I’ve been running an X-10 automation system for a couple of years now which has been fun, but over the past year I’ve been looking for something more modern and robust. There are lots of different options on the market which in theory should be a good thing, but it ends up just confusing matters. The other issue is that anything “high end” means you need an installer. I don’t want to rely on someone (and pay them) every time I want to make an adjustment or addition to my system. Most home automation systems push you towards installation services rather than products. (Many sites don’t even show you products, but talk about “solutions”.) The market really is in need of a big player (Microsoft, Apple, Google) to come in and do it right. Google DID announce intentions with it’s “Android@Home” system last year, but nothing seems to have come from it.

Up until reasonably recently X-10 was really the only way to do it yourself. However, after living with X-10 for a couple of years there are several downsides…

The main problem with X-10 is it’s unreliable. Very unreliable. Because it sends signals over power lines, it’s very much prone to interference. And this is in a 3 year old house, I’d hate to think what it must be like for people with older wiring. The system also doesn’t allow for any sort of confirmation that a command was received, thus if there IS interference and something doesn’t work, the device sending the command has no idea and doesn’t try again.

This isn’t the biggest issue however. The biggest problem I’ve found with the system is each device, (light socket, motion sensor, appliance control etc) Will OFTEN loose it’s setup details. This happens most often if a fuse trips or there is a power outage. When the system comes back online, quite often I’ll find the motion sensor in the bathroom starts turning on the light for the front door (or something equally strange). To make matters worse, programming these things is an exercise in frustrating voodoo. Press tiny buttons inside the device is a certain sequence with certain timing and cross your fingers that the commands make it through. There must be a better way.

The other issue with x-10 is that it’s SLOW. Commands sometimes take 2 seconds to register. This might not seem like much, but it can be frustrating walking into a room and waiting for the light to switch on. If the command isn’t received then the effect is compounded.

Z-Wave is one of the many alternative “standards”, but it seems to offer the features to give me the upgrade I’ve been looking for. Still very much DIY, yet a lot more modern (and hopefully) reliable than X-10.

A couple of places are selling the gear at this time:

Up until very recently (the past couple of weeks), the big thing missing from the lineup of products was the motion sensor. My current setup relies almost exclusively on motion sensors to turn lights on and off, so without that it wasn’t worth the time and money to get it setup. Now that the sensors have been released, I’ve decided to take the plunge.

My Setup:
I’ll give you a quick overview of my setup (in case it’s useful to anyone reading this). I live in a relatively small townhouse (3 bedroom), small living and dining area. Thus, I don’t need a LOT of gear, however I did want to automate all light switches in the home (with a few small exceptions) as well as automate a couple of appliances.

Here is a list of what I decided to purchase.
2 door sensors (for the front door and upstairs toilet)
15 light sensors (to automate most of the house lighting)
3 plug in power adaptors (to automate speakers in my bedroom, a fan and the bug zappers/lights in the garden)
Vera Home Server 2 (Version 3 has just (annoyingly) been announced, but this should do the trick. You can go with a software solution, but after going that route on many other projects, I wanted something more “appliance like” that draws less power and “just works”.
9 motion sensors (mainly to turn on lights as you walk into a room).

To get in future:
There is a thermostat and a door lock that both look interesting and I will look to add in the future. The door lock I’m not 100% sold on, but the thermostat will be a definite addition. (My current thermostat control interface can’t be programmed in any way and is essentially a big on off switch and an analogue dial to adjust temperature.)

I ended up purchasing through SmartHome.com.au. These guys seem to be the only retail shopfront who sell the gear in my area. There are online stores too, but it was nice to meet face to face with people and pickup the gear physically. Normally online stores are much cheaper, but I found after negotiating a price that SmartHome was just as cheap as anywhere else I could find (cheaper in fact).

It took a few days to order in the motion sensors as apparently they are still a little hard to come by, but Wayne at SmartHome made a good effort in getting it all sorted for me.

Current status:
Although I’ve now collected everything, with the exception of one of the door sensors, I only have a couple of things setup at this stage. This is because the in-wall light switches must be installed by an electrician. I’ve so far setup the server, the door sensor, the plug-in power adaptors and I’ve fiddled with a motion sensor (more on that later).

Setup and First Impressions:

The Vera server was straight forward to setup. It seems reasonably polished and straight forward. The pairing process with other devices I’ve found to be a little tricky. The documentation seems to be written for either different hardware (the non-australian version of the server with a USB key) or an older version of the server software. After some button mashing the plug in power adapters were discovered by the server and setup relatively painlessly.

Adding “scenes” to automate things is still a little clunky in my opinion, but seems to work. Compared with the x-10 stuff, it’s FAST. Basically instant which is great. It also seems a lot more reliable. Z-Wave uses wireless, so as long as it’s within range and there isn’t interference (less likely due to a lowish frequency used by Z-Wave), you should be good 99.9% of the time. I’ve setup timers for the bug zappers to come on just before sunset and set other appliances to switch on and off at certain parts of the day which after a week is working well. They also report the amount of energy being used by the connected appliance which is great!’

The door sensor documentation was pretty much useless, but again, after the button mashing it registered and set itself up. I’ve put it on the front door and it seems to work (I made opening the door turn on some speakers just to test it). Will report more once the lights are installed.

The motion sensors still seem unfinished. The documentation is 18 pages long as opposed to one sheet for the other gear. The first page says to use an old version of the firmware (downgrade the server) which I’m not sure I really want to have to do. Surely it should work with the new version? The motion sensors have temperate and light sensors in them too which means they show up as 3 separate devices to complicate matters. Once I finally got the server to register one of the sensors, the documentation asks that you manually enter a lot of technical values (things like: “Make this setting 2byte hex and enter F in the value field”). A lot of stuff that really isn’t easy to follow. It doesn’t help that the instructions are written in broken english and often say things like “this will set the device into exclusion mode” when I’m pretty sure they mean the exact opposite of that. I managed to get the motion sensor to turn on the speakers (my go-to test appliance) once, but then it didn’t want to work again. I’ve put it aside until the lights are installed and I’m able to test it properly. It looks like this is going to be by far the hardest bit of getting it all setup.

Apart from the motion sensors, the rest of the system seems relatively straight forward.

Other stuff:
The other thing that always bugged me with X-10 was the interfaces to control the system. I ended up making something from scratch using HTML, some scripting and the SDK for an iPad interface, but the “off the shelf” iPhone remotes and web interfaces were always pretty average. They also never seemed to work for certain appliances. With the Z-Wave gear there seems to be a lot more choice with respect to available interfaces. The interfaces themselves seem a lot more advanced too. Based on SmartHome’s advice, I’ve decided to try out SQ Remote HD. It’s universal for iPhone and iPad which is great and was cheap at 10 bucks. It’s also very customisable and the controls respond instantly. A definite improvement over the x-10 stuff!

So far I’m happy with it all, but nervous about getting the motion sensors setup. I’ve covered a bit of Z-Wave detail here, but there are tons of details I’ve left out. If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments! I will make another post after this weekend when the electrician comes to install the light modules.