The slippery slope of home automation didn’t really start with an Amazon Echo as I suggested in the title of my previous post. No, the problem began much earlier with a very (I thought) simple need: to dim and time lights at the same time. It’s easy to get a timer — whether plugin, or hard wired, to control lights. It’s easy to get a dimmer — they come in myriad styles. But if you want to put a lighting circuit on a timer, with the ability to dim, you’re going to find yourself moving to home automation pretty quickly. Which is how I came to buy into Lutron’s Caseta system. It quickly got more complicated from there.
Caseta is Lutron’s name for a small selection of hardwired switches and lighting control modules that are readily available at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s. While Lutron sells a broader array of products to professionals, for home users, the pickings are very, very slim — but, they are attractive, and they work well. And, as was important to me, they can dim lights, and with the smart home features, time them too. They’re also bloody expensive.
Over the course of the last several months, we purchased and installed three hardwired dimmer switches from the Caseta line, along with a Caseta hub that allowed the use of an iOS app to set-up the timers that were one of the main objectives. I loved (and love) the Caseta system, and I especially like the fact that the hardwired switches uniquely do not need a neutral wire to function, nor do they care which side of the black wiring is hot or load. That makes them super easy to install, and gives them a huge advantage over their competitors. Lutron’s Clear Connect wireless technology also seems to work quite well.
The problem comes when you want to control other things. Notably, I wanted to put a hardwired switch on my under-cabinet lights, which are non-dimmable. But Lutron provides no non-dimming version of the switch that I could use for that application. I also wanted to control table lamps, but I wanted timing and dimming in so many locations, the cost would have been prohibitive. So, what to do?
What I found next was that Leviton makes an entire line of smart home products for lighting and appliance control, they’re much less expensive than the Lutron, and they come in a number of versions designed to work with various protocols for home automation. Unfortunately, Lutron’s propriety Clear Connect was not one of them. So, I needed some way of tying together Clear Connect switches with switches using other protocols. Enter the Wink Hub 2 smart home hub.
The Wink is a general purpose appliance for controlling home automation gear from a single, consolidated interface. Wink Hub 2 “speaks” Lutron Clear Connect, along with ZigBee, and of interest to me, Z-Wave. One of Leviton’s protocol options is in fact Z-Wave, so it looked like installing a Wink Hub 2 would be a great way to get everything working together. I disconnected the Lutron hub, fired-up the Wink hub, and was off to the races.
The fact that Amazon’s Echo “talks” to the Wink Hub 2 is another benefit… Now I could control lighting with voice commands as well. Nirvana! (Well, mostly.)
Like the Lutron hub, the Wink is controlled and configured from an app — one very cumbersome app. The user interface paradigm for the Wink app is unlike any other apps I’ve experienced; it’s clunky, inconsistent, suffers from a range of usability issues, isn’t universal (it won’t work on a tablet), and works only in portrait screen mode. Said another way, it feels like an app that was written 8 years ago.
Setting-up new switches and modules is also trickier than it should be. This too is more of a usability issue than anything else; what I found in pairing Leviton’s Z-Wave controllers is that Leviton has made multiple iterations of each module, and identifying which one you have so you go through the proper procedure to pair it was fairly difficult. Eventually, I managed to sort it all out. Truly, like many things, once you figure out its quirks, you can mostly deal with the subpar user experience.
Additionally, if you do use the Amazon Echo to do most of the lighting control, you mostly never have to touch the app again. And in fact, I’ve not opened it for weeks, and that’s just fine with me.
Most of the challenge of getting it working is figuring out the timers and how to configure them properly. Wink refers to them as robots, and while it’s pretty straightforward to set-up or modify them, the app doesn’t help at all by sorting the list of them by time of execution, not by name. Adding them is therefore simple enough, but finding one of them to modify later is a pain when you have a few dozen robots set-up as I do. There’s one “on” robot for most every module in the house, and another “off” robot for each. A better way to structure them would be welcome. In fact, while Wink is at it, they should do the same for the list of lamps, which is equally cumbersome.
But moving past the usability issues and app shortcomings, once the system is set-up, it works amazingly well. I can have the more expensive, great-looking Lutron Caseta switches where I want or need them, while using Leviton’s far more cost-effective modules for table lamps, along with their non-dimming switches where Lutron’s dimmer-only option can’t be used. Bottom line? It’s the best of all worlds.
Between the Leviton modules, the Caseta switches, the Wink Hub 2, and the Amazon Echoes… Well, the luxury of having a smart home as certainly come at a price, but considering the grand total is in the “few hundred dollars” range, I’d not describe it as breaking the bank exactly. And certainly we would not have had to go “all in” and get all the Leviton modules we did. But broadly, I wanted smart home control everywhere a conventional manual timer was already in-place — and there were a lot of them to give the house a “lived-in” look whether we’re home or not. With the Wink Hub 2 and all the switches and modules, we achieve that, without the need to change timers for daylight savings, and without the need to tinker with dials and little plastic spokes to “program” them. You also get the added intelligence of timing features like having things come on or go off at sunset and sunrise, or either of those with a time factor.
All told, it’s a great convenience, it works, and we love it.
Now, if we could just get Alexa to take the cotton out of her ears and understand what we’re saying the first time, that’d truly be nirvana.