A Smart-Home tips list

Over on MakeUseOf, Mihir Patkar spoke with Ben Stutt of Rock Hill, South Carolina, about his experiences with home automation. Ben has been working with X10 automation since the mid 1980s, and has some very useful information to share.

In a nutshell, his tips are as follows:

  1. Start by solving one single annoyance. A porch light, a garage door, it doesn’t matter, but start small.
  2. Beginners should use simple buttons, not complex systems and sensors. Similar to #1 – start simple.
  3. Always couple a motion sensor with a timer.
  4. Prepare for your own laziness/forgetfulness. Make simple all on/all off buttons, and use timers if you only use the device (i.e.bathroom fan) for a limited time.
  5. Automation helps in security. Both by having security integrated into the system, and by automatically turning lights on and off, making the house feel alive.
  6. X10 is great to set up a cheap Smart Home. Other systems are available, but X10 is by far the cheapest.
  7. Powerline systems have their problems. In the US, we have 240V coming into our home, which is then split into 2 120V circuits. This is easily fixed by placing a bridge somewhere, such as a plugin bridge at the dryer outlet. But it’s something to keep in mind.

For the full article, click here.

Emergency Party Button

A nice weekend home automation project: the Emergency Party Button.

The Emergency Party Button turns an ordinary apartment into a full-blown disco, complete with laser, black lights and fog machine. The guts of the whole system is the X10 protocol, that is used to send a signal from the Big Red Button to a transceiver module, which in turn forwards it to computer. The computer then runs a script turning off lights, closing blinds, and turning on black lights, laser, strobe light, fog machine and music.

The whole project sets you back a little over $600, but you can probably get some of the items cheaper (the button, including hardware and X10 transmitter, cost the maker about $170). Unfortunately, the only thing I know about the maker is that his screen name is plasma2002.

Check out the video to see the end result:

(Via Lifehacker)

MisterHouse from scratch

Ron Klinkien has set up a Wiki called MisterHouse from Scratch, where he describes his experiences with setting up the Home Automation software MisterHouse.
He describes all the steps he had to take, the tips and tricks he learned along the way, and a lot of under-the-hood details on how to configure Linux, MisterHouse and several accessories he attached to his Home Automation box.
A very interesting read for anyone interested in Home Automation, and a must for anyone setting up MisterHouse.

Stupid programmers and the neutral zone

Isn’t a holiday weekend great? I finally had some time to sit down and see what happens with all those triggers and programs that I wrote. After all, I still had the problem that sometimes the lamp in the living room would react to X10 signals, and sometimes it wouldn’t. And this seemed to be the only item.

Stupid Programmers

When I started analyzing the log file, it looked like the lamp never reacted to the button macros. All the other lights did, but when you look at the log file for the living room lamp, there was no entry that it had been turned off or on by that button macro. That narrowed it down: I probably forgot to reload the code.

After reloading the code, it still wouldn’t respond. Well, maybe I need to do a force reload. That would be the sure-fire way to reload the code (which looked absolutely fine!). Still no go. Desparation was setting in at that point: I didn’t get any error messages, so I thought everything was fine. Or wasn’t it?

The setup that I have has a separate Linux box taking care of the MisterHouse program. I use a browser on a Windows box to tell MisterHouse to reload code. This triggers the program on the Linux box to start reloading and compiling stuff. And that’s where the error messages are displayed: not in an error log, not on the window displayed when you reload the code – but on the screen where MisterHouse is sending the output.

And sure enough – there was an error. When adding the code to turn the living room lamp on and off by pressing a button, I also added some code I wanted to use for an outdoor light. However, the outdoor light was not defined yet. So, MisterHouse complains that I’m using a variable that hasn’t been defined, and reuses the previous version of the code. Which didn’t include my living room lamp.

I quickly commented out the section with the outdoor light, and forced a reload. Presto! There were no more error messages. And when I tested out the buttons, everything worked like it should.

The Neutral Zone

I had bought a ToggleLinc PLC switch to control one of our outside lights. After resolving the erratic living room light, I was confident that we didn’t have any more X10 signal issues. So, what do you do when you have a working system? Right: you change it.

I added the ToggleLinc in the garage, and fixed a logic problem at the same time (the switch closest to the house controlled the outside light, the one fartest away controlled the garage light – I think it should be reversed). So, armed with screwdriver, flashlight, and new switch, I set out to install the ToggleLinc.

It was pretty straightforward. The only thing that threw me off was that there were two black wires attached to the old switch. Hmm. One is supposed to be the Live wire, the other is the Load wire. That’s when I found out I was missing one tool: a Volt meter.

The first attempt didn’t work: the little green LED didn’t come on. Maybe I had the wrong black wire designated as Live. So I switched the two black wires around. Still no go. Scratch head, check connections. Everything looks OK. The two black wires connected to Live and Load, the Ground wire connected, the Neutral wire capped. Just like the drawing. Hmm… the drawing does show the Neutral wire with dashes – making me believe it was an optional connection. Well, not according to the troubleshooting section:

  • “My switch only has two wires”
  • “Won’t work – you need the Neutral wire, or you need to use a SwitchLinc.”

Luckily the neutral wires were there, just bunched up together at the back of the box. I hooked up the Neutral wire to them, and lo and behold – everything worked. Programming the switch with the correct address was a snap, and now we have a porch light going on at dusk and turning off at dawn.

Opening the blog – the story so far

Well, after some deliberation I decided to keep a log (more precise a blog) of the adventures in X10 automation. This log is started after I’ve been fiddling around with X10 automation for a while, so in brief the setup that I have:

The two appliance modules haven’t been installed yet, because when I tried to install them, it looked like we had a problem with the two phases in our home, and some trouble with weak signal. When using Smarthome’s trouble-shooting guide, the advise was to install a repeater-coupler. After installing this the systems seems to work more reliable (one of the lamp modules would react only every now and then to signals it seemed, but reacts to them every time since installing the repeater-coupler), but I haven’t had a chance yet to readdress the issue with the ApplianceLinc’s.

As controlling software I use MisterHouse. It’s running on an old Pentium PC, with barely enough memory etc. to support the web interface. But it’s enough to run Linux and MisterHouse, and it’s running a whole lot more stable than the Windows version that was on there.

I’ll try and keep an account of my adventures into X10 in this blog. Home automation can be fun, but also very frustrating at times…