X10 and similar home automation products

What self respecting geek wouldn’t like home automation products? X10, yea that company with the ridiculous pop-up ads all over the web about the “spy” cameras they sell, actually makes some neat stuff that is inexpensive (although some of it’s cheap too). These products allow you to, among other things, remotely control lights and appliances using X10 enabled modules. X10 is actually the name of a company but also the name of a communication protocol used by these devices to well…communicate. Today, there are a number of products that either compete or compliment the X10 products that have existed for years. I’ll get to those later.

I got my first taste of X10 products when I lived at home. We lived in a smaller house and there weren’t quite enough bedrooms for everyone. I decided it was time for me to create my own room and that’s what I did. I converted our old toy room into my bedroom. The problem, there was no way for me to control the lights in the downstairs area once I was down there. After a bit of research, I found a couple of products at a local Radio Shack that would allow me to remotely control the basement lights from my new room. The products allowed me not only to remote turn off and on the lights, but also dim them, something we couldn’t do before.

After that I was hooked. I was convinced that some day I’d create a more elaborate X10 setup. That someday came when my wife and I finally moved into a house. Oddly enough, the previous owner had finished the basement and had the same vision I had, albeit less well. He decided that since he was going to use wireless switches, there was no need to actually wire up real switches before he finished the walls. This posed a real problem because I would have to continue with the wireless theme in order to use X10 products to control the lighting. On the bright side, it was much easier to convince the wife these X10 products were needed at all.

Lucky for me X10 now offered wireless switches and associated hardware that would still allow me to create my X10 setup. The unfortunate thing is, like I said, X10 stuff is sometimes cheap. The wireless products don’t live up the any of the range claims made on the site and in all honesty, are pretty bad. Still, our house’s design is such that I was able to pull it off without much hassle and most of the time it’s reliable.

To get started with my X10 setup I ordered ActiveHome kit from x10.com. This kit included a number of items at a reduced cost plus some computer software to basically inventory the items you have and assign them to various rooms in your house but also create timers and macros. In hindsight, I wish I would have skipped this product as the computer interface does not work with Linux at all. If you’re looking to get into this and want to be able to control things using Linux steer clear of this kit.

Since installing the X10 products that came as part of the kit, I’ve expanded on some of the modules I have and in some places spent a bit more. As I said earlier, there are other companies looking for a piece of the market, what ever market actually exists. One of the best I’ve come across, on a performance for the price basis, is Insteon. Insteon is compatible with X10 but uses a more robust protocol. They also build much higher quality products.

One of the best products I’ve ordered from them is their SwitchLinc V2 Dimmer. This dimmer is priced about the same as any other high quality dimmer switch, but with the added ability to be remote controlled. My two favorite features of this switch is the ability to change ramp up speed and initial dim level. I installed a pair of these switches in our house, one in our bedroom and another in the baby room. It’s really nice to be able to simply hit the switch once and have the lights brought up to a certain level without blinding yourself. These switches can even talk to each other so that one switch can control many.

So far I’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with X10 products and it’s friends. Hopefully in the near future I can create some more entries about other things you can do with X10 including programming macros, timers, scenes, automation, monitoring and others.

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