X10, Insteon, and UPB

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Home Automation, Rants & Raves, Technical

Just over 10 years ago, I bought my current townhome brand new, and wanted to have all kinds of automation in the house for lights and other stuff. I had a few X10 devices, which worked fine in my apartment at the time, so I stocked up and bought a few more before I moved into the new place. After moving in, I tried setting up X10 stuff, and it worked for awhile. After a bit, I started noticing lights randomly turning on and off. Then plug in switches started to fail, my fireplace started turning on randomly. Then suddenly, pretty much everything stopped. It seemed as if x10 items that are on the same circuit, work great, but if they are on different breakers, even if on the same phase, they didn’t work. For years I have used a simple X10 motion detector with the receiver used as an appliance module, to turn on my garage lights when I walk out to the garage. It works well because there’s no powerline usage. I was always disappointed, and I have a box with a few random X10 items that are brand spankin’ new. ¬†Disappointing. So, I gave up on that adventure.

Several years ago, my boss came to me with a project to pick a home automation system for the new house he was having built. I looked at many systems from Crestron, to Control 4, to HAI, and other smaller names. Eventually, the pick came down to the HAI OmniPro II system, for several reasons. It can do most of what the super expensive systems can do, but at a much lower price point, and has the reliability of UPB. So, we chose the HAI system, and installed it in his new place. We integrated whole house audio, lighting on nearly every switch, security, video, motion detection, and blinds control. He has a button “Go to work” that will turn off all the lights and audio, open the blinds all the way so his plants get lots of light, and arm the security system. He had his basement done, and we wired in 2 outlets for a mirror ball, and a laser show. A button called “Dance” dims the lights very low, and turns on the mirror ball, laser show, and audio to a certain level. Unfortunately, we bought the system right before HAI came out with the OmniTouch 5.7e touchscreens which hook up straight to your ethernet network. He has a total of 6 5.7 touchscreens around the house, several scene switches, and audio in many rooms. I also have it st up so that when he sets the system to away, it automates the process of pushing his normally daily buttons… wake up, go to work, evening, go to bed, etc. Makes the house look very lived in.

Now it’s my turn…

Just recently, my girlfriend and I put a contract on a brand new house, that is being built as I write this. I don’t have the money my boss has. We spent nearly $15k implementing the system, including all the audio, and someone else doing the install in his house! So, I decided to look at other avenues for automation in our new home. After some research, I decided I would purchase an Elk security system, and couple it with an automation box line the Mi Casa Verde Vera/VeraLite, or the isy-99i. I ended up purchasing the VeraLite, and also a few insteon devices and PLM to communicate with the Vera. After over $500, and several days of tinkering, I came to realize that Insteon really sucks as much as X10. It was completely unreliable, half the time signals didn’t make it through. Even with a phase coupler installed, no signal would go across a phase. I had to have them on the same phase, and pretty close together. I even went around the house and unplugged both Plasma TV’s, and my UPS for my computer. No difference. While Insteon has dual-band capabilities, not all of their devices do. Specifically, find me a non-dimming switch for CFL or LED lights, that is dual-band. Sorry, doesn’t exist unless you buy a scene switch with a 15A relay in it. I was so frustrated, and jealous that my boss’ system works so flawlessly, I decided to abandon my project with Insteon, and set off for HAI land. I know the system well, and they are constantly doing updates that add new features. I returned all the Insteon junk, and sold the VeraLite on ebay.

After some more serious research, mostly to find the right vendor to buy from at the right price, I decided to purchase from http://www.discounthomeautomation.com (DHA). I shopped around on their site before I finally settled on what I would purchase for the system. Keep in mind, it’s currently March 2012, and the house will not be done until July 2012. I’m trying to not go overboard, but slowly collect until move-in day comes.

Here’s what I purchased from DHA:

3 HAI UPB Non-Dimming Wall Switch, 600W $175.56
1 HAI UPB Dimmer Wall Switch, 600W $58.52
1 HAI 8 Relay Module $55.86
1 HAI HLC Powerline Phase Coupler $49.88
1 HAI Extended Range Indoor/Outdoor Temp Sensor $42.56
1 HAI Omni IIe Controller with Enclosure $715.54
1 ELK AC Transformer with Ground, 24VAC 40VA $13.95
1 Interstate Batteries 12V 12AH SLA .187 FASTON $26.27
1 HAI UPB PIM to PC Cable $6.65
1 HAI UPB PIM & Cable $61.18
1 HAI Omni Console $111.72
5 Seco-Larm Enforcer Magnetic Contact $7.30
1 USP ST-1 Siren Horn Strobe $37.17

I also ordered a couple of garage door contacts from another place, and had the garage wired with 2 cat5 runs. One to the front, between the two garage doors, and one that goes where the garage door buttons are. That way I can sense if the doors are open, and shut them if they are open too long. I also plan on installing a simple on/off switch on a zone for turning on and off the auto garage function. The USP ST-1 siren/strobe will be on the wall with the buttons, to alert anyone in the garage that the door is about to close, if it’s been open too long. This uses 3 relays on the 8 relay board. A 4th relay will be used to control the fireplace, and the rest I have no use for yet. It was a $10 difference between the 4 relay board, and the 8 relay board. I figure it’s worth it if I need even one more relay.

Just the other day, I received the vast majority of my items from DHA, in an extremely timely fashion, with fabulous communication from them. Two of the items I ordered (one HAI switch, and the ST-1 siren) were backordered but would ship in 3-5 days. It shipped 3 days later, and should arrive today. Every item was brand new, in unopened HAI packages. Even the HAI system itself was factory sealed, and had the 3.10 firmware on it which has only been out for a few months. Bravo DHA! I highly recommend ordering from this place, and I know I’ll order all my stuff from them in the future. I considered ordering for surveillent.net because their prices are just slightly lower, but there are SO MANY negative reviews about them, that I didn’t want to take a chance. Even on ebay.

After hooking up the HAI system in a temporary place inside the house so I can play with it, program it, and more closely understand how I can use it, I decided to install one non-dimming switch in the kitchen to start testing. It was immediate failure, but I hadn’t yet installed the phase coupler. I decided to plug the PIM into an extension cord and plug it in at various places around the house. Failure again. I was becoming sure that the electrical system in my home was a serious problem. So, I did a bit of research, and looked into purchasing noise filters for certain devices, but it’s stupid to start buying filters without knowing what’s making the noise. There are many reports of people having a cell phone charger that destroyed their X10/Insteon communications, so I needed to test first. I found information on using UpStart software with the PIM plugged into the serial port of the computer. This is why I purchased the serial cable for the PIM. I started, then, by killing the power, and installing the phase coupler, and making sure it worked. Once that was done, I attempted to configure the kitchen light switch, from a plug in the kitchen which I had used the night before without success. Immediately it found the switch, and was able to configure it, communicate with it, and do whatever. I was excited! I started running noise tests, then ran around the house turning on computers, plasma TV’s, plugging in AC adapters, whatever. ZERO noise, VERY high signal. So, I moved the PIM back to the original outlet where the HAI system is. Perfect communication again, and even with all the electronics on. ZERO noise. I reset the PIM, plugged it back into the HAI system, and attempted to configure the kitchen light switch. First time it worked, and configured the switch! It seems that my entire problem was related to the phase coupler, and that UPB is definitely far more robust than Insteon and X10. I plan on hooking up a couple more switches in the house for the outside lights, but I don’t want to go overboard, as I have to remove all this stuff in a few months.

The new house will be pre-wired for a security system, which means all the windows and doors will have sensors, and there will be 3 locations for security pads, and a couple additional runs to other places. For now I just have one console, but I plan on buying 2 more, plus a few more switches, before we ever move in. The problem is, I don’t really know enough about what lights in the house I need switches for!

Additional things I plan on doing with the system:
-Doorbell monitoring and silencing (another relay output)
-Hot tub cabinet temperature monitoring for freeze protection
-X10 module for making use of some of the X10 stuff I have left, like motion sensors
-Garage door control through serial based RFID system
-HVAC control with HAI thermostat
-Carbon Monoxide detection

I’ll be collecting a bit more equipment in the coming months, and will be prepared to install this system in the house shortly after we move in.

  1. Atlanta Digital Homes says:

    Hey Ricky, just ran across your blog looking up some HAI stuff. I’m an HAI 5-Star dealer out of Atlanta. We use HAI on just about every project we do. I personally have an Omni IIe installed in my home and I play around with all the new updates and features as much as I can. The other product we use a lot of is Elan g! They have a great interface system to lay on top of the HAI system. While HAI’s touchpanels are nice, Elan has a much better interface and more control of things like Entertainment and Pool/Spa devices. You may want to take a look at their offerings for your new home – elanhomesystems.com
    The HC4 and HC6 systems are very reasonable in price. Feel free to drop me a line if you need help designing a system.
    BTW, UPB is the best PLC lighting system around. I’ve been using it pretty much since PCS put it out years ago and I have little to no issues with it, ever.

  2. Jake Rutski says:

    Hey Ricky-

    I’m really interested in the failure of your test Insteon implementation…we’ve just moved into a new house. It’s new construction, and the basement is un-finished, so I finally get to ‘play’ a bit. I’ve already hooked up the Elk M1G, but the next question is what tech to use for HA.

    I’ve been watching X10 for some time….probably since the early ’90s. Either way…I really thought that Insteon was going to be the way to go for this house – lots of dual-band (or RF only) modules coming out, plus the system has compatible modules for nearly everything I’d like to control – door modules (morning industries, plus ELK, plus door strike, etc), t-stat, and lighting.

    Either way, the Insteon system just seems simpler to use\setup\integrate…but then again, maybe that’s because that’s becuase I’ve been reading up on it for so long, and not others….just like to get some of your feedback. Thanks-


    • Ricky says:

      Jake, I’m going to say that it’s this simple: Something hardwired is more reliable than something that is wireless. I don’t care what frequency it’s on. The signal for Insteon is greatly affected by noise in the line as well as noise in teh air, and in my case, complete failure of communication over the powerline even on the same phase. HAI hardware gives you more tools to diagnose the connection problem, and to find line noise and correct for it. In my case, I had ZERO noise, and have no problems with HAI signals in my current home (still have a month to go until we move into the new place). An Insteon dimmer is $60. It’s easy to find a brand new HAI dimmer for the same price, even though the MSRP is $20 more. The setup on the Insteon stuff is nice and simple, but honestly, the setup of a device on HAI is not that much more complicated. I must have the PC Access software running, and have the unit I want to configure, selected. Then I go to the dimmer and tap the on side 5 times, then click a button in PC access, and it does everything. The only thing I think the Elk has an advantage over the HAI system, is emailing, and a few other programming options from what I’ve read. As well, the Elk and HAI are not communication compatible in many ways. I’ve seen most people abandon those types of implementation. I didn’t see many advantages in the Elk system and coupling it with something else to do automation. Especially since the HAI system was only double the price of the Elk. If you read about the reliability of HAI vs. Insteon, you’ll find that people with HAI state that it’s super mega extremely rare for a command to not happen exactly as you send it, but with Insteon, people often report that the success rate is 90% or so. IMO, ditch the Elk and buy an HAI system. It’s a larger investment overall, but is not some cheap home automation knockoff like what Smart labs has created with Insteon. This is the why I took the HAI route, and I’m happy I did.

      • Joseph says:

        Wow. It’s amazing that I was able to find some relevant information about elk-m1 lighting control. Most of the info I find on cocoon tech is pre 2010. The only issue it’s from someone that dumped the M1G. Lol. I came across this blog by searching google for “Vera lite and elk M1”. I was curious to find out if and how the Vera lite could talk to the M1. Through the LAN or Serial? Also I was looking to use the Z-wave technology since it was integrated into Leviton switches. You thoughts on this technology? And finally I wanted to state that the elk can just as easily talk via UPB, so I don’t see it as a reason to get away from the M1G. For the price the M1G is a steal. Awesome blog! Keep up the good work.

      • Ricky says:

        Unfortunately, I never got a chance to mess with the M1G. Looks like a great system, though aside from email capability, the HAI system is more capable overall. Besides, once you add the ethernet connectivity and the UPB modem, you are nearing the cost of an OMNI IIe system from HAI, though a bit more expensive. That’s why I ended up going with HAI. I also sold the Vera months ago, so no longer have access to teh Ver, but my understanding was that it was a serial connection between the two systems, and you can also do it via ethernet if the M1 is hooked to ethernet. Z-wave is nice and all, but again, it’s wireless. You are having to rely on something that’s not hard wired. While wireless technologies have come a long way, you are always susceptible to interference from other stuff. Though I also have no experience with z-wave either. That’s why I love UPB, even with its high cost. The HAI UPB switches are also extremely high quality compared to the insteon switches I bought and returned. I wonder if the z-wave stuff is quality or not. Thanks for the props! Love it when my words can help someone else in their tech decisions.

      • Joe says:

        I would love to get my hands on all three of these technologies and run them through the ringer. I hear that a lot of people are very happy with the isy that does insteon. Rumor has it that isy is coming out with a z-wave controller also. I am indeed worried about the quality of the insteon switches. They are the cheaper product so you can only imagine they are cheaper to make. Hinting towards inferior materials and production. My only hang up with UPB is the price of the switches. They are nearly 30% more expensive than the others. I can pick up some intermatic z-wave switches 6 for $110. I think I’ll have to let you know how the z-wave works out.

      • Ricky says:

        If you look at Insteon brand switches, UPB/HAI really isn’t that much more expensive, and the quality is worth every penny. For example… From smarthome, here is a dual-band Insteon dimmer: http://www.smarthome.com/2477D/SwitchLinc-INSTEON-Remote-Control-Dimmer-Dual-Band-White/p.aspx. Its regular price is $60. Then, here’s an HAI 600W switch, which can be configured with UpStart software to be either a dimmer or on/off for non-dimming light sources: http://www.amazon.com/35A00-1-600-Watt-Switch-With-dimmer/dp/B000AD3XYW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1347920550&sr=8-1&keywords=hai+35a00. It’s $55. That’s $5 less than the Insteon switch ($5 more if you go with today’s sale price of the Insteon switch), and doesn’t rely on wireless technologies, which makes for more reliable comm, as long as your home wiring is suited for it, which most are. There are also a lot of reports of the Insteon/Switchlinc switches failing over time, especially the cheaper ones. In my experience with HAI, there have been no failures. My Boss’ house has 30+ HAI switches, and they’ve been in there for nearly 4 years now. Many of them are used every single day, and not one has failed. Also, my experience with HAI customer service and repair has been beyond awesome. I ordered 2 keypads on ebay that I got a great deal on, but neither of them worked for some reason. I asked HAI about it, and they asked me to send them in for repair, which was supposed to be $45 each. I sent them both in, and HAI repaired them both for $0. They now work perfectly in my new place, and no problems with them so far. Their support has also been great, and even though they typically don’t deal with end-users, they have no problem working with people like me. The upfront investment in the HAI system itself is undoubtedly more expensive, but if the M1 handles UPB, I would never suggest going any other way.

        I have also heard the isy is freaking awesome. I just decided to go with the vera first, due to price. I’m glad I did since it eventually swayed me towards HAI. I wonder how great z-wave will be. My fear would be capability of communication over distances. In my new place, with my wifi access point in the basement, I can’t get a good signal on the 2nd floor in some rooms. The house is almost 4k square feet, including the basement. I would expect the same type of behavior from z-wave, but I can’t really say for sure since I have absolutely zero experience. But, since z-wave operates within the 900MHz frequency, it’s susceptible to interference from other devices in that range, which is less today than it was several years ago. Most stuff operates within 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz. Based on wikipedia, the avg distance between nodes is 100 feet, which is quite low IMO. I would love to hear how they work out for you in your setup.

      • Joe Schaeffer says:

        I have to admit, the more I read about UPB the more I like it. PowerWorks sells an Elk module that is basically the M1-XSP and PIM built into one (PIM-E). What’s funny is that you can not configure the UPB network via this module. :(. You would either need an addition (PIM-R) or (PIM-U). This leaves you with one viable option. Buying the tradition M1-XSP with a (PIM-R) that way you can connect the PIM to a serial port on a PC for the Upstart configuration when needed. A small pain. In assuming once configured I won’t need to be connected via Upstart. Sound about right?

      • Ricky says:

        Yeah, configuration with upstart is relatively straightforward. You put the switch in setup mode, it reads its config, then you make changes and write that config, then you’re done. However, I have some good news for you. I was upgrading PC Access for the HAI system tonight, and discovered a new firmware version. Through its release notes, I learned that HAI released a new system called the HAI Omni LTe. Looking at prices, it’s only $400, and seems to be a relatively cool little system. Somewhat limited, but probably perfect for many people. Check it out: http://www.homeauto.com/Products/HAISystems/OmniLTe/omniLTe_tech.asp, and compare the two: http://www.homeauto.com/Downloads/Products/AutomationControllers/OmniLTe/OmniComparisonChart.pdf. Seems like it’s much like the Omni IIe that I have, just that it’s limited to fewer zones, devices, scenes, etc.

      • Joe Schaeffer says:

        That actually seems like a nice little board. I’m found of the 5 serial ports. I hate the fact that I have to buy a serial expansion module every time I need to add a interface. Right now I’m using the onboard for my Ethernet module and one off board serial port for my thermostat control. I’m using the RCS TR-40 and it has been flawless. I’m controlling my temp via rules and via my cell phone anywhere I have a cell signal. Using the eKeypad app with my iPhone. It was a $50 app but worth every penny. I’m curious, you mentioned that the HAI will not do email notifications. Are they planning on adding this or is there a third party with a solution?

      • Ricky says:

        Nope… no email notifications, unfortunately. They have relied on PC software to handle this, which I find strange since it’s probably pretty easy to add a simple SMTP setup, since SMTP is a very non-complex language for just sending a simple email. However, the software I’ve been working on, HAI Monitor, will eventually do email notifications. Unfortunately, I havent’ worked on it at all lately, so I have to get back into that one of these days.

  3. snolan says:

    Email notifications can be done with a virtual PC, I have a server running all the time anyway (Wiki, security cameras, caching DNS) and I put VirtualBox on it and run an old Win-XP image in VirtualBox. I have a Keyspan USB-Serial adaptor interfacing with my OnQ (rebranded HAI – I need to upgrade to HAI someday) and the virtual PC runs HAI WebLink software and notifies via email and email to SMS for certain events… it works very well.

  4. I’d love to see photos of the installation of your HAI system. Have you posted any?

    • Ricky says:

      Crazy, but I have literally zero pictures of the HAI system installed. I guess I always figured that it’s not interesting to see. I can certainly take and post some though.

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