How home automation modules communicate

Home automation modules primarily communicate via the electrical wiring in your house.  Two common protocols for this communication are X10 and INSTEON.  X10 is an open standard for home automation developed in 1975.  INSTEON was developed by SmartLabs, Inc and can be run as X10 compatible and/or with INSTEON which is somewhat more robust than X10.  Both protocols are sufficient for most simple home automation needs.

Room lights(77426)Credit: TEA @

There are going to be several different modules used in your home automation system that work together.  The simplest setup is:

  • A wireless remote
  • A wireless receiver
  • A lamp module

A higher end system will include software and a computer interface module which allows for more advanced home automation.  SmartHome offers an USB module with software which allows for things like triggers and macros.

One of the options with most home automation software is to setup macros that respond to an ON/OFF signal sent over the system.  Using this feature multiple lights can be turned on or off by just pressing one button on a remote.  Different macros can be setup for the same lights setting different illumination levels to create different atmospheres in a room.

Lamp Module vs Appliance Module

The workhorse of the home automation system has to be the lamp module or possibly the appliance module.  These modules do basically the same thing, but there are some distinctions that a potential user needs to be aware of.

A lamp module is simply that, a module to plug a lamp into to be turned on and off by the home automation.  A lamp module can also dim the lamp, but is only a two prong outlet, not having a ground wire.  Keep in mind that most compact flourescent bulbs can't be dimmed.

Electric Outlet Close UpThe appliance module offers a grounded outlet but doesn't support dimming.  A light can be used with an appliance module but it can only be turned on or off.  Home automation appliance modules are geared towards being used with appliances that if they were dimmed could potentially damage them.  Something like a window unit air conditioner could be plugged into an appliance module.

A special case of a lamp or appliance module are ones that actually replace light switches.  These allow for the overhead lights in a room to be controlled by a home automation system or a home automation remote.  Overhead flourescent lights will require an appliance switch.

Home automation system remotes

There is a wide range of remotes to select from for a home automation system.  Everything from small keychain remotes to large command center type remotes or a computer if the proper module is attached.

The smallest would be the keychain remote and the credit card controller keychain remote.  These two home automation remotes will have somewhat limit capabilities but if you are carrying it in a purse or your pocket some function needs to be sacrificed for size.  If the receiver is placed at the right location it will be possible to turn on and off lights from outside the house.  No more walking into a dark house.

The typical remote that will be used around the house though will probably be a palm sized remote.  Either one dedicated to the home automation system, or a universial remote with a selector for the home automation system.  The univserial remotes are a wonder option for use in a TV or media room.  Using the macro feature mentioned above the lights can be programmed to different presets depending on the mood your are seeking.

The straight palm remote, that only send home automotion commands, are available at a much lower price than the universal remotes so it will be easier to have more around.  Put one on each side of the bed and you will be able to turn off your spouses light if they fall asleep with it on.

There are also various options in table top controls for a home automation system.  From simple mini alarm clock models to large color touch screen systems to allow you to control the appliances in your house.

Other modules to consider when you get your home automation system

There are several other types of modules available for a home automation system:

  • Indoor/Outdoor wireless motion sensor - send 'ALL LIGHTS ON' when a senser picks up motion.
  • A chime module - maybe instead of other the top panic with turning all the lights on, you would just like to ring something like a door bell if a sensor picks up someone coming up the walk.
  • Socket screw in modules - if for some reason you can't plug the light socket into an outlet, plug the home automation module into the socket, then the light in the module
  • Thermostat set back control - would allow you to control the thermostat right from the home automation system.
  • My favorite, which no longer appears to be available is/was Robo-Dog, which was similar to the chime module but was a loud barking dog.
  • Door and window sensors - this is moving more into the area of a security system but there also modules available that detect door and windows opening that can send home automation commands. 
  • Freeze detectors
  • Leak detectors
  • Irrigation control kits
  • Telephone alert kits - turn a light on if the phone rings

How to buy your first home automation system

With this short run down of entry level home automation systems you should have some idea of the various modules that you will want.  Many vendors sell a starter kit which will include everything you need for a  beginning system.  Then you can add modules individually as you need.

For a nice starter kit with computer interface modules you are probably looking at about $250 or so.  With this you will be able to control many of the lights and other appliances in the house.  Lamp and appliance modules start at below $10 apiece.  Motion sensors and remotes range from $20 - $50 or more depending on options.  Some of the high end detectors like leak or freeze detectors can be $300 or more.  But if you got advance warning of a leak you could quickly save that by not having to replace things due to water damage.  Any system you get should grow with your needs.

Some of the latest software options even allow control of your home over the internet.