When you first start exploring home automation, you may already have several smart devices in your home, such as a thermostat, smart speaker, or door locks. Quite often the leap into actual home automation happens when people want to start controlling their lights. There are several different ways and technologies to consider before making a decision on your approach.
Recently I purchased a new home which essentially gives me a clean slate on this front. In my previous home I decided to use a combination of smart switches and smart bulbs, which can get messy, especially in an apartment when you need to put it back to how it was when you moved in. This time around, I don’t need to worry about undoing any of my lighting upgrades.
In my new home there are over 40 light bulbs, which makes my previous approach of smart switches and smart bulbs less attractive when considering cost. Fortunately, the bulbs installed by the builder are both LED and dimmable. With these bulbs, I can use a smart dimmer instead of a smart switch, and keep a similar experience.
After trying several different types, the switch I ended up sticking with in my apartment was the HomeSeer HS-WS100+ Smart Switch. They have a quality feel, blend in with existing switches, instantly report their status and you can program different actions for single, double, triple and long-hold taps. For the new home I’m sticking with HomeSeer and using the HomeSeer HS-WD200+ Smart Dimmer. I will be reusing the HS-WS100+ switches I already own in places I don’t require adjustable brightness, like in the garage, closets, etc.
This is where I’ll be installing my first switch. I will actually be installing two into the same box. If you’ll be installing multiple switches into the same box, it’s cleaner and less stressful to do them all at the same time. The switch installation I’m showing in this post will be replacing a standard three-wire switch.
Now that I have the power turned off for the room I’m working in, it’s safe to start disassembling the bank of light switches. If you’re working on a switch box that has multiple switches in it, it will save you frustration if you loosen them all from the wall. There’s a pile of spaghetti made of stiff, uncooperative wire behind the switches that you’ll be working with. Further down you’ll notice I ended up loosening all three switches to access the wires I needed.
This is the switch I will be replacing. On this side of the switch there is the wire for the load and for the line. In my switch box, both of these wires are black. Yours may vary. On the other side of the switch is the wire for the ground. My ground is a bare copper wire.
The switches in my home have single-use push-in terminals for the load and line. Since the ground is the only wire attached with a screw, that’s where I start when disconnecting the wires.
The standard switches you’ll be replacing come in a variety of configurations. Some switches will only have side screw terminals. Others will also have push-in terminals. The push-in terminals may, or may not be reusable. The reusable ones will have release mechanisms you can use to get the wire out.
On my switches, the wires that used the push-in terminals on my switches had to be cut off the switch.
After removing the switch, this is what I am left with. The original load, line and ground wires. Since both my load and line wires are black, I have my load wire temporarily marked, so I know which one it is when I start installing the new dimmer switch.
Some switches have labels on each wire connection so you know which wire is your load and which is your line. A lot of the cheaper switches that are bought in bulk by home builders aren’t so kind. Either way, I highly recommend picking up a voltage detector so you can be certain which wire is which when connecting them to your new switch. A voltage detector doesn’t cost a lot, it’ll save you frustration if you’re doing several switches and you really don’t want to be guessing and accidentally damage your new smart switch.
Nearly all smart switches require the use of a neutral wire. All homes in the United States should have a neutral wire. The actual question is if you have a neutral wire in your switch box. The answer to that depends on how the electrician wired your home. Some older homes might not, but it has become increasingly common to find neutral wires in your switch box in the United States. Your neutral wire will likely be a bundle of white wires capped off by a wire nut. Here you can see my neutral wire bundle just after I took the wire nut off.
To get that additional neutral wire that your smart switch needs, you’re going to need an additional length of wire for each smart switch you’re installing into the switch box. Once you’ve stripped the ends, you’ll pigtail the additional length of wire to the neutral bundle.
Rather than trying to stuff another wire into the wire nut along with the exiting twisted bundle, I prefer to untwist it a bit and re-twist them together nice and tight. This helps keep your pigtail from popping loose as you push everything back into the switch box later. Since you’re adding additional wire, you may need to use a larger wire nut than you originally twisted off.
This is the HomeSeer HS-WD200+ Smart Dimmer that I’ll be wiring up. It’s quite a bit bulkier on the in-wall side, so as you connect your wires, pay careful attention to your ability to tuck them back into the box neatly. Most homes are built with switch boxes that easily accommodate regular switches, but it gets really tight in there when you start adding smart switches.
The wire connections on the back are really easy to work with, with the exception of the ground screw. For the load, line and neutral wire, you simply slide the wire in and tighten the screw on the side. The traveler connection is for wiring a three-way switch, which we do not need for this installation.
The ground wire screw can be difficult to work with, which is why I usually start with that one, just to get it out of the way. One tip to make it a little be easier to get the ground wire around the ground screw, is to back out, or completely unscrew the wall attachment screw to keep it out of your way.
Once you have made the four wire connections to the new dimmer switch, turn your power back on so you can verify your connections and switch are working as expected. Wrangling the switch back into the box can be difficult, so before you start doing so, temporarily turn your power back off for safety as it’s easy for your fingers, or tools to come into contact with the wires.
As you’re lining up your switches to get them to fit properly with the switch cover, you’ll likely notice that the new switch has a much thicker base plate than your original switch. I have found that this thicker base plate often causes issues getting the switch cover to sit flush against the wall. To remedy that, I trace a line around the top and bottom of the new switch, loosen it from the wall a bit and gently carve out the drywall behind it. Don’t go crazy, just enough to allow the thicker base plate to sit slightly recessed into the drywall.
When you’re satisfied with the mounting, turn your power back on and test the functionality of the switch one last time before putting the switch cover back on. You’ve just wrangled a new bulky switch and some extra wire into the original box. Sometimes that wiggles loose even the best of connections.
If everything works as expected, button it back up and clean up your mess. Congratulations on your new switches!