A week ago today, I was up at 6:30am as normal making lunch for my youngest to take to her pre-school. Typically, when I get to the cooking phase I ask Alexa to turn on the “counter” lights, allowing me to see the stove top without using the high wattage incandescent lights in the hood (aside: I must see if I can get LED replacements for those yet). Somewhat surprisingly, she sat for a few seconds and then said that the Insteon hub the lights were connected to wasn’t responding. That happens sometimes, and I get the Alexa app to search for new devices again and it sorts itself out. Only my phone was still upstairs, so I walked over, switched the lights on myself and forgot about it.
Later in the morning, after the kids were both at school and I was back home working, I popped into the kitchen and asked Alexa to turn on the ceiling lights in the room. Again, she said the hub was not responding. I launched the Insteon app to see what it thought, but it reported the same thing. Next stop, the master closet upstairs where all our internet stuff lives (that’s where the internet comes into the house & where the patch panel is for the phones & Ethernet cabling).
When I got there, the light on the Insteon hub was out. Unplugging and reconnecting did nothing, so I unplugged it and as I did so I caught a whiff of the unmistakable aroma of burnt out electronics.
Taking it back down and popping the bottom off the box, it was very clear that the capacitor, and perhaps the diode, right next to that transformer in the middle of pic were not as they were meant to be (and the underside of the board also showed signs of something getting hot).
In the past, this would have been a simple repair job, but with multi-layer circuit boards and the possibility of damage to the tracks inside the board which I can’t see (and can’t trace easily), I thought it was probably time to order a new one. The only problem with that is that the setup for these things is stored in the device, and not the cloud account. So, swapping the hub is painful. You have to repeat the setup of every switch, socket and I/O controller around the house from scratch.
So, I tweeted and went back to work. In the tweet thread I included the pics of the burnt PCB.
Very quickly I got a response from their social media team:
Sorry to hear you are experiencing issues, based on the photos it looks like we should be able to repair the unit. Please check your DMs
— Insteon (@Insteon) April 20, 2018
I’m used to getting fast responses from companies on Twitter, but not normally ones that are that positive. A few DMs later, and a phone call from them (made within a few mins of me sending the number via a DM) and they had set up a shipping label for me to return the unit for repair. Hopefully, retaining all the config (he thought the memory would be unaffected and they could just transfer it to a new unit).
The replacement unit is due to be delivered by USPS today all being well. That is astounding and I have to say that, while I was not that impressed that it failed, I am totally impressed by their customer service. Easily the best service I have received from any company I’ve bought electronics from.
Internet of Things
I do not know whether the cause of the failure was just time or whether there was a surge that killed it (all the other gear is connected via a surge suppressing power strip, but the Insteon hub needs a direct connection as it talks to the devices around the house over that A/C connection (and, apparently, surge suppressors can also attenuate the communications frequency signals).
One thing that is clear for Internet of Things devices: being cloud backed is essential. I’m not sure what the technical hurdle is with the Insteon system, but being able to get the house settings saved either locally or, better still, into the cloud account that is already associated with the device, seems like an essential. Electronic devices can fail. Whether it is power supplies burning out or other things failing, none of these consumer grade devices last forever (for what it’s worth, even the military grade stuff failed sometimes!). That is not a big deal if a new part can be plugged in to replace the old one with little to no setup pain. We’re not there yet, and I suspect it is not only Insteon gear that does not do well in this regard.
The flip side of that, of course, is that those cloud accounts are potential security issues waiting to happen. Whether it is the data stored in the cloud, or the protocols used by the devices themselves to communicate with the cloud service and, via that service, with remote devices like mobile phones. Somebody being able to mess with the lights in my house would be annoying, but not the end of the world. Somebody being able to interfere with things like smart locks would be a different matter.