Getting started with X10

Posted by Steve on Thu, 08/24/2006 - 10:32am

By now you should have a basic working knowledge of how X10 works. To summarize: a receiver (slave) is an X10 device which controls a light or appliance. A transmitter (master) is an X10 device which remotely controls an X10 receiver (slave). A transmitter tells the slave to turn on, turn off or in some cases to dim/brighten a light (but not a household appliance or fluorescent light, for obvious reasons!)

The X10 world is a lot larger than just wall switches and ceiling lights though and, fortunately, most of them are a lot easier to install than a wall switch. Let's get into some of those devices. I'll be using a lot of links to Smarthome's web site because they're my primary source for X10 equipment. They have a large inventory, are quick with shipping and their prices are competitive. But a Google search will show that there are a lot of retailers in the game.

X10 Starter Packages

Most X10 retailers offer starter packages for new customers. Unless you just want to test the water in the kiddie pool, I'd pass 'em by and go for the mainstream stuff. In particular, I'd avoid the cheap wireless RF X10 gear entirely (except for the high-end Insteon, Bluetooth, Zigby and Z-Wave equipment which we'll get into later). It lacks the range to be useful except in a small apartment.

But if you're not ready to take the X10 plunge yet, the best way to get your feet wet is to purchase a tabletop controller kit which will include a few X10 lamp modules.

I'd make sure that all your devices are also Insteon-compatible. Insteon is the new bridging technology between X10 and the newer near-field wireless home automation technologies which will likely render X10 obsolete within a few years.

This kit will enable a couple of table lamps for X10/Insteon. You can purchase more lamp controllers to expand the system however the controller is a bit limited for a whole-house X10 installation. Eventually you'd want to purchase a few of them to place strategically around the home.

A tabletop controller is just an X10 transmitter, albeit one which often allows you to create macros to control several X10 receivers at once. For instance, you could program a macro called "Evening Lights" which would let you switch all your X10-enabled lights to a preset. You could have another preset for watching TV or for entertaining friends.

Appliance Control

Another popular X10 device is the appliance module. These slaves (receivers) come as either plug-in or wire-in devices. The main difference between it and a lamp module is that it ignores DIM commands (as it should) and has beefier circuitry to handle the higher amperage of appliances like window air conditioners. If you'll be using it on a "noisy" appliance like a television, try to get one with a built-in noise filter. We'll get into the problems caused by powerline noise later. Also, as of the date of this posting, there are no 220-240v Insteon-compatible appliance modules yet.

Utility Modules

Over the many years that X10 has been on the market X10 hobbyists have provided an active skunkworks for lots of novel hardware applications. Insteon hasn't caught up with it all yet but it's moving there. Among the X10-compatible devices available are:
  • Motion sensors which generate an X10 signal to trigger X10 slaves, like lights and even audio sources.
  • Daylight sensors
  • Temperature sensors
  • Ground moisture sensors
  • Solenoids which control automatic water faucets, window blinds, door openers, etc.
  • Home theatre control systems
  • Video cameras
  • Bridges to security and HVAC systems
  • Telephone interfaces
There are even X10 kits available that will let you build your own X10 devices. For instance, there are sensors that will trigger an X10 signal when an LED is illuminated (like a "change filter" warning light on a furnace) and sensors that sense voltage being sent to a non-X10 device, like a sump pump motor or a security alarm.

There are some pretty bizarre X10 applications out there too, like's Halloween Challenge.

Or check out Bruce Winter's X10 triggers for his own X10 home installation. Bruce is the developer of the open source MisterHouse home automation software which contains some pretty amazing functionality that you wouldn't immediately associate with X10, including text-to-speech and TV program guides. I used to use it here but the dogs would get anxious when they heard my computer say in a british accent, "Hello, it's 6:16pm. The evening lights are on."

As I said earlier, X10 is only limited by your imagination.