Monday, January 11, 2010

A home automation odyssey (or perhaps iliad)

The following is an email I'm sending to ACT Solutions, which summarizes pretty well what I want to write about, so I'll just quote it in its entirety.

First, to establish the scene for those unfamiliar with these subjects:

Z-Wave is a home automation system where you install special light switches that control your lights both by tapping them, and remotely via a controller or from a computer running software like HomeSeer.

ACT Solutions makes the HomePro line of such switches, including the ZDW103 master switch and AS101 slave switches, which together replace the multiple switches of a three-way or four-way circuit (where multiple switches control one light). They also make the ZTW103, which looks like a switch but is actually a transmitter to send signals to other switches, allowing you to simulate a three-way circuit by putting in one real switch and one or more transmitters keyed to control it, without the usual ways electricians wire three-way switches.

Without further ado, here's the email I just sent them.

More than a year ago I purchased a ZDW103 and two AS101 switches to add to my Z-Wave system (with HomeSeer at the center) to automate the four-way switches controlling my main overhead lights in the living room. These switches have failed me so thoroughly and cost me so much time and money in the process that I feel I must draw this to your attention in hopes you can suggest a satisfactory remediation. I suspect that most of these purchases are well outside warranty (through no fault of mine), and at best I'm out shipping both ways on the remainder (again through no fault of mine); so I'm not sure what, if anything, you're willing and able to do. But you should be aware of the nature of my extreme displeasure with these products.

I am no electrician, I'm more of a software guy, but I am still on the savvy end of "consumer" when it comes to electrics. I've installed dozens of X-10 and Z-Wave wall switches, motion sensors, magnetic switches, and other devices in several houses over the last ten years. So when I heard about the ZDW103/AS101 combo, and read the descriptions on various websites and the HomeSeer forum, I expected to stand a good chance at being able to install them. My house, built in 2004, had Z-Wave switches in all the single-switch circuits installed during construction, but as there were no three-way solutions available at the time, the three-ways and four-ways were left unautomated, and this was a big gap in my automation. So I ordered a set.

However, my attempts to install the ZDW103/AS101 switches were fruitless. The instructions were abysmally unhelpful. Time and again I would make an attempt, then report my results on one or another forum, or to one or another friend, in hopes of getting useful advice. Time would pass while I waited for answers, and I'd try again. At one point I downloaded several documents from your web site at the recommendation of someone on the HomeSeer forum who I think identified himself as an employee of yours, but I don't know for sure who it was. None of this helped, and lots of time passed, enough time that the warranty probably had expired, and I still never had the switches installed.

Finally I gave up and hired an electrician, at considerable cost, and adding another considerable delay while I waited for an opening in her calendar. She came out in late November and found the directions just as baffling as I had (which actually seemed kind of reassuring to me!). She called your offices and spoke with someone who said he was the one who had written those directions, and who agreed they were very badly written. Based on his advice on the phone, she was able to get the switches installed, and all seemed well.

But within minutes, a problem surfaced. Randomly, the lights would just turn themselves off. Not abruptly; they'd ramp down through dim to off just like they would if you tapped the button. I hadn't even added the unit to my Z-Wave remote yet, but over the next few days, I systematically tested and eliminated every software-related issue I could find. I reset the unit, I left my HomeSeer system unplugged, I took batteries out of my remote, all to no avail. There was no pattern to when it happened, either.

Meanwhile, our main living room lights were turning themselves off over and over. You can't imagine how annoying that is. Sometimes they'd stay on an hour; other times they'd turn off every few minutes or even several times in a minute. I created HomeSeer events to keep forcing them back on, but that just meant our lights are constantly flickering. This is no way to earn Wife Approval Factor!

The people on the HomeSeer forum reported that many others had had this problem with AS101s. According to them, while the Z-Wave signal itself is well protected against the kind of noise that used to cause false triggering on X-10 switches, the AS101 can be triggered by electrical noise into sending a correctly-formatted Z-Wave signal to the ZDW103. This seemed suspicious to me; a five-year-old house is not likely to be a source of as much noise of any sort as the quantity of flickering I was seeing. But it fit the symptoms. On their advice, replacing the AS101s with ZTW103s would solve the problem and should be something I could wire in easily, so I dug out the credit card and poured more money into the system by buying a pair. Meanwhile, another few weeks had passed getting these answers, and more passed while I waited for the backordered ZTW103s to arrive, all the while my lights flickering maddeningly.

It turns out that ZTW103s do not simply wire in place of AS101s; there is no one-to-one correspondence of where the wires in one go to on the other, and my boxes might not even have readily available the power sources the ZTW103s need, but if they do, I am not up to the task of wiring them. So more weeks have passed while I tried to figure out a way to get the ZTW103s in before I gave up and placed another call to the electrician.

Despite a general lack of help, I was able to figure out how I could temporarily remove the AS101s from the circuit entirely, giving up the ability to turn the lights on from the front or side door (where we normally need to turn them on) to eliminate the maddening flickering, until the electrician could come in. To my surprise, even with the AS101s unwired and getting no power, the light keeps doing the same thing. The flaw must have been in the ZDW103 all along, not the AS101s! (Though at this point I wouldn't be surprised to be told all these switches have flaws of one sort or another.) Which means the $100 I spent on those two ZTW103s, and the additional cost of electrician time to install them, will be for nothing.

I am now more than a year and a half into the project, having invested several hundred dollars and scores of hours of my time, and all I have to show for it is two months of my living room lights flickering on and off so frequently people are joking that we live in a disco. And after all that time and money and frustration poured in, when the electrician finally arrives, I can think of nothing to do but to ask her to reverse what she did previously and put the manual switches back in, so I will have wasted all of that for NOTHING. All this, in an attempt to install a supposedly consumer-ready switch system for a single light.

Perhaps if you have some very, very compelling idea for how I can have her do something that is going to work, and you can offer some solid assurance that I won't just be signing up for another similarly agonizing, costly, and futile odyssey, I will end up with one light automated. But I certainly won't take that risk unless your certainty is profoundly convincing. I hope that there is something you can offer me to make up for the remarkably thorough way in which your products have failed me. But all I really want at this point, other than my money back for those parts of the system that can't be made to work, is to get this light automated already. Ideally without spending hundreds more dollars hiring electricians and buying switches with terrible directions and faulty functionality.

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