Smart Lights, Smart Home 💡🏡

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


When we renovated our house in Seattle in 2010, I learned about home automation and the idea of a “smart” home. A renovation seemed like the perfect time to consider a system that would make the house “smart” and more automated. We ended up choosing a complex and powerful home automation system called Control4. It was state of the art and I completely geeked-out on all the things you could do. It was just what I wanted at the time.

That was 2010 and my perspective has changed. For our Orcas house, we are not using Control4 or anything like it. I’m still fascinated by home automation but today I have to consider living on an island along with all the new products that have since appeared.

The Reality of Island Living

Let’s start with living on an island. Unlike Seattle, Orcas Island doesn’t have large companies and teams of technicians that can drop by to fix something that breaks. A technician would have to spend most of a day traveling and taking the ferries to fix a problem in our house. For this reason, we’re opting for the most reliable systems and products we can find.

The best example is roller shades in our great room. In the summer, the sun shines directly into the room and shades will be required. In Seattle, we had electronic shades that were automated. They would roll up and down on a schedule of our choosing and it was pretty darn sexy. We considered using a similar system on Orcas, but came around to seeing a reliable alternative that’s been proven for thousands of years: a pulley. Instead of relying on an electric motor that could fail, I will pull a cord.

Controlling It All

The system we had in Seattle was complex because you could configure it in so many ways. We could program it so that unlocking the front door would automatically turn on lights, play specific music, open the shades, and more. Again, pretty sexy. But it also seemed fragile. Being a single system, a small problem could have a ripple effect that meant our TV might stop working. A technician seemed to arrive every year to fix something or update the system software.

There were things we loved about the system. For example, the lighting was programmable, so you could set up custom scenes that work with a push of a button. “Movie Time” was a scene where the lights would dim to 15% and light a path to the kitchen. We could also say “Alexa turn on the movie time scene” and it would work without buttons or phone apps at all. Because Control4 was connected to the internet, it knew the time of day. This meant we could program the lights to slowly turn on as the sun set or turn all lights off at a specific time.

One promise of these kinds of “smart” systems is efficiency. And it’s true, they save some energy and effort. But after having it for ten years, I don’t think that’s an important consideration. Switching to LED lights is an energy saver, but the savings from dimming and scheduling seem marginal to me.

More than anything, lighting control is a very convenient and pleasing feature to have. We like low, soft lighting and electronic dimmers make it simple to get it exactly right. Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to go back.

Smart Switches

To have the control we wanted, we needed to think about the switches. Unlike standard switches or dimmers that are mechanical, these have electronic dimmers and are connected to one another. Once you have a “smart” switch in place, it becomes controllable through an app or voice command. If you have multiple, you can control them together.

Again, for the new house, we had to consider the overall costs, including maintenance and upkeep. We realized that we didn’t need control of the lights for about half of the house. Like a pulley, we can flip a simple switch in the laundry room. But, we did want to control the lights in entertainment and living spaces like the great room and outdoor room.

In considering the options, we thought a lot about modularity and systems that can be removed, built-out, and reconfigured as needed. This way, we can get started with a set of switches, and always have the option to replace them ourselves. No ferry rides, no technicians. Thankfully, this is how most home automation is done today. Instead of one big system, there are now multiple systems that can talk to one another and be replaced more easily.

For the controllable dimmers (in-wall switches), we chose Lutron, which is a well-established company known for reliability. Their “Caseta” line is for consumers like us and is modular. With a set of Caseta dimmers in the house, we can set up scenes and control the lights with buttons, an app, or with voice. If we don’t like them, we can try another one. If we love them, we can add more. The non-Caseta switches will be Lutron Maestro which are electronic dimmers, but not “smart” switches.

image of smart switch
Lutron Caseta Smart Switch

The Ceiling Lights

In our county, new construction is required to have 80% high efficiency lighting. This means using mostly LED or CFL bulbs. Most of the lights in the house will be recessed into the ceiling, or what some call “can” lights. Because there are so many, I was concerned about getting them right, in part, because I care about lighting. Maybe too much.

ceiling lights
Kitchen Ceiling

The ceiling of our kitchen looks a little busy because there are so many lights. This is by design and relates to a lesson we learned about outdoor speakers. In Seattle, we had neighbors who we didn’t want to bother with music. I asked the guy who installed our automation system about a good strategy and he said that we could get better and more private sound by having more speakers at a lower volume. The same is true with lights. We find that having more lights at a dimmer setting leads to a nicer feel.

You have probably seen LED lighting that seems severe or piercing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but you can tell it’s too much of something. In recent years, LED technology has improved and they now look much more natural. You can get LEDs that are more white or warm and that’s measured on a “kelvin” scale. From what we learned, 3000 Kelvin is a good standard and one that we’re using. If you’d like to learn more about lighting terms, this is a helpful guide.

Part of the complexity in our situation is our ceiling. Some of it is sloped, some flat. Some covered in cedar, some in drywall. For this reason, we needed recessed lights that could handle all those situations, still look uniform, and work with our switches.

Many months back, we learned about a Canadian company called Lotus LED that seemed to offer everything we wanted. Their lights were solidly built and available with trims in black and white and options with gimbals, which means the lens can be pointed in different directions. The decision was made. LotusLED would be our standard.

lotus led light

The Lotus lights are interesting because they don’t have a removable bulb. Everything is built-in and they’ll last at least 50k hours and can last over 20 years. I will be just fine not thinking about that for a very long time.

On top of the system-wide decisions were the choices of fixtures for places like bathrooms, bedsides and hallways. The problem here is the sheer volume of choices. Sites like Lumens.com seem to have a never-ending selection. A lesson we learned was to pick out lights early and then wait for a sale. Often, you could sign up for their newsletter and save, too.

LED Strips

The final challenge was LED strip lighting and boy, was it a challenge. As a consumer, I find most lighting decisions to be a maze of features and terms that I don’t quite understand. This is certainly the case with what is mostly a very simple idea: LEDs on a thin strip of plastic.

LED strip

We love ambient light that reflects off of ceilings and walls. To get this effect, LED strips can be placed under cabinets and shelves or down hallways, for example. I won’t get into all the complexity, but I never imagined there could be so many possibilities. Part of the issue is that LED technology is moving so quickly that manufacturers can’t seem to communicate clearly about what’s possible and what works best for a given situation.

I was excited to find that we could use a “nano” strip in our hallway that’s hidden in the drywall via this little housing.

nano strip

Over the weekend, we got our first looks at the hallway, which is lit with these tiny LEDs. There is still some fine tuning needed, but I think it’s going to look great.

hallway with led lights

Of all the decision-making in this project, the lights were the most time consuming. The big lesson for me was learning to pick up the phone and call the number on the website. Most companies have experts ready to help and if not for these calls, I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do today.

Now, we wait. The electrical rough-in work is done and soon, all the lights will go in. Only then will we see the results of all these decisions. I, for one, anticipate the evening when we can finally experience the results of all the planning.


I Can Recommend…

Industry (HBO) – I wasn’t sure about this based on the first few episodes, but it grew on me. It’s edgy and pretty dark. Sex, drugs and young English bankers?

We Are the Champions (Netflix) – A show about the most accompished participants in fringe sports, like yo-yoing, cheese rolling, and dog dancing. Cheesy and fun. Rainn Wilson is the host.

Klaus (Netflix) – A new Christmas classic in my book. It establishes the origin story of Santa Claus in beautiful animation.

Rick Rubin Interviews Pharrell William (Broken Record – Podcast) I love the Broken Record podcast and this interview is awesome if you’re into Pharrell’s work. I was a huge fan of N.E.R.D. back in 2001 or so.

The Stepford Wives (You’re Wrong About – Podcast) A show where two entertaining journalists pick a subject from the past that has been misrepresented. This episode about the real-life Stepford Wives was fascinating.


Photo

This time of year is often foggy in the morning and I love it when the sun shines through the fog, like it did Monday morning.

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