Home Home Automation Using Smart Light Switches over Smart Bulbs?

Using Smart Light Switches over Smart Bulbs?

Everything you need to know before you consider smart wall switches.

It took about 4 days to get everyone in the household “potty” trained to use Alexa voice commands instead of wall light switches. A couple of smart lightbulbs from Yeelight (review) and a label maker was enough to convert the traditional lights in the kitchen to a smart set up. There is a new kid in IoT town: Smart Light Switches! Should you get it? Let’s take a closer look.

Are Smart Light Switches worth the hassle?

When I started home automation, smart lightbulbs were expensive, and smart switches were only just hitting the market. Apart from being the more expenisve option, switches required live and neutral wire present in your switching hole. Something you don’t often see in this country (UK).

Smart LED lightbulbs had dominated the market, as the prices went down, and anyone was capable of replacing traditional light source with new IoT enabled bulb. All that smart control came at the price of a couple of dollars and the lost ability to use your wall switch ever again.

Smart switches popped back in on my radar when I heard about new versions that don’t need neutral wire in your switch hole. This and the fact that smart switches became very affordable made me investigate the available options.

Even though everyone at home has a high degree in using voice commands by now, the perspective of getting control back (a very Brexit thing, I must say) was always present at the back of my head. Options are there, so I got myself a couple of switches to try it out.

Different countries, different standards

To understand the main issues with smart wall switches, we have to take a closer look at wiring standards in different countries. Based on your location, one of the 2 standards will apply to your lights. Obviously, this is a subject to individual circumstances. It’s possible to have both in one house, especially if the electrical work was done by more than one contractor (major extensions, improvements etc…).

Before you poke around anything that has mains power, be mindful of the fact that electricity doesn’t care if you are nice or not! It will injure or kill you. In doubt consult a professional electrician.

This means that you should first investigate what smart sockets will match your needs. The wall switch will hold all the answers. Just turn off the power before you dig inside it.

Not all switches are created equally

First, you have to identify what kind of switch you have installed in your wall.

2 or more way control

If you can control a single light source with more than one switch at the same time, chances are you have a 2 or more way switching installed. These are special switches that need correct wiring to work.

Not only wiring is different but the design of the switch as well. 3-way control requires 2 types of the wall switches to work, and the complexity goes up even further. These are likely to give you the biggest headache in terms of automating it, but it’s still possible if you plan ahead.

Multi gang switches

If your switch can operate more than one light, you will need a smart switch that can do that too. Most brands will provide you with up to 3 gang smart switches so you can control up to 3 light sources individually.

It’s a good idea to match the number of gangs not only to retain the functionality of the old switch but to not exceed the power ratings set by each channel.

Every smart switch will provide you with technical reference and switching capabilities. These differ by the technology used or lightbulbs deployed with. You are likely to see different power ratings for incandescent and LED bulbs.

Dimmers

Sometimes, you would like to use a dimming circuit. These smart switches not only have to support the dimming option but have to be used with a compatible (and often more expenisve) light bulb. Dimming switches can come in multi-gang flavours and as such the rules from above apply too.

If you attempt to use an incompatible lightbulb, it will often flicker, it can lock itself in on or off position or in some circumstances the light will dim down but won’t turn off.

Using dimming switches with smart lightbulbs is never a good idea unless the lightbulb is designed for it. If you want to use the dimmer switch with a smart bulb, consider these 4 solutions:

Switches

Reasonably new on the market are devices that use existing light solutions to make your house smart. I’m talking about devices like Shelly 1 (review), Sonoff Mini (review), or Sonoff D1 (review).

These aim to smart up your home without the need for additional infrastructure. Hidden behind a light wall switch or ceiling fitting, these switches control the light via the Internet without takin your ability to flip the switch.

While the installation can be difficult, the prices of in-wall switches came down to a reasonable level and these are now small enough to fit inside your walls. Check out this article comparing Shelly 1 vs Sonoff Mini to see which one suits you best.

You will be able to use the wall switch as usual, and there is no need to replace the lightbulb either unless your switch supports dimming.

Live wire vs Neutral

Unless your house is wired in a spectacular fashion (that’s not good news for you), you are likely to see one of two scenarios when it comes to light fittings. Regardless of the switching method, lights are often linked together in a loop and connected to a separate breaker.

L & N wire

If you are lucky enough, your wall light toggle hides access to 4 (or more) wires. Lucky, as the range of the smart wall toggles will be easier. Inside the electrical box, you will find live & neutral wires, possibly earth wire and loop that continues to a light switch.

In the scenario like this, simply connect the L & N wires to your new wall socket (earth optional), connect the lightbulb loop to N and Lout and you are pretty much ready to enjoy new IoT light.

In this scenario, you would be able to connect a smart switch like Sonoff Mini or Shelly, behind the wall switch as well.

Live wire only

If you are less lucky, your light fitting supplies the L & N and the wall switch will simply close the circuit. To accommodate this scenario, there are Live wire only wall switches.

To power up your smart switch, you have to identify the Live wire. Failing to do so will result in the switch not working correctly. Identify the Live wire inside your wall socket and connect it with a correct terminal. Feed the other wire(s) to terminals responsible for each gang relay. Bear in mind, that for the switch to work you must connect at least one gang via L1.

High Voltage Warning: How to identify wires in the socket
Don’t trust the colour of the wires. Unless you are 100% sure that the electrical jobs were always carried out to a professional standard, inspect the wires.
The easiest way to identify the L wire in the wall switch hole is to unscrew the switch plate with care and use a multimeter in AC setting to measure the voltage against ground connection (you can use extension lead if there is no ground wire (usually yellow & green). The Live wire should report back with voltage.

Some of the switches will require an additional capacitor to be added between Live wire coming out of the switch and the neutral wire. The capacitor allows more current to flow through, to power up the smart switch.

How to find switch loop in the ceiling fitting
Don’t trust the colour of the wires. Unless you are 100% sure that the electrical jobs were always carried out to a professional standard, inspect the wires.
Switch the light on, then power down the light circuit at the circuit breaker. This will serve you in 2 ways: to make sure the power is down, and to set the wall switch in “closed” position.
Use a multimeter in the continuity mode to find the “loop” ends. Test 2 cables at the time until a pair is found. Pay attention to the colour of the wires inside the wall switch hole.

Cons and pros

Each technology comes with advantages, and things to consider. Smart switches are no different and offer certain benefits over smart lightbulbs. Carefully examine your circumstances to know which one is the best fit for you and if you are ok with the consequences of your choices.

Lightbulbs

PROCON
Inexpensiverender wall switch useless
Easy to fit & replaceone per light socket required
Zigbee ones act as a mesh router
Great choice of bulbs
Support dimming, colour change
can be used with lamps

As you can see, smart lightbulbs came a long way to provide our smart home with the best features of IoT control at the cost of not being able to use wall switching. For some, it’s a small price to pay, others will find this inconvenience annoying.

Smart Wall Switches

PROCON
Becomes more affordableneed professional installation
keeps wall switch operationalharder to replace
Zigbee ones act as a mesh routerdimming may require special bulbs
You can use existing bulbscan’t be used with lamps
Support dimming, colour changean occasional flicker of the light at toggle
one per wall switch

Smart switches can be a viable option, especially if you want to control outlets with multiple gangs and lightbulbs. A single smart switch could control 3 channels with 2-3 bulbs in each channel. If you were to retrofit this with smart bulbs that cost would quickly add up.

Smart Switches

PROCON
affordableneed professional installation
keeps wall switch operationalharder to replace
You can use existing bulbs no dimming
one per wall switch* may not fit inside the socket

* 2-way switches still need just one, depending on the wiring

Smart switches like Sonoff Mini (review) or Shelly 1 (review) are a direct alternative to smart wall switches. Invisible to a naked eye, can be added where space isn’t a concern.

Buy Shelly 1

Buy it using these links to support NotEnoughTech.

Zigbee, Wifi or else

When it comes to lights, power delivery is something I don’t have to consider when picking the interface. The device is connected 24/7 and I don’t have to worry about battery-related issues. Should you go with truly connected lights via WiFi or aim for alternative protocols like Zigbee or Bluetooth?

WiFi

WiFi connected devices benefit from decreased latency in operation, but are limited by your router range, but may introduce additional security concerns. Being linked to WiFi at home means that the network is as strong as the weakest link. That compromising factor could be a cheap WiFi lightbulb or wall switch you picked on a sale.

Zigbee, Z-wave and other

On the other hand, protocols like Zigbee don’t use WiFi directly but require a Zigbee hub (or cc2531 stick) (additional cost) to be operational. While latency is bigger than with WiFi, the devices are very much usable and often powered by mains Zigbee devices act as mesh routers removing blind connection spots.

These devices are harder to hack as they are not exposed to the Internet directly and don’t interact with your LAN in any other way than a connected hub.

The often skipped benefit of Zigbee is that you can use battery-operated switches and senors that last months on a single battery. Having a well-developed mesh at home keeps all sensors, buttons and remotes always in range.

Buy Benexmart Tuya Zigbee kit

Buy it using these links to support NotEnoughTech.

To hack, or not to hack

Chances are, that your smart light switch can be flashed with custom software. WiFi gadgets are easier to hack since these are longer on the market than Zigbee. Your switch could be already on the list of devices compatible with Tasmota (a guide to Tasmotizer). You will be sacrificing off-the-shelf functionality (apps from IKEA, Philips, Xiaomi, Tuya or eWeLink) but what you get in exchange is the cross-system compatibility that can’t be achieved otherwise.

The internet (and this website) is full of examples how to make your Xiaomi Zigbee button act as a dimmer and work with WiFi Yeelights or how to get IKEA Tradfri to work with anything you want.

These benefits, however, come with trade-offs, as you will be responsible for connecting and troubleshooting everything yourself, there are no straight-forward Alexa (Alexa in NodeRED) and Google Assistant integrations (gBridge alternatives), but it’s a very satisfying rabbit hole that you will enjoy exploring.

Verdict

And the winner of the contest is… all devices. Let’s be honest. It’s all about having options tailored to your specific needs. Buying 6 connected light bulbs just to automate a single over-the-top light fitting is an insane idea when you can simply automate it with a light switch instead.

Voice-controlled lights are fun and convenient until you are trying to get Alexa/Google Assistant to recognise your command for the 3rd time when everyone else is asleep in your household.

The same logic applies to other situations. Always consider what is the best fit for your use, never be afraid of mixing different methods to achieve the automation of your dreams. A perfect smart home would use a combination of both, providing you with smart switches for the main lights across the home and complimentary colour bulbs in lamps and shades to create that special mood once a while.

Conclusion

As you probably expected, the biggest benefit of making your home smart is making it feel personal. It’s best executed when you are in total control over what happens at your house and what technologies are used to achieve this effect. Automating lights is probably the most visible smart home improvement that you can add on a budget. With careful planning ahead it’s cheaper than you think. Let me know if you use smart switches in this Reddit thread.

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