Overview

For over three years I’ve been working with home automation and video security for our house. In the process I’ve tried several different hardware and software solutions for both tasks but only recently have I felt that I successfully found a solution that is both reliable and easy to use.

My first experience with home automation and video security was with X10. While certainly very inexpensive compared to other options, it was also very unreliable from both a hardware and software perspective. It wasn’t long before I ditched the X10 software and moved onto mControl for software-based management. Not long after I made that switch I also ditched the X10 cameras and moved on to IP-based cameras managed using Vitamin D Video.

Frustrated with a lack of adequate development for mControl, I transferred all of my home automation and security software from a Windows environment over to an iMac. At the time of the transfer I was running mControl under Winodws 7 and moved over to Indigo 6 under Mountain Lion. While I don’t have a problem with using Windows (and I used it for a couple of years as my automation server) it did have a tendency to lock up at least once a month, and sometimes when I was out of town. Prior to the move I hadn’t had that problem with my iMac and since then I haven’t had the problem. It was a major issue when it did lock up – it was also my VPN server so if the system froze in addition to not having any automation control software available my camera feeds were not being recorded and I could not access my home network to manually view the IP cameras.

Appliance versus Software

Perhaps a home automation appliance may be a better solution, but I chose to use the hardware that I already had on hand. The iMac was usually left powered on anyway and since I purchased a 13″ MacBook Pro it’s been underutilized. Whether or not to use an appliance is not something I can provide an opinion for based on experience. It may be the best option for many. In any case, ensure that the appliance has support for the devices that you want to use and it’s also a good idea to ensure that it has some kind of mobile access capability.

X10, Insteon, and Z-Wave

Recently, I began phasing out the remaining X10 devices with Z-Wave and I will eventually do the same with the remaining Insteon modules. Z-Wave has proven to be fairly reliable, well supported, and costs about the same as Insteon devices. Insteon devices are not bad – but I’d prefer to use a protocol that is more widely supported and also have all devices in the house working on the same protocol.

I started out using X10 simply because of the cost but in the long run it wasn’t worth the savings. I experienced frequent communication problems. A major drawback is that X10 devices do not confirm whether or not they successfully received a command. You can use a remote to signal a device to turn on and it’s very possible that nothing will happen.

Insteon and Z-Wave, however, do send responses back acknowledging whether or not devices received the commands (in the event of failure you’ll either know it didn’t work or it will rebroadcast the command). In addition, devices for both protocols establish mesh networks. This means each device acts as a repeater (over powerline, wirelessly, or both) to increase reliability. The devices also have unique IDs making it far less likely that someone else’s gear will interfere with yours.

Z-Wave Range

The range with Z-Wave doesn’t appear to be particular strong but I think that’s a limitation of the Z-Wave control stick and not the devices themselves. I had a problem with the new Z-Wave switch not responding and I had determined that even though it was practically line-of-site (except for one wooden door) that it was simply too far for the stick to talk to it (this wasn’t a very long distance – perhaps around 30 feet). At the time there were no other Z-Wave devices between the two.

I considered purchasing an extender but since it costs almost as much as a standard Z-Wave appliance module I simply purchased an appliance module. Even though it’s not currently being used for a light it works great as a bridge between the two (and due to its location it will likely be used to control our Christmas tree lights next year).

Notifications

The collective system isn’t passive. Both software applications are setup with schedules (as well as triggers that can be changed remotely if we’ll be gone during the scheduled monitoring times). Sighthound will send photo snapshots via e-mail (additional notification methods are possible) based on certain criteria. Indigo 6 monitors motion sensors within the house. If they detect movement within the scheduled times then Indigo will push notifications immediately to my iPhone via Growl and Prowl.

The Indigo mobile app makes it easy to turn on always-on monitoring. Extending the video monitoring schedules are little more involved. Sighthound doesn’t offer a way to change the status of rules (yet, but they have added remote access and a mobile application) so to activate or deactivate certain rules I must first VPN to the system and then use a remote desktop app on my iPhone to control the software.

Security

As with any system the security methods I’ve used can be defeated by loss of power or Internet connection. However, this is typically the same risk with any monitored system (excluding those that have cellular backup systems). In any case I heavily recommend the use of battery-backups for any network gear, cameras, and computer systems. At the least this will protect your gear from power spikes and brief power outages.

I don’t advocate connecting these devices to cloud-services, if possible, in order to access them remotely. Personally, I recommend establishing some kind of VPN connection method so you can connect (relatively) securely back into your network. This also provides the added benefit of being able to access additional network resources and it can even come in handy when in a hotel so you’re not sending private data over an open wifi connection. And, of course, ensure that any wifi networks are secured (use WPA or WPA2 instead of WEP). You don’t want your neighbors or strangers passing through to be able to access your cameras.

Some people choose to put up warning signs indicating to potential thieves that they have a security system and/or cameras. I don’t. Personally, I’d prefer that someone end up on camera trying to break in, rather then giving them hints about how to defeat the systems I’ve put in place. Seriously consider ensuring that you can receive images from your cameras to a mobile device or e-mail account. If someone breaks in and steals your recording device then it won’t have done you any good. Make it so you can have evidence stored outside of your home.

Warnings

If you’re not sure what you’re doing when replacing a wired device then don’t take a chance. Hire someone or ask a friend that does know and always, always, shut off power at the breaker.

Do not use standard compact fluorescent bulbs with any dimmable switch or lamp module. This is a fire hazard. Use either on/off appliance modules/switches or fluorescent bulbs that are made to function in dimmers. The same may apply to LEDs as well. Note that not all dimmable LEDs will work great in a dimmer switch, especially with an X10 switch that requires some power to leak through.

Final Notes

Included in this page is a list of the software and hardware I’m currently using. I didn’t bother listing all of the Insteon and Z-Wave modules that I have in place. So far I haven’t had problems with setting any of them up with Indigo. For the most part I’m just using wall-switches, lamp modules, appliance modules, motion sensors, and a remote or two.

If all that you want to do is control one light or have one camera in your home then there’s no reason to invest in everything I’m using. In fact, I’ve purchased (or upgraded) many of these components over several years. Indigo and Sighthound Video both come in basic and professional versions. If you only need to control one camera or one light then the basic versions will work fine.

There are also other software packages, some of which may be free or less expensive, that may work fine for very basic usage. However, based on my experience I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start with X10. Go straight for Insteon or Z-Wave and I personally recommend Z-Wave at this point. Another limitation some home owners will run into is the wiring available in some homes, especially older homes. Anyone preparing to invest in wall switches should first shut off the breakers to those switches and inspect the wiring. All Insteon switch modules seem to require a white, neutral wire. Some Z-Wave switches also require this wire. Save yourself some trouble by verifying, before you order modules that cost around $40 each, that the modules will be compatible.

The plug-in appliance and lamp (dimmable) modules will generally work in any environment (both Insteon and Z-Wave included).

System Specs
iMac (21.5″, Mid 2011, 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5, 16 GB RAM, 1 TB SATA), Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8)

Home Automation Software
Indigo 6 Pro (X10, Insteon, and now Z-Wave devices support)

Automation Control Devices
PowerLinc 2413U Modem – INSTEON USB Interface (Dual-Band)
Aeon Labs Z-Wave Z-Stick Series 2 USB Dongle

Video Recording/Monitoring Software
Sighthound Video (Mac/Windows – formerly Vitamin D Video)

IP Video Cameras
Foscam Wireless/Wired IP Camera (FI8918W)
Foscam Outdoor Wireless/Wired Camera (FI8905W)

VPN Server Management Software
iVPN OS X Server

Notifications
Growl
Prowl (for pushing Growl notifications to iOS)

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