Who is The ‘black sheep’ of the Smart Home?

In the home automation market, some vendors are loved and adored while others are outcasts. No, I’m not referring to the continual iOS versus Android battles with the constant mudslinging and blog fights between fanboys on both sides.

There are some small vendors that have very interesting and useful products but for one reason or another, they are ignored by the general public, misaligned by their competitors, and only mentioned in the press or online articles when referred to as “has beens” or earlier tech.

I’m going to wave the flag for one of the vendors I work with that deserves more attention – Insteon. I don’t expect you to become instant fans; I only ask to keep an open mind as I try to explain the interesting and unique appeal of the Insteon smart home product line.

Most likely you’ve never heard of them, so hopefully this will be educational and informative. Even if you don’t choose to use any Insteon products, some of the capability I will describe is worth considering as you select companies and choose products in the future.

What is Insteon?

Insteon is a family of home automation products consisting of device hardware, control hubs, software, and services. A typical installation may use some or all of these capabilities. Insteon makes most of the common smart home devices such as dimmers, switches (both standalone modules and wired in-wall), thermostats, door/window sensors, motion sensors & security cameras.

They have a lot of devices – some of the more interesting ones are water leak detectors, in-ceiling fan controllers, in-wall keypad switches, and mini rf keypads and switches. They even have specialized devices such as dry contact relay controllers, micro modules, and devices certified for use in UK and Australia electrical circuits.

The first special feature of Insteon products that is routinely overlooked is the unique capability to work without any hub or control software. Every Insteon device has a small push button switch which can be used to manually configure the devices. With the proper sequence of plugging the device into the power outlet and pressing the buttons, you can link a switch to a dimmer or vice-versa. Now the switch is programmed to control the lamp or light attached to the the dimmer.

This direct linkage mode is called “peer to peer networking”. Insteon is the only smart home products that do this. Every other product on the market requires a smartphone, computer, or hub device to act as the central controller. With Insteon, you can start small (with only one switch and one dimmer) and then grow at your own pace.

You can always add hubs and controllers later without having to replace any of the modules you have already purchased.

Insteon products working in peer to peer mode do not require an Internet connection. This is a failsafe mode that most other products don’t provide – if your Internet goes down, Insteon keeps working.

Insteon devices can work by themselves but they become more valuable when linked together as part of a bigger automation system. Insteon makes two versions of their own hubs, but they make their software interface (“API”) available to other companies and there is a good selection of hubs and controllers (both hardware or software) available from other companies that supplement or replace the hubs and software made by Insteon.

The choice of which Insteon hub to use depends upon what other smart home systems you are using or plan to use – Amazon Echo or Apple HomeKit.

If you want to be compatible with Amazon Echo for voice control of your Insteon devices, you’ll want the Insteon Hub Model 2245-222. Alternatively, if you want to use Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, then you’ll want the Insteon Hub for HomeKit Model 2243-222. (Be careful matching model numbers as the names are similar and the hubs look alike)

Either of these are excellent choices for automating a single room or even several rooms. If you plan to automate your entire house, you might want to consider some of bigger control systems that work with Insteon. For more details reply to this email or contact me directly.

The second unique special capability of Insteon is how the modules communicate. Every Insteon device (except for really old products or the battery-only modules) have two completely different network communication interfaces built-in. Insteon devices that plug into a wall outlet or are wired in-wall, create a complete peer-to-peer mesh network using the AC voltage wires already in your house.

Each Insteon module can talk to any other Insteon module without going through a central hub or server. As a peer-to-peer network, each device automatically repeats every message it receives, so the more devices you install, the more reliable the network becomes. Since no device is a central controller, you can easily add and remove devices and a problem with one device doesn’t stop the network from operating.

(It’s like the old children’s game of sitting in a circle and whispering a message into your friend’s ear and they whisper into their friend’s ear until the message passes all the way around, but instead of going around in a circle, each person shouts the message so everyone else hears it at the same time.)

Using the household AC wiring to send signals is not a new thing – it has been done since the 1960’s or earlier. Before reliable lost-cost digital electronics it often received a bad reputation as being slow and unreliable. This has changed greatly and the current implementation is fast and proven.

Requiring every device to be plugged in does limit what you can do. Insteon developed a low-powered radio frequency (RF) technology that is battery powered and used by the door/window sensors, water leak detector, and other battery-powered devices. But Insteon didn’t stop there – they added the RF capability to all the AC powered products. So every plug-in device has two networks and each device automatically transmits (bridges) between both the AC network and the RF network.

Most other smart home devices only use a single radio (RF) network. High-power Wi-Fi or lower-power Bluetooth, Z-Wave, or Zigbee networks all suffer the same issues of limited range, problems traveling through walls, and dead spots. Insteon is unique in using two different mesh networks simultaneously so even a small project with only a few modules won’t have any trouble with range or distance limitations.

You gotta admire the simple beauty of this system – wherever there is noise or interference on the electrical wires the Insteon modules can “jump over” by using their radio frequency (RF) network and where there is distance or interference problems with the RF, the Insteon modules can “punch through” using the existing AC electrical wires!

What do you think about Insteon products? Would you like to read more about how to use them? Let me know what you think.


Automation technologist and problem solver

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