Controlling the Home with Powerline

Powerline products come in many flavors, but the technology's underlying versatility and ease of use make it a great way to add remote controlled convenience to any home.

INSTEON RemoteLinc Starter Kit

Powerline home automation products like this RemoteLinc kit from INSTEON give new meaning to "plug and play".

Unless you’re into mood lighting, you may not have given much thought to whether powerline home automation products (X-10, INSTEON, etc) could improve your life. Well they can, and in some rather surprising ways.

Powerline home automation products consist of two types of devices. The first are keypads or other “controllers” which send specifically-targeted commands (like on or off) to receivers, over your 110V power lines. Receivers are typically replacements for wall switches and outlets, or small standalone modules that have an A/C socket on them and plug into a power outlet. For the latter, you plug an appliance or lamp into the module, plug the module in the wall, and then control whether it is on or off from your controllers. With these components, some cleverness, and a little PC software, you can create some very useful enhancements to your home.

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Don’t you hate it when you’re in the shower and the clothes washer starts filling? I do. But fortunately, I have an X-10 “mini-controller” keypad mounted on the wall next to my shower, and my clothes washer plugged into an INSTEON appliance module. I snake my hand around the shower curtain to press a single button, and, Voila!, the clothes washer not only turns off, but is automatically scheduled to turn back on in 20 minutes.

Like many older homes, the controls for my outdoor spotlights are spread around my home. The builder put the switches close to the fixtures, which means lighting up the outside requires a walk through the house. However, I’ve replaced all those switches with INSTEON Switchlinc switches, so I can now also control my spotlights from an INSTEON KeypadLinc controller located by my front door. A controller button not only turns all the spotlights on, but uses my PC software to make sure they turn off minutes later. My PC also sends an off command to all these lights around midnight, just in case any were turned on and forgotten. Finally, whenever the X-10-enabled motion sensor on the front of my house detects a visitor, it turns on the front spotlights for a few minutes.

Can’t hear your doorbell throughout your house? Connect the doorbell wires to a “Powerflash” module (which sends powerline commands based on sensed contact closure), and plug in X-10 Chime modules wherever you need them. Ringing the doorbell will generate a power-line signal that rings all the chimes.

I won’t publish my phone number here, but the adjacent positioning of the last 4 digits makes me a popular target for late night prank phone-calls. I solved this one using an X-10 “Universal” module. This unit closes a pair of contacts based on received powerline signals. For this project, I turned off the ringers on all the phones on our bedroom level except one. Using a cut-up phone cord, I wired the signal for that phone through the module. Then, I used the PC software to turn off the module at bedtime every night. Until it turns back on in the morning, no one hears the phone ring, and the answering machine takes the call.

Here’s a fun one. Connect a “Universal” module in parallel with the switch wires on your garage door opener. Now you can open or close your garage door from any keypad. But it gets better: Upgrade to PC software that is web-aware, or purchase a “Telephone Responder” controller which lets you control your system by phone. Either way, you can now open your garage door (or control any of your modules) from anywhere in the world. Seems much safer than leaving a key under the door.

Lead-acid batteries need to be charged for several hours, and shouldn’t be overcharged. If you have battery-powered bicycle headlights, one of those kids electric cars, or even a good RC car, you have to always remember to unplug the charger when the batteries are charged. I don’t. My chargers are hooked up to appliance modules, with a keypad nearby. I hook up a battery for charging, and then a single key-press starts a charging cycle, which is automatically terminated by my PC hours later.

How about a poor man’s sprinkler system? Just connect a sprinkler solenoid ($20 at your local home store) to a transformer, put a plug on the transformer’s primary wires, and plug it into an appliance module. Hook the solenoid to your garden hose, and program your watering schedule on your PC.

So far, I’ve touched upon just a few of the many uses of powerline home automation technology. With some low-cost modules (from retailers like Smarthome), maybe a little DIY, some good software (I use Powerhome, but there’s also InHomeFre, Houselinc Desktop, HomeSeer, etc.), and a little imagination, there really is very little you can’t do.


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