Stark Insider’s buying guide for smart home dimmer switches.
If you’re on the hunt for dimmer switches to your current or planned smart home, there’s a beguiling selection a quick check on Amazon reveals hundreds of products. What to buy?
You could also be tempted to grab a $35 Leviton Decora dimmer on a whim at your local Home Depot. Simple enough. Leviton makes good switches. Seems, though, you could be locking yourself, and your house, into a path you never even planned. For example, there’s two versions of the Leviton Smart Dimmer, one based on a protocol referred to as Z-Wave compatible with hubs like SmartThings, and another version based on Apple’s HomeKit (which enables you to make use of your iPhone and Siri to control lights.
Possibly much more important, that first time you tip your toe into the smart home ocean (and it’s vast) establishes the range or products you’ll be able to choose from. Then there’s price. If you purchase into a SmartThings based system, prices are fairly reasonable (relatively) for dimmers, plug-in modules and various sensors. HomeKit and Insteon are about mid-range. Then there’s Lutron, and its Caseta hub-based system which comes in a bit higher, with even one dimmer switch going for $99 (USD). That can really add up! Yes, starter kits may be tempting. Just you should definitely budget for the rest of the things you’ll ultimately need.
Today, however, I’m looking on the dimmer switch itself. Who makes one of the best dimmer switch? Functionally? Aesthetically? Value?
I’ve run our home on Insteon for over 10 years now. I started slowly, adding a switch or two every year or so until now now we have a number of dozen all linked together controlling various lights, and scenes.
Not everything has always been great. Love-hate more prefer it. Though, in recent years, Insteon has upped their quality control game, and new devices are finally very reliable. Naturally, to expand my system Insteon could be the natural place to start out.
But the market has changed too much. Apple is here with HomeKit. Samsung acquired Silicon Valley-based SmartThings in 2014 and is pushing hard into the market. As are Amazon (with Echo), Google (Google Home), and so many others including traditional lighting companies like Lutron, Leviton, and GE. The smart home, a segment of the IoT (internet of things) market, is anticipated to grow like gang-busters over the coming years.
So before I invested more into Insteon products, I wanted to make sure I was headed down the proper path, not only for the next few years, but over the long-term.
I went on an exhaustive research project. My wife Loni loves once i get OCD on smart home and video/filmmaking projects. You can only guess what the nightly conversation feels like.
My search took me across all the most important platforms. I tested wi-fi systems such as the Wink 2. Proprietary ones from Lutron and makers of HomeKit compatible switches. And Z-Wave systems comparable to market leader SmartThings by Samsung.
STARK INSIDER ON SMART HOMES
Smart Home Dimmer Switch Buying Considerations
NETWORK & EASE OF INSTALLATION
Wifi or Hub?
– Smart dimmers typically run on a hub or use your existing wi-fi network. Both approaches have advantages. A hub gives you greater flexibility when it comes to adding devices and for customization. That comes typically at the price of complexity. Meanwhile, wi-fi dimmers are typically easier to set-up since you don’t must undergo the hassle of organising a hub. However, network congestion is something to contemplate for those who plan to put in many wi-fi devices.
HomeKit or Z-Wave/Zigbee or other?
– Two major smarthome platforms that dominate today’s market are HomeKit (Apple) and Z-Wave/Zigbee (various manufacturers). HomeKit gives you Siri voice control, and a nice app called Apple Home for integrating and scheduling your devices. Choice is limited, and HomeKit products tend to be dearer than others. Z-Wave, then again, is more affordable with more options. Butyou need a hub to make it all work. For home automation gurus a hub is the option to go. For mainstream, everyday buyers HomeKit is an enticing option.
Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant?
– Apple’s HomeKit obviously uses Siri for voice control. But that’s removed from the one game in town. In fact, Amazon’s Alexa-based Echo speakers are dominating the smart home market. Most recent products support Alexa. For example, Insteon devices work well with Alexa voice commands. You simply install the Alexa app (iOS or Android), go under the Smart Home menu, choose devices, then “Discover Devices(alternatively, you can say, “Alexa, discover my devices. It takes 20 seconds for Alexa to load in all of your compatible scenes. Then you possibly can say, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lightsor “Alexa, all lights offor any variety of commands that you’ve created in your smart home hub. Google also offers the same capability with its Google Home speaker.
Is a neutral wire required?
– Many smart home switches require a neutral white wire running through your electrical system so as to communicate. If your property is older and doesn’t have one you’ll must either install it (expensive) or, better yet, opt for a system that doesn’t need a neutral wire.
My final decision (for now), was to stick with the Insteon hub for lighting and the Samsung SmartThing hub for everything else, like sensors and security and various other modules for tasks not predominantly related to lights. Insteon and SmartThings aren’t natively compatible. A clever little app called Stringify solves that by receiving Insteon commands and then relaying them, via the magic of the cloud, over to SmartThings. You can, as an illustration, have an Z-Wave open/close sensor on a door, and have it trigger a Stringify notification, and turn on an Insteon light. That wouldn’t be otherwise possible without Stringify (and IFTTT, SmartRules, and this emerging category of IoT consumer apps).
Okay, enough background. Here’s my thoughts on readily available options for smart home dimmer switches.
Leviton DZ6HD-1BZ Decora Smart Dimmer Switch (Z-Wave)
Communication: Z-Wave Plus
Platform: SmartThings, Wink 2, Vera and any other that supports the Z-Wave Plus protocol
Requires neutral wire: Yes
Price: $37 on Amazon
Pros: Low cost, paddle design is familiar, reliable, known brand.
Cons: Your household wiring requires white neutral (not included), paddle is slightly loose which may irritate some users.
Leviton has been around for what looks as if forever. Many, if not most, homes come with Leviton switches installed though maybe that will likely be changing because the voice-based voice of the future takes over. They now make a solid line-up of smart switches including this one which is made for Z-Wave Plus networks. I tested this one DZ6HD-1BZ on my SmartThings hub, and it was a very easy installation. Note: before you buy a switch it is best to check the SmartThings app (Marketplace -> Things) to verify compatibility, otherwise you will want to put in custom code (device handler) which may be finicky. Response rates were very fast, with little to no apparent delay. Dimming level is easy to regulate from the app using a slider. And, as you might expect, you can now include the switch in all sorts of schedules, scenes and security scenarios. Overall, for the price, a very good switch. Recommended.
Leviton DH6HD-1BZ Decora Smart Dimmer Switch
Communication: Apple proprietary
Requires neutral wire: No
Price: $50 on Amazon
Pros: Easy to setup and use thanks to Apple’s world class software design, low cost, paddle design is familiar, reliable, known brand.
Cons: Your household wiring requires white neutral (not included), paddle is slightly loose which may irritate some users. Currently HomeKit has fewer compatible products than Z-Wave/Zigbee. Pricier than the Z-Wave version.
Same switch, different platform. That is the opposite version of the Decora Smart Dimmer, and this ones runs on Apple HomeKit. Double check before you order: DH6HD (HomeKit) or DZ6HD (Z-Wave Plus). That one letter makes a big difference. And speaking of difference, the primary one with this switch is that you simply don’t need a hub. Instead setup is completed via your iPhone and all communication runs on Apple’s proprietary blend of wi-fi and radio protocols. Recommended.
GE Z-Wave Plus Wireless Smart Lighting Control Smart Dimmer Switch (14294)
Communication: Z-Wave Plus
Platform: SmartThings, Wink 2, Vera and some other that supports the Z-Wave Plus protocol
Requires neutral wire: No
Price: $43 on Amazon
Pros: Low cost, paddle design is familiar, reliable, known brand. Neutral wire not required makes installation easier and possible for older homes.
Cons: No dimmer level indicator.
Another decent option for those running homes on Z-Wave systems is that this GE Z-Wave Plus compatible dimmer. You get a known brand in GE, and pricing just isn’t too bad (though still expensive relative to normal non-smart dimmers). Supported in SmartThings and Wink 2 and other systems so setup is a breeze. Again, requires neutral wire. If you would like your dimmer to look like a great old fashioned light switch (except for the light on the underside of the front plate) that is it. Nothing fancy. Gets the job done, and if you prefer it, you might want to consider a few of GE’s other smart home lineup which includes indoor and outdoor outlets for appliances, and lamps, and landscape lighting, etc. Recommended.
HomeSeer HS-WD100+ Z-Wave
Communication: Z-Wave Plus
Platform: SmartThings (with major caveat, see below), Wink 2, and most other Z-Wave compatible controllers
Requires neutral wire: Yes
Price: $52 on Amazon
Pros: Powerful customization includes multi-tap scene programming.
Cons: Unacceptable delays when tested with a Samsung SmartThings hub.
Homeseer is understood name among home automation enthusiasts so it’s no surprise they’ve added dimmer switches to their lineup (actually, they’re re-branded devices made by Dragon Tech). Unfortunately, my experience with the HomeSeer HS-WD100+ dimmer switch was lower than ideal. In actual fact, it was terrible. The swtich took multiple attempts to pair with my SmartThings hub. Once it did, it will no respond to on/off/dimming control. Eventually it did, but there were unacceptable delays. The paddle itself was very firm, and in addition did not respond well. I used to be surprised. After a fast Google search I learned that there’s a brand new firmware, and that SmartThings doesn’t really support the HomeSeer dimmer natively and that a custom device handler is required (i.e. custom code). No thanks. It was too much complexity. For enthusiasts and SmartThings gurus I think HomeSeer is a good option given its depth of customization. For the mainstream smart home buyer I’d avoid this one. Not recommended.
Lutron P-PKG1W-WH Caseta Dimmer Switch
Communication: RF radio (Clear Connect)
Platform: Lutron, HomeKit
Hub: Yes (a tiny bridge that requires ethernet connection)
Requires neutral wire: No (Lutron PD-5NE-WH with dimming favorite button does require it)
Price: $60 on Amazon
Pros: Classy design, exceptional radio performance and range, plenty of scene control options using Lutron app, compatible with SmartThings (with Lutron bridge) and Wink 2 (native support, no Lutron bridge needed), low cost Pico wireless remotes make it easy so as to add wall switches without an electrician.
Cons: Expensive, switch design uses buttons instead of a paddle which is probably not to everyone’s liking, frustratingly lights is not going to return to previous dim level (they go 100% when on button pressed) though there is a $99 version that has a favorite dim level button. Finicky LED compatibility selection.
If you’re able to spend a bit of more, Lutron is a very good option. You’ll find Lutron Caseta switches in loads of places including Lowe’s, Amazon and Best Buy. I’m especially fascinated about aesthetics so, to me, Lutron makes pretty stuff. It oozes quality. It’s just like the Ferrari of smart home lighting. Only, finally, they’ve come out with a system that the remainder of us can afford (unlike they’re high end, custom Ra system). In my tests, Lutron Caseta was flawless. Wiring and install are as expected. The Lutron app is well done. And, even better, you may also use Apple HomeKit which is an actual bonus for iPhone households. Voice integration is offered too via Siri. A couple of things to watch for: (1) the switch does not remember previous dim level so once you hit the on button the light goes to 100% (either that or it’s a must to manually hold the dimmer up button to realize desired level); and (2) Lutron Caseta is the pickiest system I’ve tested in terms of LED bulb compatibility. For example, a Philips LED bulb worked perfectly fine with an Insteon dimmer, but flickered like a David Lynch scene on Lutron. When planning out your system make sure to run the Lutron LED Bulb Compatibility Tool before realizing later you need to switch out a bunch of bulbs. Overall, the Lutron Caseta is an excellent choice. Build quality is first rate. Aside from a number of nits, lighting performance is exceptional. HomeKit compatibility is icing on the cake. Highly recommended.
Insteon SwitchLinc 2477D Remote Control Dimmer
Communication: RF radio and power line (dual-band)
Platform: Insteon only
Hub: Yes (a tiny bridge that requires ethernet connection)
Requires neutral wire: Yes
Price: $48 on Amazon
Pros: Looks like a normal light switch, elegant dim level status (white LED strip on left side), a lot of flexibility to adjust comparable to dim level default and ram rate, not as picky as Lutron when it comes to LED bulb compatibility.
Cons: Insteon is a closed system to your limited to their switches, dimmers and plug-in modules. Reliability has been a difficulty (but that appears to be a thing of the past).
As previously mentioned I’ve had over 10 years experience with Insteon. It’s been a rocky road to make certain, though lately the company seems to have sorted its quality control demons. Reliability is now mostly not a priority. Insteon is a hub based system, and it’s based on a mesh network that’s proprietary. Unlike SmartThings or HomeKit or Wink systems, you’re locked in. You can only buy and add Insteon devices. Something to remember. Still, I exploit a SmartThings hub (mostly for home security) side-by-side with Insteon and may have them talk to each other using Stringify (similar to IFTTT). Insteon’s app is not great. It gets the job done, but, man, are there some poor UI decisions. Regardless, you can get used to it, and it does work and you can setup scenes, and simple rules, and use it to see the status of all of your devices at a glance. The Insteon dimmer switch (2477D) is essentially the most feature rich of the lot. You can set a preset dim level (single tap set physical button at bottom of the switch), as well because the ramp rate (double tap). Devices could be related to one another. A double tap on top or bottom paddle with instantly turn light on or off, regardless of ramp rate. A simple white LED strip on left indicates dimming level and is will fit virtually any decor. Highly recommended.
Other Smart Dimmer Switches To consider
This round-up is merely the tip of the iceberg. It looks like everyday there’s a brand new product hitting the market. You may also want to think about:
WeMo Dimmer Wi-Fi Light Switch $70 (no hub required)
TP-Link Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch $40 (no hub required, value priced lineup)
iDevices Dimmer Switch $99 (no hub required, very expensive, but superb)
Koogeek Smart WiFi Light Switch for Apple HomeKit (no hub)
And, of course, you could always opt for smart bulbs instead, and all together forgo the concept of installing switches and hubs.
Highly Recommended: Lutron P-PKG1W-WH Caseta Dimmer Switch and Insteon SwitchLinc 2477D
Lutron P-PKG1W-WH Caseta Dimmer Switch $60
Insteon SwitchLinc 2477D $48
The 2 best smart home dimmer switches in the marketplace today for those who put a premium on fully featured and top quality products are made by Lutron and Insteon.
Lutron Caseta Dimmer Switch
Lutron has an impeccable reputation (just ask any home automation contractor). Reliable. Fast performance. Easy to use. All attributes I experienced in my testing of the superb Lutron Caseta wireless lighting system. It does bug me that, unlike their Maestro and RadioRA 2 systems, you can’t set a preset dimmer on level. That seems like a major oversight. I don’t think many people appreciate roomful of floods at 100% at night. The workaround is to either buy the $99 dimmer with a small, preset dimmer button in the middle (which makes accurately hitting it trickier) or manually ramp the dim up yourself each time (not convenient in any respect). Lutron should fix this issue. If this doesn’t bother you then Lutron is an excellent pick. Best of all, you recognize that Lutron will probably be around, and that investing in their system might be a sound long-term decision.
Insteon Switchlinc Dimmer Switch
Insteon makes the most effective overall smart home dimmer. Period. The 2477D does it all: preset dimming levels, double tap on/off, piggytail wires included for simple installation, elegant design, and relatively affordable (in comparison with its closest competitor, Lutron). Smart Home’s roots (the name behind the Insteon brand) in 80s and 90s home automation is evident. For better and worse. The hardware is nice. The software will not be. Yes, there are Insteon apps for both iOS and Android. But the Android one is so outdated it’s almost unusable. iPhone users can be okay though and can have the ability to setup the system, albeit not nearly at Apple-like standards of user interface design. So you’ve got a high performance dimmer hampered somewhat by poor software (though it has improved significantly over the past 3 years or so). However, once you sync Insteon devices to an Echo (Dot, Show or original Echo speaker) and see how effective and accurate voice recognition may be, you’ll likely forget all that. Alexa and Insteon is the most effective smart home combinations available today.
Both Lutron and Insteon are strong options. I do like the idea that Lutron is an even bigger company, and has more resources. Something to also keep in mind.
On a Budget: Leviton DZ6HD-1BZ Decora Smart Dimmer Switch
Leviton DZ6HD-1BZ Decora Smart Dimmer Switch $37
If you’d rather not make home automation a huge budget line item, consider the Leviton dimmers. I particularly like the Leviton DZ6HD-1BZ. It works well with hubs from Wink and SmartThings. The slightly loose paddle does bug me though. Try one out before committing. I’ve had great success with other Leviton Z-Wave products too, resembling their plug-in lamp dimmer. Relatively low cost and high performance. An amazing combination.
The Smart Home Market: Early Days
It’s early days. The smart home market is predicted to boom. Little question this article could look vastly different 18-24 months from now. By then, with its HomePod speaker (coming Q4 2017) and HomeKit, Apple will likely have gained significant traction. Amazon (with Echo) and Google (with Google Home) have just entered the market in the US and have already disrupted how we interact with our homes. Expect more to come.
The smart home future lookswell, it looks very bright.
Smart bulbs. Smart hubs. Smart switches.