New Home Automation Hardware


I have been researching home automation hardware for a client looking to enter this market. The deeper I look the more complex the subject. The client is looking to release a retail product that will sell over the counter to end users and hopefully just work. it also must do enough to be a desirable product.

I have researched the common hardware options and have learned a lot about Z Wave, X-10, Insteon. I have identified some other technologies used elsewhere like Clipsall and some industrial solutions. The most promissing of the lot for sheer performance and reliability is Echelon's Lonworks using powerline communications. (Their twisted pair is great but not a retrofit option.) The company with the biggest PR push is Zensys' Z Wave. ZigBee seems to be months or even a year before hardware is ready. (Although Control4 is betting it will be ready much sooner.) I only recently discovered UPB, which confirms to me how diffuse this area is and hard it is to find the options.

I'm interested in which hardware features will persuade the avant-garde consumers here to both buy and recomend the products to friends, aquaintences and anyone else. And what you all expect one of these systems to do out of the box (no installer or major PC involvement necessary).

If my client can get this right it should make more hardware more universally available.
I think you need 2 key things for success in the market you are describing: Rock solid reliability and DIY simplicity. X-10 currently dominates the the DYI niche but never has overcome its reliability issues. Z-Wave and UPB have both been described as highly reliable and it looks like one of these technologies will become enough of a standard to support a base of DYI commodity priced components. My impression is that Z-Wave might be positioned closer to the "over-the-counter" model you want but it may be too early to draw conclusions about the future of either of these technologies.
hi 1audio,

Welcome to CocoonTech!

Would it be possible to give us more information about the product itself (without revealing it)? It would probably help us help you much better. Last I heard about ZigBee, I was under the impression Control4 was actually shipping these switches, was that a fake press release? I really believe ZigBee is going to make a big impact, considering it has applications in both the industrial and residential automation world. Right now, Insteon and Z-wave are probably the most affordable alternatives to X10 (UPB is great, but still pretty expensive, but this is only because the pricing is 'controlled', not due to manufacturing costs).
What do you mean by the UPB pricing is controlled?

Manufacturers only have to license the chipset from PCS, but as far as I know, nobody controls the pricing.

PCS keeps the price of their own brand (Pulseworx) artificially high so as not to undercut their licensees, but UPB equipment from HAI, Simply Automated, and Web Mountain are reasonably priced. By that I mean that the prices are on par with quality X-10 components with similar features.
I was informed by several sources, who have much more knowledge about the UPB pricing structure than I do, that there still was a minimum pricing set, but I would love to be wrong on this one, since that would mean that the hardware might become much cheaper in the near future.
Until Zwave becomes truly 2-way. Which I have heard is on the horizon. I personally think UPB is the only way to fly. I installed 4 switches in my warehouse (on seperate phases) a few weeks ago. And they worked right out of the box. No filters, and no couplers which blew my mind as I have 20 or so high wattage flourescent ballasts at the warehouse that eat any x10 single that dares venture across the powerline.
The setup is simple and very secure.
From my understanding, Zwave can't be fully 2-way. It's not a technology issue, it's a legal/patent issue. Lutron owns the patent on light switches providing 2 way RF status.
Thanks for pleasent welcome.
Its way too early to describe the details, just that the goal is a line of lighting controls and other home automation products (thermostats etc.) that can be sold at a large retailer (Best Buy, Wallmart, Fry's, Lowe's etc.) that will work out of the box with only the most straightforward customer interaction (no need to be a programmer) and do useful things for customers, so that they will buy them.

As such my research has been in two directions, first who has really reliable technology? Given that this customer will not have the patience to troubleshoot phase coupling or range problems with RF it must make these either never a problem or easy for a custome to fix.
Second, what to people want to do with this stuff first? Control lights in the same room? Timed lighting? etc.

Z Wave may not be 2-way but it sure acts like it. However all of the functionality is in the controller, none in the switches so far. I believe the Lutron patent says that the switches cannot transmit if they control the load. The scenes all live in the controller.

I believe Control4 has promissed to ship next month. But the same promise has circulated a number of times.

The Insteon RF phase coupler is an interesting if involved way to solve the problem. But in older houses where the phases are split between lighting and outlets how do you conect the wireless to the lighting phase? Or has this been a real problem?

I believe that UPB is a peer to peer system and the switches store scene info from a quick read of what I can find. Is this correct? And do people find this to be important? And the communication pulses look to be major noise generators. Has any user noticed the noise?

Some of the systems focus on computer driven solutions. This would require a PC to be on and connected to the control system to function, wouldn't it? Is this desireable or a burden?

I'm trying to take my opinions out of this since I have limited real experience with these technologies (all a frustrating effort making an X-10 system run a demo at CES. 10 times the work it should have been to operate two lights off of an AV receiver.) I really appreciate the feedback from those on the front lines.
The Insteon RF phase coupler is an interesting if involved way to solve the problem. But in older houses where the phases are split between lighting and outlets how do you conect the wireless to the lighting phase? Or has this been a real problem?

I can definately see this as a potential issue. I would think though that Smarthome will definately have to develop a wire coupler for the Insteon PLC signals. I believe this is in the works.

I believe that UPB is a peer to peer system and the switches store scene info from a quick read of what I can find. Is this correct?

This is not uncommon for the intellegence to be in the switches. That's how it also is with Smarthome, Lightolier, and Leviton.

Some of the systems focus on computer driven solutions. This would require a PC to be on and connected to the control system to function, wouldn't it? Is this desireable or a burden?

Well, if you really want to make it bullet-proof (especially for a novice user), I think that the control needs to be in a solid state device instead of a PC-based solution. Something like the Elk.
I envision a little box, the size of a Linksys router, which people can buy, and use their web browser to log in, and setup lighting schedules, alarm triggers and maybe even IR management. All they would have to do is buy the right module which talks to this controller directly using the desired protocol.

If you go wireless, think of the type of problems people run into right now when deploying 802.11b/g in larger homes. If you really want to go the PLC way, then Insteon / UPB are your only options.

As for the Insteon phase coupling issue, maybe SmartHome (or your client if he is a manufacture) can come up with a module similar to the X10 LM15A (Socket Rocket), which can act as the RF phase coupler and still host a bulb.

Right now, you could get one of those adapters which screw into a light socket, and convert it to a regular outlet, but you would have to give up the bulb of course.
I believe iControl has a product very similar to your proposal for a stand-alone box. It also manages IP cameras and allows remote access to your system. They use Lonworks for the lighting control. I have seen other proposed products that are similar as well.

I'm hoping to not need to explain to "Joe 6-pack" the need for phase couplers. Or RF repeaters. The cost of a support call will eat any profit from a $50 switch or module, so the stuff must "just work" pretty much all of the time.

I still need the "killer ap" that will get this stuff to sell. Is it a remote to turn on the lights? Or automation that turns the lights on at dusk and of at midnight? Or something else?

I really appreciate the input and experiences you all have had with this stuff.
I understand that Niagara Mohawk (a.k.a. National Grid) and some other utilities around the country are planning to deploy broadband Internet service over the power lines. Expanding on Electon's idea of a router-like device, why not just make switches that are controlled via this Ethernet over powerline protocol? In fact everything with a power connection gets an IP address, switches, furnace, stereo, everything; and could be controlled from any web browser or web enabled phone.
Actually the broadband over powerline stuff is pushing hard but up against some regulatory hurdles. It interferes with a lot of radio communications, and (surprise) the phone companies don't like it at all (theves don't like competition).

California is rolling out remote monitored metering in the next few years to a lot of customers. Echelon used their technology to upgrade all of the meters in Italy for remote monitoring over powerline. This brought two benefits- It allos for competitive power sales (like California had until it crashed-remember Enron) and the italian grid is also at its limits so their system can shed low priority loads (washer/dryer) when high priority loads are desired (stove) to keep the individual loads within range and not require rewiring of every home and apartment.

IP is a little clumsy for this. I have seen proposals for an IP address for each light but managing that many IP addresses is an overhead nightmare so most roll the control system into a single IP address.
Z-Wave/Zigbee is definitely two way. But, the data rate is low enough that if you have more than a handful of them, the time it takes to round robin through them grows and the latency (the time between a change in the switch state and it's becoming obvious to the control system) grows. None of the switches, AFAIK, currently broadcast changes, though the Z-Wave protocol seems to support that, and it would make a huge difference. Though I guess polling would still have to be done as a backup mechanism in case of missed broadcasts, but it could be done at a more leisurely pace and not beat on the network so hard.
I find all this academic talk about emerging technologies quite humorous. It doesn't matter whether it's Z-Wave, Zigbee, Insteon or whatever. They are all unproven technologies. They all tout how they are "better than X10." For "better" read faster, two-way, blah blah blah. They all say "X10 has technical problems." These new technologies haven't yet been around long enough to even know what problems they have. They won't be better than X10, they'll just be different. What none of the writers seem to know is that X10 has been around for 27 years. I.E., shipping products for 27 years! X10 founded the Home Automation Industry, shipping its first products to RadioShack in 1978. X10 is the DeFaco standard protocol for Home Automation. ALL the "Big Name" Home Automation systems out there were developed and manufactured by X10, i.e., the systems marketed by IBM, GE, Stanley, RCA, Black & Decker, Leviton, Honeywell, and more are "X10 systems." X10 is in more than 5 million homes and has shipped more that 100 million products, in North America alone. X10 is also a Worldwide product. Many of these "emerging technologies" fundamentally cannot comply with the regulatory approvals required for Europe. X10 has hundreds of individual products tooled up and being sold. The consumer doesn't care how "fast" a signal gets to a module, the consumer doesn't care what protocol is used, and X10 has proof (by its lack of sales of its two-way products compared to its huge installed base of its one-way products) that the consumer doesn't care about two-way. The American consumer only cares about three things: price, price, and price. When these emerging technologies can sell a module for $9.99 and a controller for $4.99 like X10 does when RadioShack runs a sale, then, and only then, can they dare to think that they are any kind of threat to X10. These emerging technologies come and go. Does anyone remember CEBus? It was the first one that was going to "kill X10." 27 years on, X10 is still alive and kicking!