Since the emergence of home automation hubs such as SmartThings and Wink in the US in the last couple of years, us Brits have been left longing for similar tech to come to our shores.
SmartThings and Wink both do similar jobs – they provide a unified solution for controlling the numerous networked and connected devices you have around the home that work on different protocols and frequencies (e.g. Z-Wave, WiFi, ZigBee etc.). More often than not (and in the case of my two examples) they also provide an interface to control our devices using an app on your phone. The functionality looks great and on the whole works well. Its a definite improvement in ease of setup than other solutions such as openHAB and HomeSeer and I would expect non-technical consumers to be able to get going with relative ease.
Now when it comes to supported hardware, if you head over to the list of compatible products for SmartThings in the US you will see numerous devices (approx. 170) such as dimmer switches, bulbs, door handles, thermostats and speaker systems that are all compatible. The only problem is when you look to narrow that list down to devices in the UK that are compatible you will find there are approximately only 50 devices (of which about 20 are different versions of similar speakers). Support is even worse if you look at the Wink hub as that isn’t even launched in the UK! Looking through the list, there seems to be at least one product in each category that would work well and is simple to install – the glaring omission seems to be dimmer switches so that’s what I’m going to look at today – the options of connected lighting in the UK.
Smart Bulbs vs Smart Switches
The first decision you’re going to need to make is whether you should replace your bulbs with smart bulbs or replace the switches in your wall with smart switches. There are pros and cons to both but I will try to give you a quick overview and explain the best way to go.
The first, and in my opinion easiest solution to implement, is replacing your existing bulbs with “smart” versions that contain some form of wireless communication inside. This option requires no modifications to your house and is as simple as unscrewing your existing bulbs and screwing your new ones in! There are a number of protocols you can pick from here; WiFi, Bluetooth and ZigBee are among the most popular. When picking a bulb you should think about how you will be controlling the bulb and what it integrates with. With WiFi bulbs such as LIFX you can control them directly from your smartphone but with bulbs like Phillips Hue you will need an additional hub before you can control them in the same way. It is also worth looking at compatibility with 3rd party hubs like SmartThings or software such as HomeSeer and openHAB in case you need something more advanced than what the manufacturer provides in their controller. It is worth noting that there are a reasonable number of smart bulb devices on the market and generally pretty good support for them in home automation packages.
I have a couple of issues with smart bulbs. The first being that they seem to be very expensive in comparison to a “dumb” bulb. For example, a white LIFX bulb retails for £39.95 on Amazon. Compare this to a standard LED bulb from the likes of Homebase or B&Q and you could be looking at just £8–£10. But, by purchasing a single white bulb, you are also missing out on the most attractive feature of the bulbs – the ability to change their colour. So, if you actually wanted a colour changing bulb you’re looking at £50 for a Philips Hue bulb and £59.95 for a LIFX bulb. If I were to be upgrading all the lights in my house to for example the Philips Hue bulbs I’d be looking at a cost of about £500 (10 bulbs) and that excludes the GU10 bulbs I have installed.
The second issue however is the biggest problem and for this reason alone I would never purchase a smart bulb. What happens if you turn the light off at the switch? Well, there is no longer any power to the bulb which means the ability to turn it on via the app no longer exists. No power means no wireless connection. In other words, you need to either only use the app provided and stop using switches on your walls altogether, or you don’t have the nice feature of being able to turn your lights on and off or dim them up and down without leaving them on all the time. And if you ever have guests round, how are they going to be able to use the lights if they only work from your smartphone?
The second option you have is to replace the light switches in your house with ones that are controllable over a network. Again, there are numerous different options but the main protocols we find with this option are Z-Wave, RF and WiFi. The only problem I have found is that all of the WiFi switches are only available in the US and not compatible with our homes. That therefore leaves us with RF and Z-Wave based devices. In regards to RF products, the main and most dominant player in the UK is LightwaveRF. They have a large range of switches ranging from single dimmers to two-way 4 button dimmers which should cover most homes. They also have a range of matching power sockets, heating equipment (thermostats and radiator valves), sensors (PIRs, door/window opening/closing, dawn/dusk and energy monitor) and accessories to basically fulfill every possible smart home problem you could find. On the other hand, we have Z-Wave devices. There are a couple of switches available such as this single TKB switch or this double TKB switch but I have to admit I find them reasonably ugly and are not part of a similarly designed set like the LightwaveRF kit. The other option for Z-Wave is to use something like this Fibaro dimmer which will allow you to use your existing switches.
Most of what I read and hear indicates that Z-Wave would most often be the way to go here but I just find that in the UK the LightwaveRF range is much more complete and easier to get going with (it is available in store at Maplin, online at Amazon and other online stores such as Vesternet). I also think the pricing of the LightwaveRF range is much more pocket friendly for those just starting out in home automation compared to Z-Wave. LightwaveRF works on the 433.92MHz frequency band and has a range of up to about 30m (this can be extended with signal boosters). They are easy to retrofit into your house and commands are sent directly to devices rather than via a hub. You can control the lights from the wall switch, your smartphone (if purchased with a hub or through the use of an RFXtrx433E USB device and software such as openHAB) and a remote control if you have one.
As you may have guessed, I’ve installed LightwaveRF in my house. Whilst mostly satisfied with the system I have two issues; First, on the front of the switch there are two LED’s; a blue and orange. The orange led indicates if the device is off and the blue led indicates if its on. Now, I think this is a particularly annoying feature for a couple of reasons, firstly you can tell if your lights are on or not by looking up! Secondly, in a room such as a bedroom you always have a glowing orange light throughout the night to indicate its off (which I can also clearly see!!). The second issue is the fact that there is no acknowledgement or way to get the current status of the switch in the protocol – in other words, if you send a command to turn the device on, there’s no way to know if it was successful or if the command reached the switch. And if for some reason your controller got out of sync, there’s no way for it to know if the lights are currently on or off. This isn’t generally a problem in simple setups but when you come to want to do advanced automation this becomes a bit of an issue.
The issues with smart switches is they are definitely more difficult to install than smart bulbs but I believe it gives you much more control over your house than the bulbs do. The one thing to note is that in older houses there may not be enough room in the back box in the wall to fit them flush – it would be worth measuring first to ensure they are deep enough. You will have to have an understanding of how to wire a switch in order to get them put in yourself but there are (in the case of LightwaveRF) instructions on how to wire them in. I would recommend you get a professional to install them if you are unsure.
What I believe the market needs in the UK is a WiFi or Z-Wave based switch that is compatible with the hubs and home automation software of the world and doesn’t look out of place in the UK market – if anyone finds anything, please let me know!