De-Smart Bulbing

Between buying a second home and taking over the ADU at our primary residence to be my home office, the need to make 20-some new lights smart had me reconsidering our home automation strategy. Our main home has somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 Zigbee bulbs and I’m just sooooo over them. People can’t be trained not to flip switches, no amount of remotes on the walls and blocks on the switches will stop them. Plus my non-Hue bulbs never get firmware updates, so they’re older than manufacturers figuring out that maybe they shouldn’t all turn on after a power outage.

Also thanks to tariffs / COVID / inflation, the bulbs I used to routinely buy for $6-7 are now more like $10.

The problem with smart switches 5 years ago was price. Zigbee switches didn’t really exist, Z-wave switches started around $50, and if your home lacked neutral wires at the switches the only option was Lutron Caseta dimmers which are $70. I’ve picked up a few used Casetas for exterior lights and other fixtures where I couldn’t use a smart bulb, but even scouring eBay for bargains it’s tough to get them under $45.

There are many more Zigbee and Z-wave choices today but prices haven’t dropped much and there are still few options that don’t require neutral wires.

The first thing I decided to try were the SONOFF ZBMINI-L relays, because the best smart home tech is invisible and they’re theoretically a bargain at $40 in a 4-pack.

What I found while installing them, however, was that their size and shape can make them incredibly difficult to fit in US-style boxes. I’d intended to trial 8 of them but after having trouble fitting 3 out of the first 4-pack I decided to return the second package. Functionally they’ve been solid but I had to set their maximum reporting interval for OnOff state very low to keep zigbee2mqtt from showing them as unknown state. They have seen an OTA firmware update, IDK what it was supposed to address or if that issue was resolved.

A switch that I’d missed in my first round of searching, that Amazon helpfully put in front of me when I started looking again, is the Martin-Jerry No-Neutral Zigbee switch. At $50 for a pair it’s significantly cheaper than anything else I’ve found for Zigbee or Z-wave, neutral wire or not.

Unfortunately, my second order seems to have pushed them out of stock. Hopefully they’ll make more soon but that probably won’t be soon enough for me. The ones I’ve installed so far are doing great, tho I find the design a bit weird. It’s hinged at the top and you have to press at the bottom to toggle. Why not just make the whole thing the button? Or properly emulate the “Decora” two-way rocker? It’s definitely going to confuse houseguests and I’m tempted to install them upside-down to optimize for the “fumbling for a switch in the dark” use case.

In the process of doing smart relay and switch installs in a bunch of fresh locations locations, I noticed that all my switch boxes were not, in fact, lacking neutral wires. In terms of Zigbee / Z-wave / Lutron that doesn’t really open up other options at my sub-$30 price target, but Wi-Fi switches get down to $10 or less.

I’ve been hesitant to add more Wi-Fi smart devices to my home for two reasons. Mostly my experiences with ESP-based Wi-Fi devices is that they just aren’t good Wi-Fi clients. My MyQ Garage Door opener used to constantly drop off the network, tho it seems to have improved. I bought a 4-pack of Wi-Fi color bulbs that were on clearance for a stupid cheap price, Tuya-based, and they’ve also experienced frequent disconnects despite being incredibly close to an AP. I have a few other random devices, some Tuya and some not, and I think the only one that has never been difficult is the Ultraloq Wi-Fi bridge.

But also I don’t want to be locked in to anyone’s phone apps or tied to their “cloud.” This is why I left SmartThings for Hubitat early on, and pretty much every device I have that doesn’t provide purely local control is something I regret choosing and will eventually replace.

Used to be that Tuya designs could easily be re-flashed over-the-air with open firmware, but they’ve managed to shut that down since about two years ago. They’ve also been introducing new products and redesigning old ones to use non-ESP chips that don’t have mature alternative firmware options like Tasmota / ESPHome.

I don’t want to deal with taking devices apart to flash them, especially if there’s further risk of discovering that they quietly switched to a SoC that’s useless to me.

Martin-Jerry to the rescue again, they have pre-flashed Tasmota switches for $14/ea and dimmers for $20.

Other options for inexpensive switches that ship with Tasmota or ESPHome firmware include Athom and CloudFree. They all have weird designs so I’ll be sticking to the M-J switches and dimmers for some semblance of consistency.

So far I’ve installed 10 Tasmota devices and they’ve been solid, much better than any other ESP-based devices in my home. I wish there was a software tool to make getting them joined to my Wi-Fi and pushing a basic configuration as easy as it is to add a Zigbee / Z-wave device, but after doing a few of them it becomes a fairly quick task.

As it stands, I’ve installed 21 new smart switches and have at least 30 more to go.

Good times.

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