There are other ways to guarantee this. I think the vast majority of RS-485 networks use a bus master system. This simplifies a lot of stuff. I did one a while back where the master addressed each slave in turn. If the slave had nothing to send, it responded with a NACK so that the master would know to go on to the next slave. In my system, the configuration wasn't known up front, but the maximum number of slaves was limited to 15. The bus master kept track of which slave addresses were in use to avoid the timeout for the unused ones each time thru the list of slaves. If a slave timed out three times in a row, it got crossed off the list. Once per loop, the master would try one unused address. If a slave responded, it would be added to the active list. This allowed hot-swapping and powering slaves up and down, which was important for this particular system. This was done 10 years ago on hardware that was designed before that. The biggest bestest PIC at the time was the 16F877. CAN hardware wasn't that readily available yet. A few years later and I definitely would have argued for using CAN instead. This project is long dead, so I can give more details on it. I have attached the protocol document. As I have said consistantly though, I still think you're better off using CAN and a 18F4580 or similar.