Age of Incompatibility: Fixing Smart Home Tech

There’s always more work to be done in an 1895 house: a light in the closet that doesn’t work quite right, a piece of trim that has come off a door frame, or an awkwardly placed light switch that must be eliminated for ergonomic reasons and because, well, it’s just time to get rid of it! In the most recent project, I ran into an unusual issue– but one that has become a much bigger problem in the past couple of years, and promises to become an even bigger one- involving the relative mutual incompatibility of Fancy Electronics. In this case, it doesn’t even involve an Amazon Echo. It involves a simple Lutron dimmer switch and a five-light ceiling-mount fixture. The two have just not been getting along. It’s a good opportunity to think about how standardization is really vital to making consumer economics work better, and how several years of Washington spending its time engaged in culture wars and vilifying homosexuals might have been better spent on other pursuits. Like making technology and the commerce thereof work better. Crazy idea, I know.

Smart Home, Dumb Home

For years, I resisted the smart home craze. I would attend conferences about urban planning where “Smart City” seemed to be, as an erstwhile mentor of mine used to say, the cat’s ass. Beyond the fact that the term is just about as meaningless as “Big Data” or “Urban Innovation,” smart home technology is one of those things that, for years, seemed like just an obnoxious and unnecessary feature to me. Why would I want a lightbulb I can talk to? I like not having to talk to my lightbulbs. I talk to enough people on a daily basis that I don’t need to talk to an amalgam of silicon and wires! Leave me be, robots!

But I finally caved in the summer of 2018, when I got a pretty stellar package deal buying a new Samsung S9 bundled with two Alexa products and some smart plugs from Samsung. (This was before they were doing crazy stuff like selling the Echo Dot for $14.99). I was honestly pretty impressed with the audio quality of especially the Echo, although the Echos Spot and Dot are also respectable for how tiny they are. Alexa, for her part, is a fickle mistress. She doesn’t seem to understand basic language. As someone who’s spent a bit of time studying natural language processing at a basic level– and who spends a lot of time thinking about language and signals and what not- I remain pretty floored at just how rudimentary the features of this damn machine are. I am unsurprised that the business unit is falling apart, because I have no clue what these engineers are doing all day if they’re not making the NLP stuff work a little bit better than its current abject state.

That’s a story for another day, perhaps. But this, in no small part, rationalized my longtime refusal to participate in the Smart Home techno-millieu.

An old lightswitch and an incandescent lightbulb. (art by Noah Balanda)

Most of our house is dumb home, but for the few smart home features, I have to concede that there are some nice features. I am able to use an app to control certain lights, which is nice if we want to, say, save ourselves a trip across a large room, or what have you. I’m frequently covered in dogs on the couch, so this can be quite useful. I’m also extremely lazy. I also built smart-plug-controlled lights into some new bookshelves in our bedroom. It’s fun! And, for the most part, it works. I’ve used Gosund (yet another bafflingly-named Chinese company), Amazon (all hail the Bezos), and a few other products, and they’re really not that bad.

Another selling point for the tech is that, in an 1895 house that was fully rewired before the era of consumer electronics (we have a preponderance of asbestos-jacketed wire and probably 80% of the Romex in the house came from our own installation, but no knob-and-tube), Smart Home tech means you have to spend less time worrying about cantankerous, exorbitant electricians– say, to rewire a setup completely in a room- and you use the power of the Internet. There are obviously some problems with this, like the fact that our Google mesh wifi absolutely blows. Or that sometimes we lose power when the wind blows the wrong way. So, it’s obviously not a perfect thing.

Once, when installing light fixtures, one of my tradesmen, who had never seen an LED light in its disassembled state, excitedly exclaimed, “there wasn’t no bulbs in there! It was just computer chips!”

Enter the Dimmer And Its Problems

When I picked up a fancypants Lutron dimmer switch, I figured that, well, it isn’t even a proper smart home technology. It’s just a dimmer, right? What could go wrong?

Apparently, quite a bit!

After we installed the new dimmer in our dining room, the lights would sometimes turn on. Sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they would dim, and other times they would brightly flash– always three times- before fading to black. Suffice it to say, this wasn’t what I had expected, to I called Lutron. The tech instructed me on how I could reset the light switch. (What? You can reset a light switch?! There is a little tab at the bottom that you pull out and you hold the button down for several seconds!). This worked once, but the problem persisted.

We carried on.

“Do you have any incandescent light bulbs you could try in the fixture?” the tech asked. I felt rather like I had just been asked to fax a form to someone. “My brother in Christ,” I wanted to say, “we are living in the year of our lord two thousand twenty-two. The age of the incandescent lightbulb is long gone. Nor do I have a fax machine, sir!” Real talk. I have a set of brand new, Phillips, dimmable LED bulbs. It’s not exactly Brand X. These weren’t one of my AliExpress finds (where they’ll instead sell you a Phalaps Hoe Samrt Bulb [sic] because the platform ostensibly cracks down on “real” fakes. God bless Chinese capitalism!).

Not All Dimmers Are Created Equal

The tech explained some bulbs– even bulbs labeled “dimmable” or “dimmer compatible”- may not work with the switch. With the caveat that I’m not an electrical engineer and will therefore apologize for screwing up this explanation: LEDs are not simply a matter of opening the floodgates of electricity and turning the thing on. They have to be controlled by a thing called a driver. Once, when installing light fixtures, one of my tradesmen, who had never seen an LED light in its disassembled state, excitedly exclaimed, “there wasn’t no bulbs in there! It was just computer chips!”

Nor are, of course, all bulbs!

And so it is! Just computer chips. I mean, kinda. Incandescent bulbs rely on the principle of heating up a little tiny spring-shaped filament until it gets, well, glowing white hot. Seriously– the little tiny dealy inside a regular old lightbulb gets thousands of degrees hot. The light bulb itself gets way hotter than an LED, but because it’s only a tiny area getting heated, it dissipates. It’s kinda like how a furnace burns natty gas at a couple thousand degrees, but the air comes out of the floor registers at more like 100-120°F.

In contrast, LEDs rely on running current through a semiconductor to produce a magical phenomenon called electroluminescence. Don’t ask me how it works. In contrast to the incandescent bulb, LEDs have a driver, which is at least vaguely analogous to a fluorescent light’s ballast. The signals that the computer chips our gentleman saw in the light fixture on Detroit’s westside are the things that control things like the quality and quantity of the electricity being delivered to the semiconductor that produces the light. It’s similarly analogous to an electric circuit receiving ones and zeros from a controller and outputting letters onto a screen, as opposed to a simpler setup of, say, a switch turning on and supplying beaucoup electricity into, say, a heating element. One is about signal processing, the other one is about, well, a switch being thrown.

But sometimes, LEDs don’t work right with certain controllers or switches.

Changing Light Tech

This was a much bigger deal in the earlier days of LEDs. When LEDs were new enough, dimmer switches were either designed for a standard line voltage lighting circuit or for an LED one. For a residential switch, this was usually something like 120v * 600W maximum output for a regular old circuit. Do the math and that’s a meager four or five powerful lightbulbs, or six regular old 60W. (So pervasive is the legacy of the incandescent bulb that we still refer to bulbs by their incandescent equivalencies).

An LED circuit that is working on the same wattage can run 50-70 bulbs, in comparison. Imagine the dimmer switch as a sort of sluice gate that has to run a water wheel. The larger the wheel, the more water you need (incandescent). A smaller wheel would require less water (LED), but opening the gates the whole way– you can see how this might not work. LEDs are near the top of the curve of luminous efficacy (luminous output per watt) as far as the cheap technology we have today, but they’re nowhere near the theoretical maximum luminous efficacy. So, it’s highly likely that in the next 20-30 years, we’ll see LEDs displaced by, I don’t know, spacebulbs, or something, that use virtually no power. “1 watt, 60-watt equivalent!” the packaging might well say, for the boomers of 2050 (aka me).

Would I buy another Lutron switch? I don’t know. I mean, I did, for our next project– because it’s something I have greater assurance will actually work. What I wouldn’t do, however, is buy an off-brand dimmer. They’re cheap, yes. But there’s far less guarantee of compatibility.

The Bigger-Lightbulb Moment: Fixing It At A Policy Level

Suffice it to say, I did get a replacement switch, but it led me to thinking about some better options for how we can avoid this kind of problem in the future. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Simple, uniform, technical standards for LEDs and their controllers. These can be developed at a federal level through the exciting world of policy and technical working groups. They can probably even be voluntary (to a point), but there’s really no disadvantage of making these things mandatory: At an incremental level per marginal unit manufactured, the cost would be pennies or less. The reason why a Philips Hue light strip might be $80 instead of the $10 from AliExpress is not just because of the better standards of manufacturing. It’s because Philips actually employs people to work in areas like government relations or technical standards. That’s worth it to an extent, but if we’re really interested in equalizing market dynamics– since not everyone can afford $80 for a light strip- maybe we could have better standards.
  • Legible information for consumers. I’m okay at basic math. Amps times volts equals watts. Simple enough, right? Yes! Until you get into transformers and power supplies. Most LED strip lights refer to “watts per foot” and refer to a specific voltage (usually 12V, sometimes 24V). There are variable-voltage power supplies. But it’s often not as simple as a specific number. What if you have a setup where you want to chain multiple things together? Maybe your power supply doesn’t support that. Maybe the power supply and the driver are all-in-one! There’s no good system of information to make this stuff easy to understand. There should be, and it wouldn’t be complicated: You’ve got your watts, your amps, and your volts. That’s three variables. Because the power supply plugged into the wall can draw a variable amount of power (a fixed number of volts, say, 110VAC, and a maximum of 10-15A, which, times 110VAC, is like a hundred thousand miles of LED strips).

Fortunately for consumers, there are already frameworks for making smart home tech work better because of how well-developed the technical discourse is around API integration. These frameworks just haven’t trickled down to the basic level of lightbulbs. It’s a problem that reflects, as in the realm of energy efficiency, that the sexiest solutions get more attention than the least-sexy solutions. It’s why we are prioritizing heat pump retrofits over insulation retrofits. Or why people will spend $250 on a smart thermostat to save 10% on their bill, but won’t air seal gaps in the building envelope. I told the guy from Lutron that I’d certainly throw my hat in the ring to manage a workgroup to solve this problem, and he said he’d pass it up the chain. I’m not holding my breath, of course.

But I’m at least glad that they were able to work with me to try and resolve the issue. I’ll update as soon as I figure out the damn LED controllers, too! That… hasn’t been going as well. Tell us all about your experience with Smart Home tech!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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