Medium-size UPB Installation Experience


Active Member
I had originally deleted my post here because it was a little harsh on the UPB testing we did, but due to popular demand (hee hee, see below) I'll share at least a bit of it so you can get a good feeling for our experience with UPB these last two days.

First of all, our company (ControlThink) is a software and services company. We do two things: create super-reliable software, and provide services where we test things in depth to make sure products work well generally and with software.

To this end, a company named Simply Automated (SA) provided us UPB switches (which we paid for) to test in one of our dealer's $3 million show homes. We installed 44 master switches and a dozen or so slaves. And we also installed a few Z-Wave devices (thermostat control, most notably) to show off the seamless bridging of protocols.

SA seems like a great company. They seem to really care about quality. They've been very responsive to the issues we're sharing with them, and they seem very interested in fixing the ones they can fix (i.e. the ones not related to the protocol particularly).

Here are a few of the high points and low points of our experience over three days:

High Points:
1. BEAUTIFUL SWITCHES: When the SA remote (slave) switches catch up to their 2nd generation (like the master ones), it's going to be a very pretty system. The blue glow is awesome on the (fairly expensive) masters.
2. SEEMS TO WORK WELL: Once [painfully] set up, the network seems to work well. The real-time status updates seem like they're going to have troubles when integrated with a GUI in certain circumstances, but when operated without an automation system the home is very nice.

Low Points:
1. HIGH FAILURE RATE: 10% of switches either had bad UPB hardware (couldn't communicate) or bad triacs (couldn't control their load). One of those burned out when a short developed down the line, and one burned out randomly after about an hour. None of them were wired hot. Additionally, 15% or more of the rockers were bad, although I understand that issue was possibly an isolated batch and has been fixed on all new shipping rockers.
2. UNACCEPTABLE LINE NOISE: The audio/video system, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, now crackles and sounds like the UPB pulses are going to damage it. The demo home will now be receiving a power conditioning upgrade on those two dedicated circuits at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
3. SWITCHES NOT COMMUNICATING WHEN ON: For about 5%-10% of the switches, they communicate fine when they're off, but do not respond when they are on. Additionally, the attached lights flicker like a scene from a horror movie when they are trying to communicate while on. It's trippy.
4. INTERESTING DEFAULT CONFIGURATION: The default configuration on the switches, when coupled with a single rocker, was to basically turn off the whole home whenever the switches were turned off. This can be fixed via the UPStart tool, but that was a painful 6-8 hour process (just to get the light switches working like regular light switches) during which the software crashed more than a half dozen times, sometimes losing our work.
5. BRUTE FORCE REQUIRED FOR RELIABILITY: We set up a 3-way virtual setup for the master bedroom, since there were no traveler wires. We had to ratchet the retries up to the max (4) to get the switches to communicate reliably. This seems to possibly be in part because UPB lacks collision detection, but I'm not sure.
6. SETUP VERY SLOW: We're used to setting up 60 Z-Wave switches (i.e. after they're in the wall) in 15-30 minutes. It took us 6-8 hours. Figure out an average hourly rate for an installer on that, and add in the $1,000 extra paid to the electricians to deal with all the problems, and this install cost about $1,500 to $2,000 more than a similar Z-Wave installation would have cost. Which means the installation may end up costing as much as the switches themselves.

We found out a lot more during the process. And Simply Automated seems dedicated to fixing almost every one of these issues. They can't deal with some of the core collision/reliability issues, since those are UPB--but hopefully they make some recommendations there. We will probably be communicating with PCS as well.

As a testing firm, I think we can safely say that we still see huge advantages in the Z-Wave world in terms of ease of installation and use, reliability, and affordability. But, short-term at least, and in particular controlled situations, there are certainly times when UPB makes sense in a mixture of technologies.

It looks as if UPB may not scale up easily to larger installs. Also interesting that large scale install with Zwave was quick. The most important takeaway is that mixed technologies will serve the best overall.

I also observe audio feedback when the UPB commands are delivered. It is the same feedback that I receive when I move my USB mouse that is connected with about 30 ft of extension so I did not think it was UPB-specific.
Okay, I'll share ;) I thought my post sounded too harsh on UPB, but I just reposted (1st post, above) our general experience fact-wise so it doesn't sound too harsh :lol:

And I'll repeat--Simply Automated or their partners have contacted me a half dozen times in the last day about these issues. I'm really impresed by their commitment to quality. If I have a chance, and these issues get fixed, I'll update the thread here as well.


This is exactly the feedback we are looking for, so thanks for posting your experience! I am glad to hear that SA is very dedicated to their products, I look forward to seeing any updates you might have.

Thanks for posting your results. I know I'll never have an installation in my home this large or complex, but it was "nice" to know more about UPB, as I decide which emerging technology to use in migrating up from X10.

We have heard (or experienced) some of the early Zwave problems, and I'm waiting also to learn more about Insteon, as they release more products.

Actually, this was the first time I have heard anything negative about UPB, so I guess that as of right now, it's not the Holy Grail either.

I guess Michael McSharry best summed it by "advocating" a mixed environment.

For now, I think I'll keep my present X10 setup, until these 3 new contenders improve their respective technologies, and we have an opportunity to learn which one's will "play nice" with each other when mixed together, in a typical middle class home.
Wow! Very interesting information. I admit (as a UPB supporter here) that I am surprised by your findings.

I've never had the software crash (I only have about a dozen UPB devices), and my switches have all come default to work as a normal switch out of the box - no configuration needed unless I wanted to change how they work. I found the software very fast and easy to use - takes 2-3 minutes to configure and test a switch.

As for missed communications - I assume the show house is significantly larger than mine (mine is about 4800 sq ft) - but I've had 0 communications issues and have good signals. In the 3-4 months I've been running UPB, I have not missed a single transmission (again, I only have a dozen devices so maybe that's it).

And with the AV system - that's amazing! I have a very nice theater system (probably $15-20k in just audio gear, not $100k+) but have never heard a pop or crackle or anything from UPB. I put the UPB PIM on it's own circuit, and all my AV system is on it's own outlets (with no UPB switches on that circuit). Maybe that's related?

Thanks for the feedback - it's good to see both sides of the story. I admit, I NEVER would have believed it was UPB you were talking about since I have been so happy with mine. Good luck - I hope you get your issues fixed!
A bit more feedback:

I think one of the basic reasons we run into troubles with just about any product is because we approach it from the mass market ideology, because we want home control to become more mainstream. For example, we hire electricians to put in the switches because we figure that custom installers would rather create cool custom setups than install light switches--but this requires switches to look and feel and act like normal switches, or it requires retraining electricians (in this case, teaching them how to use a computer, think like an engineer, have some engineering-type computer skills, and use UPStart).

The show home I'm speaking of is probably only 2,400 feet, but it's a very nice home right on the beach near Los Angeles. The property it sits on should be valued in square inches instead of acres just to make it sound reasonbly-priced :)

For the quality issues, that's something Simply Automated says they haven't seen. The burned out triac issue (where the switch can't dim or turn off the light) is apparently known, since it generally happens when a short to ground happens on a circuit. Which means this is probably a design that needs to be updated for future revisions, especially because many electricians like installing things "hot."

The rockers they knew were defective--but they purged their inventory of the bad ones after a bunch went out (including to us) and then didn't follow up (or didn't have the ability to follow up) with customers to inform them.

The default config on the switches was new for this new "2nd-generation" switch. These new switches can be set up to do nothing when they're turned on and off, for reasons that it would then be possible to set up multiple rockers on them and control the actual load from any of them, or from none of them--and from somewhere else. It's a cool idea, but the implementation needs to mature and the learning curve removed.

For the flickering/non-communicating switch issue, it looks like it has to do with the fact that SA switches cannot work well with low-voltage electrical lighting. I understand that the instructions with the switches warns that the switches cannot _dim_ low-voltage lights (which is the majority of accent lighting in this home). Ironically, it looks like they seem to dim and brighten them very nicely--but either a switch design, quality assurance, or a UPB design issue is causing the feedback from the lights to create havoc, introduce noise, and block communication on _a few_ of those switches.

Since this show home is in the same area as Simply Automated, they are considering sending out a tech to see what's going on and find out if there's a way to either design a next-generation or other switch that can fix these issues, or to tweak the current design. And as long as it's not a UPB issue, this company seems like the type that would actually do it.

BTW, the AV system has two dedicated circuits in the home, although I'm not sure if they're running dedicated right now. After wasting a few thousand dollars on electrical contractor costs and two days getting the light switches to behave like normal light switches, we decided to readdress the whole system in a few weeks, hopefully with an engineer from SA present.

EDIT: I have attached a screenshot of one of the crashes we experienced. This happened a bunch of times, sometimes losing our setup and sometimes keeping it--and in all different sorts of situations.



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thanks for the clarification. Your scenario is definitely different than mine - and explains why I haven't seen these same issues. Sounds like a challenging install!
I would be suprised any triac type switch would survive a short to ground. Are you saying that Zwave will? (or any other?).
bfisher said:
thanks for the clarification. Your scenario is definitely different than mine - and explains why I haven't seen these same issues. Sounds like a challenging install!
No problem. I guess in the end my philosophy is that a person should be able to install a light switch and it should just work. The Z-Wave relay (non-dimmer) switches we have tested have had no problems with feedback or any other "can't control that load" issues.

In the end, we don't really care how the switches communicate, as long as they're reliable. To an end user (i.e. homeowner), they should just be able to wire them up and they should work. "Challenging install" is not what your typical homeowner or electrician wants to hear.

[slipping on engineering hat] Of course, "challening install" sounds like fun to many of us here :)

DavidL said:
I would be suprised any triac type switch would survive a short to ground. Are you saying that Zwave will? (or any other?).

I don't know what the other switches will tolerate. But I know that we have installed hundreds of switches in tests--and that the [Z-Wave] Intermatic HA06 switch, for instance (which also has a triac), survived both being wired hot by the electricians (sometimes with dramatic sparks) and also a half dozen grounding incidents. I can't guarantee that a switch will deal with these things all the time, but so far having triacs burn out, especially when the switch is _not_ being wired hot, is a new experience for us.

Well, I too am a little surprised by your installation difficulties and ongoing noise issues. I'm also suprised to see you actually had UPStart go "belly up" on you. What version were you using? I noticed it happened as it was searching for a PIM... Does it always crash when its searching for the PIM? For that matter, what PIM are you using? Maybe that is part of the problem. I myself use a PCS USB PIM and I haven't had any issues with it.

I use UPB switches to control low voltage tracklighting - I have halo tracklighting with transformers on the individual lights - and haven't noticed any problems, nor have I encountered any of the noise problems you are seeing. I use the US11 switch body however so it may be that SAI is having issues with the newer version that you are installing. I don't have 44 switches in my installation either, in fact I only have 5 switches, 3 lamp modules and a UMI-32 at present. I've also been very careful to install the switches with the power off as the warning labels indicate.

Also, my installation process is markedly different in that I immediately set up my UPB devices right after turning the power back on. This sets the network ID, brings them into the UPStart layout and sets default dimming characteristics. I've never tried to use a UPB switch or device without doing this first. In fact, as I roll this out, I was planning on wiring a complete room then plugging in my PIM equipped laptop to configure the whole room before moving on to the next. Admittedly, this would probably not be the most efficient way to do an entire house, however I'd still do the configuration room by room even after installing 50 switches.

What do you mean by "real time status updates" btw? I set my switches to ACK on successful command completion, but I don't know of a way to get my devices to periodically send a status out without being polled. Is this what you refer to as being potentially problematic?

I'm also intrigued by your reliability issues. I have a virtual 3 way set up for the library spiral staircase which controls tracklight stair illumination as well as a recessed overhead and haven't had a single problem. Did you install a phase coupler? This is recommended for all UPB installations btw... perhaps you had the same issues I had with computer UPS devices. Does the entertainment system have a UPS in it? Also, just a wild thought, but this house has standard split single phase service right? I'm using the PCS coupler attached to my dryer circuit but would go with the SAI version that installs as a double gang circuit breaker if I could only find one somewhere...