Alex Band

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Integrating dumb lights in my smart home

Note: I live in the Netherlands, so everything that is explained with regards to electrical form factors and wiring applies to the European area only.

It started with a hard to reach light switch in the bedroom. Because of the way the room was reconstructed, the entrance ended up on the opposite side of where the main light switch is. It meant stumbling and cursing through the dark looking for the switch every time you enter at night. Rewiring the room to place a switch near the entrance proved almost impossible, so I figured I’d try one of these Philips Hue starter kits — two ‘smart’ light bulbs and a bridge to hook them up to your home network — to see if that would solve my problem. That choice proved to be a gateway drug because now, eight months later, I’ve got sixteen smart bulbs, three light strips, two in-wall smart dimmers for the ‘dumb’ lights, several wireless remote controls, motion sensors and some software to make it all work together seamlessly.

I made this write-up because there’s quite some pioneering that went into this and there is not a lot of comprehensive information available. More importantly though, I have ended up with a smart lighting system that my girlfriend, mother-in-law and kids can use easily and reliably, because I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I’d have to remotely troubleshoot something as fundamental as switching on the lights.

The basics: Philips Hue and the Zigbee platform

When you get started with home automation, you’re making a choice for a certain Internet-of-Things platform, either consciously or not. This is because you need a way to communicate from your control device, such as your phone or remote, to your smart device like your light bulb. There are many standards to achieve this, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but also others that a specifically designed for IoT applications such as Thread, WeMo, ZigBee and Z-Wave.

On top of that there are Smart Home systems such as Apple Homekit, Google Home and Amazon with Alexa that try to tie all the platforms together and provide voice controlled access to your devices. So for example, in Apple Homekit I can make a rule that if my Philips motion sensor detects movement, it sets my smart thermostat to 20°C. It works because even though both devices aren’t natively aware of each others existence, they are both ‘Homekit compatible’, bringing them together under one umbrella.

I’m not going to cover the details of each, but it’s important to keep these platforms and systems in mind when expanding on your initial choice. I chose Philips Hue because it uses the Zigbee standard which is specifically made for IoT applications: a low power, low data rate mesh network. In addition, Hue plays nice with the three major home automation systems from Apple, Google and Amazon. Lastly, Philips actively chose to open up their platform, meaning you can add Zigbee devices from other vendors to it such as Innr, Osram Lightify or IKEA Trådfri without any loss of functionality.

Looking back, Philips Hue provided a good starting point for me. If you end up in a situation where the bulbs, remotes and motion sensors from Philips don’t offer everything you need, you can easily add devices from other vendors to the system, as long as they use the common Zigbee standard. This offers you quite some choice and flexibility.

Integrating ‘dumb’ lights in my smart home

I’ve had a Modular Nomad light fixture for over 20 years. It’s a design classic and mine uses AR111 halogen bulbs, not exactly something I’m expecting Philips to release a Hue enabled version of.

a Modular Nomad with AR111 halogen bulbs — no smartness here

It’s a bit of shame when you’ve got all these light scenes set up for your living room, none of them have any effect on that one main light that isn’t part of the system.

I started looking for smart in-wall dimmers that could power my plain old dumb lights. Initially I thought that Lutron was the only manufacturer that makes what I needed, but their designs are tailored for the American market.

Then I stumbled across Busch-Jaeger, a German company that has a whole line of Zigbee enabled in-wall control elements for the European market. They have a line of dimmers, switches and battery powered transmitters that can all be integrated with your existing Zigbee setup.

The Busch-Jaeger Zigbee line should be divided up into two groups:

  • Flush-mounted dimmers or switches, combined with a control element
  • Stand-alone, battery-operated transmitters you can stick on the wall

I’m making this a point because a control element for a dimmer and a battery operated transmitter will look exactly the same, so you have to watch out what you order. In addition, when you buy a dimmer, you are required to mount a control element on it for it to function at all. You can’t get one without the other.

In addition, all flush mounted controls require permanent power, which means you need to have a neutral wire available in your wall outlet. If the existing switch or dimmer has a power outlet at the same location, you will have a neutral wire present. If not, you’ll have to either pull a neutral wire yourself, or have an electrician do it.

For my Modular Nomad, I ordered the 6715U dimmer, and put a 6736–84 four-button control element on it.

Order these two elements as a set to get a working product

With this control element, I can use the top two buttons to directly control the dimmer and assign the bottom two buttons to scenes in my smart lighting setup, setting any combination of lights in my house to a certain color and intensity. Busch-Jaeger also provides a two and eight button control element so you’re flexible in your approach.

Everything combined with a power outlet and a frame

I already had a power outlet available at the desired location, so no need to run an neutral wire. After building everything into the wall, I had to add the dimmer to my Zigbee network. I’ll save you several hours of cursing, pressing buttons in various Konami-code style sequences to no avail. In the end, the most reliable way to add these devices to your Zigbee network is by using Touchlink, where you physically bring the device close to the Hue bridge to pair it.

Sadly I had already built everthing into my wall, so instead of putting my device on my Hue bridge, I got an extension cord, a long network cable and held my bridge against the dimmer. Then, I used the Hue Lights iOS app to force the bridge into Touchlink mode, and voilà…

After this hurdle, the dimmer showed up in the Hue app as a “dimmable light”, allowing me to integrate it into existing scenes. Happy days! The bottom two buttons can be configured by first turning on only the lights you would like to have included in the scene, then enabling programming mode by holding the button for more than ten seconds, then setting all of those lights to the desired intensity and color, and finally confirming by pressing the button again. Keep in mind that these buttons are in no way exposed in the Hue app. In fact, triggering the scenes doesn’t even involve the Hue bridge, the transmitter controls the lights directly on the Zigbee network level.

Then I found out the Busch-Jaeger dimmer doesn’t show up in the Apple Home app and Siri complains that not every device in your scene is responding. This sucked rather badly because I’ve grown quite fond of being able to control every smart device from the Apple Home app exclusively or use Siri, instead of using each manufacturer’s app separately.

Fair enough, challenge accepted…

Adding non-Philips devices seen by the Hue bridge to Homekit

When the Philips Hue bridge with Homekit-support was released, only lights were exposed to Apple Homekit. Since the Hue update of October 2017, also Philips remotes and motion sensors are available in Homekit, enabling options like turning on your Homekit-enabled thermostat when your Philips motion sensor detects movement. However, any device that is recognised by the Hue bridge that isn’t made by Philips will not be exposed to Homekit, including my newly acquired dimmer.

To solve this, I’m using homebridge, a lightweight NodeJS server you can run on your home network that emulates the iOS HomeKit API. I have a Mac Mini running as a server and media center, so it was easy enough to get started. You also have the option to for example run it on a dedicated Raspberry Pi. The only plugin I needed was the rather excellent homebridge-hue by Erik Baauw. It’s extremely well supported and maintained, with IKEA Trådfri supported just days after introduction.

After installing and configuring the homekit-hue plugin, the lights connected to my Busch-Jaeger dimmers showed up in the Home app. Switching them on and changing the brightness using the Home app or through Siri sends the required commands back to the Zigbee network. Now I have a completely seamless setup with lights that can be controlled using in-wall remotes, a smart phone with the Hue app, or any Apple device in my house using the Home app or Siri.

Watching homebridge sending commands to my lights

Security

The way IoT is marketed, there is a lot of focus on convenience both inside and outside your home. Philips advertises with being able to turn on the lights from your vacation address to fool potential burglars into thinking you’re at home. That’s nice, but it requires remote access to the devices in your house.

German smart thermostat maker tado° broadcasts tv commercials demonstrating how it can gradually turn up the heat as you get closer to your house requiring not only remote access, but also continuous geolocation of your phone. Um, no.

Philips has been in the business of making light bulbs since 1892 and I have a lot of faith in their skills in this area. I’m not necessarily convinced that they are equally skilled in running a secure web service that keeps my data and credentials safe. Given the sorry state of IoT security I actively chose not to use their service that allows remote access, because even companies that do security for a living don’t always get it right.

If accessing my home devices when I’m away would really be a thing I need, then I’d have more faith in Apple because they put a lot of restrictions on Homekit to safeguard security and privacy on both the developer and user side, such as requiring two-step verification before you’re even allowed to set it up.

Conclusions

If you have a house with lights that only use E27, E14 or GU10 sockets, you’re willing to use just Philips light bulbs and remotes and never touch your existing in-wall switches again then for all intents and purposes, the future is now. But I don’t think that’s very realistic or practical.

I imagine almost everyone will eventually run into obstacles like I did. There are many solutions available to overcome them, but none of them seem ready for the average user. While the Busch-Jaeger solution I chose works well, it doesn’t pass the mom-and-dad test as something they could easily emulate in their house.

Scouring various tech-fora it’s clear there is a burning desire for a more standard and elegant in-wall switch solution than what is available today, illustrated by for example this instruction video to modify a Hue Tap switch to fit it into an Eltakto frame that looks like a regular switch.

The chance that Philips will make a standard in-wall switch and dimmer solution seems small. Offering better third-party device support in the Hue app and exposing those to Smart Home platforms like Homekit seems equally small. Ultimately, these are barriers for broad adoption so I’m not expecting my mom and dad to be jumping on the smart lighting bandwagon any time soon.

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