Updated: August 28, 2019
How to Wire & Install a Smart Light Switch
Turning your run-of-the-mill house into a smart home can be a process with many elements to consider. You can start with determining your Wi-Fi network capabilities and your willingness to work with electrical wiring devices. One of the most beginner-friendly ways to update your home's automation capabilities is to install a smart light switch or two. Smart light switches let you dip your toes in the water and see how much impact home automation can have, without making a significant time or cash investment.
With this comprehensive smart light switch installation guide, we'll get you started with everything you need to know about this simple yet effective upgrade.
What Is a Smart Light Switch?
A smart switch is a home automation device that connects to your home network for remote controllability. Home automation devices can use Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, or other wireless communication for transmitting and receiving. What is a Wi-Fi light switch? It is a home automation device that uses Wi-Fi signals to communicate between the device (i.e. smart switch) and the controller (i.e. a smartphone). Some smart switches are even capable of controlling ceiling fans and fireplaces, but the most common ones you'll see are for lighting control. A smart dimmer switch lets you adjust the brightness of lights from an app on your phone and even set custom schedules so lights come on when you need them and turn off when you don't.
Today's best smart light switches go a step further and even work via verbal command thanks to compatibility with home automation systems and apps. Be sure to double-check that the switches you select have the connection capabilities you're looking for before you purchase.
Smart Switches vs. Smart Bulbs and Plugs
You've probably already done a bit of research on the different ways you can introduce smart automation to your lighting and other appliances, but it helps to understand where smart switches fall in the spectrum of ease, cost, capabilities, and permanence.
Smart bulbs are a good way to test out the concept of smart lighting. The bulbs themselves have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth tech that allows the bulbs to communicate with your phone or tablet without having to set up a hub. You can simply screw a smart bulb into a lamp or other lighting fixture, download and configure an app, then start controlling it with your phone. The downside to smart bulbs is that they are extremely expensive to implement throughout your whole house, and even one well-lit room can put a serious dent in your budget.
Smart plugs are the cheapest way to experiment if you're not sure home automation is for you. These plugs go right into your standard electrical outlet and provide you with remote controllability of the appliance that you plug into that outlet. Their main disadvantages are that they stick out of the wall in ways that can be inconvenient or unattractive, you need one for every device you want to remotely control, and they might not provide the amount of power your appliance may need.
While smart switches take a little more effort to install, they keep outlets available and can control more than one bulb. When installing dimmers or smart dimmers, avoid CFL bulbs as they are not compatible with a lot of dimmers even though the bulbs say "dimmable." Smart light switches fall in the middle of the cost range, being less expensive than a fleet of individual bulbs and a bit pricier than smart plugs.
How to Install a Smart Light Switch
Installing a smart light switch is something even a total novice can do with some caution and the right tools. If you're already a DIY enthusiast, the installation should be quick and simple. We've brought all the steps together in this easy smart light switch installation guide, so you can get to work upgrading your home's IQ.
Before you get started, turn off the power to the switch you're going to work on. Once you confirm power is off, check the wiring in the electrical wall box where you want to replace the switch.
Home automation devices require a neutral wire. To find out if you have a neutral wire to work with, you need to take the light switch out of the wall box and look inside for a neutral wire. NOT ALL WHITE WIRES ARE NEUTRAL. When you take the existing switch out of the wall box, there should be two terminals on the switch. Those are the HOT and LOAD wires connected there. You need to look inside the wall box for wires that are capped off and hidden in the back of the box — not the ground wires.
If you do not have a neutral wire, you cannot install the smart switch — or you’ll need to hire an electrician to get a neutral wire added. Another solution is to install a smart Wi-Fi relay switch.
What You'll Need to Get Started
The list of tools and materials you may need to install a smart switch:
- Phillips head screwdriver
- Flathead screwdriver
- Voltage tester (contact or non-contact)
- Smart light switch
- Wire nuts
- Wire stripper
- Electrical tape (optional)
- Flashlight (as needed)
- Small box or plastic bag (optional)
Several of these tools are optional. You don't necessarily need a flashlight if you're working in an open area during the daytime. The electrical tape is for labeling wires, so you can skip it or use another labeling method that works for you. Some smart switches will need wire connectors, but most have wire terminals. A wire stripper is only necessary if your wires are a little frayed or in bad shape. It also helps to have a box or bag to put the old switch components in when you're finished.
If you're going for the simplest installation possible, you really only need the first five items on the list.
Steps to Install a Smart Light Switch
With all your tools together, you can get started on the actual process of installing the smart switch. Before you do anything, take the time to read all the packaging and information included with your smart switch. If you're a beginner, consider reading over these steps a few times before you start on your project to make things go more smoothly.
1. Expose Your Current Wiring
Again, the very first thing you should do is turn the power off at the breaker panel. The last thing you want is to get electrocuted performing a simple DIY upgrade. If your breaker box is poorly labeled or strangely organized, you may want to take a little time to clearly label each circuit breaker. It will make this project easier and may come in handy for future situations when you need to turn the power on or off.
Once you know the power is off, expose the wires behind the switch by first unscrewing the wall plate. Be prepared to employ a little extra elbow grease here, as paint often causes the screws to stick. After that, remove the screws on the light switch itself and gently pull it out of the wall.
A good smart light switch installation tip is to check your wall boxes before you get started to ensure you have enough room for the new smart switch. Smart light switches have more electronics packed into them and are bigger than their standard counterparts.
2. Identify the Neutral Wires
If your home was built before the 1980s, chances are you won't have neutral wires in the wall box. There are a few smart light switches that don't require neutral wires, but they are cost-prohibitive and harder to come across. They also usually require their own bridge.
In newer homes, the neutral wires are usually white wires that are capped together and tucked into the back of the wall box without connecting to anything. Most single-pole switches will have two black wires connected to the switch — one will serve as the "hot" wire, bringing power to the switch, and the other is the "load" wire, sending power out to the light. Green or bare copper are ground wires.
Why do smart switches need a neutral wire? Because smart switches need to operate digitally/electronically. A smart switch needs to constantly communicate with the hub, controller, or server to receive the next command. Standard switches are just mechanical switches that are manually operated to complete (turn on) or interrupt (turn off) a circuit.
To identify the wires, you will need to work with live wires. You will also need to keep the existing switch hanging out of the wall box. Be extremely careful not to touch any exposed wires or terminals.
- Turn the power back on at the circuit breaker.
- Turn the light switch off.
- Use the voltage tester to find the HOT wire that is attached to the existing switch.
- Carefully mark the hot wire with a piece of tape. The other attached wire is the load wire.
- Turn the power off at the circuit breaker.
3. Record and Disconnect
Before you remove the old light switch completely, take a photo of the wiring setup in case you want to go back to the old switch. For even better organization, consider labeling each wire with colored electrical tape or sticky notes so there's no chance of confusion. From there, you can carefully remove the old switch and dispose of it or stow it away for later use. Make sure to keep all the corresponding screws.
Straighten the ends of the wires with your pliers to make connecting to the new smart switch easier. If the wires are in bad shape, use the wire stripper to cut them and strip them back again to get better connections.
4. Connect the New Switch
Now you're ready to install the new switch. Depending on the connection type of your new switch, there are four ways you may need to connect the switch:
- Lead Wires (pre-wired switches): Use wire nuts to connect the appropriate wires together. This method has the most occurrences of faulty wiring.
- Side Wired: Hook the wires to the terminals and tighten terminal screws.
- Back Wired: Insert the wires through the terminal holes in the back. This method is limited to the size of your wires, usually 14AWG only.
- Clamp Wiring: Insert the wires through the terminal holes in the back and tighten the terminal screws to tighten the clamps onto the wires. Wiring through the back is the most effective method, and how TOPGREENER smart dimmers, switches, and receptacles should be installed.
A good rule of thumb is to treat all wires as if they're live, so first connect the ground wire, then neutral wire, then load, and lastly hot. Remember: The hot wire is the wire that was marked with tape in earlier steps. Be sure to tighten all wire nuts or terminal screws firmly and give each wire a tug test as you connect them.
5. Test and Secure
At this point, you can test your connections before putting everything back into the wall box. Turn on the power at the breaker and verify that the switch is receiving power. If it's not, that means something went wrong and you'll need to re-check each connection. Turn the power off at the breaker and make sure the neutral connection is indeed neutral. Make sure the load and hot connections are not reversed, as this is a very common mistake.
If the switch is getting power as expected, turn the power back off and finish installing the switch.
You may be tempted to shove the wires into the box, but care and precision are important here. Being too forceful can loosen the connections, and an overcrowded box can be a fire hazard. Carefully fit the wires into the wall box, then mount the switch onto the wall box.
Once the wires are securely inside the box, turn the power back on and make sure all your connections are still intact. If the switch is working, snap the wall plate on and move on to the next step.
6. Integrate Applications
From here, it's just a matter of connecting your new smart light switch to your home network.
You'll need to download the corresponding app to do this. The app will prompt you to add a device and possibly to name it, and most will request a confirmation of the addition. The TOPGREENER app, for example, has you press the bottom paddle of the switch in a certain sequence until the LED light blinks three times.
Once your switches are added, you'll sign into your Wi-Fi network. Once you do this, you can directly control your lights from your phone or another device with the app installed.
The Benefits of Installing a Smart Light Switch
Now that you know how simple it can be to install a smart light switch, you might wonder what benefits are in home automation. Here are a few great things about home automation — besides looking cool and high-tech in front of everybody.
1. Helpful with Your Hands Full
Voice-activated lights aren't just a gimmick. You can probably recall several situations where you could have used a verbal command to turn your lights on or off. If you've ever stumbled over the threshold at night with bags of groceries in each hand, you could use a smart light switch.
Or, maybe you're an avid reader who understands just how annoying it is to have to get up and turn the light off before drifting off to sleep. Tired parents might love the ability to enforce "lights out" from several rooms away. Someone with a broken leg could turn the light on at night without having to drag themselves out of bed. The convenience is impossible to deny.
2. Different Lighting at a Moment's Notice
Most people have experienced the searing irritation of turning on a light that's way too bright. With smart light switches, you can ease the strain on your eyes by slowly bringing up the lights. You'd be surprised how much of an effect lighting has on your mood. Bright lights at night can disrupt your sleep cycle, so being able to bring the lights down to a healthier level can actually improve your sleep.
And, of course, sometimes you just get so comfortable or lost in an activity that you can't imagine moving for something as trivial as dimming or raising the lights. Whether you're about to enjoy a romantic dinner or are cuddled up with the family on the couch for movie night, there are some moments you just don't want to interrupt. In moments like that, voice activation really shows its worth.
Not every smart light switch comes with dimming capabilities, but the extra customization may be worth the slightly elevated cost if you care about light quality.
3. A Head Start on Automation
One of the most convenient advantages of smart light switches is the ability to put your home's lighting on a schedule so you'd barely even have to touch your app, let alone hit a switch. Picture this:
After a hard day's work, you pull into your driveway and the garage lights are already on. You open the entry door only to see your warm living room lights at the perfect brightness, waiting for you to relax and put your feet up. Automating your lights is just one small way automation can make your home more attuned to your needs.
Light automation is also fantastic for people who go out of town frequently because your lights can be set to come on at specific intervals. If you're worried about leaving your home obviously unoccupied for any length of time, it takes a matter of seconds to set your lights to come on for an hour or two in the middle of the night or some other chosen timeframe.
Features of Smart Light Switches
It can be difficult to decide which features and functionality will cover all your needs when you're looking for the right smart light switch. Here are a few things you should consider when shopping.
1. Safety and Compliance
There are plenty of knock-off smart switches without proper certifications or with false claims of certifications. These non-compliant devices can cause damage or pose a fire hazard to your home, and it's not always easy to tell them apart from legitimate products. Make sure the smart switch you choose is compliant with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Intertek (ETL). You can verify the certification by entering the devices' model numbers in UL's or ETL's online search database.
Lighting control and electrical devices are not things you want to skimp on safety with, so buy from a trusted source like TOPGREENER and do your research before you buy. Implementing smart home devices can take a lot of time and money, so it's best to invest your time in due diligence now.
2. Tech Compatibility
Consider device compatibility when choosing smart switches. To get the best out of your automation system, make sure the switch you choose is compatible with your current system or the system you're considering. Due to the competitiveness of many tech giants today, it is often difficult to find a company with a home automation product line that is compatible across all platforms.
Therefore, you should decide what your final goal is. Do you prefer to use a particular app? Platform? Hub? Or, is your end goal to have more devices like switches, dimmers, plugs, USB ports, relays, sensors, and other home controls working with each other within one app?
If your choice is to have more devices that work without having to download an app for each product you buy, then TOPGREENER is for you. One app can control all your devices. TOPGREENER has the most complete line of products — from switches to plugs to scene controllers — and we continue to put out some really cool and innovative products to stay on top of the home automation world.
When making your shopping list, remember to determine if you need a 3-way switch kit or even 4-way control. If you want to control your smart switch manually from different locations, like turning a stairway light on and off from the top and bottom of the stairs, select a switch or kit with this capability.
3. Hub Necessity
Some smart switches require a hub or gateway to work. Z-Wave smart switches, for example, need one of several compatible hubs to function. Z-Wave devices connect to each other in a mesh network, rather than each device connecting to the central Wi-Fi hub, which can offer greater connectivity and less chance of interference. However, if you are not looking to add more automated devices, you may not want to shell out the extra cash for the hub in addition to the switches.
Wi-Fi smart light switches offer less advanced interconnectivity, but they are a little less expensive and make an ideal beginning point for those who aren't looking to connect everything but the kitchen sink.
A Smart Start to Home Automation
Smart wall light switch installation might be the perfect way to ease into the concept of home automation. Or, it might turn out to be a launchpad for a fully automated home. Once you start enjoying the benefits of hands-free light control and power management, you may want to explore other ways to make your home work better for you and your family while also saving energy!
TOPGREENER is a top source for home automation controls that solve your power management problems and deliver quality and efficiency. With both Wi-Fi and Z-Wave solutions available, you can fully customize your ability to remotely monitor and control your home.
If you have questions about how TOPGREENER can help turn your house into a smart home easily, give us a call at (844) 390-2568 or send us an email. Our friendly and professional customer service representatives are prepared to answer your questions and help get your smart home improvements off to the right start.