1 November 2020
Lighting is generally the entry point for most people starting their smart home journey. At least it was for us after Alexa introduced herself to our home. At the time, smart switches didn’t exist and there were a variety of bulbs that integrated with Alexa. So I installed a bunch of smart bulbs and we were off and running.
Nothing against smart bulbs as they’re great when the work but can be very frustrating when they don’t. A great example was this past week when we got a little cold, wet weather here in Amarillo and we lost power one evening. I was familiar with this scenario and almost dreading the power coming back on. Crazy? Maybe. But what it meant was my smart bulbs would all be “offline” until I went around and re-added them to my network. Luckily I didn’t have many but some were outdoors inside fixtures. The same thing can happen if the dumb switch connected to the smart bulb is turned off. These types of things happening occasionally is why I made the decision, when they first hit the market, to go with smart switches when we built our house.
Besides the fact that smart switches are more resilient than smart bulbs there’s an elegance in having smart switches and smart dimmers embedded in your walls. As we will entertain family and friends in our new home pretty frequently, having smart switches also operate like normal switches and dimmers. So guests in our home won’t necessarily need to know the naming conventions of our different lights or spaces.
Smart switches let you turn your lights on and off according to a schedule, with a smartphone app, by voice commands, motion or even your location (provided you have your smartphone with you). Where a smart switch simply turns a connected light bulb or fixture on and off, a smart dimmer can also adjust the brightness of the bulbs in the fixtures it controls. Since a dimmer is essentially a switch with an added function, I’ll use the terms interchangeably here.
The prices of smart switches and dimmers have come down a lot in the past year or two, although the fanciest and most powerful examples remain expensive. You’ll encounter products from smart home familiar names such as Leviton and Lutron, as well as a host of newcomers to this space, including Zooz, Noon and Hogar. In most cases, replacing a dumb switch with a smart one is a relatively simple DIY project, but there’s no shame in hiring an electrician to do the job if you don’t feel comfortable dealing with high voltage (and a few products are available only from professional installers). As Debbie and I will be building new, I’m anticipating an electrician will do the installations at our house as the work will need to be certified to close.
When planning your smart switch install you’ll need to make some important decisions before you choose which to get for your home These choices will be influenced by everything from the type of wiring in your walls to what type smart home system you have now or plan to install later. Here’s what you need to know in roughly the order you’ll need to decide:
Neutral wire requirement: The vast majority of smart switches and dimmers require the presence of a neutral wire — in addition to line (power from the circuit-breaker panel), load (power to the light to be controlled), and ground wires — in the electrical box inside the wall. Smart switches have radios that must be constantly powered, and the neutral wire is what supplies that power. While all homes have neutral wires, many older homes don’t have a neutral wire in every box. If you don’t have a neutral wire, Lutron’s Caséta smart dimmer is one of the few that does not require one.
Single- or multi-pole: If the light you wish to control is connected to just one switch, then you’ll need to replace it with a single-pole smart switch. If more than one switch controls that load — switches on opposite sides of a room, for example — then you’ll need to replace it with a multi-pole smart switch. This typically means that you’ll also need to buy a companion switch or switches for the other end(s) of the circuit. There are a few exceptions to this rule, so check the documentation accompanying whichever smart switch you decide to buy before you install it.
Control protocol: Since you bought a smart switch you’ll undoubtedly want to control your smart lighting with a smart device and/or voice commands spoken to a smart assistant like Amazon Alexa or Google Home. To use voice commands the smart switch you purchase must have some way of connecting to your home network (which is why Bluetooth smart switches can’t talk to Alexa or Google Home). So choose wisely.
Some smart switches connect directly to your Wi-Fi network, while others require a bridge to your router. If you’ve invested in a smart home system like Samsung SmartThings, Hubitat Elevation, Vivint Smart Home, or another, you’ll want to make sure that the smart switch you buy is compatible with it. I’ve been using SmartThings since 2016 but may end up switching for my new home as I want to leverage local compute versus cloud control for similar reasons as I’m moving away from smart bulbs. If I lose internet connectivity I’ll still want to be able to control my smart devices. As I covered in a previous blog there are a few protocols all smart devices use as a means to communicate, here are the most common ones you’ll encounter.
Bluetooth: This type of smart switch is controlled directly by an app on your smartphone or tablet. Bluetooth smart lighting is simple, because you don’t need a hub or a connection to your home network. That isolation also makes it secure, because you must be within about 30 feet of the switch to pair with it. On the other hand, authorized users also must be within 30 feet of a Bluetooth switch to control it, and you can’t control the switch when you’re away from home (although most Bluetooth switches can be controlled according to a pre-programmed schedule). The other major limitation of Bluetooth switches is that they can’t be controlled by Alexa, Google Home or smart home hubs, which generally rely on one of the other wireless protocols described here.
Lutron Clear Connect: This is a proprietary wireless protocol used by Lutron Caséta Wireless smart home devices, including switches, dimmers, ceiling fan controllers, occupancy sensors, motorized shades and battery-powered remote controls. You can also control a limited number of third-party devices with Lutron’s app — ranging from thermostats to Wi-Fi speakers — and incorporate them into smart home “scenes.” Clear Connect operates independently of your Wi-Fi network, but you must hardwire a Lutron Smart Bridge to your router to use it. You can control Lutron Caséta devices via Lutron’s app, with voice commands spoken to smart assistants and from mobile devices anywhere you have broadband access. Some smart home systems, including Samsung SmartThings, can also incorporate Lutron’s smart home products.
Wi-Fi: This is a relatively recent trend in smart switches, probably because Wi-Fi hasn’t always been the best means of blanketing a home with connectivity. Mesh Wi-Fi routers have done a lot to remedy that problem. This is one of the reasons why last year I replaced my NetGear NightHawk with an Eero Pro mesh solution. The attraction of Wi-Fi smart switches is that they don’t require a hub or a bridge to connect to your router. Once installed, they can be controlled with smart assistants, the manufacturer’s own app and many smart home systems (check compatibility before you buy).
Z-Wave: This is a wireless mesh network technology in which each node on the network is also a repeater that can forward commands on to other Z-Wave devices nearby. Its low power requirement means it can be incorporated into battery-operated devices that cannot be plugged directly into an electrical circuit, including door/window sensors, smart locks, water leak detectors, and motion sensors in addition to smart dimmers and switches. You’ll need a smart home hub, such as a Samsung SmartThings, to act as a bridge to your Wi-Fi network. Z-Wave is supported by a variety of smart home product developers, including Leviton, Jasco, Aeotec, and others.
Zigbee: This wireless mesh network technology is very similar to Z-Wave. Like Z-Wave, Zigbee has a lower power requirement and can be incorporated into both battery and line-powered devices, ranging from sensors to smart switches. And as with Z-Wave, you’ll need a smart home hub or some other kind of bridge to connect Zigbee devices to your home network. This could be something as simple as an Amazon Echo Plus, which has an integrated Zigbee radio, or it could be on the order of a Samsung SmartThings hub, which has both Zigbee and Z-Wave radios onboard.
Signify’s Philips Hue bridge is another solution, but it’s generally limited to supporting Philips Hue smart bulbs and accessories. Zigbee is widely supported among smart dimmer manufacturers, including Jasco, Sinopé, and Sengled.
Switch mechanism: Since most people control smart switches and dimmers with voice commands, they soon discover that they rarely physically interact with the devices in their walls. But you’ll want to consider the type of mechanism the smart switch uses if for no other reason than to ensure its aesthetic matches the rest of your home. These are the most common types you’ll encounter.
Rocker/Paddle: This type of switch has a wide plastic panel that rocks back and forth when pressed to turn the controlled load on and off (one side of the switch raises when the other is depressed). These modern-looking switches hug the wall and are very easy to operate. Since a command issued over the air will override whatever physical state the switch is otherwise in, smart rocker switches typically don’t physically flip, so there’s no confusion when you see a lit bulb when the switch is ostensibly in the “off” position. A smart dimmer switch might have a secondary control — a vertical slider or a horizontal rocker — for adjusting brightness
Toggle: A toggle switch operates by moving a lever up and down (flipping the lever up turns the controlled light on, and flipping it down turns it off). These types of switches tend to look more traditional than rocker switches, but you can find smart versions of them if you want something that looks like the other switches you have in your walls. As with smart rocker switches, they generally don’t completely change physical appearance when switched on or off.
Touch: High-end smart switches and dimmers feature touch-sensitive surfaces. Typically made of glass, touch-sensitive smart switches and dimmers are usually backlit by LEDs that can be multiple colors. The touch sensitivity can be as simple as touch to turn the switch on and touch again to turn it off, or they can be as complex as displaying a user interface that supports finger swipes for calling up different lighting scenes or control elements. These types of smart switches and dimmers generally cost considerably more than simple plastic devices.
Additionally you’ll need to consider the type of wiring connections you’ll have to deal with. Smart switches and dimmers tend to be larger than their dumb counterparts, so you should consider how the new switch will fit in your existing electrical box. This is particularly important if you’re installing multiple smart switches next to each other in a single box. Remember that there will be at least four wires to deal with — line, load, neutral and ground — and that there will also be a traveler wire if you’re dealing with a multi-pole circuit. It can be challenging to stuff all those wires and the new switch back into the box.
As you can see, there can be a lot of moving parts to smart switches and dimmers depending on the complexity of your smart home vision. Your environment is a consideration as well as device type and brand as smart switches can be deployed at both new builds and existing homes. Do your homework and consider all the options — at least that’s my plan so far.
Big news as well that we received our first draft of our floor plan from the architect this week so Debbie and I have been busy looking over that and making some changes. I’ll be mocking up some plans for network and audio soon so stay tuned to check out our plans. More to come!