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wandering the world of technology
wandering the world of technology


EUTOMASITAD: Turning on a light

November 8th, 2006 · 2 Comments

This is the second in a series of posts about the Excessive Use of Technology to Make Simple Tasks Difficult (or “EUTOMASITAD”, for short) You can find the first post here or the complete series here.

Turning on a light bulb. It’s one of the simplest forms of technology we have. And therein lies the problem, at least for someone inflicted with EUTOMASITAD (Excessive Use of Technology to Make Simple Tasks Difficult).

I can vaguely remember a time when, as strange as this sounds, we used light switches to turn the lights in our house on and off. I know, I know — it sounds crazy, but you have to remember that those were simpler times. I mean, we’re talking about a time when we couldn’t even control our thermostat from a thousand miles away. These were truly the Dark Ages before we learned the ways of EUTOMASITAD.The initial problem presented itself quite simply, as problems often do. We wanted a way to make the house look like it was occupied during those evening when we weren’t at home. Sounds easy, right?The first step down this particular EUTOMASITAD path came with using a mechanical timer to turn the living room light on at dusk and off after we went to bed. The lamp plugged into the timer and the timer plugged into the wall. Using little plastic tabs around the outside of the timer’s clock face you could set “on” and “off” times for the lamp. As I look back now I’m embarrassed to even speak of such a thing.That solution worked quite well, like simple solutions often do, but it suffered from two of the things that drive the EUTOMASITAD- inclined crazy: 1) it wasn’t very flexible (it didn’t handle the fact that “dusk” changed from day to day), and 2) it was too simple. Sure, it did what it was supposed to do, but with this newfound capability came newly contrived demands that pushed the mechanical timer into the junk heap.For example, during power outages the timer would end up being out of sync and would turn the light on and off at the wrong times after power was restored. Sure, that only happened once every year or two, but to a person looking for an opportunity to implement a EUTOMASITAD- centric solution that was often enough. We replaced the mechanical timer with an electronic timer that had a battery backup. That was the next step down the EUTOMASITAD path. Momentum was starting to build.One Christmas we decided that we would decorate the house by putting a candle in each window. It turns out that there are two types of candles that you can buy for your windows. The first type has an on/off switch in its cord and you must manually (gasp!) turn the candle on and off. The other type uses a photoelectric sensor to determine when it’s dark enough outside to turn the candles on and will automatically turn the candle on at dusk and off in the morning. Needless to say we chose the second type. Just as with the mechanical timer, however, it didn’t take long to compile a list of requirements that the photoelectric candles couldn’t fulfill.

We realized that we didn’t want the candles to stay on all night but, rather, we wanted them to turn off at midnight, just like the living room light. That’s not the way the photoelectric candles worked, though — they simply turn on what it gets dark and turn turn off when it’s light again. Now a decision needed to made. Should we invest in twelve timers (one for each candle) or should we just live with the candles staying on until dawn? Here was a golden opportunity to solve all of the problems with EUTOMASITAD, and down that path we went.

There is a way to use your house’s wiring as a type of computer network using a protocol called “X10″. As I mentioned in the previous article, one of the tenets of EUTOMASITAD is to use the home network whenever possible, even if it’s not required to solve the problem. Using X10 to turn on our lights certainly meets this requirement.

The X10 protocol is fairly straightforward. Each device to be controlled using X10 is assigned an ID (like “A2″ or “C7″). The controller sends a signal down your house’s power lines with a command like “Turn A2 on” or “Turn C7 off”. All of the X10 modules see all of the commands but only the ones that are identified in the command respond. What could go wrong?

We purchased a dozen X10 modules and a controller, assigned each module a different ID, set up the controller to turn the lights on at dusk and off at 11:00PM, and plugged everything in. As night fell something unexpected happened — half of the candles turned on. Now, maybe “unexpected” isn’t the right word. I mean, one of the side effects of EUTOMASITAD is that there will always be problems, but I really didn’t expect to see a 50% failure rate. I expected a 100% failure rate and was actually excited that fully half of the candles worked. It helps to have diminished expectations when one works with EUTOMASITAD.

So what went wrong? Well, after some reading on line (always part of implementing any EUTOMASITAD solution) I learned that the problem has to do with the way modern houses are wired. It turns out that your 220V AC service is accomplished my sending two 110V “trunks” into your house. The problem we ran into is that the X10 signal has a hard time jumping from one of these trunks to the other. That means that if your controller is on one trunk and your candle is on the other trunk the signal won’t get from the controller to the receiver. And how do you know which of your outlets are on which trunk? Trial and error. Mostly error, as it turns out.

Fortunately, for every EUTOMASITAD problem there is a EUTOMASITAD solution. In this case the solution is to put in a type of crossover in the breaker box to link the two incoming trunks. The crossover worked, and, more importantly, I wasn’t electrocuted.

And now we have a solution which is a perfect implementation of EUTOMASITAD. The problem is solved (the lights turn on at dusk and off at 11:00PM) and the solution uses a computer (the controller), a bunch of receivers (the X10 modules), and a network (the AC wiring in the house). When it works and we’re not in the dark (literally) it works perfectly. You know, just like the lamp in the living room did when we used that first mechanical timer.

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