Debugging and Solving Signal Problems with X10 Home Automation
X10 automation is not perfect, problems arise from weak signals,
or interference in your household wiring. This section describes some
of the steps you can take, and the tools you can use to diagnose
problems, and steps you can take to solve problems when they arise.
Improving your signalThe X10 signals that travel on your power line are made weaker with distance traveled. The signal is also made weaker when it is "absorbed" by other devices on your powerline. Most X10 devices will themselves absorb (decrease the strength) of signals generated by other X10 devices, and your X10 devices that transmit will absorb even more. Thus, for example, a switch module that can confirm its status (respond to a status inquiry) will likely absorb more of the signal from other devices than will a similar switch module that can not confirm its status.
PhaseThe distance an X10 signal must travel depends on its placement in your house wiring. If the sender is on the same circuit as the receiver, the distance traveled is simply the distance along the wires between the devices. If they are on diferent circuits, then the distance traveled is from the sender, back to your breaker box, and then along the other circuit to the receiver. But if the sender and receivers are on different phases (most houses have two phase wiring, and about half of the circuits are on one phase and half on the other), then the signal must travel from the sender, to your breaker box, out to the transformer in the street, back to the breaker box, and finally to the receiver. This is a very long distance, and you are likely to lose most of the signal strength in doing so.
There are several ways to address the phase problem. If you have only a few devices, you can try to keep the senders and receivers on the same phase of your house wiring. Alternatively, you can use a passive phase coupler which will allow the signal to pass from one phase to another, from within your house (i.e. without going to the outside transformer). These couplers come either as a device you plug into a 220 outlet (e.g. for your electric dryer, or air conditioner - since 220 devices take power from both phases). You can also get a wire-in phase coupler that installs in your breaker box - but this option requires rewiring).
Another option, which I do not recommend, is to use an active phase coupler / repeater, which will listen for the signal on one phase, and retransmit it on the other phase. This results in a stronger signal than the passive coupler, but it can also produce interference or other problems. I installed one and found that the repeater would occasionally get in a mode that it just tranmitted bad data on the line, completely interfering with all of my X10 traffic. When I replaced the active coupler / repeater with a passive coupler, my problems went away.
Signal AbsorbersThere are many devices you use at home that can absorb X10 signals, reducing the streengt of the signal available for reception, and thus causing unrealibility. Televisions and computers are some of the major culprits, but other devices cause problems as well. Check out my list of signal absorbers to find out about some of these devices. It is important to note that the absorption of X10 signals by such devices does not mean the device is faulty - it likely works fine on normal household electricity. It is the X10 signals that is not supposed to be on the power line.
You can usually address a problem with a signal absorber by using an X10 power line filter placed on the problem device (you plug the filter into the wall outlet and the device into the filter). The filter will stop the X10 signal from making it to the problem device, so it won't be absorbed. I recommend either the 5A FilterLinc or the 10A FilterLinc Plug-In X10 Noise Filter. Another option is the XPPF filter made by X10.
As already mentioned, X10 devices themselves will usually absorb a small part of the X10 signal. Naturally, you can not place a filter on an X10 device itself, as that will prevent the proper functioning of the device. However, you can try to avoid placing other X10 devices really close to X10 transmitters, or you can get the BoosterLinc Plug-In Signal Booster - X10 / X-10 Amplifier from SmartHome which is useful in houses with so many X10 devices that absorption by the X10 devices themselves becomes a problem.
The new Insteon protocol provides greater reliability than the X10 protocol, including automatic retries, acknowledgements, and repeating of automation signals. Although Insteon is a different protcol than X10, most Inteon requipment can also send and received X10 signals, allowing for a mixed network of devices. Installing Insteon components will not improve your X10 reliability (and may slightly reduce it because Insteon devices will absorb part of the X10 signal just like other X10 devices), but the controllers and devices using Insteon communication will have better reliability.
ToolsI have found the Testerlinc X10 signal analyzer, available from SmartHome, to be a useful device to debug the X10 signals in my home. It is less expensive than some of the other signal analyzers available, yet it allows one to read signal strength and the individual parts that make up X10 signals. It requires use of of 1132B version of the PowerLinc controller, which can be purchased together in the TesterLinc and PowerLinc combo kit if you do not already have one.
Additional Home Automation Information