Helpware: How to program your life

February 29, 2016 

When my kids were young and electricity was expensive and cash was tight, I’d lecture them about the fact that lights that were turned on could also be turned off. The message never seemed to resonate with them, so I installed a series of automatic timers to turn the lights on at certain times and off when the kids were ready for bed. Lights-outs were absolutes in those days.

My kids left the nest long ago, but the timers remained. Some of the timers were mechanical, requiring only moving a metal or plastic stopper for on and off times; others, especially switches, were more complicated. My latest ones are the most complicated of all. The wall switches required a YouTube visit to learn how to set them, and even then, the setting screens are so small, I have to use a magnifying glass to change settings. I seldom get it right — lights come on at 2 a.m. and go off in the middle of dinner. Some of the timers don’t work with fluorescent lights, which defeats the whole idea of timers saving energy.

What to do?

Go high-tech, of course.

A California company called Insteon makes exactly what I need — precise, dependable programming devices. High-tech never comes cheap, but I was frustrated enough with my low-tech timers that I made the leap.

The Insteon timers I chose are controlled by a hub that’s connected to my Time Warner Cable router. A starter kit, which I recommend, costs $120 and includes the hub, Ethernet cable and two outlet timers. Wall switches cost $50 a pop. The app for iPhones, Android phones and Windows that allows for setting up scenarios such as timers is free. The app governs all the separate switches and looks easy enough to program, but it was a challenge, until I got the hang of it. I had to contact Insteon tech support twice (hold times were about an hour each time), and even then I had to figure out on my own why I couldn’t get the timers to work. The techs are patient and know their products, but I forgot to ask about one timing feature, which I finally figured out — by trial and error.

The kit comes with a quick-start guide that is a quick read but it’s sadly lacking in the detailed instructions I needed to program a couple of living room lamps. Online manuals ( tell how to install switches and outlets, and offer help actually programming them. I found some YouTube videos that helped with the basics, too.

I plugged one of the modules into a wall outlet, then plugged the lamp into it. After a minute or so, the app and the hub discovered the module via radio frequency. I gave the outlet a name — "living room floor lamp" — and created a schedule — on at 5 p.m., off at 1 a.m.

The iPhone app couldn’t locate the second module, so I had to enter a code that’s written on the back of the module before it was recognized. Then came the challenge of programming the second timer. I decided to put the second timer through its paces by setting up six schedules — on at 4 p.m., off at 4:10 p.m.; on at 4:15 p.m., off at 4:30 p.m., and on and on. There is no limit to how many scenes that can be set up for a timer. Finally, I got the hang of it.

And then …

I decided to hire an electrician to install the wall-switch timers, which, I learned, require three wires — black, red and white (neutral). Since I live in an old house, there are no neutral wires in my outlets. The electrician said it might be possible to install the switches, and maybe they would work, but the labor costs were prohibitive. I figured it would take years to break even on actual energy savings. Insteon does offer a two-wire wall switch, but it can control only incandescent lights, which made no sense for me as far as energy savings. Even if I used 38-watt incandescent bulbs, that’s five times the wattage of 40-watt-equivalent LED bulbs.

If you have a newer house that was built in about the last 20 years, the wall switches make sense, since that’s when neutral wiring became common. Once you install the modules, there’s no stopping you. Garage doors can be controlled from the app, different rooms can have different schedules. An Insteon thermostat can be controlled from the app from anywhere there’s a wireless connection. Basically, any device that has an Insteon device installed can be controlled. There also are modules for Wi-Fi security cameras that you can see from anywhere, motion detectors, LED lights, water leaks and even an alarm that will wake up your ditsy standard poodle and open her mechanical doggy door. Best of all, the devices can be controlled from anywhere wirelessly or even with a smartphone’s data connection. Insteon also makes remote controls that work onsite only.

Do you need an Insteon-controlled home? I think it would be swell to have timers everywhere — if my house were newer, and I could afford buying and installing the equipment. But the costs add up very quickly. If that’s not an issue, and you think you can figure out how to make it all work, go for it. Why spend $10 on a mechanical timer when you can spend $50 on a high-tech one?


UPDATE: If you don’t like the keyboard that comes with iMacs, and are thinking about buying a Mac-compatible DasKeyboard — the clicky built-like-a-tank device that I’ve come to like very much — know that there are some downsides. While the keyboard ($133-$175, depending on features) feels the same as the one for Windows PCs, it lacks the launchpad and mission control keys altogether, and the media keys require holding down the "fn" key. If you’re comfortable with half a loaf and have the bread, the Mac keyboard is a pleasure to use.



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