Whole-house automation
January 19, 2015 11:02 AM   Subscribe

I've just bought a lovely new house, and I'll need to rewire the 2nd and 3rd floors and replace the mains, at the very least. Might as well move up to a 200A breaker box, while I'm at it. And I'd like to automate as much as possible, but for multiple reasons I dislike/distrust wireless systems. X10 questions after the fold...

There are multiple paths to whole-house automation, but "X10" communication over existing power lines seems like a pretty easy path. The equipment is cross-compatible (largely), well-established, and so the price points are good. However, surge suppressors and uninterruptible power supplies - both vital components for my computers - tend to suppress X10 signals as well. Looks like there are workarounds - components that shield the X10 signals from the equipment meant to shield the spikes, and so forth.

But I feel like I may be missing something, and since I'm talking about an investment of $100s and many hours of work - is there something I should be looking at instead/additionally?

I'd like to control:
Some lights on a clocked schedule.
Some lights in response to motion detectors.
Attic fans based on temperature.
Potentially, send a notification to my phone when motion detectors go off when I'm gone - assuming I end up controlling all this from a computer, which is likely.
posted by IAmBroom to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If by what else should you be looking at controlling automatically:

I would definitely add the thermostat (besides a timer, who among us hasn't gone on vacation and realized we stupidly left the heat or AC running for two useless but expensive weeks?).

I would add a sprinkler system, but I'm crazy paranoid about fire these days.

Hell, while we're adding features, put in an outdoor sprinkler system for the yard and a driveway snow melter if you live in a place where it snows. Automate both. The sprinkler on time+weather and the driveway heater on weather.

If you have giant windows, automate the blinds. This will save money on heat and AC.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:14 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Great points!
posted by IAmBroom at 11:20 AM on January 19, 2015

Oh and since it's a house, you'll want to be texted if the temperature in the house falls below some thresshold. Say 10 degrees. If you've turned of the heat to go on vacation or the power goes out in your home, the cold temps are a precursor to frozen pipes, which are a precursor to disater.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're not 100% set on using X10 products, I suggest checking out Insteon. They use wireless and power line signals, and are backwards compatible with some X10 products, but unlike X10 they're still being developed and improved. (Also, the company that makes them didn't wage one of the worst marketing campaigns of the late '90s)
posted by bradf at 11:23 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We just re-wired our house from top to bottom, would have been prime candidates for a good open home automation control system, and didn't find one.

We've settled on individual control systems until the market shakes out to the point where it doesn't look like I'd spend the rest of my weekends replacing failed or obsolete components after a year or two. And all of my friends who've gone X10 or Insteon have eventually abandoned their systems.

To that end: We use a mechanical timer on the bathroom heater. It'd be awesome to have something we could switch remotely (make sure the bathroom is warm when we get in there) and program to switch off at the end of occupancy (ie: dry the bathroom for 15 minutes when we're done), but most of the home automation switches topped out at a few hundred watts and didn't have good mechanisms for mixing local control and automatic control. I could have built something with relays, but...

We got a fairly simple bi-metal thermostat controller for our attic fan from a hydroponics place. Works really nicely. We spent a bunch more on some fancy remote control thermostatic control for a ceiling fan (mostly because we didn't want to try to be adjusting a knob up where the temperature needs to be measured), and it's a royal pain in the butt, has recently started randomly switching on full blast.

We use digital timers for our alarm light to wake up to. They have a half-life of about 2 years, which is an improvement on the 18 months or so for mechanical timers (which actually start to make enough noise that I notice them much sooner than that). I still try to replace the coin cell batteries in them before I give up and chuck them, but that's just been an extra cost.

So, basically: My experience says to look to stuff in commercial use, use the simplest mechanical systems you can find, or build it yourself and damn the UL certification. Because the market is a long way from offering up products which are reliable enough to actually save effort.
posted by straw at 11:32 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
bradf: If you're not 100% set on using X10 products, I suggest checking out Insteon. They use wireless and power line signals, and are backwards compatible with some X10 products, but unlike X10 they're still being developed and improved. (Also, the company that makes them didn't wage one of the worst marketing campaigns of the late '90s)
X10 the corporation is dead. X10 the powerline-based communications protocol is alive, and went through a rev in 2007 in fact. So, "X10" products are being developed and improved.

Not 1/10th as much as the latest wireless nonsense - that contains 4 AA batteries that need to be replaced with a screwdriver, allen wrench, invisible catch, or sliding cover on a weekly/monthly/yearly/whenever it gets too warm or too cold basis. Good god, but there are fucking AISLES of that shit in the DIY stores right now.

If only there were some way to provide continual power to recharge all the batteries in those devices... It could be called "AC power", for "all-charging".
posted by IAmBroom at 11:47 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like Insteon myself, but it's only been a year of living with it. No reliability problems so far and the price and flexibility are right. The programming is a bit awkward if you use the ISY controllers but it can do everything you listed.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 11:53 AM on January 19, 2015

I've been using X10 for crontrolling (apt typo there) house lights according to sunset/sunrise times. Powerline X10 is shit: it's slow, and you can guarantee your one controller is on the other phase of your electrical supply from the thing you control. I mostly use RF, but that's partly because I scored a large number of surplus RF-controlled outlets. It's all being driven from a Raspberry Pi.

X10 is also (effectively) write only: you can't read the status of a device. The quality of the suppliers is wildly variable, too; the X10 stuff not labelled "Pro" is basically disposable. X10 has no security, either.

But for turning lights on and off, it works. From your smartphone? Maybe not.
posted by scruss at 1:33 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, y'all have convinced me to abandon X10 ideas, and probably home automation.

Imbedding (replaceable) mechanical timers next to certain light switches is an idea that hadn't occurred to me until straw's pots. One receptacle box, some simple wiring, boom! Done. Or a double-gang box. Whatever.

And motion detectors don't ever need automation, as long as they aren't security devices.

Which leaves only the security features and fans. I already have a security system (still in the box) that talks directly to the house network; fans can be controlled via temperature sensors easily enough.

I guess I don't need whole-house automation.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:26 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Aww, man, we didn't mean to put you off. If you just want to control a few lights, every North American surplus store I've been to has a whole bunch of cheap but reliable Leviton X10 RF sockets for about $3-4 each. The X10 wireless doohickey (either the USB read/write one, or the serial write-only one) is cheap, too. Add a Raspberry Pi as a controller, and you can do spiffy light timing things (like following sunrise/sunset, as I do) for cheap-o.

But for any sake, get a UPS or real-time clock for the computer running the show, unless you want to be woken at 02:30 the day after a power outage by all your lights coming on.
posted by scruss at 7:15 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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