobtainable holy grail of this industry ... until now.
A new contender for the powerline throne is INSTEON technology from Smartlabs, the R & D division of Smarthome. The Smartlabs people have taken the venerable X10 paradigm and improved on what worked. They also maintained backward compatibility so X10 users can gradually migrate to INSTEON as their time and budgets allow.
INSTEON takes a clever approach toward reliability by putting signal repeaters into all modules. Every module helps the signal get through, so as you add more INSTEON elements to your home, your system becomes increasingly reliable. All INSTEON modules are two-way, and every command is re-sent throughout the home until the transmitter receives an acknowledge.
INSTEON gives every device a unique address, so your system will never interact with your neighbor’s. Controllers and responders can be linked directly by briefly pressing a button on both of them, or you can easily configure everything through an ergonomic PC application.
A variety of controllers and responders are available for INSTEON products. In the responder category, there are the requisite lamp and appliance modules, as well as a variety of controllable light switches. There are also in-line modules, a sprinkler controller, and a screw-in lamp control. The number of modules and accessories for lighting control is quite extensive, but a few building blocks familiar to X10 users (like a Powerflash or Universal module) are missing for now. This isn’t a real problem because of INSTEON’s X10 compatibility, which makes it trivial to combine both in the same system under INSTEON control.
Power comes into most homes on two separate circuits. Thus, for any powerline system to work, you need to bridge your phases so powerline signals can cross from one circuit to another. INSTEON provides a pair of plug-in “SignalLinc” devices that make a wireless connection. All you need do is plug each one into an outlet somewhere in your house. The “smarts” in the SignalLinc guarantee that you find outlets on different phases. In large houses, you can also add additional SignalLinc units to improve signal strength. This is rarely needed, but it’s good to have a plan B to ensure flawless communication.
INSTEON supports a central PC-driven “Powerlinc” controller module, which can be used with different software packages. A basic timers-only application is free, and SmartHome also sells a reasonably powerful control application for the PC called Houselinc Desktop. Third-party solutions (mControl, PowerHome, InHomeFre, HomeSeer) are also supported. The INSTEON standard is open and published, and many third-party add-ons are available, including devices that allow you to control your system from the Internet.
Startup costs for a basic INSTEON system are under $200. For expansion, INSTEON modules are competitively priced, and can be found at discounted rates during Smarthome’s frequent sales.
INSTEON isn’t perfect. The Houselinc Desktop software is still maturing, and though you can download timers for a PC-attached controller, performance is actually better when you run your control program on your PC. However, Smarthome provides free phone support and on-line peer help is quite good.
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Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.