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Smart homes are gaining in popularity these days, but you might be surprised to know that they have been around for a long time. MakeUseOf spoke with one of our regular readers and commenters, Ben Stutt, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA, about his experiences living in a smart home.

Ben has been living in a 1100 sq. ft. smart home since the mid 1990s, which he rigged together in the mid 1980s. X10 is a wired communication protocol for home automation systems, which uses power lines to enable two devices to talk to each other. In 20 years of using the system, here’s what Ben learnt…

Start by Solving One Single Annoyance

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While I set up a proper smart home in the mid 1990s, I got my first X10 in the mid 1980s. It was a simple one light and one transmitter to allow me to turn off the light in my backyard workshop without having to go outside.

Back then the price was something like $30 for the setup. The kit consisted of a simple plug-in receiver and a handheld transmitter. The light then plugged into the receiver.

Over the years, I have moved many times, and somewhere along the way that original setup was lost.

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Advice: Don’t go all out to begin with. Tackle one single annoyance first through a smart home solution. Live with it, see if it works for you, and build on that.

Beginners Should Use Simple Buttons, Not Complex Systems and Sensors

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I rediscovered automation in the mid 90s, when I decided to automate the lighting in the place I was living at the time. There were maybe five or six lights. This time, I used wired light switch receivers, and two transmitters. It still required one plug-in receiver to translate the RF (radio frequency) sent by one of the two transmitters.

I didn’t have any macro capability in that set up. It was pretty simple: Just turn light #1 on, turn light #2 on, turn light #2 off— all by pressing the appropriate button on the handheld transmitter.

Advice: Keep it simple when you’re beginning, start out with simple buttons and start with lights Kickstart Your Smart Home With 4 Easy Projects Kickstart Your Smart Home With 4 Easy Projects Creating a smart home might sound like a huge undertaking, and it can be difficult to know where to start. But it's not as hard as you might think! Read More . Don’t begin with a complex system with multiple switches or motion sensors. Save those for later.

Always Couple a Motion Sensor with a Timer

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My current setup uses several kinds of transmitters and several kinds of receivers. The X10 motion sensor can be set up independently or using the hub that is programmed through my computer. Or both at once. For example:

  1. The bathroom light is set to turn on when it detects motion, then if no motion is detected turn off after 8 minutes.
  2. There is an outside motion sensor that rings a chime and turns on the porch light when a car pulls into the drive. It turns off after 3 minutes if no one comes onto the porch.
  3. I have a cat that insists she go outside. So I made a cat door for her. Then we had some unwelcome nighttime visitors (raccoon) use the cat door. So I used a motion sensor to turn on the light in the room for one minute when something tries to use the cat door. It doesn’t bother the cat, but I haven’t had any more critters come in.

Advice: A motion sensor will often be triggered by things that weren’t intended for it. To make a motion sensor truly useful, add a timer-based second rule to it. You’ll be able to figure out the use according to your needs. This gives you the convenience of using a motion sensor, but also saves you the headache caused by unintended triggers.

Save Money by Setting Up for Laziness and Forgetfulness

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You’ll turn something on when you need it. What you can’t control is your own laziness or forgetfulness. I’m lazy. (Editor’s note: It’s not just you, Ben.) I can control every light in the house from any one of several hand held keypads, several plug-in controllers, any computer on my home network, or even my cell phone. That’s where an automated smart home is really handy.

One of my transmitters is a smaller, simpler programmable clock type controller, which is also an illuminated bedside clock. It can turn on or off a limited number of lights. So I’ve set up an “all lights on” button, and “an all lights off” button. It’s very handy when you get in bed and find you forgot to turn the kitchen light or back porch light off.

On the wall at my door, I have a wall-mounted device that has an all lights on/off button. Very handy when leaving the house and you forgot to turn a light off at the far side of the house. Just press that button, and any light you left on is turned off from there.

I also use timers to switch off stuff I’m likely to forget.  For example, the bathroom exhaust fan is set on a timer. When turned on manually, it automatically turns off after 5 minutes.

I don’t have any real data on how much it saves me. But along with all LED lights 7 Creative Uses for Colored LED Home Automation Lighting 7 Creative Uses for Colored LED Home Automation Lighting Turning on your lights automatically is certainly cool, but it doesn't take advantage of the full spectrum of colors available with RGB lighting. For that, we need to get creative. Read More , I suspect it may pay for itself over it’s lifetime.

Advice: To save money and be eco-friendly, automate your switches to turn off based on time or input. Account for your own laziness. Identify places that you hate getting up from (like your bed or your sofa), and set up switches there.

Smart Homes Feel Better for Security

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Home owners know that security isn’t as simple as just installing a lock. It’s about how you can act in case of an emergency; how the alarm functions; and how secure the home feels when you aren’t in it.

X10 as well as several other companies have burglar alarms that are compatible with X10 automation. One feature is to flash all the lights when the alarm goes off. And there are other third party gadgets as well.

On my bedside clock controller, the “all lights on” button lets me get into action when I hear a noise and want light.

Then there is one light I have set as a security light. It turns on at dusk, within 10 minutes either way (a built-in function) then off at 11 PM. This makes the house look lived-in even if I am not home. I could have as many of these as I want, but for my small house, one is enough.

Advice: There are some great smart security gadgets Safe and Sound: 4 Great Smart Home Security Devices Safe and Sound: 4 Great Smart Home Security Devices Read More , but the onus is on you. Think of intelligent ways to make your house feel safer and implement those.

X10 Automation is Great to Set Up a Cheap Smart Home

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I have looked into several other systems, and some like Insteon (one of the best smart hub solutions Which Smart Hub for Home Automation Is Best for You? Which Smart Hub for Home Automation Is Best for You? For a while, people thought of the idea as nothing more than a gimmick, but recent product releases have shown that smart home automation is starting to live up to its promises. Read More ) are even compatible with X10 devices. But nothing comes close to X10 for price yet.

If you can do simple wiring like changing a light switch, you can probably install X10. If not, you can use the plug-in controllers for plug-in type lamps with no wiring or programming knowledge.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone because it is a bit more complicated than getting up to turn a light on or off. But if a tech sets it up for you, you could use it with very little training.

For existing X10 users, it doesn’t make sense to scrap it all and go with something more expensive just because it is newer. If my needs get bigger, I could see gradually transitioning to Insteon as I could replace one device at a time without losing any functionality.

Advice: For a fully automated home, X10 is among the more affordable smart home solutions 6 Types of Home Automation You Can Actually Afford 6 Types of Home Automation You Can Actually Afford Are you ready to join the smart home revolution but worried that it's beyond your budget? Smart homes aren't that expensive, and there are plenty of components that the average homeowner can afford. Read More , but setup can be a problem. If you aren’t adept at basic wiring, get it installed by a professional.

Power Line Systems Have Problems (But So Do Wireless)

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X10 has a problem for US-based users. It is a power line based system, and was originally developed in England. In the US, we use a split phase electrical system in which we have 240VAC coming into the house and into the breaker panel, after which most power is split into two 120VAC lines for lighting and outlets. This means that if a device is on the other 120VAC phase, the signal must go all the way back to the transformer outside and back on the other side.

You can fix this by getting some kind of bridge. That can be as simple as a capacitor in the breaker panel, or a device that plugs into one of the 220VAC outlets (stove, hot water heater, clothes dryer and possibly several other larger appliances will be using both phases).

Plus, when X10 was first invented, nearly all electronic devices such as a TV used linear power supplies. Now they mostly use switching power supplies. And those switching power supplies see the X10 signal riding on the power as noise and try to filter them out. I have several plug-in filters that keep this from happening.

All of these build into the total cost of a smart home How Much Does a Smart Home Really Cost? How Much Does a Smart Home Really Cost? A smart home could change your life – freeing up time in your day and regulating your routine so you don't have to remember what needs to be done. But how expensive is it, really? Read More . Because of these kind of problems, X10 has a reputation of not being as reliable as a purely RF/WiFi type system. But the WiFi systems have their own problems, just different.

Advice: Whether you want to use a power line based home automation system or a wireless one, remember that both have their own problems. Hubs like Insteon also work for both wired and wireless systems.

Tell Us Your Smart Home Tips

Ben is one of our regular commenters here at MakeUseOf, and I’m sure he will be happy to answer any questions you have about X10 or his experiences with home automation. But just like him, we’d love to hear from other smart home users about their experiences and tips.

Image credits: geralt / Pixabaygeralt / Pixabay, geralt (2) / Pixabay, nile / Pixabay, iWorksPhotography / Pixabay, blickpixel / Pixabay, EnergieAgentur.NRW / Wikimedia, skeeze / Pixabay

  1. utubedownloads.com
    October 27, 2015 at 4:47 am

    How about the magic leap?

    Any thoughts

    Thanks

    • Ben Stutts
      October 27, 2015 at 9:50 am

      The only Magic Leap I have seen is an experimental VR setup. I don't know how it will fit into the automated home concept yet. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

  2. Kannon Yamada
    October 26, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Great interview. There's a lot to be learned from Ben. Thanks for writing this Mihir!

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks Kannon. The interview is easy when someone like Ben is so helpful and articulate :)

  3. fcd76218
    October 25, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Great work, Ben. You've dome what I always wanted to do but somehow never got around to.

    The way I see it what you have is an "automated home", not a "smart home." Maybe I'm just splitting hairs. You do not mention a fridge that keeps track of the food stored in it, disposes of old food and orders food from the supermarket when necessary. You do not mention toaster, coffee pots, dish washers and other appliances that can be turned on through your smart phone. You also do not mention door locks that automatically unlock when you pull into the driveway.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:01 am

      It's a small distinction, imo. He does have motion sensors, it's just that he hasn't set it up to automatically unlock his door.

    • Ben Stutts
      October 27, 2015 at 9:43 am

      There is a big difference between being smart and being over automated. I don't need a refrigerator that keeps track of food. All I have to do is open the door to see what is in there. I could turn on the coffee using my smart phone with the system I have, but see no compelling reason to do that. There are gadgets that unlock the door for you, most use some form of near field tech. Is that really more convenient than a simple key? You still have to turn the doorknob to get in.

      • fcd76218
        October 27, 2015 at 12:46 pm

        My comments about the fridge, toaster, etc. were definitely tongue in cheek and I'm with you on the "over automation."

        "You still have to turn the doorknob to get in. "
        Give it some time. One of these days someone will announce a "self turning" door knob. :-)

        • Mihir Patkar
          October 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm

          Now I kinda want a self-turning door knob...

  4. Maryon Jeane
    October 23, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Yes - there are food bowls which work with the microchips as well (SureFeed)! Have a look at the videos on YouTube - great fun.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:03 am

      That's a bit too smart for my liking :D

  5. Ryan Dube
    October 23, 2015 at 4:56 am

    Ben - I also wanted to thank you for doing this interview. I think it's helpful for those of us just starting out with these projects to learn from the hard lessons you've already had to experience the hard way. Some fantastic lessons learned in this article.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:03 am

      I love it when our readers get involved. Hopefully Ben can pave the way for more such great interactions.

  6. Maryon Jeane
    October 22, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I'm very envious, Ben! I've dreamed of smarthomes since I first read about them in the 1970s and saw the first indications at The Ideal Home Exhibition at various times. Then, early in the 1990s, I visited the home of some new friends who were as technically-minded as Ben and had lots of things going on such as lights which came on gradually as someone entered a room and faded out after they'd left, music which followed the person who'd chosen it from room to room, and several things (lighting, heating, oven) which could be controlled over the telephone. This was all designed from the ground up, to suit the two people living (and working) in the house and it was absolutely right for them. I think Ben's (and my friends') idea is right: design it gradually, over time and in a modular, add-on fashion, to suit you and the way you live in your home. Buying an off-the-shelf system, designed as a one-size-fits-all can be frustrating and limiting and - if the designer is a company à la Microsoft - is likely to have all sorts of knobs, whistles and gimmicks which just overload the system, are never actually used, and even, at worst, force you to live the way the smart system designates rather than the other way round.

    Unfortunately, without a Ben in the house and without a good infrastructure (I'm in the English countryside with copper wires looping lazily across from overhead pole to pole in chewing-gum-and-string fashion, and the conduits and wiring in the cottage itself have been created piecemeal, like the house, at different times from the seventeenth century), for most people this is all an impossible dream (but a wonderful one!).

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:02 am

      "Design it gradually, over time and in a modular, add-on fashion, to suit you and the way you live in your home. Buying an off-the-shelf system, designed as a one-size-fits-all can be frustrating and limiting" -- Once again, Maryon delivering the goods better than the writer could :D

      • Maryon Jeane
        October 26, 2015 at 11:12 am

        Hardly, Mihir - why do you think I'm always reading your articles?!? But, again, thank you very much for the compliment; much appreciated.

        • Mihir Patkar
          October 26, 2015 at 11:30 am

          :)

  7. Alan Burnstine
    October 22, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I attempted for many years to do home automation using X10 and although I enjoyed the attempts, and had some fairly sophisticated things using Homeseer software, the reliability of X10 led to low WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). I finally gave up and sold off all my X10 stuff. If starting out today, I would recommend Insteon or one of the many new and more reliable options available unless you have a high tolerance for unexpected behaviour in your automation. (and yes, I had a 22v bridge, filters, etc... Still had lights turning on or off randomly, or not responding to commands when needed). One thing that can greatly help with wired connections is to have neutral wires in all your switch boxes. Newer homes will have this, older homes are looking at an expensive retrofit, but it makes better more reliable switches usable.

    • Ryan Dube
      October 23, 2015 at 4:52 am

      It's the WAF that blocks most of my project ideas too! Why can't practicality count more than aesthetics anyway?? Ah...the price we pay for love.

    • Ben Stutts
      October 23, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      Alan, The new owners of X10 have started redesigning the gadgets - they still look about the same and work about the same, but are far more reliable. Previously I had a kitchen light that sometimes would not turn or or off using the hand held remote. After replacing an older receiver it has worked perfectly.

      • Alan Burnstine
        October 23, 2015 at 10:37 pm

        I didn't know they had changed ownership. I'll need to order a module or two and see how much better they are. Given that so many companies are getting into home automation, they needed to do something to remain competitive.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:04 am

      Alan, just a question: Have you tried Insteon yourself now? Have you found it easier? Your experiences can greatly add to Ben's suggestions, I think :)

      • Alan Burnstine
        October 26, 2015 at 4:08 pm

        Mihir, I have not personally used Insteon or Zwave or any of the new protocols, but I know several people who have, and all say any of them improved reliability dramatically.

  8. Johnny Kook
    October 22, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Saw a collar the other day you can out on your pet that acts as a key to the pet door. Might be a better solution than the automated light if that issue comes back up.

    • Maryon Jeane
      October 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      Yes, Johnny - they're brilliant. I've had these for my cats for a very long time and, although you can get microchips in collars to work with the catflaps, the better option is to have a microchip implanted in your cat's neck (which means that, if the cat ends up somewhere far away from home, for example, any vet or cat rescue place etc. can scan the cat, identify the owner, and get in touch). Implantation of a chip is a three-minute job at most (it's like an injection) and I haven't had a cat yet who has complained. If you adopt a rescue cat microchipping is sometimes free, too.

      The latest catflaps (for example SmartFlap, which I have in an unobtrusive brown colour in a wooden back door) are battery operated rather than wired and allow for individual patterns of access for individual cats. So if one cat is shortly going to the vet and so needs keeping inside, you can program the catflap not to allow that cat to go out, while other cats can still come and go normally. There are also options for the catflap to lock when darkness falls and to change the shut period so that, if a cat is regularly being chased, it becomes impossible for the pursuer to get in at the same time as the pursued.

      Couldn't live safely with cats in the countryside without these smart catflaps!

      • Ryan Dube
        October 23, 2015 at 4:54 am

        They actually have implantable microchips now with that same functionality to operate that cat flaps? That is fascinating -- I didn't realize the implantable technology was that far along already. TIL!

      • Ben Stutts
        October 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm

        This cat refuses to wear a collar, so I would have to go with the implant. However, so far no critters have gotten passed the light. It probably helps that the cat door is built into a window about 5 feet above the ground, with a shelf for the cat to jump up onto. There used to be a ramp, but it was knocked down by an errant lawnmower, and the cat doesn't seem to mind having to jump.

      • Mihir Patkar
        October 26, 2015 at 11:06 am

        Smart catflaps sound really cool, Maryon! Do you have dogs too? Tried anything for that?

        • Maryon Jeane
          October 26, 2015 at 11:28 am

          No, I don't have dogs (I'm definitely a cat person, although I do like dogs). The SmartFlap and others work for dogs in the same way but, of course, if you have a large dog a flap isn't a particularly good idea... (A favourite film moment of mine is one of Goldie Hawn's lines in 'Housesitter' where, having moved herself into someone else's home and he having turned up and found her so installed, complete with a very large Old English Sheepdog, she announces that someone is coming to build a dog door for him. More dog door than door!)

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