Insteon - The Next Generation

Posted by Steve on Thu, 08/24/2006 - 8:34pm


There have been times when I've been so fed up with an annoying X10 glitch that I've wanted to chuck it all and move back to the toggle switch world. But I'm so used to the convenience of X10 that this Luddite rebelliousness lasts about three seconds.

In the past few years new technologies challenging X10's low cost and DIY-ability have become available. With the exception of dark horses like UPB, HomePlug, CeBus and a couple of others, and of course the hyper-expensive dedicated control line stuff, most newer home automation devices have abandoned problematic powerline protocols and adopted short-range wireless. The latter group includes Insteon, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. Wireless has become so reliable, pervasive and the hardware has gotten small enough that wireless is a natural for home automation.

However, most of the above are pretty slim in terms product lines and only one manufacturer offers an upgrade path for existing X10 owners: Insteon.

Insteon supports dual-mode protocol. It communicates in wireless mode at 131.65 KHz with other Insteon devices but can also be configured to generate X10 commands over the powerline. This was a brilliant marketing idea because it means that millions of X10 users can upgrade to the superior communications protocol of wireless while still maintaining backwards compatibility with their existing X10 infratructure. As your existing X10 devices flake out, and they eventually will, they can be replaced with Insteon.

Why is Insteon superior to X10?
  • Insteon is dual mode. It sends signals both through the air (RF) and over the home's electrical wires via X10 protocol.
  • Like an Ethernet card's MAC address, every Insteon device has its own unique ID. Device conflicts are virtually impossible.
  • Every Insteon device is a repeater. While it's highly recommended to use an Insteon repeater/bridge in your installation, if you have enough Insteon devices in your network you may not need the repeaters.
  • Every Insteon message is confirmed. The transmitter automatically retries a command until the receiver confirms that it got the message. Conversely, X10 is an open loop -- the transmitter doesn't know if the receiver got the message, which sometimes leads to multiple button presses.
  • Insteon messages take less than 5 / 100ths of a second to get through so things turn "on" instantly (Insteon = instant-on).
  • No central controller or networking setup is required - a simple plug-n-tap™ is all that is required to link one Insteon product to another.
  • Unlike X10, all Insteon devices can be remotely programmed from a PC -- no removing switch plates to manually change addresses.
For a detailed description of what Insteon is and how it works technically, see http://www.insteon.net/pdf/insteonthedetails.pdf.

What bears special attention is "Every Insteon is a repeater". Insteon is peer-to-peer. That's important because the more Insteon devices you add to your network, the more reliable communications becomes. Unfortunately it doesn't do a thing for your X10-only devices. They will still be stuck listening to the powerline. This is why I said earlier that you should try to buy Insteon-compatible X10 devices.

Within the next few years, X10 will probably be deprecated and replaced by a new mainstream household automation protocol. From my inexpert perspective, Insteon is the top contender, if only because it's the only bridging technology for millions of existing X10 users. Wi-fi has a shot but, so far, no manufacturer has gotten behind it.