Smart Lights - Dumb Decisions


(A somewhat rambling post about a very inconsequential problem.)

I'm slowly building a Smart Home. I've security cameras emailing me when a cat has the temerity to walk past a window, a Roomba which tweets me, a thermostat which knows if I'm working from home, and a car which knows when to charge from my solar panels.

Now it's time to focus on something a bit more useful - lighting!

A few months ago I treated myself to a Lifx SmartBulb. It's a cracking bit of kit! There's a widget on my phone's home screen which turns it on or off instantly, it gently wakes me up in the morning, turns off when I leave the house, and has a nifty API.

But the bulb costs SIXTY QUID! A quick count of all the lights in my home... 21! I am not spending £1,260 on lightbulbs! Even if I just wanted them in my lounge, it's £120.

Lest you think I live in some sort of mansion, the previous owner of our house installed a couple of multi-way spotlights in the kitchen.

There's another issue - if the light is turned off at the switch, it can't be controlled from the app. Now, that's pretty obvious - no electricity = no WiFi. But it's a tad annoying if, say, your partner walks out of the room and absent-mindedly switches it off at the wall. Naming no names...

Ok, so the obvious solution should be smart light switches, right? Flick the switch at the wall or toggle it from your phone. There are seven light switches I use regularly - controlling 12 light bulbs - which should reduce the cost significantly.

A Raspbery Pi Zero is tiny, cheap, and can contain WiFi. Surely there must be dozens of cheap and cheerful smart switches available?

No so much. They all seem expensive and incompatible.

Firstly, there's the choice of network topology.

  1. Each light switch has WiFi and, therefore, its own IP address. Or...
  2. A central unit has it's own IP address and connects to each light switch via z-Wave - or some other protocol. Or...
  3. Each switch is controlled directly from the phone via BlueTooth.

If the central hub breaks you've lost connection to every switch. Using BlueTooth restricts the amount of smart automation you can do. So, for that reason, I'm drawn to having a direct IP connection to each switch.

WiFi Switches

It's worth pointing out that this comes with its own set of risks - having poorly protected smart gadgets can leak your personal information. But if someone has physical access to my light switches, it's probably game over for security.

Anyway, I can find literally only one WiFi light switch! The Lanbon single gang WiFi light switch.

Lanbon Wifi Switch

The cost? Fifty quid! So not much cheaper than buying Lifx bulbs...

The Lanbon Android app has zero reviews and there's no sign of an API for it. And, if I'm honest, I'm slightly sceptical that it'd work with a UK lighting circuit.

sigh

Obviously, I'm not going down the Hue route - they have the same drawbacks as Lifx, and a despicable attitude to interoperability.

Ok, back to the hub-and-spoke model of (2).

Z-Wave Switches

There are Z-Wave switches for around £40.

I've already got a Z-Wave module for my Raspberry Pi, so that'll make the hub cheap. That said, the reviews for the switches look particularly poor. Some Z-Wave switches have wiring requirements which UK houses just don't meet.

It's possible to retrofit Z-Wave relays either behind the lightswitches or directly into the wiring. That's quite a lot of DIY and/or electrician effort. And they're around £50 each - taking the price even higher. Also, not exactly portable if we ever move house.

LightWave RF Switches

So, next up is British Company LightWaveRF

As much as I'd like to support a British company, I'm reluctant to trust a closed protocol. There is an official API - although you have to fill in a PDF(?!) in order to get access. It also says:

I agree not to disclose or distribute the API in any form to any third party without the express written permission of JSJS designs.

Which rather clamps down on any Open Source projects I might want to develop.

To get around this, some people have written well documented API documentation.

The prices are relatively cheap - £50 for a LightWaveRF Hub and around £20 for light switches. But the official app gets terrible reviews.

Onwards!

433MHz RF Switches

433 light switch

They're about £20 per switch, which is pretty good - and the hub is £25.

That's about the cheapest of all the options - and the reviews are fairly positive - but is it sufficiently secured and does it have an open API?

Well... Sort of! There are some attempts at creating an open API based on BroadLink's specification - but I'm not confident that anyone will make compatible switches should Broadcom decide to stop. Nor whether any 3rd party hubs will work with the switches.

Now What

My choices appear to be...

  • £60 bulbs which can't be controlled when switched off at the wall.
  • £50 WiFi light switches of dubious provenance.
  • £40 Z-Wave switches with poor reviews.
  • £30 LightWave RF switches running a proprietary protocol.
  • £20 BroadLink switches, again running a proprietary protocol, with limited support.

That's not very satisfactory, is it?

There's a long discussion on the SmartThings message boards about the UK lighting options. Basically, the UK's unique way of wiring light switches makes finding compatible products somewhat difficult.

What a conundrum!

A little help please!

Have you wired up a UK home with smart lighting? If so, please do let me know what you chose - and if it's working well for you.

18 thoughts on “Smart Lights - Dumb Decisions

  1. I've been using a Flic (flic.io) button to control the 3 LIFX bulbs in my office, I have one ceiling and 2 uplighter so they're on separate circuits. The flic is stuck on the corner of the regular lightswitch by the door so in general it passes the partner test!

    They're not cheap at about £19 plus shipping (although I heard they were available retail in Selfridges), the biggest downside for me is that they're BLE and designed to pair with an iOS or Android device, its not too bad as I have an iPad mini thats permanently sat in the room next door so they use that rather than my phone which leaves the house with me. I saw the other week that they've now released a Linux SDK which allows them to work with the Pi. Some of the reviews aren't great mainly seems to be around the setup and I had problems with mine, I needed a 2nd device to set them up as for some reason they didn't like my iPhone but were fine with the iPad :S Now its all setup though its working pretty well.

    In an ideal world I'd have a WiFI version of these but the biggest problem is power, WiFi (well DHCP etc) takes a significant amount of time to connect before it can send its message which means for a lightswitch that you want to respond instantly means keeping it permanently online, this in turn has an impact on battery which means you need it mains powered and that gets bulky and/or awkward to supply.

    The amazon dash buttons are a cool concept but they take a few seconds after the push to register the event as they power down, fine for re-ordering toilet roll but not fast enough for lights, in terms of open hardware I've been looking at the ESP8266 modules which are stupidly cheap tiny microcontrollers with built in WiFi, they would seem perfect for things like lightswitches just a case of getting the packaging right.

    Also there are much cheaper options on smart bulbs than the LIFX, the Hue White only ones are now sub £15 but you need the HUE hub, the Osram Lightify gets good reports for working with other hubs and its around the £20-£25 mark.

    1. I really like youe idea of BLE light switches going to smart bulbs, that could work very well.

      As I said, I'm not touching the Hue - I can't trust them not to screw it up if I add 3rd party bulbs. Lightify looks interesting, but it still suffers from the problem of dumb light switches.

      The hunt continues!

  2. A friend of mine uses Lightwave extensively, and it seems to work pretty well to be honest. They don't use it for anything API-like, but the app—which, I grant you, isn't the best looking—seems to do the job. Other than that it seems quite a good solution for adding the smarts at the switch level, which I think is definitely the way forward.

    There was a thing I found* a while ago about someone who'd managed to use PHP (!) to send the right flavour of UDP packets to their Lightwave hub, emulating what it gets from the app. I never had any luck with it at said friend's house, but you may have more success. And, as you mentioned, there's pauly's API which looks more promising.

    Interested to know which solution you go with!

    * http://www.tinkerfailure.com/lightwaverf-php-script/

  3. Hi,

    I can confirm that the lanbon switches do leak your data to some obscure china cloud ... lol
    Their IP camera as well and who knows what other devices,

    Just ... don't go with that,

    Regards,
    Peter

  4. Go archaic tech with X10? I found it primitive but effective. I'm currently playing with an EasyBulb, but I - like you - want the switch to be smart, not the bulb. The ESP8266 module could make great things, I'm going to do more reading on that.

  5. I'm in the process of using The Broadlink kit with IR (RGB) and RF Lighting and Power Switches and Home Audio/TV . I also picked up the S1 Alarm/Security kit and A1 Sensor .It will take me a while to get it all working and to evaluate just how well it all works to-gether(Or Not!). So Far the RM Pro works well (and is easy to set up for IR and RF Code learning).It integrates well with the Alarm System(S1) and the Environment Sensors in the A1(Noise,Temp,%RH and Air VOC's). IFTTT (If This Then That)programming seems to work quite well too (Although I have only done simple two or three step programs at present) .I have still not tried the RM Bridge API or trying to use it with EventGhost , OpenHab etc.One thing I did discover is that the Broadlink devices are based off of the Marvell 88MC200 SOC IOT device. Amazon(US) have a cheap Developers kit for this platform (Search AWS Starter Kit) and gridconnect.com have inexpensive marvell modules and dev kits too. SDKs are also available and lots of docs on marvell website.
    So far so good?
    Pro's : Cheap, Lots of Docs and SDK's seem to be available for the Marvell SOCs. Versatile-WiFi, IR and US & EU RF Compatibility.
    Easy to use very inexpensive RGB IR remote Bulbs,LED Strips and Various RF Plugs and Light sockets.Can Learn Practically any IR/RF remote, Ability to Construct/Design your own IR/RF remote in the econtrol app. Lots of premade templates on their cloud server, Can use with lights,Blinds,Curtains,Air Con,wall sockets,switches etc
    Cons : Chinese Cloud server is unreliable- Security could be an issue- this needs to be verified, although there is an option to only make any devices on your network only discoverable by your phone/tablet (Again not verified yet)
    You will probably have problems with various IR and RF codes "interfering " with each other.So be prepared to do code debugging!(Using a particular key on your tv remote MAY switch on a Light as well as change a channel) .An RMPro in each room might fix this(NOT tried)
    Security - IR and RF can be Jammed(Google it).
    Still lots to check/Try but for the price it looks pretty promising.
    .

  6. I recently purchased the Broadlink Pro eRemote contoller. Got it up and running very quickly. Programmed my stereo system, both "Main" and "Zone 2", and the basement TV.
    I am having trouble with my X10 modules, I have been able to get Broadlink to learn 3 out of the 16 modules. I know X10 uses an RF signal and the power lines to transmit its commands. I have been reading about different solutions and some mention a "hub" to connect the Broadlink remote and X10 devices. Do you know what the "hub" would be?
    I originally bought the Broadlink to control my stereo system in the basement from my sunroom up stairs. It works great and I am very satisfied with the Broadlink. It would be a bonus to have it control the existing X10 modules, I do have the X10 web based remote app for the modules and the security system. I have to have my computer running and the X10 interface running to connect via my phone or tablet.
    It would be nice to have it all in one app like Broadlink.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank you, Gregg Day.

  7. Another plus for the itead sonoffs.

    They have their own proprietary cloud solution, but if you don't want to use it and want to get your hands dirty there are several alternative firmware options. Plus side is if they go bust, I can still operate my devices.

  8. I have found lightwaverf units a bit fragile over the years. I've had to replace a 3 gang for overloading (my fault) and the replacement stopped working remotely after around 14 months. still works as a manual light switch.

    so the Broadlink has got me thinking... maybe simplier without dimming as well.

    what did you go for in the end?

  9. I just had a go at installing my broadlink light switch tonight. It blew up, which was unexpected. On the second try however, the light came up but unfortunately, it wouldn't go off again and produced a burning smell. It comes with a little capacitor thing and instructions to install it into your circuit someplace if using LEDs or power saver bulbs, alas, the instructions tend towards the vague relating towards where to put it (the diagram looks like the light pendant) and all the help videos on you tube appear to be in Russian.

    The hub arrives soon so will try again then.

    1. I'm in the process of going down the same route as Keendark and Steve - with the RM Pro. I have Alexa controlling my AV system (via the RM Plugin for Tasker - which works well until the Android device running it goes to sleep!)
      It also controls Digoo plug sockets for the bedside lights using 433Mhz. All works very well.
      I should receive my TC2 light switches soon and I am nervous about Keendarks blowing up. Do you have any tips/photos on what not to do? Have you managed to get one wired in successfully yet?
      I'll post my experience as things evolve.

      1. My TC2s arrived yesterday so, as promised, here is update as to how I got on.
        I wired a 1-gang in our bedroom and a 2-gang in the living room. Keendark, you must have had a faulty one as (having seen it for myself) there isn't much you can do wrong. Don't try it again - send it back!

        If you are thinking of buying the TC2s, I did notice a very slight hum when the lights are off (with your ear right next to it). These things bother me a lot (especially in bed) but it was no where near loud enough for me to hear across the room in the night. If your switch is RIGHT next to your bed it may be an issue if you are a fussy-pants like me (I can't have a wireless phone charger next to my bed due to the noise).
        When the lights are on, the TC2 noise drops to a barely perceptible 'purr'. The sound was consistent between 2 units (no louder for the 2-gang) so I wouldn't expect to see a massive variation.
        This certainly would not stop me buying more of them and I highly recommend them.

        I have had some issues in the past with RM Tasker not responding to Alexa voice commands but I seem to have fixed that now.

        I use an AMLogic-based Android set-top-box (a Cooleme MB1 from BangGood). There are lots of cheap versions of these kicking around and they all have pretty much the same guts.

        I had the box connected to WiFi, as I had heard that RM Tasker needed to sit on WiFi to be detected by Alexa.
        I had issues with this setup because the WiFi kept dropping - maybe some sleep mode I couldn't find (I had told the device to keep the screen on in developer options but that didn't help).
        Anyway, I eventually switched to a wired Ethernet connection and haven't had any problems since.
        After switching to Ethernet I deleted all the Smart Home devices from Alexa and tried to re-discover them. I had to try a few times and it took a while (a couple of hours) before Alexa would see the device again. This seems normal as I had the same issue when I switched from running RM Tasker on my phone to using the AmLogic box.

        It's a bit of a pain using Ethernet as the Broadlink e-control App specifically looks for WiFi to share codes, so when I make changes I have to switch to WiFi for a few minutes, but it seems to be much more stable in normal use (which is a critical WAF).

        I now have the bedroom and living room lights running, voice activated by Alexa. It's pretty quick too. takes maybe 1 -2 seconds after the voice request before they switch.

        Now, when I tell Alexa to 'Turn on Projector Settings' it turns off the TV, turns on the projector, makes sure the amp is on the correct input, sets the volume to 'quite loud', switches the raspberry Pi HDMI out to the projector (IR HDMI switch), waits for the projector to warm up then switches the projector to the correct HDMI input and [now] turns the lights off. I love it!

        I'm doing all this with a Broadlink RM Pro, AMLogic android box, a TC2 light switch, RM Tasker and an Echo Dot - £140 for the lot!

        1. An extra pointer when programming IR codes into the RM Pro...
          Most of my IR remotes only have a power toggle button (press once for on and again for off). This is no good when creating automation scripts as you don't know whether the devices are on or off (if your script tries to turn it on and it is already on, it will turn it off). Also, sometimes you want the script to repeat a command 2 or 3 times (in case it didn't work the 1st time). Clearly a toggle doesn't work for that!

          What I did was download AnyMote Smart remote from the Android store (can't remember how much it was) onto my Samsung Galaxy S5 (which has a built in IR blaster).
          You can then download code-sets for your devices that usually have many more functions - almost always including specific 'Power On' 'Power Off' commands.
          For example, my Panasonic TV remote only has 'Power Toggle' and 'Input cycle' - I have to press it up to 11 times to cycle between tuner, PC, video, component etc to get to HDMI 1.
          By downloading the code-set to my Galaxy S5 I managed to program the RM Pro with 'Power On', 'Power Off' and a specific 'HDMI 1' code.
          You should be able to pickup old Android phones with IR blasters from eBay fairly cheaply. I only use my S5 now for programming the RM Pro...

          Hope that tips helps 🙂

  10. I recently started using the Broadlink RM2 Pro primarily because its IR and RF. Two common, open and widely available protocols. I could in theory use it to control lightwaveRF sockets and switches instead of their own hub. Basically anything with a remote that operates at 300 or 433mhz (433mhz for Europe).

    This unfortunately does not cover RF bulbs. That would be too easy. 99.9% of RF bulbs use 2.4Ghz RF for some reason. I have found only one RF bulb at 433mhz and its on its way from China so cant comment on how good it is yet.

    433Mhz RF has a great reach and can easily cover most homes and with a little tinkering you can use the Broadlink with Alexa. Lamp One On, Living Room lights on, TV On, Mute On etc with a little luck and some more work I reckon I can even get it to change Sky channels (Turn on BBC One etc) but haven't got there yet.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Did you get lightwaverf working with the rm2? I just want a single switch and don't want to buy the hub...

      Cheers

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