Getting Started With Home Automation Lighting Control (Part 1)

A few months ago I posted question for opinions
on home automation software and hardware for Media Center
.  I had
initially planed to write a quick review of using mControl with an
INSTEON switch.  A very simple setup controlling a single light in my

One of the questions that I saw the most when I asked people
about their desire to start automating their home was the number of “standards”
in the market.  There are so many of
these so-called standards to choose from, that it doesn’t make it easy to know
the pros and cons of everyone.

Since I was concentrated on a retrofit install, as many of
you out there are, I had to rule out everything that required hardwire
installs.  There are several systems out
there that use hardwire control and provide bulletproof reliability and
performance.  Only problem is that you
can’t retrofit them into existing walls very easily and they are expensive in
most cases.

So I was looking for something either Powerline or RF.  The main lighting control systems for my setup are INSTEON, Z-Wave, X10, and UPB.  I rather quickly narrowed my choices down from
here to INSTEON and Z-Wave.  It’s also important to note that you will need to make sure your software solution on your PC supports the specific control system you choose.

X10, is of the course the oldest technology, and I would not suggest basing an install around X10 products at this point.  There are good things about X10, mainly being
loads of different devices and extremely low price points.

UPB was narrowed down because of its price.  The switches I was finding where way out of
my price range.  I starting finding
dimmers and switches at $70+ price range per switch.  A little to expensive for my single room
trail basis install.

Z-Wave has several advantages.  It’s RF based and every device acts as an RF
Repeater, thus making the install stronger with the addition of new
devices.  Switches and dimmers can be
found online for around $40 which can still be considered a little high.

INSTEON is known for being a low cost solution, with
switches and dimmers starting at only $25. 
INSTEON uses a mixture of Powerline and RF control to create a dual-mesh
network.  A downfall of this is that
INSTEON requires use of two Signal Enhancers which are required for
communication to take place correctly*. 
Every device acts as a repeater making the network stronger as you add
more devices (like Z-Wave).  Lastly,
INSTEON is backwards compatible with X10.

My Choice
For my install I have chosen to use INSTEON, of course using
mControl on my Media Center PC.  There
will be more on mControl in my next post, but for you will likely want to
pick-up the INSTEON PowerLinc
USB with mControl
for $125 from Smarthome. 
This includes mControl as well as the PowerLinc Controller which is needed
to have mControl work.  It works through
USB, very simple to install (and again, more on that later)

Next, you will want to pick up some switches or
dimmers.  One of the cheapest ways to get
started with INSTEON is to either purchase the Plug-In Dimmer INSTEON Starter Kit
for $99 or Dimmer Switch INSTEON
Starter Kit
for $129 (includes v2 SwitchLinc’s, not ICON’s).  Both of these Starter Kits include two Signal
Enhancers I talked about above (SignaLinc RF’s) and also include either two v2 SwitchLinc’s
Dimmers or two plug-in dimmers.  They also include a Tabletop Controller which
you don’t have to use since your Media Center PC w/ mControl will be the center
of control.  It’s cheaper to buy a
Starter Kit in most cases, so get one even if you don’t need to Tabletop

Overall, you can get everything you need to get started for
under $250 and then you can add additional ICON Dimmer Switch (300W) from
Smarthome for only $25!

An important note for all switches and dimmers is that you
need to watch the Load you are going to be putting on the switch.  You need to make sure you purchase a switch
or dimmer that can handle the Load in question. 
For most of my lighting, 300W is more then enough, so I go with the ICON

The ICON line is the discounted line of INSTEON switches
from Smarthome.  There is a great
discussion of these ICON switch vs. their v2 SwitchLinc line at Smarthome’s Forum.  Basically, I see no need to go with the
higher priced v2 SwitchLinc switches which basically just add multi-LEDs on the

Problems with

I have held off on writing this review for months because of
increasing number of horror stories about INSTEON products.  CocoonTech
holds a load of great information about the good and bad installs of
just about all the standards.  I am very
happy to report that I have had zero problems using my ICON Dimmer.  mControl has never misfired, and the hardware
works perfectly.  An interesting post
from a few days ago at Smarthome’s Forum included testing over 2,500 cycles!  Wow!

Part 1 Conclusion
For under $250 you can pick up the INSTEON mControl Kit, Plug-In Dimmer Starter Kit, and ICON Dimmer Switch for a total
of three controllable lights through your Media Center PC (or Media Center Extender).  From there you can expand for only $20-$25
for each light or appliance.

I have had a great experience with INSTEON, but I would
encourage people to research before purchasing into any lighting control
systems.  An interesting thing about
mControl however, is that you can mix and match lighting control systems like
INSTEON and Z-Wave.  I have not tried
this, but Ted
Singh from Embedded Automation
said it should work great on The Media
Center Show.

* More on this in Part 2 of my review, coming soon.

View: Getting
Started With Home Automation Lighting Control (Part 2)

View: Getting
Started With Home Automation Lighting Control (Part 3)

View: Getting
Started With Home Automation Lighting Control (Part 4)

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2 thoughts on “Getting Started With Home Automation Lighting Control (Part 1)

  1. I am pretty into automation and I do like mcontrol, unfortunatley for me it really isn’t far enough along to fit my needs. The cool interface is nice, but there are so many other things out there that support much more hardware wise and allow for building of your own custom interfaces.

    I think as more support is built for mcontrol it may catch on better. I liken it to a beginers automation, and hopefully it will become more functional.

  2. Thanks Greg.

    Something important to me was a low price point, which mControl has. I’ll have another post that has more of the pros and cons of mControl, what I liked and what I thought could be better.

    Still, for the price it is a great piece of software!

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