home automation

Beware the Sucker Holes

Posted by Steve on Wed, 02/04/2009 - 12:43pm

No, that's not a pornographic double entendre. "Sucker hole" is a term I learned from an old flight instructor. It's a break in the clouds which beckons naive, non-instrument rated pilots to take a chance on finding clear skies through that hole only to have the clouds close in on them and leave them in zero visibility.

ISY99-iLast week I said I'd post my progress with the new Insteon home automation device, the ISY99-i. Lemme digress for a second. Say what you will about marketing droids, but when a company goes to the trouble of holding a brain jam to create a slick product name for its baby -- like "Insteon" for example -- it says that someone was paying at least a little attention to the customer. Needless to say, this wasn't done with the ISY99-i.

I've been through this so many times that I knew with 89% certainty what I was embarking on. Out of the box I saw that I was going to have problems. For one, the packing slip said that there was a DB9 serial cable. In fact, it was a cable with a DB9 on one end and an ethernet connector on the other. Useless to me, or for any other purpose I could think of. And there was no manual, just a link to a web site, where it talked about an installation disk, which also wasn't included. After a half hour of searching the site for a download I ran across a forum message saying that the ISY99-i doesn't use an installation disk.

You know, I can understand why a paper manual might be out of date, but a web site? This wasn't a good start. It only got worse from there.

For one, the device requires Java to be installed on your computer. My professional experience with Java includes countless crashed web browsers, broken web sites, locked up devices, bloated web servers and poorly written spyware. The ISY99-i didn't do much to temper my dislike for Java. But that's only after I managed to get into the software. I spent most of the afternoon trying to communicate with a dead device until a response to my "Helllp!!" message on the company's forum told me that I had to disable my anti-virus software. What?!! Does the company really expect its customers to also invest in compatible A/V software to use their product?

My house "blue screened", or The Confessions of a House Geek

Posted by Steve on Sat, 01/24/2009 - 8:27pm

I had my first Insteon home automation device failure this week. Unfortunately, it happened to the brains of the "automation" part -- the software/hardware combination that executes the timers that turn the lights on and off. Specifically, the culprit was the PowerLinc device that bridges my house to the USB port on my computer which runs the timers.

2414u Here's the little sucker. At 70 bucks, it's not like changing a lightbulb. Okay, I was pissed about it, especially as it's only a little over two years old. But, fact is, I was never happy with this automation set up. For one thing, it requires leaving a Windows box on 24/7 for the timers to work. And the HouseLinc software I was using must have some memory leaks in it because once I removed it from my computer it seemed to gain an extra half a processor.

What I really want is an Insteon driver for Linux/FreeBSD that would let me build my own timers in Perl, which I could run under Unix cron. That's what I did with my former X10 automation layout, which was decidedly more hobbyist-friendly than Insteon but decidedly more flaky as well, which is why I got rid of it. I spent a couple of hours Googling for open source alternatives to no avail before winding up back at the SmartHome web site.

It was there I noticed a couple of new Insteon products. One was a relatively inexpensive home automation controller that runs from a smart phone. It got 4 out of 6 on my Coolness Meter but it was functionally less than I had with HouseLinc. True Geeks don't downgrade.

Insteon, A Year Later.

Posted by Steve on Mon, 09/01/2008 - 1:01am

Last year, I was struggling with upgrading my home automation hardware from fickle X10 to the latest/greatest, Insteon. While cleaning up the blog today I ran across a comment I'd made promising to write about my experience with Insteon after a year of living with it. That was like 18 months ago so I'm a bit late.

The summary? It's been flawless. About the best thing I can say about a technology is that it works so well you forget that it's technology. You turn on a conventional light switch; you expect it to work. It's been pretty much the same with Insteon.

The problems I had with Insteon initially reduced to two things: a very noisy powerline LAN for my Slingbox and I didn't have enough Insteon devices in my network to provide a reliable communications cloud. After retiring the problematic Slingbox (the Worst Customer Support Ever) and adding more Insteon switches, my problems disappeared.

Robot, robot

Posted by Steve on Thu, 07/05/2007 - 1:31pm

There was a song by a Chicago band called The Flock that I used to love during my trippy teen days:
Robot, robot arms and legs
Teeth, bones, hair, its all there
Robot, robot arms and legs
Battery's dead, head's dead.
(Mechanical man, mechanical man!)
Whenever I muck with my home automation hardware this song plays over and over again in my head. It's pretty maddening.

Sitting on my dining room table since last Thanksgiving was a small pile of boxes containing Insteon controllers, in-wall dimmers, relays and the like that have been waiting patiently for me to complete the master bedroom renovation. I was intending to do client work over the Fourth but after sixteen consecutive days of building database stored procedures I needed a break! So I assembled my tools and got busy making that pile smaller.

Anyone who has read the X10 primer I posted here knows that I'm a nut for home automation gear. And anyone who has read my blog knows that I've been very faithful with renovating and reproducing the original assets in this old house. But you can keep your Chicago Electric rotary and push button switches and your old pull chain fixtures. I want my electrical system state-of-the-art!

Insteon Rides Again

Posted by Steve on Sun, 12/10/2006 - 12:10pm

I thought I'd post an update on my trials and tribulations with the Insteon home automation network here. A couple of months ago I posted an X10 and Insteon home automation primer. At that point I was just getting into upgrading my problematic X10 stuff here with the newer, wireless Insteon hardware from SmartHome and didn't know how well this stuff would work or what problems I'd find. However I was fed up with X10's flakiness and Insteon looked like an improvement, at least on paper.

I ran into problems with Insteon from the git-go, mostly devices that either didn't work or worked only part-time. I was ready to go back to the toggle switch world. But I decided to forge ahead with the upgrade anyway. I'm glad I did because things magically started working.

When Robots Attack

Posted by Steve on Sat, 10/21/2006 - 11:00am

Being the gadget freak I am, I'm of course a big fan of home automation. 90% of my house is under X10 control and the command of a FreeBSD server running some perl scripts I hacked together. I've already written some articles about X10 and my trials and tribs with it so I won't repeat them here.

I love having my house turn its own lights on/off. I like setting up whole-house lighting schemes, available at the touch of a button. But truthfully, X10 is a lot like owning a 1970s-vintage Triumph motorcycle. You run it for a while, then you spend a whole lot of time fixing it. X10 devices will work fine for years only to suddenly stop responding to commands. After hours of sleuthing you find that it's because the battery charger for your new camera is generating a noise storm on your household wiring.

Building a whole-house X10 controller

Posted by Steve on Fri, 08/25/2006 - 11:10am

X10 transmitters and tabletop controllers are nice but to really explore the potential of X10 you need a central controller. If you've scanned the X10 ecommerce sites you've probably seen a few, along with their frightening price tags. Most of them are basically just PCs running a closed-source application. You've already got a PC so why invest in another one?

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.

Now the Bad and the Ugly

Posted by Steve on Thu, 08/24/2006 - 3:46pm

So if X10 is the coolest thing since the pop top beercan, why isn't it more popular? If X10 devices have been on retail shelves since 1978, why doesn't your house have them?

For one thing, X10 has always lived in the hobbyist's domain. The devices were first marketed through Radio Shack stores and are pretty much only available through mail order. Even today I talk to professional electricians who've never heard of X10.

Secondly, when a client asks an architect for a home automation system for his new seven-figure McMansion, he's going to get a five-figure home automation system, complete with dedicated control lines, a basement master panel/punchboard and probably lots of disappointment when he needs to replace a proprietary switch twenty years from now.


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