Tuesday , June 5 2018

Smart bulbs make me want smarter switches

I’ve been using smart bulbs in a limited capacity for around a year now, I’ve got about 6 bulbs from two different vendors, and as smart bulbs go they’re excellent. I’ve connected both systems up to Google Assistant, my Logitech Harmony remote as well as various other apps and automation services like Stringify and I love what they can do, a traditional dumb bulb just can’t compare.

For example, when I walk up the stairs at night I say to the Google Home in the formal lounge “Hey Google, Goodnight”, this triggers a Stringify flow that turns on my bedside lamp to 50% at a specific colour temperature and then starts a 15-minute timer to slowly dim the lamp to off. This lets me get upstairs, do the various pre-bed things, climb into bed and have the lamp slowly fade out, it’s awesome and “I couldn’t live without it”.

When it doesn’t seem all that smart

However, using that bulb outside of this use case can be a pain, e.g. if I’m out of range of the Google Home (actually in my bedroom), or can’t use voice to trigger it, there’s lots of trying to find a phone, wait for apps to load etc. Now move this scenario to a main living area where my wife, daughter and visitors all have to use the light, it’s not that easy. For example I have a specific light downstairs that is tied to a sensor that should turn on for 5 minutes after 2100 and before 0600 when someone walks down the stairs, it just gives a little light to move around.

However, it seems 90% of the time someone has physically turned off the light switch that controls it (it’s above, or is that below, a switch we do use often), meaning it almost never works. I could unwire, or more precisely hard wire the switch on, but that’s also not great (or legal), and how would my visitors control that light when they need it? Currently, they have to turn it off and on, which also isn’t intuitive. All of this has led me to decide that I want smart switches that either talk to dumb bulbs or smart switches that talk to smart bulbs and actively track their state.

What could work?

A smart switch/ dumb bulb combination would give most functionality including smart on/ off and smart dimming (assuming the bulb was rated for it), however, features like colour or temperature control require a smart bulb, at least for now. A smart switch/dumb bulb system would also most likely be more fault tolerant as there should still be a local connection between the bulb and the wall port allowing for use during internet and/or WiFi outages.

A smart switch/ smart bulb combination should give you the best of both worlds … if the technology works. From my experience with other smart products that rely on an internet server, like my garage door opener, I occasionally am not able to get a signal to the opener for some reason, a light switch can NEVER have this issue. In this instance, I come out in favour of Hubs. A well-designed hub should give you local access and control of your system without a dependence on “the internet”, if you have power you should have control.

Smart switches currently are mostly large and focused on controlling a single product family and aren’t really suited to individually switching lights as families are traditionally used to. What we need is a system that can interface with a standard single gang switch mech (the little single switches behind most Australian light switches) but can be programmed to talk to the smart home. This is where we enter fairyland because this would need a standard, and if messaging has taught us anything it’s that standards are anything but standard.

Some home automation standards, like just announced Bluetooth Mesh or Google’s thread or even older standards like ZigBee or Zwave provide a potential solution, however many of these interoperability solutions would once again need to talk to the internet to get the message from your house to company 1 server to company 2’s servers and back to your house. All I can say is hello latency and internet unreliability.

For those of you with programming and maker skills there are roll your own solutions that use a Raspberry Pi (or similar), Json and some network know how to create bridge between something like Clipsal’s C-Bus system and a smart home Hub, however this isn’t a consumer solution and would likely require constant ongoing re-coding as hubs are updated and previously working integrations break.

Where does this leave us? 

Honestly, I don’t know. If you live in a household full of people who accept the new control paradigm of the future and will live with the quirks of the smart home then perhaps smart bulbs are for you. If however, you live in a situation where you need a good old fashioned light switch then I don’t see a workable whole of the house, solution in your future. For me the solution has become lamps, this goes against my minimal aesthetic tastes but it gives me somewhere to plug in a bulb and know that someone isn’t going to turn it off, nor does it stop a traditional dumb switch/ dumb light combo from working for the rest of the family.

Duncan Jaffrey   Journalist

Duncan has been interested in technology since coding "Mary had a little Lamb" in Basic on his ZX Spectrum. A fan of all things Android, most days you'll find Duncan trawling the web for Android news or quietly editing away on Map Maker.

17 comments

  1. Have you considered something like home-assistant on a raspberry pi to replace Stringify and act as a hub for whatever vendors you want to use? With the right combination of stuff, you could actually set it up so your lights are controlled via cheap RF remotes, as well as physical switches, or voice commands, or even a touchscreen.

  2. You can use the latest vera hub with a zwave and hue bulb i have it programmed to turn the light on then set the colour without issues of course the bulb will be set as white first then change colour but i find that works best as default is white then colours when needed.

  3. You could stop people accidentally turning off that light by attaching a switch cover. Amazon sell packs of three for a few dollars.

  4. I’ve upgraded our house to clipsal iconic switches (build in progress), no smart Bluetooth switches yet, but can be added/customised later

  5. Have you tried the Wemo Switch? It is a replacement for a single wired in wall switch that replaces your existing a with and allows wifi conection and manual swithcing. I have installed one on my kitchen lights that are all dumb Halogen down lights and it works perfectly with my Home

    • Sadly the WeMo Light Switches were discontinued in Australia a few months ago – a real bargain if you picked one up from Bunnings for $39 previously.

      They work brilliantly with Google Home, and Apple’s HomeKit with a bit of fiddling.

      Hoping that they return to the market after the launch of official HomeKit support, though I daresay they didn’t sell well since neutral wires for light circuits just weren’t that common in Australia

    • A Wemo switch would work individually, however I would need dozens of them to replace traditional light switches, I need the switch density offered by traditional mechs.

  6. actually a switch that worked with ethernet over powerline providing networking to the bulbs without wireless would be amazing, freeing up your wifi router as most retail units are limited in their number of devices. A central point that bridges the switch network with the internet \ local network but can also act as a central backup so if they are down it still controls the lights. Then switches that were also access points would ensure 100% wifi coverage of any place with back haul over the power lines.
    The central access point then could monitor the bulbs and be used to apply defaults to bulbs upon power restoration (saves your bedroom lights coming on full bright and staying on for a short power outage at night)

    • I have looked at rewiring using IP switches (CBUS) however the interface between these systems and 3rd part lights is ….. inconsistent. and the integration between smart assistants and CBUS is non existent.

  7. logitech pop buttons are good. allows anyone to control the bulbs using a few functions that you create , single, double and long taps.
    I have one beside the bed and another for the lounge room so anyone can control the lights.
    Kodi then has some scripts that I wrote to control the lights, dim them slowly to a new scheme on starting a movie or tv show, raise a little when paused and go back down when resumed then at the end of the video to slowly return the lights to their previous settings (unless they were changed since the initial scheme was set).
    If my fire alarm goes off all the lights in my house flash (Nest) and it lights my hallway at night.
    You did raise good points though, there are so many holes in the products that need filling. e.g. lights come on when there is a power outage but we don’t always want the lights to do that, we may want them to be off when first powered on but maybe on then off then on does power them on and another on and off sets to bright white light etc

    There is a lot of work to do for sure.

    • I have had my eye on the pop switch

      • They are good as they can also do other things, e.g. a long press turns on my lights, turns the TV and amp on etc via Harmony hub.
        I wish I could integrate my nest fire alarm into it so I could do a double tap to turn off the alarm when cooking etc.

      • I took the plunge on the pop switch yesterday, currently the old kit ( the older hub I think is not homekit compatible) is on sale on Amazon. Comes with two switches and the hub.

        • Am happy with mine, in the bedroom it is great to give it one tap to turn on the lights in there and the bathroom to a really low red light when you need to go and tap again to turn them all off.

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