Inexpensive Home Automation
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(1999) You've got a nice home theater you're building. You've been wanting some way to
automate your lights in your custom built home theater. You've looked far and wide for a
very nice scene controller. All the prices of superior systems you've been quoted might
have been too high for your budget.
You've been reading posts from forum members who are happy with their automation
systems of the likes of Creston, etc - but whine at the high prices. You wonder if there's
a cheaper way, even building your own circuits....
You now cringe at the thought of cheap X10 systems that you've been hearing about. You
may not even like X10.com's sometimes-tacky looking website. You hear both good and bad
things about X10 such as modules that go 'click'. You want to have IR control instead of
RF control, but keep hearing that X10 can only be controlled by RF.
Did you know, that David Bott's 'The Nate' home theater, pictured at www.avsforum.com has lighting
automated by an X10 ActiveHome automation system - the $49.95 kits you might have heard
Let me dispel a few X10 myths. Here are some interesting truths you should know:
- You CAN control multiple X10 modules simultaneously - within certain
- You CAN control real lighting scenes for cheap - with kits starting at only
- You CAN instantly go to a preset dim or dim upwards from 0%, with your lamps.
- You CAN have a silently-operating X10 system, without modules that goes 'click'.
- You CAN use a cheap system now and add expensive X10 compatible scene controllers
later on, if you wanted.
- You CAN improve the reliability of an X10 system, in the small chance that you
have irregular operation.
- You CAN control 256 independent lamps or other devices, not just 16!
- It CAN be easy to install your own X10 system!
GETTING STARTED FOR CHEAP
To get started for cheap, my number one recommendation is to buy an X10 ActiveHome kit.
You can find these for $49.95, $99.95 and $149.95 depending on how many components you
An ActiveHome kit can do all the following:
- Can control several lamps and appliances.
- Can do fancy scenes (macros).
- Can make multiple lamps turn on/off or gradually dim to a preset level simultaneously.
- Scenes are configured by included computer software (included).
- Computer can be turned off after you finish setting up scene macros.
- Very modular and very upgradeable.
- Compatible with popular add-ons.
- Forms an inexpensive basis of your X10 automation system.
- Controls multiple house codes.
- Control up to 256 devices on one button press: Shatter the 16-unit-code X10 barrier!
- Computer does not even need to be in the same house! (once the scenes are uploaded to
the ActiveHome module, the module can be moved to its final destination to control an
entire X10 system. Though it's easier to test scenes, if the computer is in the same
$49.95 ActiveHome kit, with six pieces:
$99.95 and $149.95 ActiveHome kits with 12 or more pieces:
If you just need to control many lamps and do not want too much X10 "junk" -
items that you will never use. I recommend buying one of the cheaper ActiveHome kit and
then buying the dimmer modules separately. The cheap ActiveHome kits do not have many lamp
modules, but additional wireless remote controllable lamp dimmer modules are as low as
$5.49 each separately!
IMPORTANT: Avoid the FireCracker kits - it requires the computer to be
left turned on. You want ActiveHome, which does not depend on the computer. And even so,
ActiveHome only requires the computer to setup the scene macros. They are not as flexible
nor reliable as ActiveHome is.
ADDING IR CAPABILITY TO YOUR X10 SYSTEM
You probably know by now, most X10 stuff are controlled by RF. This is a source of
frustration for some X10 users - the ability to use the same Pronto or Marantz RC2000 to
also control the X10 system as well. Many of us want to be able to press one macro to turn
off all lights, while turning on the projector or display as well (as well as
automatically setting up the rest of the system, including the sound system).
Look no further... The inexpensive $29.95 IR receiver for X10 systems! http://www.smarthome.com/4040.html
All you need is the X10 remote control that's included with ActiveHome - just teach the
X10 IR codes to your Pronto or Marantz remote (or any other universal for that matter!)
X10 LAMP DIMMERS
The most common type of X10 lamp dimmer modules are cheap. They are cheap, and the size
of AC adaptors. You simply plug them in, and plug the lamp into the bottom of the X10 lamp
dimmer module. You're done - no rewiring needed!
Basic X10 lamp modules, starting at $5.49 apiece!
Sixpack of lamp modules available for only $30 at: http://www.smarthome.com/2000.html
They're surprisingly inexpensive! You can turn on/off lamps remotely, as well as adjust
the dim level upwards and downwards with these. Be noted, The cheap X10 lamp controller
modules (including the sixpack for $30) are one-way modules and they also cannot dim
upwards from "off". They cannot dim instantaneously to a preset dim level. You
can turn on/off and dim them, but you have to turn them on before you're able to dim them
up or down.
However, if you want full control including instant "preset dim", and dim
upwards from off, and such features, you will need to go for more expensive $30 individual
2-way lamp modules. These 2-way lamp modules are able to be told to go instantly to a
preset dim, from an ActiveHome kit. You can for example, tell lamp 'L1' to go to 50% dim
immediately without dimming upwards from off, or dimming downwards from fully on. You can
buy these $30 modules at: http://www.smarthome.com/2000tw.html
Another way to have 'dim up from darkness' for the cheap X10 modules, is to use an
ActiveHome macro. The 'OFF' button would simply dim the light down to almost 0% (but not
turned OFF - just dimmed down to almost 0%). The 'ON' button would simply dim the light
back up to 100%. This is a clever way to use the cheap $5.49 modules so that you can use
them without the sudden 'turn on to 100%' before you're able to dim the light. Example:
- Code 'D1' - Cheap $5.49 lamp module connected to a lamp.
- Code 'A1 on' - Linked to an ActiveHome macro that 'dims' D1 upwards to 100%
- Code 'A1 off' - Linked to an ActiveHome macro that 'dims' D1 downwards to near 0% but
not quite turning off the lamp.
That way, you have a pleasing gradual 'dim on' and 'dim off' everytime you turn on/off
a lamp, if you cannot afford to pay for the more expensive $30.00 two way lamp modules.
MULTIPLE LIGHTS SIMULTANEOUSLY
You can control multiple X10 lights cheaply at the same time! There are two ways to do
Lamp modules configured to the same unit code
This causes all modules to respond to one X10 signal at the same time, whether sent by a
handheld remote or from the ActiveHome controller. This is great if you need to control 10
lamps simultaneously, dimming 10 lamps simultaneously down to 20% - it is a very nice
effect that can be done for cheap at only $6 per wireless remote controllable lamp dimmer
module (in a $30 sixpack of lamp modules). This allows you to break the 300 watt barrier
with 10 lamps, by allowing you to control 3000 watts of lamps by using a separate
inexpensive module for each lamp!
ActiveHome macro configured to address multiple unit codes
You can do this with both the one-way and two-way lamp modules/switches. There are
additional delays involved (about a half second penalty for every additional module).
However, this allows you to turn on/off/dim multiple lamps simultaneously WHILE still
retaining full individual control of each individual lamp at other times.
Caveats: This won't work with preset-dim signals (dim instantly to a specific level)
for most two-way lamp modules (including the $30 two-way lamp modules). There are some X10
scene controllers that get around this, if you really need to instantly set multiple
lights instantly to a preset dim instead of a continuous dimming action. Some of these
controllers are relatively cheap.
The noisy X10 units you hear about, are the 'appliance' switches. An 'appliance' switch
is also built into the transciever (the plug-in radio receiver module). These are operated
via relays. You can simply avoid using them in your X10 setup.
However, you can get silent operation, by using the common 'lamp' modules and avoid
the 'appliance' modules. Use the transciever only to control other modules rather than
the built-in 'appliance' module. Cheap lamp modules do not make any sound. Nor do the
remote controllable wall switches.
If you want to determine which X10 units go 'click' just try to find out if it contains
a built-in relay. If it has no relay, it is virtually guaranteed to work silently. If it
is a module that has lamp dimming capability, then it is not relay operated (as relay
cannot do dimming).
WIFE FRIENDLY X10-CONTROLLED WALL SWITCHES
You may have seen those cheap $10 X10 switches that are not very wife-friendly. Hate
the cheap X10 wall switches? Want true rocker on/off action? Look no further - I have
discovered inexpensive remote controllable wall light switch that has proper crisp feeling
ON/OFF rocker action, Bill Gates style!:
- True rocker action - only $49.95!
- Remote controllable
- Adjustable fade on/off speed
- LED bar graph to indicate brightness level
- Instantly "preset dim level" operation
- 3 way capability
- During local control, controls lamp instantly without X10 delay
- Enhanced noise rejection (false signal rejection)
You don't even need to buy X10 wall switches if you don't want them. You can just use
wireless plug-in modules. However, they are VERY convenient and aesthetic for home
theater: You can use your remote control to turn on/off these wall switches!
Be noted, several of these wall switches are lamp dimmer only. Use appliance switches
(or an appropriately designed module) for flourescent lights or wall sockets. One of the
great thing about these type of wall switches like these, is that they respond instantly
when operated locally - because they are wired just like a regular wall switch.
If you hate wiring or rewiring, there's a solution that doesn't complicate things too
much. There is a new wireless wall switch product that's ONLY 7 millimeter thick (New 1999
product - only as thick as a real wall switch bezel!). It can be stuck onto any surface,
even on the side of a furniture. Because it sends X10 signals by radio waves to the
receiver included with your ActiveHome, there's a tiny delay during turning on/off
switches (just to keep it in mind!). It is available for $20-$25 at: http://www.x10.com/products/offer95.htm
There's also a silently-operating flourescent wall lamp switch available too! If you
need to to control kitchen flourescent lighting remotely and SILENTLY, so they don't
interfere with your adjacent living room? Look no further, there's a 600 watt wall switch
available that works with flourescent lights and does not have an annoying relay that goes
'clunk' (like the cheap X10 wall switches I've tried so far) when you turn on/off for
Once you have your X10 ActiveHome kit, there is a module that you connect to one of
your computer's serial port. The centerpiece of ActiveHome is an outboard X10 controller
module that's simply programmed by computer software which is included.
The procedure goes approximately as follows:
- Install the lamp modules
- Test them with the included X10 remote
- Plug in the ActiveHome computer-connected X10 module
- Install ActiveHome computer software
- Test ActiveHome by turning on/off lights with your mouse
- Configure the fancy lighting scene macros
- Upload the fancy scenes to the ActiveHome X10 module
- Test the scenes
- You can now turn off your computer and even disconnect ActiveHome from the computer if
Here is a typical X10 system controlled by ActiveHome. This is not my house, but a
- ActiveHome kit ($49.95)
- (Configured to 'L1') Silent X10 wall switch for kitchen light upstairs ($49.95)
- (Configured to 'L2') X10 lamp module: Connected to stairwell lights (lamp module incl.
- (Configured to 'L3') Two X10 lamp modules connected to two separate 300watt main halogen
a total of 600 watts. Both lamp modules configured to the same code ($5.49 x 2)
- (Configured to 'L4') One X10 lamp module controlling four rear scones ($5.49)
- (Configured to 'L5') One X10 lamp module controlling two middle scones ($5.49)
- (Configured to 'L6') One X10 lamp module controlling two front scones ($5.49)
One Possible Scene Macro for this X10 setup: Now,
here's an ActiveHome scene macro controlling the entire system. You configure button 'A5
off' on your X10 remote to trigger a cascade of the following events in sequence:
- DIM 'L3' to near 0%: Two 300watt main halogen lamps gradually dim to blackness (3
- TURN OFF 'L1': Kitchen lamp turns off (0.5 second latency)
- DIM 'L6' to near 0%: Front scones gradually dim to blackness (3 seconds)
- DIM 'L5' to 10%: Middle scones gradually dim to 10% brightness (3 seconds)
- DIM 'L4' to 20%: Rear scones gradually dim to 20% brightness (2 seconds)
- DIM 'L2' to 40%: Stair lights dim to to 40% brightness (2 seconds)
Now, here's an ActiveHome scene macro controlling the entire system. Likewise, you
configure button 'A5 on' on your X10 remote to trigger a cascade of the following
events in sequence:
- DIM 'L4,L5,L6' to 100%: All scones brightens gradually to full intensity (4 seconds)
- DIM 'L2,L3' to 100%: Stair lights and main halogen lamps brightens gradually to full
intensity (4 seconds)
- TURN ON 'L1': Upstairs kitchen fluorescent light turns on. (0.5 second latency)
Of course, if the latency is killer, you can configure all scone lamps to the same unit
code, so that you can control all scones more quickly with less latency. The DIM down and
up works best, if you never completely turn off the lights - if using the cheap $5.49 lamp
modules. If you are willing to pay $30 for each lamp module, then you won't run into this
problem - you can turn them off without fear of the lights suddenly turning themselves on
before dimming to 20%/40%/50% (as they do with the cheap $5.49 lamp modules - that's why I
recommending dimming them to near 0% rather than completely turning them off.)
To more quickly turn on/off the whole system at once, you can add additional scene
macros, to 'A6 off' and 'A6 on' - so that you can use buttons A5 for the slow scene and
button A6 for the fast scene. Here's an example of how 'A6 off' could be configured:
- TURN OFF 'L4,L5,L6': All scones turns off simultaneously (1.5 scond latency due to
- TURN OFF 'L3': Main halogen lamps turn off (0.5 second)
- DIM 'L2' to 40%: Stair lights dim to 40% brightness so you don't bump into things (2
As you can see, you've done all of this using only $127.35 worth of modules! If you
don't care about the flourescent kitchen wall switch ('L1'), you only spent $77.40 worth
of modules (plus shipping and taxes, of course!). This doesn't include the wiring or
whatever you may need to do to install the modules (if the scones, for example, use
If you want faster scenes, you can add more expensive components instead (I would
recommend it!), including two way lamp modules with instantaneous dim presets, or modules
with variable speed dimming. Or X10 scene controllers. You can buy a kit for cheap, and
then upgrade later, too!
Myself, I've got my system setup to turn off office room flourescent light and kitchen
stove light, followed by dimming 3 lamps simultaneously to about 30%, as my place is small
and I am just using my existing living room. I've got scenes to turn off all lights and
turn on lights.
You can combine scenes in a single X10 code, with your macro-capable learning infrared
remote with other infrared signals - so that you can turn on your projector and invoke the
ActiveHome-created X10 scene at once, using one button press.
QUICK LINK SUMMARY OF ALREADY MENTIONED X10 PRODUCTS
Here are all the hyperlinks summarized for your convenience:
OTHER USEFUL X10 GOODIES
I've searched and cut directly through web clutter, to figure out the best bang for the
buck in the middle of a big soup of old X10 products:
- If you're the type who buys a Walmart learning remote, rather than a Philips pronto,
there is a very good looking new universal learning remote control that emits both RF and
IR, and is fully X10 compatible (new 1999 product) - no need to buy an expensive IR add
on. This can make a very nice temporary or bedroom remote control, too - not everyone can
afford three Pronto's or Marantz's! The remote is $25 at http://www.x10.com/products/x10_ur47a.htm
- Need LOTS of power? 2400 watt remote controlled dimmer for less than $300?
Check this out: http://www.smarthome.com/x10ltmod.html
- The very original inventors of X10.
- Website is overhyped and full of advertising junk
- Skip the website entry junk by going directly to the X10 Catalog.
- GREAT prices for the basics
- $5.90 promotion loss leader starter kits for new users (use this only to get additional
- This is where you should buy the inexpensive basics, such as an ActiveHome kit, which
will form the basis of your automation system.
- A VERY high quality automation website
- Lots of neat goodies available for purchase online
- Lots of luxurious X10 compatible add-ons
- Also has a sixpack of lamp dimmer modules for only $30 each
- This is where you should buy high quality X10 add-ons and upgrades not available at
Finally, I hope I have saved you a lot of trouble, and saved yourself from an X10
migraine and a lobotomy! I hope I did my best to ferret out "the best of the
best" in inexpensive X10 products, with the best bang for the buck!"