The problem with smart homes is that once you start, you can’t stop. I’ve been using IKEA Tradfri bulbs for a while, and while they’re quite affordable, they aren’t that dependable.
But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Tradfri smart bulbs are only available in E27 and GU10 bulb sizes, and some other types. I have a host of other lighting in my home that isn’t compatible with smart bulbs.
This means that I was, for a while, stuck with a home with half smart lights, half dumb lights. It was a most unfortunate happenstance (I know I know, first world problems…). Which brings me back to the first sentence of this post.
Anyway, in my quest to complete my smart lighting, the most obvious solution was a smart switch! Smart switches gives your lighting smart functionality, meaning that instead of a smart bulb turning itself on and off, the smart switch can turn a dumb bulb on and off. Pretty nifty! But smart switches, unlike smart bulbs, aren’t easy to install.
Bulb: unscrew dumb bulb, screw in smart bulb.
Switch: take out old switch and SCARY BROWN WIRES, put in smart switch.
There’s an in-between. Switchbot is a mechanical device that physically presses your switches for you. I was quite tempted to buy it and even added it into my cart, but I decided, if I was going to do it, I’m going to do it right. Having a switchbot stuck to switches isn’t what a smart home is supposed to look like, is it?
So… smart switches it is. But which one?
Neutral vs No-neutral
If you’re like me, looking for switches, you’re going to see this argument. Neutral or no-neutral. What on earth did this mean, I was thinking.
I learnt a lot by reading, as I usually do. Summary:
- Smart switches with neutral wire perform better.
- Seems like 99.9% of Singapore households do NOT have a neutral wire in their switch boxes, and hence a switch with a neutral wire will not work.
- My home does not have a neutral wire.
- Thus, my options are as follows
- Bring neutral wires into my switch boxes, which will cost a lot of money
- Use no-neutral switches
Option 2 sounds like a no-brainer, right? Until you read reviews and forum posts complaining about no-neutral switches basically sucking. They stop working after a while; lights keep flickering; they’re undependable; blah blah.
I went to read more about the actual technical details of how neutral and no-neutral switches work, but I shan’t bother you with the details. Basically, it’s true the no-neutral switches won’t work as well as neutral ones.
But I wasn’t going to spend a thousand bucks (SGD) on running neutral wires. So what to do?
The answer: take a risk.
Smart Switch Selection
So, it’s time to go shopping! Which no-neutral switch will be good? I was looking, most simply, for a switch with Apple HomeKit support.
The Aqara D1 Smart Wall Switch
I searched for a few different brands before I decided on the Aqara D1 Smart Switch. Why?
- Apple HomeKit Support – this is the most important, crucial reason because I’m using Apple Home. And most switches do not have that.
- Actual tactile buttons – I get it, ‘touch’ switches with lights look futuristic and all, but my experience with a touch switch has been horrible. I hate them. I need feedback on my fingers – not just a visual change of colour.
- Looks good – Not a fan of switches with too much lights. This Aqara switch looks pretty and fits into my home.
- Affordable – It was surprisingly cheap!!
However, there are some downsides
- Needs a hub – however, this is true of every single no-neutral smart switch.
Anyway, I already had the Aqara G2H camera hub and it works with the D1 switch, so it’s a no-brainer, right?
I installed it myself by following YouTube videos. Big disclaimer here:
DO NOT DO THIS YOURSELF. ENGAGE A PROFESSIONAL ELECTRICIAN. IF YOU DO THIS YOURSELF, YOU DO IT AT YOUR OWN RISK. SWITCH REPLACEMENT INVOLVES ELECTRICAL WORK AND CABLES THAT CAN KILL YOU.
Most important thing: turn off the breakers! Installing the switches wasn’t that hard, although I was terrified. I even bought one of those electricity detectors so I could always be sure the wires had no electricity in them. Talk about kiasi.
I also wore gloves. One time, a brown live wire’s exposed copper brushed my flesh, and scared the heck out of me.
I also learned one thing. If a live wire touches a ground wire, the power will trip even when the breakers are off. Gave me a fright.
I am happy to report I managed to change my switch without dying!
Using the Aqara Smart Switch
Setting up was very simple! Using the Aqara app, adding the switch was only a few taps and it was in my Aqara home within 2 minutes. But I don’t really use Aqara Home, I’m using Apple Home.
Adding it into Apple Home took… no steps at all. Once it’s in my Aqara app, it appeared in my Apple Home without any input. It was just there. So simple.
I have Aqara smart switches installed through my home, in these areas
- Kitchen under-cabinet LED strip x2
- Decorative shelf LED strips
- Decorative LED strip above my bedroom wardrobe
- Bathroom under-cabinet LED strip
- Bathroom vanity light
They only offer on/off functions, as opposed to smart bulbs’ dimmable features plus changing of colours or colour temperatures (warm, cool). But it’s good enough for me.
Since I was bought into the Aqara ecosystem, I decided to add some Aqara motion sensors and door and window sensors since they were so cheap! This allowed automations. For example, walking to the kitchen sink triggers the motion sensor, which is set to automatically turn on the under-cabinet LED strip which is useful as a work light. Automations are awesome!
For the decorative shelf LED in the living room, I configured a time-based automation: Turn on at 8pm, and turn off at 10pm, if someone is at home. This automation is set in the Apple Home app, which supports geolocation (if someone is at home) conditions.
I figured spending $40+ on this function actually makes sense. Why?
- This light is strictly decorative. It isn’t functional and it’s not needed.
- Because it’s not needed, we never turned it on.
- However, it looks good when it’s on! Adds a nice mood to the living room.
- But the trouble of going to the switch to turn it on just to add a mood isn’t really worth it. Especially considering you have to go back to turn it off.
- There were times we simply forgot to turn it off overnight.
- Because of that, we don’t bother turning it on.
- But if we don’t turn it on, didn’t we waste money installing that light in there in the first place?
With a $40+ smart switch, my problems were solved.
- House looks good when it’s night-time, automatically.
- It doesn’t turn off when we’re not at home.
- We NEVER have to walk to the switch again.
- We will NEVER forget to turn it off.
For home automations, sometimes, simple things like this are priceless.
What about the reported problems?
As mentioned, I was hesitant to get smart no-neutral switches because of the reported problems. What I read was:
- They burned out and stopped working after a couple of months
- Lights kept flickering, even when switch is off
- Lights turned off randomly when switch is on
However, I had zero problems for the past year. All the switches work admirably, and they have superb connection to my network. Even in the event of blackouts or network outage, the switches always reconnect automatically without a hitch.
I haven’t experienced any flickering or lights turning on or off randomly.
After some research, I believe the reason is that Aqara’s no-neutral technology works really well. I think no-neutral switches by different brands are built differently. What matters the most is the residual power that resides in the circuit even after the switch is “turned off”, and minimizing this current leads to better performance. But that’s geeky talk for another day, my point is – this switch has been working well for a year, and had added considerable value to my smart home at such a good price!