Submission By: Ant – This morning I was primed to settle down to a normal day’s work when Chaos on the UK Home Automation IRC Channel mentioned something about “B&Qs HomeEasy automation stuff“, and that pretty much put paid to the rest of the morning. We turfed up the website (www.homeeasy.eu) but there was precious little information on there besides the usual marketing guff. So time for an in-depth review for Automated Home. Is this the successor to X10 I’ve been looking for? Read on to find out and check out the rest of the photos and the video.
HomeEasy (www.homeeasy.eu) also seems to trade as C H Byron (www.chbyron.com) (although their main gig seems to be doorbells) and also as RS Home Automation (www.rshomeautomation.com) and Traditional Trading (www.traditionaltrading.co.uk). All this kit is *allegedly* compatible, and some of it is available on some of these websites and not on others. Furthermore, it is claimed (by evil HA hackers) that the HomeEasy kit is compatible with Domia and KlikOn/Off (except for advanced dimming features), although this could just be lies designed to deconstruct the fabric of reality as we know it. Damned hackers. The address given on the instructions that accompany each product is “C H Byron, 34 Sherwood Road, Aston Fields, Bromsgrove, B60 3DR”, which to my mind conjures up images of a harmless old duffer tinkering in his garden shed. The “C” in “C H Byron” probably stands for “Colin”. Anyway, clearly Colin has made it to the big time with his giant B&Q order, and good luck to him. It’s all a bit Dragons’ Den, although if he was on there I must have missed it.
Because they’re just down the road, all the modules are proper UK spec, and haven’t been hacked about from 110V originals. The forums and telephone helpline are well manned and responsive. They’re quite forthcoming with information, and like suggestions for improvements and defect reports. I’ve been hassling them all day, and they’ve responded courteously. It’s a world away from my experiences with other, uhm, more purple vendors.
HomeEasy have a gigantic army of different modules guaranteed to have the average Home Automation nerd on their knees weeping with the joy of indecision. The modules are split broadly into the ‘On/Off‘ range, the ‘Dimmable‘ range, and the ‘Ultimate’ range. There’s also an ‘Outdoor‘ range of assorted weather-proof goodies.
The first two are fairly obvious, and the ‘ultimate’ range gives you equivalent functionality to the ‘dimmable’ range but with much funkier face plates like “irridium” and “stainless steel”. ‘Ultimate’ also gives you some more avant-garde options like a signal booster/repeater, or an SMS alert-o-tron. There’s also a touchscreen remote, which is a learning IR job too. The last two are a bit cheap looking for their respective (inflated) price tags, in my opinion.
Some useful pointers: the cheapo range wall switches are RF *transmitters*, the ‘ultimate’ range wall switches are RF *receivers* – that is, they’ve got dimming circuitry built into them. I’m reliably informed that the cheapo range switches will control both ‘dimmable’ and ‘ultimate’ fixtures, and they’ll even dim them (except for the tiny HE301 keyfob remote which can’t do the dim, but can do the on and off). Bafflingly the HE200 remote (from the ‘dimmable’ range) can’t control the ‘ultimate’ light switches (HE107 and HE108), but a firmware update will address this. Existing HE200 remotes however cannot be reflashed with the new firmware by the user, although HomeEasy suggest in their forums that it is technically possible, so perhaps if you popped in for a cup of tea they’d sort you out. Perhaps not. Take my cut-out-and-keep guide above to the store with you, and read the packaging very carefully, and you shouldn’t have any headaches.
As luck would have it, I had planned a trip to Maplin’s to chance my arm on actually buying something which they claimed the store had in stock, but being an old hand I wasn’t taking that on face value. B&Q was next door, so I popped in for a look. At first, I could only find the uber-cheap looking 3-pack-of-plugin-switches-and-crap-remote offer package, and scoured the rest of the store to no avail, when suddenly I spied the booty I sought out of the corner of my eye.
It was taking up a whole ‘aisle end’ (I don’t know the proper retail term, I’m sorry), and incorporated a snazzy “push the buttons, watch the blinkenlights” style demo that for some reason reminds me of museum trips as a child. Having gone to so much effort on the things-lighting-up-front, you’d think they’d have tried to make the whole display a bit less non-descript, but there you go. I submit as evidence a photo, so that those who come after me might more easily find that which they seek.
If you look on HomeEasy’s website, you’ll see a dizzying array of different products, and I was startled to discover that pretty much all of them were available on the B&Q stand. There were even some that don’t appear on the website. This caused me to have mild techno-acquisition panic, as I wanted to maximise the number of different toys I could play with whilst minimising the cost, just in case it all turned out to be a bag of old arse. After taking many combinations off the rack and putting them back again, sometimes in the wrong place (sometimes deliberately), I eventually emerged with a starter kit of two plugin dimmers, an in-line bayonet fitting on/off switch, the mid range remote (all for £39.98) and a ceiling rose dimmer module (£14.98). After munching a contemplative bacon and egg sarnie in the car park, I went back for a ‘switch converter’ (£19.98) – namely, one of those modules you put behind a switchplate to turn your existing switch into an RF dimmable affair.
Initial impressions are not bad; in my opinion the silver stuff (remote and plugin dimmers) look a bit on the cheap side, but they are actually reasonably well made and quite compact. The white plastic in-wall/in-ceiling modules are very solidly built. They’re both about 2 inches square, and the switch backbox module is about half an inch thick. The ceiling rose module on the other hand is a veritable porker: it’s an inch thick. Either the rest of the country is employing much larger ceiling roses than me, or this is highly wishful thinking – it’s a floor-board ripper-upper for sure.
The remote control looks like a cheap mobile phone or TV remote. It has three buttons of interest, these being “unit”, “on”, and “off”. The remote has a clock and timer of some description built in, and there are other buttons given over to its function, but I can’t be bothered with all that. I learned a long time ago that programming a timer with the fewest number of buttons the bean-counters could get away with is an exercise in excruciating frustration, and best avoided.
The ‘unit’ button causes the corresponding unit number on the display to increment from 1 up to sixteen with each button press, then it wraps round to 1 again. Yes, it’s the old user interface paradigm much beloved of 80s clock radios, and just as infuriating as ever. Oh dear, wanted 2? Pressed the button a bit too hastily? Never mind, it’ll be round again in a couple of minutes. This pain could have been spared with the addition of a simple “unit-” button! Retask one of the other buttons! Nobody’s going to use the silly timer anyway! Awful though this is, it pales into insignificance next to the remote’s other shortcoming. There’s no sodding backlight. This really ought to be a shooting offence, or at the very least involve mild maiming. You’ve made a product that controls lighting….so the lights are going to be off some of the time, yeah? See where I’m going with this?
The remote also has a nice red LED to tell you when it’s transmitting. It’s nice to see red making a come back, and I’m pleased that they’ve opted to forego the usual cliched 50 Gigawatt blue LED (although I suspect those are on the ‘ultra’ range). Under the battery cover in the back it takes two wildly different batteries (one is backup for the timer presumably), and there’s also a familair codewheel that X-10 fetishists will cling to. It goes from A-P (X-10 homage?) and sets the unique ID of the remote, so you can have 16 independent remotes (although you can have as many remotes on the same, er, “house code” (for want of a better word) as you please.
You may think I’ve been a little harsh on the HE200, but while I may have left it tearful and bleeding in the playground, I at least let it keep its dinner money: it’s functional, better made than its looks would have you believe, has a decent range (more later), and above all is spectacularly cheap. They were knocking these out as individual units for just over a tenner!
The HE202-S may have a model number that sounds like a brutally efficient German sub-machine gun, but it is otherwise unremarkable. Considerably smaller and less conspicious than the old “hahaha! look at me! I’m from the 70s!!” X-10 tat. Its one flamboyant concession is a permanently glowing red LED, so in use it looks like a mini pastiche of that bit in T2 where Arnie’s getting his head caved in with a giant iron girder. However, this is easily remedied with a bit of black masking tape (the dimmer, not the Terminator). Also on the front is a tiny BPI (Bent Paperclip Interface) whose arcane purpose I shall reveal later. The plugin dimmer is rated at 300W, and is for incandescent loads only; attempt to use anything else and all life as we know it will instantaneously cease.
This is the plug through bayonet fitting lamp thingy. It’s well made, and will extend the bulb by about 3 inches, completely ruining the aesthetic of all those expensive lampshades SWMBO bought, earning you her ire. To be fair, they do actually do an equivalent which replaces the entire ceiling pendant (and terminates in a reasonable facsimile of a proper pendant light fitting) but I wussed out of buying one of those – maybe I’ll review that separately. The HE205 is rated 100W incandescent only.
This little chap is designed to lurk about in the back of your switch boxes, subverting your mundane switches and forcing them to serve the evil home automation overlord. It actually does fit in some of my switch backboxes, something I’m quite amazed about. As you can see, it has screw terminals for the live and switched live, and has two flying leads that go to the original switch.
So simple, a baboon could wire it in. The flying leads aren’t your usual stripped insulation and frayed copper affairs either. Oh no. Proper crimps on the ends. Quality. It has a red LED and a BPI, and an internal 2A fuse. You can’t get at that, so if this chows through 2A fuses at anything like the rate my X10 modules do, there’s going to be trouble. Of the hammer-related variety. Rating here is 210 Watts, incandescents only.
This stout fellow is the HE203’s portly big brother; while the HE203 was down the gym training for marathons, the HE204 was at home on the sofa eating pizzas and watching Celebrity Big Brother. It’s 2 inches by 2 inches by a whopping 1 inch thick. It might fit in the ceiling rose for the Bat Signal, but not in any of mine. To be fair, I’ve just scrutinised the documentation, and nowhere does it actually claim to do so, but I kinda expected it to be of the same dimensions as the HE203 (it’s hard to tell when they’re all packaged up). What do we get for this extra girth? I’ll tell you. You get a replaceable 1.6A fuse, 300W of lighting load, and in a radical departure from the norm, compatability with all sorts of freaky alternate-dimension lighting technology such as G9, PAR30, PAR36, PAR38 (see ‘Bat Signal’), GLS BC, GLS ES, GU10, SBC, G4, MR16..the list goes on. There’s an equally baffling list of things you can’t use, but if I’m reading this correctly you’re fine with our old friends incandescents, and low voltage halogens are now fair game too; anything else will lead to the formation of an unwelcome Time Vortex.
You get a connection for Live in, Neutral in, and switched live and neutral out, all on PCB screw-downs. Dire warnings are given that this device is not suitable for loop wiring and a junction box must be used, but that’s probably only because it would be a tight fit to get two each of the live and neutral tails into the relatively small PCB terminals on the device. But not, I add un-condoningly, impossible! Notably absent is a connection for a switch, a la Marmitek AWM2 & co – if you use one of these, your light will be RF controllable only, none of yer legacy switches here.
I’ll assume you can wire-up and plugin all these badboys for yourselves. I can’t hold your hand forever you know. Having done that, here’s how you set the things up: press the button on the dimmer or other device you want to program, wait for the light to flash, press the ‘on’ button on the relevant remote. Job done. Removing an association is the same, except you press ‘off’ on the remote. You can delete all the pairings from a receiver module by holding its button in for 6 seconds until the LED blinks in protest, then giving it one final vicious shove in the BPI before the LED blinks twice in confusion and the device loses all memory of the trauma, in a kind of electronic post dramatic stress disorder. This all works very very well. My one gripe is that the BPI on the plugin dimmers can be hard to reach if you’ve got a lamp plug with a particularly long and stiff lead, but that’s a minor worry. Any given receiver will remember 6 pairings. The HE200 dimmer will remember 16 pairings. There’s no central controlller or master remote and it’s all admirably anarchic.
I’ve managed to get the system to work very well over a distance of about 10m through several walls and floors, in the presence of considerable competition for the 433 MHz airspace from all the other wireless crap I’ve got floating about. So far, it has not failed to respond to my whim. Very impressive. The response of a lamp to a button press on the remote is instantaneous, which will have those of you previously doomed to X10 setups swooning with the sheer real-time-ness. You’ll feel right at home with the dimming mechanism though – it’s the same irksome ramp-up/ramp-down affair favoured by X-10 manufacturers everywhere, with a slight twist: you press ‘on’ to turn the lamp on, you press ‘on’ again to start the Endless Dimming Cycle of Annoyance, and press ‘on’ a final time when you want it to stop. If you turn a module on and off again, it will remember what its last dim setting was (although not, it seems, if there’s a powercut). The modules soft-start when turned on, taking about a second to reach their target brightness. Swimmy. The dimmers are exceedingly quiet. I can’t hear any buzzing from any of them. Good work, Col.
As noted earlier, the in-ceiling modules don’t have any local control, which is mildly irritating as I didn’t buy any of the HE307/308 switches (think X10 RF Stick-A-Switch). One nice feature with the HE-203 switch convertor is that if you use a combination of the local switch and RF control, the local switch always retains the same sense. By which I mean up is always off, down is always on. I’ve had some systems where the meaning toggles depending on how much intervening RFing you did, and that’s infuriating. Well done Colin.
Ok, there’s a big one. Get ready, it’s going to be like getting clubbed in the face with a sea-urchin encrusted mallet….there’s no PC control interface!
Or is there? Evil HA Hackers RFXCOM (www.rfxcom.com) provide a 433 MHz transceiver interface with various computer-connecting options, although just thinking about the price gives me toothache, and XPLMonkey (www.xplmonkey.com) provides an SDK and all sorts of other bits and pieces, much of it baffling Windows nonsense. Of course, anyone who wants to be counted as a Real Man knows that he can buy a 433 MHz transceiver and a microcontroller with a USB interface for about 30 quid, then it is simply a matter of reverse engineering all the RF protocols and rolling your own homebrew system. Alternatively, you can wait for Colin to build you one, but his forums don’t give much hope that it’s going to be any time soon.
The other drawback is that there are transmitters and receivers in the system, but no transceivers. So you can’t go querying devices for their current brightness, or any of that starry-eyed daydreamers’ nonsense. Much like the old school X10. Come to think of it, much like the new school X-10, where the shambolically grafted-on status interfaces resembled Frankenstein’s monster, and were about as successful. *Unlike* X-10 though, the system is so responsive that you could build a star topology (all transmissions go to your HA controller which logs the state and then forwards the signal on to the intended recipient) and it would actually be useable, unlike the glacial delays you get when trying to do the same thing with anything involving transmission over the powerlines.
On the forums and in the packaging, the whole issue of two-way lighting (stairs etc) is muddied and confused. Basically, you can achieve this by using a single proper dimmer switch and a “dimmer slave switch” (which is only available from traditionaltrading.co.uk, and nobody seems quite certain what it is, or does) or you can, go the in-ceiling/pendant approach and use RF transmitter switches for your slave switches, with the caveat that the latter are only available in Stormtrooper White.
Preset dimming is currently only available if you have the ‘ultimate’ HE-100 remote control. Which is a bit pants, but not the end of the world.
Is this system a worthy successor to X10? I think it is. It is no Crestron, Lutron, CBus etc system: it lacks their space-age functionality. On the other hand, it doesn’t cost 523 megapounds per switch and require you to rewire your house with the finest strands of monomolecular platinum either. HomeEasy retrofits nicely. It co-exists with non-HA nicely (SWMBO-Points all round). It’s “how much? No come on, really?” cheap. And it seems (thus far) to be well designed and well made. And there’s a vast plethora of available options. It even has some of the same irritating idiosyncracies of X-10. It is a hundred times better than some of the purple “advanced X-10” tripe we’ve been served up recently, at about 100th of the cost. The only real hurdle is the lack of a correspondingly cheap PC interface, and I suspect that someone, be it Colin or the HA hackers, will get there reasonably soon. I for one shall be rolling out more HomeEasy stuff, and hopefully one day X-10 will be a fond, if vaguely unpleasant memory, like childhood chicken-pox.