Friday, July 26, 2019

Smart Lights Control

Hue bulbs in a floor lamp.I’ve seen a lot of people start their foray into smart home with smart bulbs only to be faced with a problem of controlling those smart bulbs in a way that would not annoy the rest of the family.

Recently a friend of mine started this journey and I’ve been going through the options that I have discovered for myself over the course of last year. So I decided to lay out a simple guide of those options along with their pros and cons.

I’ll preface this with a couple of points on the specifics of my experience and smart bulbs in general.

I’ve only dealt with Philips Hue smart bulbs, which is probably the most popular brand. The issue that people face with smart bulbs is that they must always be powered on, thus rendering a regular wall switch useless. If power is cut all the smarts are gone with it.

The first and the most obvious way to control smart bulbs is with a manufacturer’s app that one can install on the phone. However this also takes the first place for the most inconvenient way of dealing with the lights. My opinion is that some form of physical control is a must.

Blocked switch.It is also advisable that the actual physical switch is either removed or blocked in some way in order to prevent other family members or guests from cutting the power off. There are multiple ways to achieve this, but the simplest way is to buy a set of plastic switch blockers on Amazon. These can be bought for any type of switch, be it “decora” or a toggle switch.

Philips Hue motion sensor.Another simple way to control smart bulbs is with a motion sensor. Somebody walks in, the lights go on. After a set period of time of no motion the bulbs go off. I, however, prefer to have my motion sensors to be “on” only at certain times and therefore I have another type of a physical control associated with motion sensor controlled lights.

So let’s talk about actual switches that can be used with Hue in place of the original dumb switch or alongside it.

Hue Dimmer switch being used as a stand-alone remote.Philips itself makes two of these. One is a battery powered Hue Dimmer switch which is probably the most affordable option. These typically go for $25 and can be gotten for even less on sale.

This switch actually gets exposed to HomeKit, so I use it for numerous applications beside controlling the Hue bulbs themselves all throughout the house. For example I have one of these mounted in the hallway on our way to the bedroom to turn off Hue bulbs in the far living room along with kitchen island lights controlled by a smart Wemo switch.

There are three ways to mount these. One is to simply use the stickers on the provided plate and stick it to the wall in a desired place. This switch is battery powered so the placement of it is truly unrestricted. It can go anywhere.

Standard Hue Dimmer plate in place of an old dumb switch.If you’re not happy with sticker approach the plate also has screw holes. I use this approach when I actually replace a physical switch. I take out the actual power switch, connect the wires inside to the constant “on” position and screw on Hue Dimmer to cover the hole.

3D printed plate for Hue Dimmer switches.But my favorite way is to actually use a 3D printed specialty plate that leaves the original switch alone and mounts right on top of it in place of the original plate. I have a couple of these in our house. With this setup you have a fairly clean look and still have an option of accessing a hidden dumb switch.

Same plate as above with switches taken out. Switches are held in by magnets.A ton of possible configurations of these can be found on Etsy. In fact I have replaced a single toggle switch’s plate by our bathroom entrance with a plate that can mount three Hue Dimmers. We have three independently controlled lights in the bathroom and switches for those are in multiple places. Now those lights can be controlled from a single location.

Hue Tap as a stand-alone switch.The next option for a switch is Tap, which is also made by Philips. While Hue Dimmer works well on typical walls I find Tap’s round shape to have a better fit in certain other applications. This switch costs $50 and it also gets exposed to HomeKit.

It doesn’t need any kind of power at all. It uses kinetic energy from the button presses, which makes it feel slightly unusual. Some people dislike the feeling of these buttons, but I find them perfectly acceptable.

Hue Tap attached to the bed's headboard.I have one of these mounted on the headboard of our bed by my pillow. It controls our bedside table lamps along with a Hue led strip under our bed. It works in conjunction with a Hue Dimmer switch mounted in place of the original pre-Hue switch by the bedroom door.

I have four different light schemes programmed into this switch along with the main button being a toggle for a regular warm light and “off” button. This can be achieved with 3rd party HomeKit applications which allow for conditional automations. If light is “on” perform “off” function. And vise versa.

A third switch that I have used in my home is a “decora” shaped kinetic switch made by a company called RunLessWire. It fits into an opening in the wall in place of standard dumb switch. For it to work the actual wires have to be connected together in a permanent “on” configuration.

This switch will cost you $59 and it also gets exposed into HomeKit. It’s called Click.

A pair of RunLessWire Click switches.The switch itself does not use any kind of power — same principal as Tap switch mentioned above. When ordered, the switch comes with two possible options — single or double button. This particular switch is useful when you have a multiple gang box, but only want to replace one of them.

I specifically had a configuration where I wanted to control four different lights, but only had two sized opening in the wall. I replaced both of the original switches with two-buttoned versions of RunLessWire Click switches.

As with Tap, the buttons have an unusual feel to them. I find them not to be instant all the time, meaning that you have to hold the button depressed and wait for a programmed action to trigger. Kids in particular had trouble with this, but eventually got trained to hold the buttons down for a long enough period of time.

Lutron Aurora switch next to a standard Lutron Caseta smart switch.The last and a very new addition to this party is a recently release Lutron Aurora dimmer switch made specifically for Hue. This is the only switch out of the above mentioned ones that does not get exposed to HomeKit, which limits it to controlling Hue bulbs only.

A pair of Lutron Aurora switches next to Wemo smart switches.It attaches right onto a standard toggle switch, thus blocking it in permanent “on” position and takes over the Hue control functionality. It looks like an old style dimmer knob. It’s aesthetically pleasing and it provides a physical control for Hue bulbs as opposed to simply blocking the dumb switch with a piece of plastic.

Same as above, different angle.The installation takes less than five minutes. The base comes with a blade kind of a piece that cuts slightly into the toggle switch when you tighten the screw on this base. And the controller itself just snaps onto the installed base. Aurora will run you $39 a piece.

Lutron Aurora mounting base attached to a standard toggle switch.That’s it for the physical controls. A good sized array of options. And I should mention voice control as well if you have access to Siri or Alexa. But it not nearly as convenient as any of the actual physical controls.

In conclusion all of these have their strong sides and you probably should be choosing based on your application.

Custom printed plate for Hue Dimmer switches.In my opinion custom 3D printed plates for Hue Dimmers are probably the most versatile option — you’re making the least amount of modifications, you still have access to your dumb switches which are cleverly hidden and you’re not gluing anything to the wall.

Same as above, with one switch taken out.Philips Hue Dimmers themselves are very cheap and you get the full functionality of HomeKit open to them, giving you a wide array of configurations and use cases.

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