Smart Switches Explained: 2020 Edition
How Do Smart Switches Work
Read Time: 17 mins
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Your complete guide to Smart Switches in 2020.
From 101 smart switch essentials to all the critical details you need to be aware of when choosing a smart switch.
Together we'll deep dive on what they are, how they work and everything you need to know to make the right choice for your home in 2020.
With over 44 hours of research distilled down to a 17 minute read time across the four chapters, we’re confident there is something to benefit all our readers.
Whether you're right at the start of your home automation journey or looking for the most up-to-date compatibility info for an existing setup, this guide has been updated with all the latest advances in smart switch technology for 2020.
And with a completely fresh layout and updated navigation to make things easier to find and easier to read, we hope you get as much use from it as the fun we had bringing it to life!
So roll up your sleeves my friends, let's get stuck in...
Table Of Contents
What Is A Smart Switch
Smart switches are a direct replacement for your traditional built-in switches.
They are installed using your existing in-wall back boxes.
The best smart switches still work as a regular light switch, but also provide you with new ways to control your home lighting and switch-wired devices.
True remote-control through a dedicated app, connected over your home wifi network, so you can access your switches from anywhere, anytime.
What Can a Smart Switch Do?
Smart switches can control lights, hardwired appliances like waste disposal units and fireplaces, even the ceiling and bathroom fans throughout your home.
The most common smart switch uses include:
- Voice control using a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo
- Remote control with your smartphone - no more wondering if you left the the lights on when you get to work
- Creation of time-based schedules to turn your lights on or off at a specific time of day
- Setting up different scenes and “moods” for certain activities like watching movies, reading a book, or hosting a dinner party
- More complex event-based automations involving multiple smart devices using a smart home hub or a task automation service in the cloud, like Stringify or IFTTT
Benefits Of Using A Smart Switch
To help you decide if the investment is worth it, lets explore the main things smart switches bring to the party.
Few would argue the main thing smart switches provide is convenience, enabling you to easily control your lights with your smartphone.
From the core on-off and dimming functions using your voice or an app, to some seriously clever stuff like lights that turn on automatically when you enter the room.
Smart dimmers can automatically adjust your bedroom lights, slowly growing brighter as you wake up.
Even a whole-of-house rule programmed to switch off every light automatically when you leave the house.
All of this while maintaining the existing ability to manually toggle the wall switch for a simple on-off capability for family or guests in your home.
Convenience really has come home and is the number one reason for upgrading your home lighting setup.
But we’re literally just scratching the surface here, so lets dive a little deeper.
When you start linking your smart lighting system to other smart devices, things get really interesting.
From sensors to geofencing and event-based automation, you can create a truly personalized experience and get your home technology working for you.
What does all that mean in English?
Well imagine your home HVAC adjusting the temperature to your exact specifications an hour before you arrive home from the office.
And when you are a few blocks from your front door, your hallway lights turn on (nobody likes arriving home to a dark, empty house), your living room blinds shut and Alexa starts playing your “chilling after a hard day” playlist.
It's these multi-device interactions that adapt your home technology to fit your lifestyle and can benefit your daily life and routines.
From the most basic timed schedules; switching lights on or off to give the appearance of your property having people in it when you are actually on vacation.
To smart outdoor lighting linked to motion sensors, lighting up your yard when the sensor is triggered, smart lighting is a great step towards a more secure home.
Even more so when integrated with an alarm system, DIY or a monitored solution by the likes of ADT.
Its of no surprise that smart security systems are one of the fastest growing technologies in the smart home space.
And smart light switches are one key component to a smarter safer home for your family.
Cheaper Electricity Bills
Lighting your home makes up on average 12% of your total electricity bill each year according to research from Energy Star.
On the face of it, 12% may not sound that much, landing somewhere around $260 each year for the average American household.
Research from one of the top smart light switch manufacturers, Lutron, indicates the average home could realise lighting energy savings up to 60% by combining dimming and occupancy sensing in a residence.
And this is before you even factor in the use of LED bulbs over traditional incandescent alternatives.
Manufacturers like Philips Hue are now producing bulbs that use 90% less energy than traditional incandescent lights, while producing the same warm and familiar light.
This means combined, you could be saving a whole lot more.
Your mileage will vary depending on usage, but this is a real indicator your smart light switch project could have paid for itself within the first few years, if not sooner.
It’s also worth noting that smart switches are a cheaper alternative to smart bulbs in a whole-house setup.
One smart switch can control multiple bulbs and the price of some smart bulbs is comparable to the cost of a single smart switch.
Consider how many bulbs you will need to replace.
You can see how quickly smart bulbs vs smart switches becomes a question of cost in your home improvement project.
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How Do Smart Switches Work
Smart switches are connected to your home network, providing access through Wi-Fi to remotely control the switch using an app on your smartphone or tablet.
You can still turn the lights on or off as you previously did by toggling the in-wall switch; clearly a good thing if you have guests or if your phone isn’t nearby.
For even greater control, they can be managed by a home automation controller like Samsung SmartThings, or by voice using a smart speaker.
The best part, they work just as well from thousands of miles away - so no need to worry ever again if you have left the bedroom lights on.
This is usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about smart light switches, but there is a lot more to it than just that, so buckle up, lets deep dive.
Smart Switch Lighting Control
All smart switches use a radio transmitter to communicate with each other and to connect to your home network.
This provides you with access to the ‘smart’ functionality through an app on your smartphone or tablet.
You access the app via WiFi, but this common communication standard isn’t always the way each individual switch will communicate with each other.
There are many different types of broadcast frequency and protocols used in smart home technology, the most common types are WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave.
Broadly speaking, we can group these different communication standards into three main buckets:
WIFI & Bluetooth
Arguably the easiest to integrate.
You don’t need to use a hub or a gateway device to get your switches talking across your existing home network.
You can connect directly to your switches and not have to worry about incompatibilities between devices.
Brands like Wemo from Belkin live here.
Generally WiFi is used for smart light switches, with some smart plug brands like GE providing devices that use Bluetooth.
The draw-back with WIFI only smart switches, and it’s a big one, the more devices you add to your existing wifi network, the more bandwidth you are eating up.
And lets face it, you don’t want to run out of bandwidth during the latest season finale streaming on your Amazon Firestick, or checking out a motion alert from your Ring 2 video doorbell.
All that said, for smaller installs, in an apartment for example, you are unlikely to run into problems with only a few switches sharing bandwidth on your home network.
Zigbee & Z Wave
On the other hand, for homes with a larger footprint perhaps spread over several floors where the number of switches required will run much higher, this is where dedicated smart home wireless protocols come in; zigbee and z-wave mesh networks.
And for those who want a recap on the main home automation wireless protocols, we’ve covered everything you need to know in the article here.
Z-Wave or ZigBee light switches from brands like GE Enbrighten need some kind of hub or gateway to connect to, such as a SmartThings hub or a Smart Speaker like the Amazon Echo.
What’s the benefit?
You won’t be using bandwidth on your Wi-Fi network if you end up needing a bunch of them.
A handful of smart switch manufacturers use their own proprietary communication standards to connect and control their switches.
Lutron Caseta and Insteon live here.
Caseta Wireless uses their patented Clear Connect® technology which operates in a low frequency band.
This keeps your home wireless network free from interference and does not impact internet performance in your home.
Insteon uses an integrated dual-mesh communication network, combining radio frequency (RF) and the existing electrical wiring system in your home.
Like Lutron, it doesn’t use your home Wifi for the switches to communicate, therefore has zero impact to your bandwidth and home internet performance.
Both Lutron & Insteon devices also act as repeaters, much like zigbee and zwave mesh networks, which provides significantly greater broadcast range than a standard single home router wireless counterpart.
Importantly they can function without a central controller.
So where a wifi only smart switch - like the iDevices range - loses functionality when the network goes down, depending on your setup, these switches keep functioning.
And of course, you can choose to manage them by a central controller to take advantage of smartphone and tablet control or more complex scenes and automations using a smart home hub.
Do Smart Switches Need A Neutral Wire
Now you understand how the devices communicate and the different options available to you, let’s get a critical detail out of the way.
Most smart switches require a neutral wire to operate. But why?
To fully understand, let’s look at how regular switches work and how they’re different from a smart light switch.
How Does A Light Switch Work - The Conventional Switch Circuit
Most conventional light switches are configured using a classic 2-wire circuit.
This consists of two wires - hot and ground.
One is a permanent live feed from your mains power to the switch.
The other is controlled by the switch which directly feeds the power to the lamp.
When you turn off the switch, you’re simply disconnecting the power from the circuit.
When you flip the switch back on, you ‘complete’ the circuit allowing the current to flow from the switch to the bulb.
This type of circuit doesn’t require a neutral wire.
The Smart Switch Circuit
With a smart switch, you need to maintain power to the switch electronics (the ‘smart’ bit of the switch), which are in series with the bulb.
This allows the switch to remain powered on while the electricity flowing to the bulb is returned using the neutral wire, keeping the bulb turned off.
In the case of most brands and manufacturers, this is a typical smart switch circuit.
How Do I Know If I Have A Neutral Wire
Every single dwelling, from apartments to mansions, all have a neutral wire.
With properties built pre-1980’s however, a lot won’t have the neutrals in the switch back boxes.
For those built 1980 onwards, there is a high likelihood you will have neutrals already wired throughout your property.
Indication of neutral wires - things to keep an eye out for:
- Your property was built, renovated or rewired after the 1980s
- Existing multi-gang switch boxes have the highest likelihood of neutral wires
- Any in-wall power outlet located in the immediate area to your light switch will, in most cases, have a neutral already in place.
As neutrals can usually be drawn from nearby outlets, a licensed electrician should be able to run a feed direct to your light switch gang-box.
Sure you might have to patch some drywall afterwards, but this could be a considerably more cost effective option than a full house rewire.
Regardless of the signs listed above, you’ll still need to confirm if neutral wires are available in the switch gang-boxes to understand which devices can be used.
As always we recommend hiring a professional to do this investigative work for you.
If nothing else, this provides you with a 3rd party to defer to should something not go according to plan.
If you are planning on doing this yourself, before you even think about starting to unscrew the nearest light switch and poking around, lets get the single most important thing out of the way first - YOUR SAFETY
Never assume a wire is live or not based purely on its color.
Although there are standardized and regulated colors for each type of wire to indicate if a live current is present, NEVER take that on face value and treat EVERY wire as if it is ‘hot’ until you know otherwise.
ALWAYS contact a licensed electrician to confirm your findings or if you have any doubts or are uncertain of anything.
Checking Your Switch Box For Neutral Wires
- Locate your home electrical service panel box (also known as a distribution board, panelboard, breaker box, breaker panel, or electric panel)
- Switch OFF the main electricity feed
- Remove the existing switch faceplate
- Gently move the existing switch electronics outwards from the gang box to expose the wires at the back
- With the wires in view, look for a white wire. If one or a group of white wires are exposed, you are almost guaranteed that you will have a neutral in that switch box
Consult an electrician to check the voltage (110V/120V) between the white wire and the live wire (which is usually black) to confirm which wire is the live one and if you have a neutral wire already in the gangbox.
For more detail about wiring color system in the USA, it’s worth checking out this article; https://mrelectric.com/blog/electrical-wire-color-codes
Can I Use An Earth Or Ground Wire As A Neutral?
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you use a ground wire as a neutral as it creates the likelihood for electrical shock.
This is due to the earth always being grounded at zero volts and as the neutral wire carries an unbalanced load on a return path, it has the potential to pass voltage through it.
As ground wires are usually uninsulated, this creates the potential for starting a fire.
It is also seriously hazardous for anyone working on the power system, as a ground wire should never have any voltage on it and they will not be expecting it to be present.
Electrical Codes & Building Regulations
The NEC, or National Electrical Code, forms part of the National Fire Codes series run by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) here in the USA.
Although the NFPA is a private trade association and the NEC itself is not bound by federal law, it is typically used by states and municipalities in a drive to standardize safe electrical practices.
In many cases, it can be amended or changed by your local governing body.
Since the NEC code revisions in 2014 and most recently in 2017, assuming your city follows them and doesn't have a city specific code, all new electrical installations are required to have a dedicated neutral wire at all switch locations.
Also, an existing ground conductor can extend to the neutral (only for smart switches with 5 or less devices on a single circuit) to specifically deal with this new breed of smart switch
Regardless who is undertaking your smart lighting project, yourself or a licensed electrical contractor, you should get yourself up to speed on any local, regional or national regulations that could impact your project and may need to conform to.
Remember that any work done to your home that doesn't meet safety standards could, for example, render your insurance void should something happen during or after the installation, or be in violation of a regional law.
Choosing A Smart Switch
Options If You Don’t Have A Neutral Wire
Thankfully, they do exist.
Although you are limited to only a handful of devices to chose from including dimmer switches and in-wall nano-dimmers that work with existing switches.
Head on over to this article to see all your options for a no-neutral install.
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Does A Smart Switch Work Without Wifi
Yes, but without the “smarts” is the answer for most situations.
Many smart switches rely on the cloud to communicate, even if you have a smart home hub to tie your smart devices together.
The rule of thumb and situation for most installs is If you physically toggle a load bearing smart switch (not an auxiliary), the lamp attached to the circuit will operate as expected without the internet.
Any rules or scenes you have setup, however, will not work again until your wifi is reconnected to the cloud.
Once the connection is re-established, most Smart switches will return to the state they were in before the connection was lost.
If you want to keep the smart capability even if the internet breaks, certain brands like Insteon and Lutron will continue to provide your smart schedules, scenes and sensors you have programmed when the internet is down.
This is due to their proprietary communication network and centralized controllers which work locally and without the need for the cloud or a home wifi network.
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Going one step further, there are home automation controllers designed to work on your local network and without the cloud, such as the Hubitat, a smart home hub capable of running everything locally and off-grid, connecting to your devices via IP and the local network, including any Z-Wave and Zigbee devices…no cloud access or internet required.
For an even more robust and responsive user experience, pairing Hubitat with a Lutron system via Telnet (available using the Lutron smart bridge pro), brings you professional-grade performance, both in terms of speed and availability. It also helps future-proof your investment as you can add multiple Lutron smart bridge pro's to your Hubitat and do away with the 50 device limit on the single bridge.
Compatibility With Your Ecosystem
A critical but often overlooked aspect when shortlisting switches and brands ahead of making your purchase.
Make sure your switches are compatible with your existing smart devices or ones you plan to buy in the future, a smart thermostat for example.
Remember not all smart switch brands play well, or indeed work at all, with the various flavours of communication protocols or different brands currently on the market - even the wifi only switches, like the Kasa Smart range from TP Link.
And you certainly can’t mix and match between all systems.
For example you can't control Lutron lighting with an Insteon hub, and you can't use a Lutron Caseta bridge to manage Insteon devices.
Even if you buy a switch that states it has zigbee, there is a nuance to be aware of in the wording - as they may not even work well with other zigbee devices.
The standard allows for different "profiles,"including manufacturer proprietary ones.
This means they may not be understood by your existing devices or controller.
Equally as frustrating, your new switches may lose connectivity and provide sporadic service.
So when shopping for your switches, always double check (then check again!) compatibility with communication standards and any home automation hub or smart speaker depending on your preferred ecosystem.
If this is your one main takeaway from this chapter, you’ll be thanking us for it later!
Can Alexa Control A Light Switch
Yes. Although how complex it is to set things up depends on which switch you choose, the ecosystem you are buying into and the communication protocol used to communicate.
This is the same for all smart speakers with built in voice assistants - Google Home, Apple Homekit or even Microsoft Cortana.
Get it right and the possibilities for how you control your lights are entirely open to your imagination.
For example using Alexa, Logitech Harmony Hub, a Nanoleaf Canvas or Nanoleaf alternative and your chosen smart light switch all linked using IFTTT, you can tell Alexa to trigger “Movie Night”.
Your lights will dim to a pre-chosen level, Harmony opens Netflix on your TV and the Nanoleaf light panels activate a pre-programmed scene to complement the movie watching atmosphere.
And all this from one single spoken command. Even Iron Man would be proud!
Dimmers & Bulbs
Many smart switches provide the ability to dim the light bulbs attached to the circuit.
If this is one of your requirements, make sure to confirm your chosen switch has this desired functionality before purchase.
One major thing to remember, however, is that although a smart light switch will allow you to dim your lights, your bulbs must be capable of dimming for things to work.
Even though most modern CFL & LED bulbs are dimmable by design,make sure to check compatibility with the types of bulb you intend to control in that discrete circuit.
Thankfully help is at hand with certain brands. Lutron provide a compatibility table so you can find out which lamps are compatible with their switch range.
Another point of consideration are smart bulbs like the LIFX or Hue range.
If you are planning to use them as part of your overall smart lighting installation, smart switches are not your best option for control by a country mile.
When you disconnect power to the smart bulb, they lose their “smarts” and render them dumb.
Not only that, it can drastically shorten the lifespan of both your switch and the smart bulb.
If your use-case requires smart bulbs, you are better off opting for switch covers or one of the battery operated devices that mimic the look of an in-wall light switch, but leave your smart bulbs always powered on.
Fans, Shades & Hardwired Appliances
Aside from simply providing control of your lights, smart switches with higher power amperage can control your shades, fans, fireplaces and other hardwired appliances like air conditioners.
And for bedside lamps which are not commonly connected to a wall switch, you can either use a smart bulb like one from the LIFX smart bulb range or a smart plug to match the capability and work harmoniously with your smart light switches and other smart home gear.
How Much Does A Smart Switch Cost?
Smart switches tend to cost anywhere between $30-$100.
This varies from brand to brand and is directly linked to the features you require, like a 3 way smart switch for your stairs for example.
As this can quickly add up to an expensive home renovation project, we suggest starting with the switches in your home that get the most use, like the living room.
Pick the features and the brand that is right for you, do the install and live with it for a few months.
Once you have got used to the convenience your new switches provide, it will then be easier to decide on which ones to install next.
For example, in a utility room or somewhere you often have your hands full, investing in the best motion sensor light switch that works with your existing setup can bring significant benefits, providing you with lights that automatically turn on when you walk in the room, and then switch off when you leave - all completely hands (and voice) free. Now that's smart!
What Are The Best Smart Switches
Best 'No-Neutral' Switch: Lutron Caseta
Lutron Caseta, arguably the the best smart switch without neutral.
It's our recommended pick of all the smart switches currently on the market.
They use their own proprietary controller, the Smart Bridge and Smart Bridge PRO, which connects over a custom radio frequency creating a robust and highly resilient mesh network.
If you suffer from WiFi dead spots, or use a lot of bandwidth on your home network (2 or more consecutive 4k netflix streams), this helps avoid signal drop-outs and misbehaving devices.
Accommodating up to 50 devices on each bridge, the app lets you easily create rooms, zones, scenes, and automated schedules.
Their widely available kits include a super handy remote that acts as an additional wireless dimmer switch which can be mounted on a wall bracket if you don't want it hanging around on a table or the edge of the couch.
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You can also control the dimmer with your voice via Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri, and it plays well with SmartThings, Sonos, Logitech, Nest, and many other popular home automation controllers.
It lets you convert your existing lighting system to smart lighting while still allowing you to control your lights the old-fashioned way if you want or if your internet connection is disrupted by a power outage.
And the best thing, it’s relatively easy to configure and the kits bring down the cost.
If you are serious about your smart lighting, investing in the Lutron ecosystem is a safe bet.
Best For WiFi: WeMo Smart Dimmer Switch
It’s true that wifi switches such as the WeMo from Belkin which piggybacks on your existing home WiFi network are the easiest to setup.
There is no need for an intermediary hub, bridge or gateway and they work with Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, and more, straight out the box.
The best WiFi smart switch on the market by a significant margin, the range also expands to cover almost every device you could need in your smart home, from plugs to thermostat integration.
- Control WeMo dimmer from the wall, the WeMo app, and even your voice Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple home Kit. No hub or subscription required. Enable the WeMo skill in the alexa app to pair.
- Syncs with your schedule. Easily set schedules and timers so your lights do what you want when you want. You can even sync lights to adjust with the sunset and sunrise.
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If you’re looking for the most straight forward option, easiest to configure, have a reliable internet connection and are simply kitting out a smaller dwelling like an apartment, buying into the WeMo ecosystem is a safe and affordable bet.
Best For Z-Wave Or Zigbee: GE Smart Switch
The GE Z-Wave switch line gets our vote as they have devices which work with the two main smart home standards, zwave and zigbee.
Built by Jasco under license from GE, both platforms can be controlled with voice commands via Alexa or Google Assistant, but will require a third-party hub unless you’re connecting them to an Amazon Echo Plus with its built-in ZigBee controller.
- VOICE CONTROL – ALEXA & GOOGLE ASSISTANT COMPATIBLE (requires a Z-Wave certified hub). Works with the following Z-Wave certified hubs: SmartThings, Ring Alarm, Wink, ADT Pulse, ADT Command, Trane,...
- VERSATILE DIMMING OPTIONS – Easily replace any standard in-wall switch equipped with a neutral wire to remotely turn ON/OFF, adjust lighting brightness and create schedules for a wide range of...
Are you up-to-your-elbows in the Caseta ecosystem, or thinking about starting your smart lighting journey with WiFi dimmers?
Drop a comment below and share your experiences and ask anything we may not (yet!) have covered in the article.
Whatever stage you’re at, we hope you found this guide useful and look forward to hearing from you!