Basic Light Switch Automation
How hard is it to automate the most basic of home electrical devices? Well, it doesn't get any more basic than the lowly light switch. On, off, and nothing in between. Home automation tools make that simplest of controls a whole lot more. Let's suppose the switch were upstairs, and you are downstairs, but forgot to turn off the light the last time you were up there. One tap on your smartphone would take care of that without the trip upstairs. Or, maybe you just couldn't remember if you turned it off. You can check to see if it is on with your smartphone as well. If you really want to get into automation, making your home a 'smarthome', there are many other options available once you add some smarts to your switch. For example, automatically turning on the light when you get home, or setting a schedule for the lights. Or, for the purposes of conservation and energy management, you just want to know when the lights have been turned on. Depending upon the complexity of your setup, you can do any or all of these things. But first, you have to start with a switch. For this post, I'm walking through the selection, installation, and testing of a basic light switch.
I was looking for one simple need to be met for this setup. My home has exterior lighting in the front that consists of two large carriage lights on either side of the garage door, and one downward facing spot over the exterior front door, that illuminates a small covered area. All three of these light sources are controlled by a single switch that is located just inside the front door.
Several years ago, I replaced the basic on/off switch with an Intermatic timer switch that fit inside the space the original switch took up. It was called a 'Night Sentry Solid State Timer', model number EJ341, and was designed to have multiple programmable on and off times.
I was never really very happy with it. The programming wasn't intuitive, and not everyone in the family had the patience to try to figure it out. Most of the time we left it in the manual position, and mostly turned it on and off with an awkward little slide switch instead of the obvious push-button. The timer's original purpose was to turn the lights on nightly or just when we were away, so that we could come back to a lighted house. It would also make it appear that someone was home if we were away for an extended amount of time, like a vacation. So, in short, the replacement switch needs to be easy to control manually, and should attempt to regain the functionality intended by the old Intermatic switch. Nice to haves are the ability to control via smartphone, or to be triggered by other events or conditions.
I recently purchased a Wink Hub, and utilize the Wink app on my smartphone. I also live in a very diverse home, meaning that we have both android and iOS living together. It isn't always easy, but we somehow make it work.
The lighting fixtures originally held incandescent bulbs. Over time, I've replaced the bulbs with high efficiency LED bulbs. The carriage lights each have three candelabra style bulbs, with each socket listed as 40 watts maximum. The LED bulbs installed are equivalent to 25 watt incandescent in light output, but only draw 3.5 watts each. The overhead fixture in the vestibule area draws only 15 watts (1200 lumen LED floodlight). Altogether, these three fixtures that are controlled by this single switch are 36 watts total. Not bad for power savings, but believe it or not, this could be a potential problem for some electronic switches. Many LED lights draw so little power that some electronic switches do not 'see them'. Some actually require that a traditional incandescent bulb has to be in the mix somewhere for the switch to operate properly. For many of those switches, the rule of thumb is 40 watts or higher load on the switch for LED or CFL type bulbs. Dimmable switches can pose many other issues, but I'm not worried about that here - just a simple on/off will do fine. Since this is a permanently wired fixture, I should also pay attention to the maximum load the switch could potentially handle. The max load that the three fixtures are rated at (this would have to be incandescent bulbs) is 340 watts. To summarize, the load characteristics of the switch would have to be between about 25 and 400 watts, and have to be able to handle 'electronic' or any other type of load..
The switch needs to fit into a standard box, just like a traditional switch, and fit in with the existing wide paddle style switches used in the rest of the house.
I reviewed a number of switches online and also stopped in at both Lowes and Home Depot to look some over in person. It was hard finding any bad reviews for this simple of a function. From what I researched online, they just work. The only real differences I found were in the quality of appearance, the communication type (Zwave, Zigbee, etc.), and some minor wiring differences. For my purposes; I narrowed the field by the following criteria:
- I have already invested in the Wink family of home automation, so certified 'Wink Compatible' switches would be a plus
- Anything Zwave compatible 'should' work with the Wink Hub, but would possibly require some manual configuration
- I have white switch-plate covers, with the wide style switches, so it should match that decor
- I have a house built in the 1990's, so it has full neutral/hot/ground wiring for the power to the switch and to the load (the lights)
- There is only a single switch in a single location to control the lights, so I don't need the switch to work as a 'three-way' type
- It needs to handle an electronic (LED) load
- I also eliminated any device that claimed only to work with a specific home automation system that is not Wink
I finally settled on the Leviton decora model DZS15. It met all my needs, and was in about the middle range on pricing. There were lower priced units that would have probably worked out fine, but I chose to go with one that was already Wink certified.
There was only one thing that made me hesitate before purchasing. I carefully read the specs on the side of the package, and was a little concerned at what it didn't say. From the label:
1/2 HP 9.8A Motor
No mention of electronic or solid state type loads. So, while in the store (Home Depot), I called the Leviton Product Information Hotline listed right on the packaging. Within just a few moments, I was speaking to a very knowledgeable person who told me I had nothing to worry about. Even though LEDs were not specifically mentioned on the packaging, it would indeed work just fine. He went on to say that so long as the switch is not exceeded in total wattage, you could use it to switch just about anything or any combination of load types. With that, I made my purchase.
The installation is slightly different from a traditional mechanical switch installation, in that it requires a neutral and ground wire. Some older homes, or ones not wired to the latest code may not have either one or both.
This article is not meant to be a set of instructions for installation of electrical circuitry, devices, or any kind of guide for working with wiring of any kind, Green4Geeks is not responsible for any damage, injuries, or death resulting from attempting to replicate what is depicted here. Green4Geeks recommends using a qualified electrician to perform similar installations for yourself.
One of the distinctive features of this model is that you do not have to purchase a different variation just to get the correct color rocker and trim ring. It comes with white, ivory and light almond colored face-plates all in the same package. If you already have the wall-plate, just match the color, or you can purchase the matching decora plate to go along with it.
This switch also uses screw terminals instead of leads or push in wire sockets. See the side view below:
It is slightly deeper than a regular light switch, so you will want to make sure that there is enough room in the box along with all the wirres for it to fit. Mine was a little snug.
The switch I removed to install this one had a simple two wire connection. Basically, it just went inline on the hot (black) side of the circuit, and there were no neutral or ground connections on the switch. To install the new Leviton switch, I had to add a ground wire to the bundle already in the box, and do the same for the neutral (white) wire. When it was all done, there were four connections to the new switch; (1) incoming hot (black), (2) outgoing hot (black), (3) neutral, and (4) ground. I found the instructions to be easy to follow and thorough. It is important that the ground and neutral wires are connected properly, as the switch has built in transient suppression. In order for this surge protection to work, there must be a good ground.
Once physically installed and the power is restored to the circuit, it looks and acts similar to an ordinary light switch. The only differences are a tiny LED indicator at the bottom of the switch, and the the action of the rocker when you press it. An ordinary rocker switch has two physical states; the bottom half pressed in, which forces out the top, and vice-versa. When the top is pushed in, the light is generally thought to be 'on'. With the Leviton DZS15, the bottom half of the rocker is always out slightly. Pressing the rocker does not 'rock' the switch to one position of the other, instead it simply clicks slightly, and then electronically changes state. One push turns on the light, a second turns it back off. During operation the small LED that is at the bottom of the switch will light depending upon what is going on at the time (programming, turning the switch on, turning the switch off, etc.). The light is so small, that unless the switch is located in a really dark room, it really isn't noticeable. As seen in the photo at the left, the switch fits in nicely with he other mechanical switch, and one would have to be looking to find any differences.
The operation is solid, but it does make an audible click (not soft) every time the switch changes state, whether it is used manually or by your Wink app. It is audible feedback if the light you are controlling is out of sight, which I suppose could be good, but it is definitely noticeable. One other issue I noticed was about a half to full second delay before the switch command was executed using the Wink app. I'm not sure if this is wholly the switch, the Wink app (which must communicate with the cloud to do it's thing), or a combination of both. I'm starting to lean towards the Wink app, as I had an app update yesterday and afterwards noticed that the delay was much shorter. The Wink app version I'm on right now is android version 188.8.131.52
Configuring the switch with Wink could not be any easier. Simply open the Wink app, click on the 'Add a Product' button, and follow the prompts. This was less than a 30 second process. Once done, there is a new icon available in the Wink app in the 'Lights' category. You can then edit the icon to signify which light or lights are under control, and you can also add the icon to 'Groups'. The 'Groups' feature comes in handy if you want to add the light to a scene. In home automation, scenes are lighting schemes for rooms, areas, or even the entire house, that can be set with push of a single button. Let's say it is movie night at your house, and you want to set the right lighting. Add the appropriate switches, dimmers, motorized blinds, and whatever else makes sense.to a group, then with a single tap, you set up the room for your own personal cinema.
Since this switch only handles on and off, there wasn't much I really wanted to configure. I set a group up for all exterior lights, and another that turns on (or off) every 'connected' light.inside or outside the house. Those come in handy for alarms, or those moments when you think you hear something go bump in the night. I opted not to use geo-fencing, which is a setup whereby the location of your smartphone is used to detect your proximity to the house, and then sets an event, such as turning on the light. As much coming and going as there is with my family, the front lights would look like a strobe-light. Either that, or they would just stay on all the time. The way Wink accomplished this is through the use of what they call 'Robots'. These are little rule based settings that are ridiculously easy to set up, that program if-then conditions into operation of your gear. Robots can also be used with sensors such as proximity detectors to turn the lights on if someone is approaching the front of your house.
Schedules are also pretty easy to set up. If you can set up a 7 day program on your home thermostat, or set a calendar event on your smartphone, you know everything you need to know to set up a schedule. You can set single events, like when to have the lights on for arriving guests, or repeated daily events.
The pro's are easy to list. Installation was a snap, color matching face-plates made the finish perfect, setup was easy as most Wink setups are, and it also functions manually just as if it were any other light switch in the house.
Con's are few, and perhaps I'm being picky, but the delay from the app and the click when the light changes state are the only real issue I have. I know they are minor, and I'm the only one in the family that has an opinion on it, so will just keep a watch out for smaller delays in subsequent updates.
In short, I would recommend this switch to others. I'm going to compare this one to other switches (both in-wall and plug in styles) in later posts. I'm also looking to compare dimmers and other gear as well, so stay tuned!