Smart Lighting Buyers Guide 2019
Today on the Hookup I’m going give you my 2019 Smart Home buyer’s guide. We’re going to take a look at the massive choices you have when selecting smart switches, dimmers, and bulbs, and I’m going to help you make the right decisions based on your needs and your budget when outfitting your smart home.
When it comes to smart lighting you’ve got a lot of choices to make: Should you use switches, dimmers or bulbs? What about zigbee, zwave, wifi? In this video I’m going to help you decide which products are the best for you and your smart home, but I won’t make you wait for my final verdict: Right now, in February of 2019 I suggest that you buy WiFi based smart products that utilize the Tuya platform and the tuya smart app. If you want to know why I’m giving this suggestion then keep watching.
First lets talk about the use cases of smart switches, dimmers, and bulbs.
When choosing a smart lighting solution a smart switch or dimmer is almost always a better choice over smart bulbs unless you want the ability to chance colors and individually control brightness. Or you’ll be installing your smart bulbs in lamps that are not and will never be connected to a switch.
In basically all other instances smart bulbs are a huge headache and should be avoided. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a good idea to leave your light switch on all the time and control your lights only via an app or voice control. Adding smart products to your home should increase its functionality, not decrease or even complicate it. Smart bulbs do not integrate seamlessly with the way most of our houses are wired or the way we are used to interacting with our lights, so unless you have a specific use case for them you should get a smart switch or dimmer instead.
Another important note about smart bulbs is that a dimmable smart bulb is not compatible with a dimming switch, you should never use a smart bulb on the same circuit with a smart dimmer.
If you’ve decided that a smart switch is the best decision then next you’ll need to decide is whether you want to use your existing switch, or replace it with a completely new one. Products like the shelly and this upcoming product from topgreener install behind your existing switch plate to give increased functionality without any changes in appearance, these are great if you have custom switches or panels, but if you are replacing standard switches you may be better off replacing your switch completely. One major upside to getting an entirely new switch is that they don’t have set “on” and “off” positions, instead they are actually just buttons that allow a light to be toggled “on” via the switch, and “off” via a phone app without causing a desynchronization of the switch state and light state.
If you do decide to buy all new switches and dimmers, here are a few things you might want to consider when selecting your hardware:
- Most of the products on the US market are what we refer to a Decora style switches, If you’re like me and have all toggle switches you’ll also need to replace each faceplate when you update your switches, If you only update one switch in a multiple switch plate you may have trouble finding a switch plate that has the right combination of decora and toggle switch cutouts.
- Cheaper wifi switches will have a less satisfying “click” when they turn on. This is generally caused by using cheap momentary push buttons under the plastic switch. Since these push buttons don’t have very much travel, the switch isn’t going to move much when you press it. Slightly more expensive products like this zemismart light switch have a very tactile and satisfying “click” when pressed. This seems like a totally petty thing, but in every day use it is pretty noticeable.
- Most of these switches are equipped with LEDs to indicate their state. The most common configuration is for a red light to indicate a light switch that is “off” and green or blue to indicate “on”. I personally prefer switches that do not have an LED lit up when off, but in certain cases, like on the zemismart switch with the great click action, the LED cannot be turned off.
- Some switches will carry the national safety certifications for your country, some will not. In the US our big certification agency is Underwriters Laboratory or UL. Their job is to inspect devices to make sure they are not only safe under normal use, but also safe under reasonable misuse. I’ve heard many people parrot the argument that in the event of a house fire your insurance claim will be denied if the non UL certified device was located on the same circuit as the device that caused the fire, but my policy doesn’t say that, and I haven’t ever actually seen a policy that stipulates coverage based on certification. If you have one, send me an email because I’d love to read through it. Either way, if this certification is important for you and your peace of mind there are plenty of companies that offer UL certified smart products, though you should expect to pay a little more since the cost of the certification process is significant.
All of those considerations are important when selecting your switch hardware, but the software on your app is equally if not more important. There are really two main ways to control your smart home remotely.
First is through the manufacturer supplied app on your phone or tablet. You will register with their website, login to their cloud, and use that cloud to control your device. TP-Link has the Kasa app, Phillips has the hue app, and Lowes HAD the iris app. The problem with these apps is that they aren’t going to include a full suite of products and therefore you’ll be stuck opening multiple different apps to control all of your devices, and devices within different apps will not be able to talk to each other.
The second control method is with a hub like smart things, home assistant, habitat, or openHAB. These systems allow for products made by different manufacturers to communicate with one another to create scenes and trigger automations. Samsung smart things requires special “works with smart things” labeling in order to integrate with their system, and there is generally a higher cost associated with it. Other options like Home Assistant, which I love and use every day are unfortunately difficult to setup and maintain and are unfortunately not ready for the main stream consumer at this time.
So what’s my recommendation? If you want a single app that can control the vast majority of your devices, you should buy tuya compatible products. Tuya is a company that works with manufacturers to provide a small module that interfaces with their cloud to control their products. Tuya offers an easy “app building” experience to manufacturers and handles most of the difficult coding and developing that is required to get a smart product to market. Because tuya manufactures these devices their products will all work under the “tuya smart” app for iOS and android. Tuya smart allows for scenes and automations and since tuya makes smart modules for basically every category of smart home product it’s likely that you’ll be able to control them all from the same app on your phone.
When searching for Tuya products they may not specifically say “Tuya” in the description, but they often say things like “works with the smart life app”, and based on what I saw at CES we can expect tuya to be in the vast majority of smart products for the foreseeable future. I’ve included links in the description to some of my favorite tuya manufacturers. They range from ultra cheap standard decora switches like these ones from Martin Jerry that occasionally go on sale for just $12 each on amazon to UL certified designer options from Topgreener.
If you’re one of my usual viewers you may be shocked that I am suggesting people use tuya, but for someone just getting started home automation it’s one of those apps that “just works”. The other great news is that if down the road you decide to move to an awesome open source home automation hub like home assistant, your tuya components can either be loaded directly in from the cloud OR you can update this firmware on those tuya devices to run your own local control solution.
Last let me talk about the other options that I’m recommending against. I’ve already given my recommendation for Wifi, but two other options you’ll see when shopping for smart home products are zigbee, Zwave. Zigbee and Zwave are protocols or communication methods for your smart devices. These systems will require a hub that also speaks their same language. That hub acts like a translator and will ultimately connect to the cloud via the internet to make your products “smart”. Each device will communicate either directly to the hub, or it will relay its message from one switch to another in order to reach the hub in what is referred to as a mesh network. As I’ve mentioned I believe that WiFi is the most future proof of all the protocols, and in 2019 I don’t think you should be investing in zigbee or zwave devices. But with that being said, let me lay out the advantages of zigbee and zwave devices for you:
- Because they communicate through a hub you may only need to have a single device attached to your wifi network to control many different smart home products. Many people site wifi congestion as a downside to wifi smart products, but as someone with 60+ wifi smart devices running on an off the shelf google wifi system, I haven’t experienced any slowdowns or congestion based on wifi traffic. The devices are not downloading moves or playing online games, they are just updating their current state and responding to commands, which takes virtually no bandwidth.
- Each zwave or zigbee device that you own must communicate through the hub, and the hub is the only thing that actually has access to the internet. Wifi switches each communicate individually with the cloud instead of using a hub, so that theoretically represents less data security since you will have more devices that are directly able to communicate with the internet. Of course whoever makes the hub will still be collecting as much information as possible, so keep that in mind.
- because these protocols were designed for short range momentary transmission they are much lower power than wifi, making them more ideal for battery powered products. Sustained wifi is a battery hog, and there’s no way a battery powered device can maintain a wifi connection for any significant length of time and not consume batteries cookie monster style. Some manufacturers have started to release clever programming that allows for wifi battery powered sensors, but they are still relatively uncommon.
Unfortunately the disadvantages of zigbee and zwave greatly outweigh those advantages. You know how zigbee and zwave hubs act like translators for your devices? Not every Zwave hub can communicate with every zwave device, and the same goes for zigbee. Hubs are sometimes specific to one manufacturer, or incompatible with different generations of the same protocol. Just because you have a zigbee type hub doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to attach your new zigbee device to it, you may need to purchase specific hub, or even a specific generation of a specific hub to control your devices. The multi generation issue can also come into play when creating the mesh network because some devices will not play well with others. Ultimately this can lead to slow or unresponsive devices, and frustration with your smart home, something we all want to avoid.
Last, Zigbee and zwave devices are locked down, you’re not going to be able to easily modify their behavior to fit into your smart home as it grows. As I mentioned earlier tuya based wifi devices not only work great out of the box, but they are also future proof because inside they use the common ESP8266 wifi chip, which happens to be the chip of choice for hobbyists, diyers, and makers, and that means that if somewhere down the line in your smart home journey you decide you want to start experimenting with the thousands of amazing modifications that exist for these wifi devices, you won’t end up having to throw your old smart home gear in the trash.
In conclusion, wifi is the cheapest, fastest, and most future proof of all of the protocols, and Tuya is quickly becoming the standard for this protocol. If you invest in these products from the start chances are they are only going to get better. Again, I’ve included links to some of my favorite brands and devices down in the description. If I missed a great brand or got something wrong in this video, please let me know down in the comments.
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