Choosing a home automation protocol

Home automation

When I first decided that I wanted some degree of home automation, one of the first decisions was which protocol to use. There are a variety of “standards” (why that’s in “quotes” is something we’ll talk about in a little bit), they don’t all play nice with each other, and there are pros and cons to each.

Sounds like a lot of other technology decisions, right? Well, sure, except in this case the market for DIY home automation is pretty small and immature. “Cottage” might be the appropriate term, or whatever comes just above “couple of guys in a garage” on the bottom of the list of totally official industry classifications. Thus, information is scattered widely over the Internet, is mostly assembled by volunteers (open source contributors) who also have day jobs/families, and at best is incomplete; at worst, it’s just downright wrong. If you’re willing to cough up $10k-$40k (or more) and have a pro install a proprietary system, like Lutron’s excellent offerings or the popular Control4, these comments don’t necessarily apply — but if you’re willing to do that, then you’re probably not reading this. I hope.

I’m a pretty detail-oriented guy who is used to conducting painstaking (some say “obsessive”) research on appliances, gadgets, cars, or whatever else I’m getting ready to buy/attempt/build. I learn everything I can in advance, and usually know way more about it than even the people who sell it for a living. However, after several weeks of casually poking around online in an attempt to get a high-level picture of the home automation space (before even attempting to figure out where to dive deep for details), I felt like I had only generated more questions than answers.

So, back to our main question: which HA protocol to use? They’re not directly compatible with one another — although you can get controllers that blend them together — and all seem to have some quirk or two. While there are a number of factors that can drive your choice of protocol, my main criteria were these:

  1. Compatibility with open-source control software (in other words, the open source community has to like the protocol enough to support it in the most popular HA software projects)
  2. Hardware quality (what the actual wall switches look like and feel like when you use them)
  3. Reliability (for a high WAF [Wife Acceptance Factor], these things have to just work)

With those criteria in mind, I considered three major protocols: Insteon, Z-Wave, and UPB. Since (spoiler alert) I chose UPB, most of what I’m about to say about the other protocols is not based on firsthand experience, just my analysis from my research.

Below is a summary of my impressions.

Insteon

The Insteon protocol — also a brand for the hardware — is marketed and sold solely by SmartHome.com.

You can read about the history of Insteon elsewhere. The short version is that they have reasonably broad support in the HA software projects that I found (more about those later), a pretty good selection of hardware, and very good documentation for that hardware.

I did order a couple Insteon switches, thinking I might in fact want to use Insteon. However, I didn’t completely like the way they looked or felt — not really bad, but not quite up to the standards I was hoping for (I’m pretty picky when it comes to design — I’m sure that’s completely shocking to anyone who knows me). I didn’t install them because of some unrelated delays in house projects, and by the time I was ready I had decided to move on to UPB. (Anyone want a couple Insteon switches?)

Relative to the other protocols, Insteon seems to have a very large install base. Either that, or it just seems that way because all the information is centered around one provider (SmartHome), so it’s easy to find. Those users by and large seem happy with Insteon, although I did find more than a handful of complaints about the switches failing after a couple years (not cool when they’re around $60 each). Personally, one major beef I have is that it’s a “standard” which is essentially monopolized by a single company — only SmartHome can make and sell Insteon products, or license others to make them. It just didn’t seem very “open.”

Z-Wave

The Z-Wave standard was born out of a consortium of companies recognizing that in the home of the future, smart devices need to interact with each other using a common protocol. I think I remember seeing that there even big-wigs like GE on board, in addition to small consumer-advocacy groups. So, already we’ve got one leg up on Insteon here.

However, in the best traditions of giant conglomerates with many heads, for awhile there seemed to have been a lot of talking and not a lot of doing. Things have picked up lately, but it’s not very DIY-friendly; most of the good quality products seem to be on the pricey side (or are part of product lines that are really only intended to be sold to installers, so there’s no manufacturer-to-end-user support). The switches I liked tended to be around twice as expensive as their Insteon or UPB equivalents. There are cheap ones, though, which is what some DIYers use, but I wasn’t interested in those.

Only in the last few years has Z-Wave started to open up a bit more to DIYers, but the other protocols have a head start. There are plenty of people who have wrangled successful DIY Z-Wave installs, but I ran into a lot of people while browsing user forums like CocoonTech who had Z-Wave, but experienced a lot of reliability problems — delays between command and action, or just lost signals. Most of those people said they switched to UPB.

One thing in Z-Wave’s favor is that it doesn’t require a neutral wire in the switch box, which many older homes don’t have.

UPB

Universal Power Bus is a communication standard, like Z-Wave, that any company can build hardware for. In all my digging around for anecdotes by people who have actually worked with each of these technologies, UPB seemed to have the best signal reliability (meaning lights will actually turn on when you press the button). (I’m actually experiencing one issue on this front, but I am in the process of troubleshooting it and will post when I have figured it out.)

Also, there were some nice options for switches, in particular the ones by Simply Automated that consist of a common base unit that has multiple faceplate styles that can be snapped on the front — single rocker, double or quad rockers, rocker and button combinations, etc. This makes it easy to adjust your switch configuration without having to pull things out of the wall.

Given its reliability, openness, quality switches, and support in several open source (and many commercial) home automation software packages, I decided to take the plunge and invest in UPB.

There will be many more posts detailing my adventures with home automation as I get around to installing and configuring things. I have about 8 switches in place so far, and already have one hiccup as mentioned above — I’ll share each major milestone here on the blog, and subsequent posts will get into much more detail about the technology and steps I’ve taken with my installation.

4 Comments

  1. Carl
    Carl September 21, 2014 at 11:02 pm . Reply

    It’s been a bit over a year, how are you feeling about your decision to use UPB? I’ve been sitting on the fence for months and would love to read a follow up blog.

  2. Amit
    Amit November 15, 2014 at 2:17 am . Reply

    Hi Matt,
    Bumped into this post while looking for where to start on home automation. I was intrigued by your analysis. Thanks for the post. and I am looking forward to future posts…
    I am from Canada and few months away from buying a home, so I have atleast a year to go before I actually dive into automation (just get curious about things as soon as they get in my head). Although I am guessing Canada being an expensive and small market, home automation choices may be even less.

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