Lighting Revisited

In my original lighting post, I covered a lot of the different available technologies and why I chose Insteon. Over the last couple of years as I grew the system, my outlook changed slightly.

Originally, I had mentioned experiencing my first device failure, but that the failure rate was acceptable to me. Well, as time went on that failure rate seemed to pick up, with the occasional device needing replacement every few months or so. Not that bad overall, and nowhere near enough failures to justify moving to another system. Then one month I replaced three failed devices within that single month. Again, this was annoying but not likely representative of a failure rate I could expect going forward, just a coincidentally high amount of failures that month. Nonetheless, the failure rate did seem to be picking up slowly, but I also felt the reliability was lacking. It seemed more and more likely that a single light would be left on overnight (after using a command to shut them all off the night before), or signals would take an annoyingly long time to activate a device. The root cause for this is somewhat unclear. It could have been slowly failing devices that appeared to still work but just send or receive signals clearly. Or it could have been a problem with too many Insteon devices in the network (I did have quite a few), or it could have been some sort of signal interference (which is somewhat difficult to diagnose).


Lags to activate a device were something I found particularly annoying. If I lived alone and no one ever used the system, I could probably cope with it, but the reality is that my family needs to use it as well, both immediate and extended when they are over. When someone presses a button that's labeled 'Lamp' for instance, and the lamp doesn't turn on right away, they usually just hit it again. Then they might see it finally come on... and then off shortly after. Ultimately, they become uncomfortable or scared to use it.


A quick sidebar on having automated lighting: When I first started playing with automated lighting, I thought it was a cool thing and something that might be fun to mess around with while still being somewhat handy. I had a lamp that I didn't want to get up and turn on or off all the time, or was always used with another light, so I could just link them or something to that effect. Then I got another switch, or the computer interface and started to see how it could be a bit more useful to me. After we built the new house and I automated pretty much all of the lights, it turned out that it wasn't so much of a toy or an experiment anymore, but something we really liked having. This of course made it much more bothersome when things didn't work correctly, but also made me more willing to spend the extra effort and money to ensure it did. So I started to consider replacing the system.


However, since I was still very happy with the Indigo control software I was using, I was stuck between the two protocols it supported: Insteon and Z-Wave. I had done a bit of research on Z-Wave, and wasn't yet fully convinced when I found that someone on the Indigo Forums had written a plugin for Lutron's RadioRA2 lighting.

Lutron RadioRA2 Main Repeater
Lutron RadioRA2 Main Repeater

After doing a bit of homework, I decided to do a small trial of RadioRA2. I ordered a Main Repeater, a keypad and enough dimmers to do my Media Room in RadioRA2. I chose the media room because it uses several different 'scenes' but is otherwise largely isolated from the rest of the home's lighting. People in the room use it's lighting, and people outside of the room don't. Once I got it all installed, I was basically very impressed  and spent the next 3 months rolling RadioRA2 through the rest of the house in phases. At this point all of my lighting is converted to RadioRA2 and I'm very happy.


The main argument in favor of RadioRA2 is one of robustness and reliability. The setup is a bit different than Insteon. Where Insteon is probably best described as a 'distributed' network with no real controller. Although you can always have some sort of computer doing most of the command and control if you'd like - it can also run just on whatever switches you want to have installed. RadioRA2 on the other hand requires a central controller (they call it the Main Repeater). Even if you only want to install one automated switch that has a remote to control it or something, you need to buy a Main Repeater. Of course, this added cost diminishes as you move to larger installs like an entire home. In addition the Main Repeater has a range of 30 feet (!) which sounds shockingly small. In a sense it is, however, Lutron is very up front in their description of that 30 feet, which is along the lines of... if it's within 30 feet, it works - period. Unlike a lot of other wireless claims which use language like "Range up to xxx feet" and a bunch of excuses if it doesn't. Lutron keeps the promise modest, but absolutely delivers on it. Regardless, 30 feet in any direction actually covered almost my entire home, and with the purchase of one Auxillary Repeater to extend the range I was fully covered.

Lutron RadioRA2 dimmer and 6 button keypad.
Lutron RadioRA2 dimmer and 6 button keypad.

RadioRA2 has a reputation for bulletproof reliability, and the devices do seem better built than my prior Insteon ones. However, I just haven't had them installed long enough to really have any true opinion on it. Signal reliability on the other hand is excellent. Lights get their signal pretty much instantly. When I first installed my keypad that has a button to control the garage lights, I must have turned them on and off about 10 times with the garage door open marveling at the apparently instantaneous response. Also, a signal to shut off all of the lights in the house goes to pretty much every light instantaneously as well. This was a big difference with Insteon where it would take several seconds of lights flicking off in sequence around the house. With RadioRA2, I press a button, and 30 lights all fade down at once. It's pretty cool.


As far as its integration with Indigo goes. Given that RadioRA2 has its own central controller it relates to the rest of my system much like my Pool control system does. It is basically autonomous and stands alone for its operation, but it informs Indigo of all it's changes (so anything it does can trigger an event in the greater automation system) and Indigo has full control over issuing commands or actions to any RadioRA2 scenes or devices. For example, RadioRA2 does not have door sensors like Insteon does, so I kept the Insteon ones on things like the hallway closet door, and when the door is opened, Indigo sees that and sends a signal to RadioRA2 to turn on the light. It happens quickly enough that I can barely tell the difference from when the door sensors were directly linked to the corresponding Insteon switch or dimmer.

There are a few down sides to RadioRA2. The first is just getting it. There's no way around it - it's expensive. More than I thought I would spend on this kind of thing, but ultimately it's a price for quality and reliability. It's actually capable enough that I wouldn't hesitate to sell the house with the system installed (hard to imagine doing that with a large Insteon setup). Once you decide to pay up, you can either call an installer and have them install and program it for you (which is not going to fly for a tinkering type of setup I want). OR you can get access to the software and do it yourself. Of course this is what I did. To do that, you need to register on Lutron's site and take an online training course that takes a few hours to complete. You then get access to the software. Well, really you get access to a limited form of the software, which covers up to 100 devices and doesn't support a few of the more advanced things. THAT is for dealers only (you can see Lutron protects their dealer business nicely). I don't have over 100 devices, and I'm not sure if I ever will, but I can't imagine letting someone else program the system for me, so I'm not sure what will happen if it comes to that (you may be able to get access to the more advanced software by attending a course in person for a few hundred dollars, but I'm not sure if it's open to non-dealers).


The software itself is pretty good. You build and program the entire system on it and then upload all of the programming to the Main Repeater. One other great thing about RadioRA2 is the way that the centrally controlled system gives options to handle the behavior of keypad buttons and their status indicators with respect to scenes, controlled loads, etc. This was always a headache to get setup correctly in Insteon and I can't understate what a pleasant surprise it was to see how well this was done.


There are a few other shortcomings as well, like the inability to simply link or 'bind' one load to another (effectively done with keypads, but that's added expense). Also, Insteon switches had the ability to send a distinct signal for a double-tap (up or down) which was a cool way to just have some scene commands on certain switches that didn't necessarily need a keypad. Finally, the switches themselves seem to take a little getting used to by others. Where Insteon switches just had an up/down rocker that could be held to dim, RadioRA2 switches have a distinct little dimmer bar you can use to dim up and down, while the part that looks like an up/down rocker is really just one big button (however, a lot of people just press it on the top or bottom as they would normally and don't know the difference).


Although it sounds like there's more downside to upside now that it's all written out, I'm really, really happy with just the increase in day-to-day responsiveness and usability.

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