Smart switches and the missing neutral!

As part of my learning and experimentation with Homekit and home automation, I recently picked up some Sonoff Basic Smart Switches. I’ve successfully installed one them outside, controlling a few metres of LED strip lighting.

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It’s pretty novel to turn it on and off via Alexa or from my iPhone, but to be honest, it’s not very practical. Flicking a switch is just than saying “Alexa, <pause> turn on the side alley light”. Pause. <click>. “Ok”.  Whilst voice control gives you flexibility (hands full etc.), 99% of the time the light switch is the king.

In my quest to check whether the smart home is practical, I wanted to try out a proper, in the wall, smart switch. I’d found a few companies such as Den Automation (who I’ve actually invested in, but who’s stuff isn’t on sale yet) and Lightwave RF, who make normal looking switches (normal from a UK style). The downside is that this stuff is expensive.

Taking Lightwave for example, a single Lightwave switch will run you £60. They also require a hub or bridge, which means an additional outlay of over £120 before you can even use the switch! Spending the bones of £200 just to check whether a smart switch is useful or useless is a bit much. I needed something cheaper to get me started!

Enter the Sonoff T1 WiFi lightswitch

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I dropped £31 and bought two switches, a two-gang and a three-gang. Aesthetically, I don’t find them appealing since they are just white and I hate touch buttons, preferring something that actually clicks.

I digress. The first step with any new light switch is to actually install it in your house. For me, I wanted to get the maximum value, so I opted to replace the three gang switch in my hallway. The hallway light switch operates the hall light, the porch light and the upstairs light. Three lights that are used pretty frequently.

I started by unscrewing the switch.

Then I stopped.

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There were more wires than I expected!! I knew the upstairs light and the hallway light were three-way switched, but the porch light isn’t.

The back of the T1 looks like this:

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I was going to need some professional help! Thankfully, as my father and two of my brothers are electricians, I could get *free* professional advice.

After getting a handle on the wiring, I realised that the T1 switches just wouldn’t work. No neutral connection was available. I mistakenly the blue wire to be neutral when it is switched live. I should have paid more attention when my father was teaching me this at age 15. I checked a few more of the switches and confirmed that there was no neutral in any of them.

The listing for the Sonoff switches on Amazon does indicate that a neutral is required, but since I mistook the blue switched-live for a neutral, I went ahead and bought them. I’ll be returning them.

This was a disappointment.

My main annoyance was that I’ve only had my house completely rewired last year. I was kicking myself because this should have been something I was aware of. That said, a lost of forum entries seem to indicate that most electricians won’t add a neutral that doesn’t connect to anything. Even if I did ask my electrician to add a neutral to each switch, he could very well have said no.

At this point, I took a step back. The Sonoff switches simply weren’t going to work.

The Lightwave RF stuff was too expensive for the purpose of playing around.

I needed a plan B. I decided to put one of the Sonoff Basic Smart Switch onto my porch light. This would mean leaving it switched on at the wall, but I figured that would be okay. I’ll do another post on that soon.

 

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