Over the past several years, I’ve slowly been building out my smart home. It started with a Nest Thermostat in 2012. Then several years went by and I tested out a couple of smart switches for the basement. When those were easy to install and worked well, I was addicted. I mapped out a plan to upgrade every frequently used light in the house. I have been slowly and diligently adding more and more smart devices to my house ever since.
Along the way, I have learned a lot about the devices, how they work, how to install them, what works well, and what does not. With so much knowledge, I thought I would share how I did it. By starting small, testing a few devices, and adding more over time, I think you will see that it is not as hard as you think to build an amazing smart home!
Index of Topics
There is a lot of content in this article, so I have provided links to the various sections for easy navigation.
- How Does a Smart Home Work?
- The Brain of the Smart Home – The Hub
- A Note About WiFi Smart Home Devices
- The Smart Speaker – The I/O of the Smart Home
- Nest Thermostat
- Wall Switches
- Smart Bulbs
- Smart Plugs and Outlets
- Ceiling Fan Controllers
- Ring Doorbell
- Sump Pump Monitor
- Wiring of Switches
- Basic Switch Wiring
- Smart Switch Wiring
- Three-Way Smart Switch Wiring
- Four-Way (or more) Smart Switch Wiring
- Switch Cover Plates
- Product List and Links
How Does a Smart Home Work?
A smart home is the connection of several devices like lights, switches, thermostats, appliances, and doorbells to a network for monitoring and controlling the devices. When connected to the web, it enables operation through apps on your smart phone or a smart speaker like an Echo Dot. Such a system is sometimes referred to as the internet of things. Many of these apps and devices enable home automation such as automatically turning lights on at dusk, or unlocking your front door. You can have a lot of fun with “If This, Then That” or IFTTT automation!
The smart home starts with a wireless home network that the devices can connect to. For many devices, this requires nothing more than a WiFi network that most of us have already in our homes. However, WiFi is a high-band width and high-power network. For many things like switches, that only need to be sent on/off or dimmer settings, WiFi is overkill.
Wireless networks have been developed that are specifically designed for smart home devices. These include networks like Z-wave and Zigbee protocols. To use devices with these protocols, you will need a hub. The smart home hub works just like a WiFi router, but it only communicates with smart devices using these special protocols. The hub also plugs into a router via an ethernet cable, to control connected devices through the web and apps.
Smart home hubs are cheap, highly reliable, and easy to set up. Companies like Google and Amazon have caught on to the smart home craze, and started including smart home hubs built into their smart speakers, like the Echo Plus and Google Home.
A smart home needs a hub for wireless communications with all of the smart devices in your home. For some devices, WiFi is enough. But for many devices, you will need a hub capable of communicating with the Z-Wave and Zigbee protocols designed specifically for smart devices.
When I started building my smart home three years ago, Amazon and Google had not yet started building smart home hub capabilities into their smart speakers. They do now. So if I was going to start from scratch, I would consider just getting a smart speaker with a hub built in, like the Echo Plus.
A smart speaker with a hub built in can be expensive. If you don’t need the speaker, a dedicated hub might be a better and cheaper choice. For my hub, I went with a Samsung SmartThings hub. They can be purchased for only $65 dollars. It also supports both Z-Wave and Zigbee and has the added benefit of getting you into the SmartThings eco system, which offers a lot of nice tools and controls.
Some smart home devices make use of WiFi for their network connectivity. This can be a great way to get started with a smart home, as you can connect devices to your existing network without the need to get a smart home hub or a smart speaker with a built-in hub. But I have several concerns about using WiFi for a smart home network. These include:
- Overkill – WiFi is designed for high-power and high-bandwidth applications. It is just overkill for on/off and status monitoring needed for a smart home.
- Reliability – WiFi is just flaky and requires seemingly never ending rebooting. When WiFi goes down, you can’t control your smart devices through the network.
- Network Overload – I have concerns about connecting dozens of smart devices to the WiFi network and the effects on the performance of the network.
- Antenna Strength – The antenna in the WiFi router only has so much power and the more devices that are shared, the less power from the antenna each one receives, thus decreasing the range of your WiFi network.
- Non-Mesh Network – WiFi is a one-to-many communications network (router to devices), whereas the smart home networks are a mesh where each device can communicate with each other, making the network more robust.
I don’t know about your house, but at our house, the WiFi is constantly acting wonky. Every WiFi router I have owned needs to be rebooted or runs slow every couple of months, or even weeks, grrrrrr!!
Whereas, I have never had my smart home network go down in three years. Maybe this is because it is low power and low bandwidth, so there is not much that can take it down. Just look at the differences in the antenna and box designs between the WiFi router and smart home hub in the photos above! The smart home device is using less power and needs a smaller antenna to drive the signal a lot further with a lot more reliability.
There is a big price to pay for the speed of WiFi that is just not needed for a smart home. To me, it just makes sense to set up a separate, dedicated network for smart home communications!
The heading of this section is not entirely accurate. The I/O (input / output) of the smart home can be as simple as an app on your phone. These include great apps like the SmartThings app or the Alexa app. There are certainly times when it is convenient to interact with your smart home through these apps. But the real convenience comes when you connect a smart speaker to the system and can start issuing verbal commands like:
Alexa, turn the basement lights off.
Alexa, turn the temperature up by two degrees.
Alexa, dim the family room lights to 20 percent.
Alexa, make dinner.
Ok, that last one was just made up. But the first one was my primary motivation for starting my smart home project. It seems that kids just love to leave the lights on in the basement!
Smart speakers come in all shapes and sizes from the Amazon, Google, Apple, and probably others. Amazon seems to have the lead right now with the proliferation of the Echo devices and Alexa. But Google has some good options too. Right now, Apple seems a bit behind and pricey. Which one you select is probably a function of what ecosystem you are already in.
When I started my smart home, Amazon had the lead and there were very few choices, so I built my system on Echo devices and Alexa. I have been very happy with it, especially with how affordable Echo Dots are. Here are links to several options for smart speakers:
- Echo Plus – includes a hub built in.
- Echo Smart speaker – a little bigger for music
- Echo dot – the most affordable smart speaker
- Google Home – includes a hub built in.
- Apple Homepod – I don’t know too much about this one.
A Nest smart thermostat was a bit of a luxury for me when I first got it in 2012. It was my first smart home device. I won it in a silent charity auction, so it was a win-win for the local elementary school and the start of my smart home.
The Nest not only looks cool and modern on your wall, but it is smart in many ways. Here are a few examples:
- Self programming – As you adjust the temperature, it learns your patterns and preferences and self-programs itself. (It can also be programmed manually).
- Away mode – It has a motion sensor, so it detects when you are not at home, and can adjust the temperature to an away setting, saving energy.
- Remote access – No more calling your neighbor to turn on the AC when returning from vacation on a hot day. You can do this on your phone.
- Works with Alexa – Control the temperature of your house by giving Alexa commands. (Or many other smart speakers).
- Tracks Usage – And gives feedback on energy consumption so you can make energy conscious decisions.
I am going to cover wall switches next, because this is where my smart home went next. Switches were my main motivation in creating a smart home. Here are some of the scenarios that motivated me to install smart switches:
- Kids leave lights on in basement. (Did I mention that yet?)
- Stairs – Someone comes home and leaves the main stairs lights on, which shine right down into the family room in our house. This happens all the time.
- Program – Set the front porch light to automatically turn on and off at sunrise and sunset.
- All Off – Turn all (smart) lights off in the house at once when you leave.
- Trigger certain lights to turn on automatically when you get home.
- Laziness – Just plain being lazy when watching TV and being able to turn lights on or off from the couch.
Wiring Note: Installing wall switches requires just a bit of wiring. This may be a slight deterrent, but don’t let is stop you! It is not as hard as you think! I have covered wiring of smart switches below. In this section, I am going to stick to switch types and usage.
GE Z-Wave Paddle Switch: The most basic smart switch is a single on/off switch like the one shown below. This a GE Z-Wave Plus Smart Control Light Switch. What I like about these switches is they look and work like normal paddle switches, but they can also be controlled by a smart hub. That also means that if the smart hub or the web goes down, you can still operate the switch at the wall, just like always.
Wemo Wifi Switch: I also have one Wemo light switch installed. Wemo is a line of home automation products by the trusted brand of Belkin. The switch works great and was easy to install and configure. I even like that it looks a little different and more moderns and “techy” than a traditional light switch. However, there are a few things that I don’t like about this switch.
The first and more minor issue is the power indicator light. It is just a little odd looking to have a power button symbol like that on a light switch. But I could live with that – it’s not a big deal.
The next issue is that the Wemo devices have their own app for programming and controlling the devices. This is necessary because they are WiFi devices and don’t connect directly to a smart hub. This is not a big deal, but it is just one more app to learn and mess with. With the Z-Wave or Zigbee devices, they can all be programmed in the SmartThings app or the Alexa app.
The last item is more of a deal breaker for me – it uses WiFi for communications. For some, this might be considered a plus, because it means you don’t need a smart home hub to use it. That is the general selling point of the Belkin Wemo line. But for me, it is a big negative, as noted above, because I find WiFi to just be generally flaky and require annoying regular rebooting.
When the WiFi is down, you can’t control the switch through your home network. This is not a fatal flaw, because you can still just operate the switch at the wall. But it is annoying when you are in the tub and want to turn the jacuzzi on (what this switch controls in our house) and you notice the WiFi is down – after – you get in the tub!
If I could do it over again, I would not have installed this single WiFi switch. Maybe one day I will invest the $36 dollars and 10 minutes it would take to change it out!
Dimmer Switches: GE also makes a Smart Control Dimmer Switch. These are a little more expensive than the basic switch ($42 versis $36), but can be well worth it to have the ability to dim the lights. They look and work exactly like the paddle switches shown above, but they also dim. This function is also supported by Alexa so you can issue commands like:
Alexa dim the family room lights to 20%
The function and design of the GE smart dimmer switches is perfect. If you click the paddle at the top or bottom it turns the lights on or off. If you hold the paddle down on the top or bottom it dims the lights. It is very intuitive and works exactly like you would expect. They integrate flawlessly with Alexa and have been super reliable since I installed them. I really like these dimmer switches!
Three Way Switches: We all have three-way switches somewhere in our homes. These are switches where one light can be controlled by two (or more) switches. They are most common on stairs, where there is a switch at the bottom and top of the stairs to control the lights. In our house, because of the floor plan layout, the stairs light switch is a five-way switch!
GE also makes an Add-On Smart Switch for integrating into a three-way switch. These switches have to be matched to another GE Smart Switch in the same three-way circuit. (I cover wiring of three-way smart switches below in the wiring section).
The way the three-way smart switches work is actually very simple. Only one of the switches actually controls the light. The other add-one switch just tells the main switch what to do. Installation makes use of existing wiring for most modernly wired homes. This makes them simple to install. See detailed wiring instruction later in this article.
Smart bulbs fill an important niche in the smart home for controlling certain lights that are not convenient to make smart another way. I have found that this is the case with some lamps around the house. Lamps are not connected to a wall-switch, so to make them smart, you need to either install a smart bulb or a smart plug.
While a smart plug would work, I find that for lamps that get used a lot, it is nice to have a smart bulb. When a smart bulb loses power, it always returns to the on state when power comes back. This means that you can still operate the lamp switch to control the light. It also means house guests will also be able to operate the lamp without knowing it is a smart lamp. (Although if the smart bulb is off to start, they will need to flip the lamp switch twice to turn the bulb on, but most people do that anyway if a lamp does not turn on).
This is contrasted with a smart plug or smart outlet (covered below) that makes it more problematic to operate the lamp manually. With these devices, the controller is on the plug. So when the controller is off, flipping the lamp switch will do nothing. Your guests will conclude the lamp is broken. Also, if the network goes down, you would have to operate the light using the toggle at the plug, which would be a pain.
I used the GE Link LED Smart Light Bulb (shown above), which connects to my smart network through the Zigbee protocol. These bulbs use a standard light bulb socket, are dimmable, and are very bright. They are a little on the expensive side, but the LED bulbs are energy efficient and have a life of 22 years, so they end up being quite economical in the long-run.
Smart Plugs and Outlets
Smart plugs and outlets provide yet another way to control devices around your home. These devices work just like you would expect. They control the power going to a plug so that you can turn things on and off with your smart network.
A smart plug requires no wiring and just plugs into any regular outlet. Whereas, a smart outlet requires some wiring and replaces your existing plug with a hard-wired smart outlet. Both have toggle switches so that you can control them at the plug. Some even offer power management tools in their own app for tracking things like power draw and hours of operation. This can be very useful for optimizing your energy efficiency.
Here are a few applications around the house where I have used a smart plug:
- Controlling lamps.
- Controlling the Christmas tree (I love this!)
- Controlling my outdoor Christmas lights.
- Controlling the decorative light strings in my daughter’s room.
- Controlling my landscaping lights.
Wemo Smart Plug: Wemo is a line of home automation products by the trusted brand of Belkin. I have a couple of their WiFi smart plugs, and they work great and are easy to install and configure. At $24 each, they are a little on the pricey side for what they do. They operate on a WiFi network, which noted above, can be a plus and a minus. The plus is that there is no need to get a smart home hub. The negative is that I find WiFi networks to generally be less reliable than smart home networks. I bought a couple of Wemo smart plugs before I knew about Z-Wave smart plugs, like Peanut (covered below). All of my future smart plugs will be Z-Wave compatible, because I don’t like the idea of using wifi for my smart network.
Peanut Smart Plug: Peanut is a small smart plug that works with a smart home hub via the Zigbee network. For reasons noted above, not operating on a WiFi network is an advantage for me. The peanut plug has a small form factor, is inexpensive ($13), works great and was easy to configure. I love this plug, and like to have a spare or two sitting around the house in case a new application comes along for one.
GE Outdoor Smart Home Plug: GE makes an outstanding, rugged, weather resistance outdoor smart home plug. It runs on the Z-Wave network (not WiFi), which is a plus for me. I have two of these units – one on my outdoor landscaping lights and one that I use to control my outdoor Christmas lights. I am thrilled with its operation for both functions.
For controlling the landscaping lights, I have a standard (non-smart) 12-volt controller box that came with the lights. It is in the garage and the box has a light sensor, that in theory, is supposed to turn the light on at night. It does not work well, because in the garage it is dark when the garage door is down. This causes the lights to be on often during the daytime. Adding a smart plug works great, because the smart plug is programmed to automatically turn on and off when the sun goes up and down. It’s connected to the web through the smart home hub, so it knows the exact time of the sunrise and sunset every single day of the year!
The same advantages also apply to the outdoor Christmas lights, but with two added bonuses. One, the lights are programmed to turn off at midnight, rather than sunrise. Two, it is nice to be able to ask Alexa to turn the Christmas lights on or off at different times with a voice command.
These GE outdoor smart plugs are rugged, easy to configure and work well. For outdoor applications, these GE smart plugs can’t be beat. I love these things!
Ceiling fans are one of the more convenient devices to control with your smart home. Pulling a chain on the fan is a very clunky way to control a device! Some ceiling fans have remote controls, and that is just one more remote to deal with or lose. In our house, we have one set of ceiling fans that were retrofitted in a high vaulted ceiling, and it was not possible to install a wall switch, so remote controls were the only way to control them. These are great applications for a smart ceiling fan controller.
Bond Ceiling Fan RF Controller: If you have ceiling fans with remote controls, like we do, you can install a Bond Controller to replace your remotes without having to do any wiring. In our case, the fans in the photo above don’t have a wall switch, so the Bond Controller was the only way to add them to our smart home.
The Bond controller works by replicating the RF (radio frequency) communication that is used by your remote controls. The Bond is just a simple controller that connects to your smart home network and controls your fans using the same RF that your remotes use. It is a super easy and convenient way to add ceiling fans to your smart home, if they have remote controls. The company also claims that they will be expanding the device’s ability to control other things that use RF remote controls, like garage door openers, AC units, and others.
You pair your remote with the Bond by clicking a button on the remote while the bond is monitoring in pairing mode. The Bond recognizes your remote control from its vast data base, and then replicates the remote functions in its app. The Bond can control up to six ceiling fans. Because it communicates via RF, one bond can control fans anywhere in your house. For just $99, this device really is a steal!
The Bond app works extremely well at replicating the functions of the remote control, even holding down the dim button to dim the ceiling fan lights. It also works well with Alexa (via an Alexa skill), with one minor exception. The hold to dim function of the light button can’t be controlled by Alexa yet. This requires the use of the Bond app for now.
The speed of the controller is impressive, considering that it is not controlling the fans directly, but is generating an RF signal to control them. The latency lag is less than a second. This is fast enough to not even notice.
Smart Ceiling Fan Wall Switch: You are probably starting to notice a pattern here with GE switches, and this one is no different. GE makes a Z-Wave Smart Fan Controller for ceiling fans. The switch has three speeds and only controls the ceiling fan. A separate smart light switch is needed to control the lights (covered above).
These switches are simple and work well for installation where you already have a wall switch for your ceiling fan. They do require a bit of wiring, but are wired exactly the same as a single smart switch covered here.
Like the other GE paddle switches, these look and operate just like a normal toggle paddle, and can also be controlled through your smart home network. Guest will intuitively know how to use them, and the switches also work manually if the network goes down. I also like that all of these GE switches look the same for a consistent home decor. This is another GE smart product that I absolutely love!
When I installed the Ring Doorbell a couple of years ago, I have to admit that it felt like a bit of splurge. At the time it was. Is it really necessary to have a doorbell connected to your smart home? I mean, it’s just a doorbell, right? Well, over the last couple of years we have come to really appreciate the added functionality of a smart doorbell. Here are a few examples:
- Notifications to your phone when the doorbell rings, even when you are not home.
- Answer Remotely – Ability to answer the door on your phone from anywhere, including video and 2-way audio. This is great for avoiding moving from the couch for unwelcome solicitors!
- Motion Detector that records video anytime someone approaches your front door. Great for securing packages from Amazon!
- Live View from the doorbell if you need to see what’s going on outside.
- Video Recording of events in the neighborhood, including things like reckless drivers and package thefts – we use it for both. The wide angle video records a width of about 8 homes in our neighborhood.
Which Ring: We purchased the Ring Pro, which is a little more expensive ($250) than the original Ring or Ring 2, but it has a few extra features and is a little sleeker in design. Reviews also indicates that Ring worked out a few kinks with the hardware with the Ring Pro and so the reliability is expected to be a little better. You can reduce the cost a bit by getting an older mode. It looks like the original ring is just $99 now.
Installation: The ring was surprisingly easy to install. About 25 minutes from unboxing to working. It uses the existing wiring for your doorbell. It requires a certain minimum voltage to power the camera, but most modern doorbells can handle it fine. If you have an older doorbell (older than 25 years or more), you might also have to replace the doorbell transformer when installing the Ring. They are cheap and fairly easy to install. My 21-year old transformer worked just fine. Installation involved a few simple steps:
- At the Ringer: Taking the cover off the doorbell transformer in the house and adding a small controller to a couple of the wires. This was easy and took about 5 minutes.
- At the Doorbell: Removing the old doorbell and replacing it with the Ring. There are two wires to connect. Then you secure the ring to the house, including a small security screw to deter theft. This took about 10 minutes.
- Integration: This involves installing the Ring app, connecting the Ring to your WiFi network, and setting up the device. This took about another 10 minutes.
The ring is well packaged, with good clear installation instructions, and a well designed app. The entire installation was a piece of cake.
Video Subscription: Video works on the Ring out of the box for live viewing and answering the door through your phone. But if you want access to archived videos from doorbell rings or motion detection, you need to subscribe to their service. This is slightly annoying, but it is not that expensive at $3/mo (or $30/year). The service is actually pretty good, and provides unlimited cloud storage of all videos recorded by the Ring for six months. It also includes an easy option to download videos from the service to keep them.
Ring Conclusions: After having the Ring for 2 years now, we would miss it if it were gone. It is really nice to be able to answer the door remotely, see packages on the front porch and have video recorded of motion out front.
However, during the first year that we had the Ring, it seemed like it was not quite ready for prime time. It sometimes did not work in very cold weather, and every few months it needed to be reset. After the first winter, the button got stuck inward and stopped working. Ring sent me a new one the next day under warranty, and it took all of 5 minutes to install. So no big deal. Ring support was outstanding.
But the new Ring had a few problems too. Every few months it would need to be reset, and I really don’t know why. The way it would crash would make it unresponsive to any input, so resetting it involved unscrewing it from the wall and removing a wire to cut the power. This is a pain, and not the kind of thing I was happy about doing every few months.
But for the last 6-8 months it has worked flawlessly. I am not sure if I just had bad luck, or if things got better due to a firmware update, or something else. I am just glad that it is working reliability now. Ring support was outstanding with every issue that came up, and that made the troubleshooting much easier. But the device just felt like it was not quite ready for prime time when I first got it and for the harsh temperature swings in Michigan from hot summers to frigid winters. We will see how this new one holds up in the long-run and maybe report more later.
A note about the troubleshooting: Of all the smart home products I have installed, this is the only one that has given me any significant troubles. So I don’t feel like I am doing too badly overall. But if you get a Ring (or any other smart home device) you are signing yourself up for a little tinkering and troubleshooting every now and then. Something to be prepared for.
A few years ago, our sump pump failed and no one noticed until our basement carpeting was soaked. After about a thousand bucks in clean-up costs, I vowed to get a sump pump alarm. But the nice ones that send you a text when they detect water cost a few hundred bucks, and require a monitoring subscription for another few bucks per month.
While I was contemplating my options, I started working on my smart home. Along the way, I discovered that smart water sensors are really cheap! Like this one by Samsung that costs only $20. (It looks like the one that I bought is not available anymore.)
These units are battery powered, run on the low-power Zigbee network, are easy to install, and work great. The sensor contains two separate contacts that when both get wet, closes the circuit and triggers an alarm. I have tested the sensor many times and it works flawlessly. With the SmartHome app, the monitor can be set to issue an alarm to your phone, send a text message, and even turn on lights in your house to alert you to an alarm.
With a smart home, there really is no excuse for not have a few of these installed anyplace where a water leak would cause major damage, like a sump pump, under a dishwasher, under toilets, under the fridge, etc.
Ok, I saved this section until near the end, because wiring can be a bit technical and intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Installing a wired switch is probably one of the easiest wiring jobs you can do!
First a note of caution: I am not an electrician. This wiring information is not certified. I share it only to illustrate how easy the process can be. You should only undertake wiring if you are comfortable with it and know what you are doing. But I think that when you see how easy some of these items are to wire, you might be up for learning how to do it yourself!
Before we get into the details of smart switch wiring, let’s cover the basics of how a regular switch works. This knowledge will serve as a good base to build from for wiring a smart switch.
Home electrical wiring contains two wires – the black wire (hot) and the white wire (neutral). There is also a green wire for the ground, which is important for proper grounding, but not relevant to how a switch works.
A circuit is completed by the black wire carrying power to the device (like a light), and the white wire completing the circuit and returning to the circuit box. So if you look at anything that is powered in your home, like a plug, light, dishwasher, etc., they all have black and white wires running to them. These are usually carried, along with the ground wire, in a single bundle of wires wrapped in a white sheathing, such as Romex.
Figure 1 below shows the wiring diagram for a basic switch. For a device controlled by a switch, like a light fixture, what the switch essentially does is break the black (hot) wire, as shown in the figure. When the switch is on, the black wire is connected through the switch, and when the switch is off, the black wire is not connected. So all you are doing when you flip the switch is toggling the connection of the black wire. That is what turns the light on and off. Pretty simple so far, right?
The white wire (neutral) must connect to the light fixture to complete the circuit. So the white wire will not connect to the switch. It usually passes through the switch junction box, and then connects directly to the light. This is the basic way that a switch works.
The core wiring of a smart switch works exactly like the basic light switch above – the black wire goes through the switch and is toggled on or off by the switch. The white wire goes to the light. The only difference is that the smart switch itself also needs power to operate. Whereas a basic light switch does not (it needs no power to toggle the black wire open or closed). This means that for a smart switch, the white wire must also be connected to the smart switch, so that it too can have power. This is easy to wire, as the white wire usually passes though the switch junction box, as shown in the diagram above.
Some home wiring may not have the white (neutral) wire in the switch junction box. A neutral wire is needed to power a smart switch, and without one, you will not be able to install a smart switch without pulling wires.
Once you understand these basics, the instructions that come with the switch and the connections required will make more sense. Figure 2 below shows the wiring diagram for a single smart switch. Here are the step-by-step wiring instructions:
- Connect the black wires (line and load) to the terminals on the left side of the switch. The black wire that goes to the light connects to the top terminal (load) and the black wire from the circuit box connects to the bottom terminal (line). These are the same black-wire connections that you have on your old switch. So just transfer them over in-kind.
- Connect the white wire (neutral). For the white wire, it is necessary to splice off the existing white wire inside the box (extra wire conveniently comes with the smart switches). Connect the spliced white wire to the bottom right terminal (neutral). This wire is necessary to provide power to the switch itself.
- Connect the ground wire to the ground terminal.
Note that the terminal in the top right of the switch labeled “traveler” has a piece of tape over it. It is for three-way switch wiring, which is covered below. It is not needed for wiring a single switch.
That’s it. A lot of explanation for a very simple wiring job that involves connecting a few wires to the proper nodes. Below are some photos of the wiring of one of my single smart switches.
Three-Way Switch Basics: We all have three-way switches somewhere in our homes. These are switches where one light can be controlled by two switches. Replacing an existing three-way switch with a smart switch may seem complicated. But the process is actually pretty simple and logical and makes use of existing wires in most junction boxes.
The Wires In a Regular Three-Way Switch: First, let’s start with a regular (non-smart) three-way switch. The main difference between a basic single switch and a three-way switch is that the three-way switch has an extra red wire (traveler). This extra wire provides another connection between the switches so that either switch is capable of sending power to the light.
How a Smart Three-Way Switch Works: In a smart three-way switch, only one of the switches sends power to the light (the primary switch). The other switch (add-on) communicates with the primary switch to tell the primary switch to turn on or off. In fact, the add-on switch does not even have terminals for the black wires. This may seem strange at first, but it should make sense. In a smart home, only one switch needs to be controllable by the smart network. The other add-on switch is just there for us humans to be able to manually toggle the switch.
How to Wire a Smart Three-Way Switch: With this basic understanding of how the smart three-way switch works, wiring a smart-three way switch should make more sense. The GE smart three-way switch comes with detailed instructions and a wiring diagram that is accurate. But it suffers a bit from too much information. So I am going to simplify the process and walk through the step-by-step wiring requirements for each switch. I will also cover why each is step is needed. Figure 3 below shows the wiring diagram for a three-way smart switch.
Try not to be overwhelmed by the diagram. Sticking with the theme of this post, it is not as hard as you think! There are only a few connections to make in each junction box, and you are already familiar with most of them if your have already done a single smart switch. I will walk you through the step-by-step instructions for each switch.
The primary switch in the left Junction Box in Figure 3 powers the light and has the smart controller in it. It does not matter which switch you choose as the primary switch. But the primary switch will have the blue indicator light on it, so that might be a deciding factor for placement. Wiring the primary switch starts off exactly like the single smart switch described above, with one additional step for the traveler wire. Here are the step-by-step instructions for wiring the primary switch:
- Connect the black wires (line and load) to the terminals on the left side of the switch. The black wire that goes to the light connects to the top terminal (load), and the black wire from the circuit box connects to the bottom terminal (line). These are the same black-wire connections that you have on your old switch. So just transfer them over in-kind.
- Connect the white wire (neutral). For the white wire, it is necessary to splice off the existing white wire inside the box (extra wire conveniently comes with the smart switches). Connect the spliced white wire to the bottom right terminal of the primary switch (neutral). This wire is necessary to provide power to the switch itself.
- Connect the red wire (traveler) from your existing three-way switch to the upper right terminal of the primary switch. This provides a connection between the primary and add-on switches.
- Connect the ground wire to the ground terminal.
The add-on switch in the right Junction Box in Figure 3 is a little different. It starts off with a couple of familiar steps with the white wire and traveler, but has one new step with the black wires (step 3). Here are the step-by-step instruction for wiring the add-on switch:
- Connect the white wire (neutral). For the white wire, it is necessary to splice off the existing white wire inside the box (extra wire conveniently comes with the smart switches). Connect the spliced white wire to the bottom left terminal of the add-on switch (neutral). This wire is necessary to provide power to the switch itself.
- Connect the red wire (traveler) to the upper left terminal of the add-on switch. This provides a connection between the primary and add-on switches.
- Twist the black wires together. Twist the black line and load lines together that connected to your old switch. This might seem a little strange at first. It was for me. But if you study the diagram in Figure 3, you will see that what you are actually doing by twisting these wires together is completing the circuit and delivering power to the primary switch. Recall that only the primary switch needs to break the black line in a smart three-way switch. So by twisting the black wires together, you are creating that single black line going to the primary switch.
- Connect the ground wire to the ground terminal.
That’s it. A little more complicated than a single switch, but very logical with only a few connections to make in each switch, and most of them are just transferred in kind from your existing switches.
Once you have grasped the concept of installing a three-way smart switch, adding more switches to control the light is easy. It is just a matter of adding more add-on switches to the circuit. It really is just that easy! There is one new item to be aware of with primary switch placement noted below. Here are the steps for wiring a four-way (or more) smart switch:
- Primary switch – Wire the primary switch following the exact same steps outlined above for a three-way switch. They key thing here is to place the primary switch at one end of the chair (not in the middle). With three or more switches in the circuit, there will be two switches (one on each end of the chain) that only have one red traveler wire going to them. The switch (or switches) in the middle of the chain will have two-red traveler wires going to them, to connect to each switch on either side in the chain. Place the primary switch in one of the two junction boxes that has a single red traveler wire connecting to the existing switch.
- Add-on switches – For each add-on switch, follow the exact same steps outlined above for the three-way switch. For the add-on switch in the middle of the chain, just connect both red wires to the traveler terminal.
If you are going to install a bunch of smart switches, odds are you are going to need several different configurations of switch covers. Some of the configurations you need may not be available at the local home improvement store. This is where Amazon comes in! Just about any configuration you could imagine is available. Here are some links to a few switch covers that I found very helpful:
- Ten-pack single switch covers
- Two-switch cover plate
- Three-switch cover plate
- Two-switch cover plate (one paddle one standard switch)
- Three-switch cover plate (two paddle one standard switch)
- Apple Homepod
- Bond ceiling fan controller
- Echo Dot
- Echo Plus smart speaker and hub
- Echo Smart speaker
- GE Link Smart LED Light Bulb
- GE Z-Wave Smart Control Add-On Smart Switch
- GE Z-Wave Smart Control Ceiling Fan Controller
- GE Z-Wave Smart Control Dimmer Switch
- GE Z-Wave Smart Control Light Switch
- GE Z-Wave Smart Control Outdoor Plug
- Google Home smart speaker and hub
- Nest Thermostat
- Peanut smart plug
- Ring Pro doorbell
- Samsung SmartThings Hub
- Samsung Water sensor monitor
- Wall switch cover plate ten-pack single switch
- Wall switch cover plate two-switch
- Wall switch cover plate three-switch
- Wall switch cover plate two-switch (one paddle one standard switch)
- Wall switch cover plate three-switch (two paddle one standard switch)
- Wemo light switch
- Wemo plug