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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
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.
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
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. 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
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:
- The bathroom light is set to turn on when it detects motion, then if no motion is detected turn off after 8 minutes.
- 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.
- 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
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, 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
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, 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
I have looked into several other systems, and some like Insteon (one of the best smart hub solutions) 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, 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)
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. 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.