One of the more interesting DIY projects in Home Automation is installing smart light switches. While you don’t have to be an electrician by any means, there are a few things you really need to keep in mind before you go to the lengths of installing a smart light switch or smart light switches.
Your mobile technology is the easiest thing you have control over. Most smart light switch apps don’t require a better operating system than iOS 9x or Android 4.4x, which means that you can get away with having an older phone. I still have a launch day iPhone 6 and my smart switches work just fine. I just recently did a review for a Leviton Smart Wi-Fi dimmer switch and our testing phone was an iPhone 5s, which also held up just fine. While mobile technology likely is not a problem for you, some of these things might be.
Understanding your home’s wiring
Understanding the type of wiring you have in your home is the most important aspect of smart switch ownership, as it will pretty well dictate whether you can have smart switches in the first place. If you live in an older home with knob and tube wiring (which many pre-1940 homes were built with), you may want to pass on affected switches until you’ve upgraded them to copper wiring. Smart switch boxes tend to run pretty warm, and I wouldn’t recommend installing them if your home has aluminium wiring either. Aluminium wiring wasn’t around very long. During the copper price boom of the 1960s, aluminium became a cheaper (yet more dangerous) alternative for use in homes. If your home was built in the 1960s into the mid 70s, you may want to double check its wiring. Since most smart switches do run warm and are typically optimized for use with copper wiring, you should avoid installing these fixtures in any place that’s known to be aluminium wired. In the picture below, an example of copper wiring is on the left and aluminum is on the right.
Since a smart switch is constantly projecting signal and is always powered on in some fashion, I’d recommend installing in a home with a modern circuit breaker and a minimum 100 amp service. That’s not going to be a problem if your home was built in the last 50-60 years. If you’re in an older home with an old style fuse box, consult an electrician first before you jump in.
What’s inside my light switch box?
Before installing a smart light switch, you also need to make sense of what’s inside your light switch box. The smart switch you’re about to install will probably be making use of more wiring and space inside your existing light box, and it’s important to know that you have everything inside the box you need. For example, chances are your existing regular switch box has a ground wire but that it’s not directly hooked up to the light switch. Every single smart switch I’ve installed makes use of the ground wire directly connected into it. In fact, in the case of the Leviton Smart Dimmer Wi-Fi switch I mentioned earlier, we needed to fashion a stronger ground wire in order to close the circuit well enough for the switch to work 100% of the time.
You probably don’t have to do this (since more often than not there would be one,) but you will need to ensure that you have a ground wire in the box available to use. If you don’t, you won’t be able to install a switch there without it, and you’ll have to bring an electrician in to help. If you’re not sure which wire is the ground wire, they’re usually colour coded and outlined in the diagrams that come with switch instructions.
One other thing to keep in mind is whether you have multi-gang or single-gang switch boxes. A multi-gang setup is one where you have more than one light switch in the same box. In these circumstances, you might not be able to use a lot of the switches that are currently out on the market. Some switches just aren’t configured for them, and some setups take up so much room inside the existing light box that you may not even be able to fit it properly, especially if it needs its own faceplate to smooth away the setup.
Wi-Fi connections and maintenance
Having a strong Wi-Fi connection is a really important part of having smart switches in your home. Since your switches run both at home and remotely through the strength of your home network, you’ll need to ensure that you have a strong signal wherever you’re installing the switch. If you don’t have a strong enough signal that your light switch can pick up and utilize for your commands, you’re likely to run into endless loops or crashes in your app, or have it come out of sync with the commands. If you’re installing in fairly remote areas of your home (or far away from your router), you may want to purchase and cleverly place a range extender somewhere in your home to take care of those signal difficulties.
Maintenance of a smart switch is pretty simple. All you have to do is ensure that you don’t ignore the odd reminder to update the firmware on your light switch. If you have the notifications enabled on your phone, you should be fine and will never miss a beat.
Now that you know what it takes and what your options are, which smart light switch is the right one for you? Do you have any smart switches installed in your home? What did you choose? Please let us know in the comments section below!