May 17, 2015

Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware)

INSTEON home automation is the most popular, most robust, most reliable, and best selling technology available.  At Innovative Home Systems we not only sell INSTEON devices, but we manufacture our own INSTEON product: the popular GarageHawk garage door monitoring and closing system.

With that said, we often receive calls and emails from many new customers who are disappointed (or are about to become disappointed) when they realize the INSTEON hardware they purchased (from another dealer) is not what they thought.  In fairness, I don't think the dealer is trying to hide information, but if the customer doesn't ask, the information is not volunteered.  The problem is, how do you know what to ask?  I will try to make you aware of some of the biggest "gottchas" when planning your INSTEON home automation system.

Tip #1 INSTEON Automation Controllers come in two basic types.

INSTEON controllers are either Hardware Based or Software Based.

Software Based controllers are an application (Windows or Mac) that loads onto your home computer.  It uses your computer's processor and memory to control your INSTEON devices using a predetermined schedule.  Your computer communicates with your INSTEON enabled lights, appliances, thermostats, etc.  by using a PLM (Power Line Modem), usually purchased separately.  Remote access and control of your INSTEON devices are provided through your computer's existing Internet connection.  Pluses: Generally less a expensive alternative because it uses your existing computer's processing power to control your automation.  Minuses: Requires your computer to be on 24x7x365 to run automation.  Less reliable due to computer updates, viruses, malware, and all other typical home computer issues.

Hardware Based controllers use a dedicated "box" that includes all the processing and memory required to control your automation.  The Power Line Modem function is provided by an external PLM or is incorporated directly into the controller box.  Remote access and control of your INSTEON devices are provided by a separate RJ45 Ethernet connection from your Cable or DSL Modem or Ethernet Router.  Pluses: Small size, low power consumption, and remote access means the controller box can be located almost anywhere (usually co-located with Cable or DSL Modem).  More reliable than software based controllers.  Once initially configured, does not require computer connection.  Minuses: More expensive to purchase due to the cost of the processor hardware.

Tip #2  All INSTEON Automation Controllers are not created equal.

Regardless of whether you are interested in a hardware or software based controller, control capabilities and sophistication vary greatly. A little knowledge and planning can go a long way to reduce or eliminate buyer's remorse.

  1. Know what devices you want to control now and in the future.  I don't know a single INSTEON automation controller on the market today that is compatible with all INSTEON devices.  Do your research to make sure the controller you purchase supports all your hardware.  Don't forget about devices you would like to add in the future and maybe even devices that aren't on the market yet.  So how can you know if one brand of controller will support an INSTEON device that hasn't even been invented yet?  You don't, but a controller that supports a large number of devices now will probably have a better chance of adding new devices when they become available.  Ask your INSTEON dealer for help.  If your current dealer can't help or is reluctant to find the answers for you, maybe it's time to find a new dealer.
  2. Know your technical abilities and limitations.  Generally speaking, low cost automation controllers are less sophisticated and control fewer types of INSTEON devices.  Not surprisingly, controllers that support more devices and have more capabilities cost more due to the cost of development.  Also, controllers that have more capabilities tend to require more technical ability to configure because they are more complex and have more options.  However, don't let a sophisticated controller scare you off.  The more costly, more sophisticated controllers are usually better documented.  Remember, we provide free tech support before and after the sale.  In some cases, for a modest fee, we can even configure your controller for you remotely via Internet connection.  Again, talk to your dealer.  Ask specifically if the controller you have in mind will support all the INSTEON devices and functions you wish to automate.

Tip # 3  There are 3 basic types of INSTEON devices.

All INSTEON devices can be classified in one of three categories.

  1. Power Line - These devices communicate exclusively over your home's existing power circuits.
  2. RF - RF devices are typically battery powered and require the presence of at least one Dual Mode device to allow communications with Power Line devices
  3. Dual Mode - As the name implies, Dual Mode devices use both Power Line and RF simultaneously to communicate with all three types of devices.  This simultaneous communication provides an alternate signal path.  Should one path become degraded,  the alternate path will allow the message to reach its destination.  When placed on opposite phases, Dual Mode devices will also couple the INSTEON signals between the phases and eliminate a potential cause of INSTEON problems.  INSTEON recommends at least two Dual Mode devices be included in every installation.  Contact your dealer for specifics.

Remember, not all INSTEON devices are Dual Mode.  Check with your dealer to determine the device type if you are unsure.

I'll discuss INSTEON Switches in a future post.

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