Not all smart light switches are created equal. And while many of them have mostly the same features, there are some things you should know about smart light switches so that you can pick the best one for your needs.
You could just go with some smart light bulbs (we’re big fans of Philips Hue), but if you really don’t need the fun, color-changing bulbs for your house parties, smart light switches can be just as good (if not better) and cheaper than smart bulbs. However, there are a few things you should know first before shopping for smart light switches.
The Neutral Wire
For starters, the biggest thing to keep an eye out for is whether or not a smart light switch requires the use of a neutral wire.
Inside of some light switch junction boxes is a white neutral wire. This is used on every electrical fixture so that the electricity has a return path going back to the ground. In a light switch box, the switch usually just bypasses this wire, but it’s still accessible.
Some smart light switches take advantage of this neutral wire and must connect to it in order to function. The problem, however, is that there may not be a neutral wire accessible inside the light switch box, especially in older homes, and that can severely limit your choice of smart light switch.
Depending on the smart light switch, there are a few ways to connect them to your network. The most common types of connectivity are either over plain Wi-Fi, or using Z-Wave or ZigBee. However, some smart switches use their own proprietary wireless protocol, most notably Lutron with their Caseta devices.
Smart switches that connect directly to Wi-Fi (like the Belkin WeMo Light Switch) are the most convenient, since you don’t have to deal with any hubs. On the other hand, a Z-Wave or ZigBee light switch would need some kind of hub to connect to, such as a SmartThings hub or Wink hub, but they wouldn’t bog down your Wi-Fi network as much if you end needing a bunch of them.
With the Lutron Caseta line of light switches, you’ll need the company’s own proprietary hub, since it uses a custom version of RF to connect the switches. Luckily, though, you can buy a kit that comes with the hub, and it’s easy to set it all up.
Which One Should You Buy?
While you have some choice in the matter, it ultimately comes down to the neutral wire and whether a smart light switch requires one or not.
Lutron Caseta light switches don’t require a neutral wire, making them a good choice if you don’t have a neutral wire accessible inside the light switch box. Caseta switches are very good either way, and the fact that you don’t have to mess with the neutral wire is a nice convenience.
But, if you do have a neutral wire accessible, you have a handful of other options.
If you don’t want to deal with hubs, a Wi-Fi light switch is your best bet. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of those out there, but the Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch from TP-Link is a cheap and decent option, and the Kasa app is one of my favorites.
The Belkin WeMo model is also pretty decent, but it’s a couple bucks more than the Kasa switch and the app interface isn’t as nice. However, if you already have WeMo devices around your house, the WeMo Light Switch is worth considering.
If you don’t mind dealing with a hub (or if you already have one), going with Z-Wave or ZigBee is ideal. GE has a huge line of Z-Wave lighting products, including light switches. They do offer ZigBee versions, but ZigBee light switches aren’t as common. Plus, Z-Wave has a greater range and works more reliably. ZigBee does have the benefit of monitoring energy usage, but that’s usually not important when it comes to lighting, especially when you’re using efficient LED bulbs.
You can also find Z-Wave light switches from brands like GoControl, HomeSeer, Leviton, and even Honeywell, all of which offer most of the same features and can be controlled from your hub’s companion app.
No matter what you choose, though, stick with a single connection protocol. So if you start off with Z-Wave switches, only use Z-Wave in the future. Mixing wireless protocols isn’t the end of the world, but you’ll get better reliability if everything in your home uses the same connection, and it’ll be easier to manage once you start outfitting your whole house with smart switches.