Cheap vs Expensive Solar Powered Automated BlindsAugust 14, 2019
Today on the hookup we’re going to take a look at two very similar solar powered blinds motors with two very different price tags. I’m going to push them to their limits and figure out if you get what you pay for… You don’t.
A couple of months ago I made a video about motorizing your blinds using Arduino and some stepper motors, but some of the commenters were concerned with the level of technical know how required to do the install, and others were looking for a solution for their rolling shades, so in this video we’re going to take a look at two off the shelf blinds motors, the Axis Gear, which retails for $249, and the Zemismart AOK Blinds Motor that costs just under $50. In my tests, the zemismart motor actually performed slightly better than the axis in most areas, with the axis only coming out on top in the smart home integration category… which probably isn’t worth an extra $200 per unit.
This isn’t my first time checking out the Axis gear; at CES I spent some time talking to their development and sales team, and I thought they were really nice guys, but ultimately I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that they wanted $250 for a small geared motor and a solar panel. There’s nothing in the axis motor that is revolutionary, it’s just a bunch of basic parts in a pretty package, so when the Zemismart told me they were going to be offering a solar powered blinds motor I was very happy to see a much more reasonable price tag.
Lets start by taking a look at the physical construction of these two motors and I’ll point out some of their quirks.
Starting at the Axis gear, the front of the unit has capacitive buttons that can be used to adjust the blinds once installed. The large X at the top is the power button which needs to be held for 3 seconds to turn the device on. On the back there’s a panel that covers the drive gear. A magnet on the bottom of the cover activates an internal reed switch or possibly hall effect sensor that prevents the unit from powering on when the cover is removed. I suppose this design decision could have been implimented for safety, but it actually caused the axis to fail one of my tests later on. On the bottom of the unit the solar charger and battery backup connect via an apple style magsafe connector that I found to be super annoying, it’s really easy to bump this connector and cause the unit to power off, especially when there’s a moving blind behind it.
The zemismart blinds motor has physical buttons instead of a touch panel for on the unit adjustments and the setup controls are located on the bottom. The solar unit attaches on the bottom via a 3.5mm headphone style jack, and there’s an additional jack for attaching the AC adapter if you want to power it that way.
Both of the devices have internal lithium ion batteries with solar panels to keep them charged, the solar panel for the Axis gear measures 13” x 1” compared to the zemismart that measures 1.5” x 5.5”. When it comes to solar cells, area is usually the most important thing so we’ll have to see whether the Zemismart blinds can survive on the smaller amount of solar energy captured.
In the box, the Zemismart blinds driver includes the motor, some different gear shapes for different style pull cords, a solar panel for charging the internal lithium battery, a power adapter, and some screws and double sided tape for mounting. Unboxing the Zemismart Blinds Motor was very utilitarian, no extra packaging anywhere, just the minimum amount of space required to deliver all the parts.
The Axis package includes very similar parts: The motor- this time with only a single gear shape, a solar panel with 12 preinstalled AA batteries that are used as backup power, and a mount with screws and double sided tape. The Axis doesn’t come with an AC power adapter, but when you log into the app for the first time they offer to send you one for free if that’s how you plan to install it. The Axis gear delivers a more apple like experience with a well fitting box, lots of internal compartments, and fancy cardstock for the instructions… And while I have come to expect expensive products to have satisfying packaging I honestly don’t care about it, and I often wonder how much I spent on packaging that’s going to go in the trash anyways.
For my initial test I decided to give them something easy and control the tilt on my horizontal blinds. In order to do that I needed to make a slight modification to my blinds. Specifically, the tilt mechanism on my blinds is operated by two different strings instead of a loop like these motors were designed to work with. No problem though, I just added a small length of chain between the two strings to turn them into a loop. In order to do as little damage to my window molding as possible I decided to use the two small included screws to mount the motors instead of the double sided tape, which likely would have ripped off all of the paint on the wall when I moved them.
To mount the zemismart blinds you just hang the motor by looping the chain around the gear and letting the motor hang freely with the backplate in its highest setting. After you’ve marked that position you can use the double sided tape or the two screws to attach the backplate to the wall. The backplate has different indentations to allow the tension of the pull cord to be adjusted after mounting. The installation process took around 15 minutes including adding the beaded chain to the pull cord.
After getting it mounted I installed the “A (dash) OK blinds” app, held the button on the bottom down for 3 seconds and pressed “add new device” in the app. The blinds motor was discovered after a few seconds and it was ready to setup. The setup process involved setting the upper and lower limits for the blinds and configuring the speed of the motor.
The app is pretty no frills and has a picture of a blind that you raise up and down to move the motor. There are also options to create a schedule for your blinds, which I think is the main use of these motors because without wifi, zigbee or zwave there are very few options for adding it to a larger home automation system. Ultimately the app is the biggest downfall of the device. Not only is Bluetooth a terrible control protocol, but since it needs to connect directly to a phone that means you and your wife can’t have the app connected to the blinds at the same time. Another really annoying thing is that the app felt the need to notify me every time I walked out of range of the blinds motor after opening the app. Something like a bluetooth to wifi bridge would make these motors a 100x more viable solution, especially if it used the tuya app.
The axis gear installs in a very similar fashion. You hang it from the pull cord, mark the backplate mounting holes on the wall and then rachet the unit into place to apply the correct amount of tension to the pullcord.
The Axis gear also has its own app and uses Bluetooth for setup. When you add the blinds it asks you if you want to add them to your smart hub or run them from the app. Interestingly, it says that if you configure them in smart hub mode they lose functionality through the axis app, so I guess you have to choose Bluetooth or zigbee, not both. The setup of the axis gear was similar to the zemismart motor, you put the axis gear in pairing mode by pressing the pair button, then it is discovered by the app and ready to setup. You can set both the open and closed end stops and then select the kind of window covering that it is controlling. Interestingly enough when selecting the window covering type there was no option for horizontal blinds, which I say is interesting because in all my tests it’s the application that both of these motors seemed to perform best.
Both motors were able to easily open and close the blinds tilt of the blinds, with the zemismart operating slightly faster and slightly quieter. However, both of them were much noisier than I expected. I traced the problem to the metal beads that I used to create the loop, they were getting stuck in between the grooves on the drive gear and creating terrible popping noises, so the next obvious step was testing the gears with different style pull strings. On amazon I ordered plastic beaded string as well as normal thick curtain string and repeated my tests with these two other styles of cord.
I found that while the metal beads that initially tested offered good grip, they were way too noisy to be considered. The curtain rope was extremely quiet and caused the motors to run more smoothly, but they were prone to slipping at the end of their range. The happy medium was the plastic beaded string from amazon which was reasonably quiet while still offering plenty of grip to get the blinds fully closed.
So should you buy these motors just because they can tilt some horizontal blinds? If you’re looking for an off the shelf solution the zemismart motor can fill the need for under $50 . I also think these motors are a good option if you are a renter and not able to make modifications to your blinds or building.
But we haven’t even touched on the main advertised purpose of the motors which is controlling roller style shades. Unfortunately I don’t have any rolling shades, but my neighbor does! In fact, they have a very large rolling blind with a beaded chain that covers their sliding patio door. According to the axis guys “As long as the blind has a beaded chain the gear will be able to control it.” So I headed over to my neighbors house to test that claim.
I started out with the axis gear and my initial test was a complete failure due to the extra large end stop beads that were installed on the pull chain. As these balls went into the axis gear it caused the back of the gear to pop off which in turn caused the motor to power down completely. I of course wasn’t satisfied with that initial result so I temporarily removed those end stop beads and tried again. On the second try the gear was able to lift the blinds, albeit very slowly and with a lot of unhappy noises from the unit, but it failed to lower the blinds properly. The problem came when the cord connector unit tried to move through the gear and caused some extra work for the motor. The extra work was interpreted by the device as someone or something getting caught in the blinds and it therefore shut down the unit. No matter how many times I tried I couldn’t get the Axis gear to reliably open and close the shade, and the error was always related to the chain connection piece.
Next I tried the zemismart device to see if it could handle the weight of this large shade. Again, it slowly lifted the shade while making the familiar sounds of a struggling motor, but it also got stuck on the chain connector piece. I was able to get the blinds to continue to raise by reissuing the move up command, but a scheduled open or close command would fail in this situation. Unlike the axis gear the zemismart motor comes with other gear shapes to attach to different style cords, so I swapped to a different gear that was supposedly designed for larger beaded chains. Unfortunately, that only made the problem worse and the motor wasn’t even strong enough to move the shade after that modification.
If you’re looking to use these motors to move a large roller shade, keep your receipt and be ready for disappointment because they likely won’t work consistently, if at all. Still, I would imagine that smaller shades would work without any issue, but beware that the connection point of the beaded loop may cause issues.
For completeness I also checked how well these motors could operate vertical blinds, and they were able to successfully control both the tilt of the very large blinds in my classroom which have a beaded style pull chain, but opening and closing the blinds was less reliable due to the curtain string slipping near the end of the track.
The zemismart documentation also hinted that it may be able to raise a horizontal blind by attaching the pull cord to the notch in the gear. That test went about as well as I expected, still it’s a feature that wasn’t even attempted on the Axis gear.
Bottom line: These motors mostly work as expected: they can control smaller rolling shades, and can consistently handle the tilting mechanism of both horizontal and vertical shades. But one of the main selling points of these motors is the installation convenience that comes with being solar powered. So just how long should you expect the internal battery to stay charged from the solar charger alone?
In my opinion it is reasonable to expect these motors to operate 4 times per day, a scheduled opening in the morning, and closing at night, and maybe an on demand open and close during the day.
For my tests operating the tilt on my blinds, the battery depleted about 1% per 10 open close cycles, and in florida the battery was able to charge up an average of 1% per day, so you should theoretically never have to externally charge the battery when using it for tilt. In contrast, when I was testing it on my neighbors roller shades, each open and close movement exhausted roughly 6% of the battery, so the solar charger would absolutely not be able to keep up with that demand.
When I was testing the axis gear the battery indicator never changed regardless of the amount of sun the solar cell was receiving. The only way I could charge the internal battery was by removing the cover on the back of the unit and leaving the solar charger and battery pack hooked up with the unit off. I never saw the internal battery indicator change as a result of the solar charger alone and the backup batteries always reported “100%”. I’m not sure if my unit is defective or if the app just doesn’t have very accurate battery percentage, but I find both of those readings to be suspect, so I’m not able to make a definitive recommendation about the battery life of the Axis. Based on reviews on amazon people have had very mixed success with the solar charging capabilities of the Axis gear and you can find lots of forum posts about users needing to replace the 12 AA backup batteries in the solar unit every 6 months.
So, back to the initial question: Is this axis worth 5 times more than the zemismart? The short answer is
“no”. In all of my tests the two motors performed almost identically. The only significant difference between these two products is that the axis motor can be controlled by Zigbee. I unfortunately don’t currently have a working smartthings hub, but I was able to add the axis gear to my hubitat test installation after about an hour of fiddling around and searching through github for previous versions of their driver code. Supposedly, the smart things integration is a bit easier, but I didn’t test it.
So aside from zigbee, which I agree is a pretty big deal, the Zemismart AOK motor does everything that the axis gear does for less than 20% of the price. To put it into perspective the downstairs of my house has 6 windows with horizontal blinds, which means to add the zemismart AOK motor to every window it would only cost me $284, just $34 more than a single Axis gear and to do it with the Axis motors I’d be looking at just under $1500 dollars.
If you’re thinking about buying either of these and you’d like me to put them through a specific stress test just let me know down in the comments. Thank you to my amazing patrons over at patreon for your continued support of my channel. If you’re interested in supporting my channel please check out the links I the description. If you enjoyed this video please consider subscribing, and as always, thanks for watching the hookup.