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How-To: Automate Your Home with Indigo

Here at TheAppleBlog, there’s been plenty of instruction and discussion about using Smart Folders, Playlists, Albums and so on, as well as Automator and Folder Actions and other products like Hazel — all of which serve to make your Mac work a little harder to simplify your life a bit.

Hopefully we’ve led many of you in the right direction in using these great bits of technology. If you’re willing to follow us down the rabbit hole again, I’d love to show you how to use your Mac and a product called Indigo to start making your home work for you as well. It’s home automation time!

A Brief History

Some of you probably remember — from a long time ago — those wall plugs with the big timer dials on them. You could plug the living room lamp into it, and auto-magically it would turn on at 8PM for you. Since then, a standard (probably limited largely to tinkerers and geek types) called X10 became available. It allowed for communications to occur over the power lines within homes, to control lights and appliances via some programmable unit.

That technology hasn’t changed a great deal (to my knowledge that is), but other products and technologies have come along that work along with X10, and it’s this combination that has made home automation much more accessible (and interesting) for the masses.

Whetting Your Appetite

Needless to say, we’ve come an awful long way from lighting that lamp at a given time each day. One of the more main stream examples come toward the end of the calendar year, when the Alpha Geeks start showing off their holiday lights, controlled by computer. In fact, a couple years ago here in Denver, there was a guy who claimed you could control his lights via his webpage. It turned out to be a hoax at the time, but the technology is definitely there, as you’ll see below.

But people are doing awesome — and, gasp!, practical — things with home automation.

  • Turning on certain lights in the house when the car pulls into the garage
  • Announcing when the mail has arrived
  • Readying the blinds and lights for a proper movie-watching experience (via a single switch)
  • Security monitoring
  • Conserving energy by automatically turning off unused lighting
  • And the list goes on.


Besides your Mac (an older G4 would do the trick of you don’t want to use your MacBook) to run the software, you’re going to need some basics to get started. First, there’s the device that allows your Mac to interface with the Insteon/X10 modules you install in your home. This is called the Insteon PowerLinc Modem USB. You’ll also want a couple of Insteon Access Points, which enable mesh communications of commands sent to different devices within your automated home. That’s it! Those are the basics to tap into the power (pun intended) to automate the stuff in your house.

You’ll need to add some controllable modules so there’s actually something to control, otherwise, what’s the point? You can start on the cheap side, with the wall-wart type of products, and later move into the replacement outlets and switches if you really get the bug. On the starter side, you have the LampLinc Dimmer and the ApplianceLinc (which is an on/off current, rather than the dimming style). You can get all of these modules (plus Indigo Server Lite) in the Starter Package for about $250. It’s not the cheapest hobby in town, but what is? (Hypothetical question…)


Indigo Server is the brains of the operation. With it running on your Mac and plugged into the PowerLinc Modem, you can control nearly anything connected to your home. Indigo, depending on the version you get, can key off of such things as timers, time of day (adjustable by season), ambient light, remote control, and so forth. Also, you can setup zones in your home, or “control groups” which can cause several things to happen from one trigger. Indigo is also scriptable using AppleScript, so the sky is truly the limit if you really want to get crazy. Oh, and there’s also Indigo Touch, which gives you the ability to control your home remotely from your iPhone. So you forgot to turn off the furnace before fleeing the cold for a warmer destination? No worries, just bring it up on your iPhone from the Fiji Islands and make it so.

I can honestly say that this stuff is addicting. My own uses are still modest, but suit my needs. One of the things I love about home automation — if you read the Perceptive Automation boards — is how some people seem to approach their home automation problems like MacGyver. So if the geek-factor of controlling your home isn’t enough, you can enjoy the problem solving exercise as your home automation-fu grows stronger (and more complicated).

You can find all the information you need to get started at Perceptive Automation and the Mac Home Store websites. And, if you’re already eye-balls deep into this home automation thing, share with us what you’re working on!

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Is Energy Management the Killer App For the Home Automation Market?

12 Responses to “How-To: Automate Your Home with Indigo”

  1. I have been using Insteon and Indigo for a couple of years and I can attest to the stability and flexibility of Indigo with a very active community and frequent updates.

    Another area of savings that is less obvious comes when wiring lighting with multiple switch locations that are some distance from the controlled fixtures. e.g. 3-way switches in large rooms or external house lights. Traditional wiring requires copper to each and every switch and back to the load resulting in large amounts of additional wire cost which can be eliminated with Insteon switches as they don’t have to be on the circuit they are controlling. My electrician estimated I saved $200-$300 on wire alone for my recent patio lighting project that I used Insteon for.

    My system includes lighting control that uses our LatLong coordinates to determine sunrise/set times from the internet. Sprinkler controls that using the NOAA website to determine if it is raining before running the irrigation in our vegetable garden and do it a few minutes before sunrise. Motion detectors that turn on lights in the kitchen and basement when I enter at night and turn them off again when I leave. 30A relays that control my pool pump and run it longer on sunny days, shorter on overcast days. Wall switches that can start and stop iTunes on my Mac and adjust iTunes volume going to AirTunes speakers… The possibilities are endless. Have fun, save energy and improve home security.

  2. Reginald W

    Home automation can be a wonderful thing if you have the time, energy and money to put it all together. It can be as simple as devices plugged into your electrical outlets that you then plug your electrical devices into and using either a computer with a box that plugs into the wall or a dedicated box that plugs into the wall or a replacement switch that can control the various devices. X10 is the older technology, Insteon is newer technology that incorporates X10 as well, so older X10 stuff isn’t wasted technology if you already have it or can find it cheap. There are one or two other device types that exist as well that are compatible with X10 but not with Insteon or each other.

    Not sure on whether this stuff is 220 compatible or not for use in Europe, but definitely works with the 110 of Canada/US usage. There are likely versions for other parts of the world with the various plug types that are out there, but costs might be higher.

    Another site for info is where I picked up a few pieces to experiment with here. Works reasonably well, but you need to plan what it is that you want to do before you decide on what equipment you want to buy, otherwise it will be wasted money.

    Insteon costs a bit more than simple X10 but allows greater control, less interference with others, especially in an apartment/condo building versus a single home. Insteon also adds radio frequencies for control while X10 is strictly electrical wire control, so the more Insteon devices you have, the bigger your mesh network to have better control of your devices.

    If you only have one or two things to do such as turning off a light or device, there can be other products that can work for you cheaper, like the Clapper. If you need to automate things, then this is where the Insteon and X10 can really go to work for you.

    Check the web sites mentioned in the article and Smarthome and read what is available. The more you learn on how this stuff works, the more you will realize what can potentially be done, what the limitations are of what can be done, and most importantly, what it will COST you to get set up in money, with the amount of time required growing exponentially with how complicated you want to get.

    If interested, start out small, with a small starter kit and experiment with one thing, such as controlling that light in the garage (or some other remote location) so you don’t have to go out and turn it off when you realize it is still on. Once you have a feeling for how it works, think of what else is most important to control and then figure out whether it is worth it to do so. Expand your automation over time rather than trying to do it all at once, otherwise you will spend money on things that might not really be worth it to automate.

    Good luck and happy spending. I am not related in any way with Smarthome, it was just a place where I picked up a few items to control some devices. I’m still playing with them at the moment.

  3. My wife and I love Indigo. Especially the Touch App. Our house has X10 throughout and it really helps with the 3 kids leaving everything on all the time. Last Winter I spent $250 a month on electricity, but this year I’ve been able to reduce that to $175. By the end of Winter the system will have paid for itself. I highly recommend Indigo. :o)

  4. “It’s not the cheapest hobby in town, but what is? (Hypothetical question…)”

    Forgive the correction, but I think you mean “rhetorical question.”

  5. I got a “firecracker” module from back when they were giving them away for free. Then, I bought a USB to RS232 adapter, plugged in the firecracker module, and used the public domain “flipit” program to to send it commands. From there, I incorporated flipit into my own web pages, and I’m basically done! Control for my spa, and other things, from web!

    • Raj, I also have a firecracker module and am looking to use it. I need to purchase a USB to RS232 adapter. I have heard there are problems with certain models. What brand/model did you purchase?