Light Nerdery: Evolving Solutions At Homes

Of all topics, I find myself surprised that I can be considered a bit of a lights nerd. Sure, not as much as Technology Connections, but then again, who is nerdier than him on this? The lightbulb moment (see what I’m doing?) was while I was preparing to write the post that is now going to be in the future, and realized that a lot of what I was about to write needed some references about my experiments with early LED lighting, and what do you know? I wrote about it in 2008! And after all, it was a post about new mirror lights that nearly ended up the last post ever of mine, being posted just a few hours before my trip to the ICU for the pancreatitis.

Basically this is going to be a “context post” or “setup post”: it likely won’t have a call to action, but it will go into explaining the details of why I made certain tradeoffs, and maybe, if you’re interested in making similar changes to your home, it can give you a bit of an idea as well.

To set the scene up, let me describe the three locations that I’ll be describing light setups in. The first is my mother’s house in Venice mainland, which is an ’80s built semi-detached on two floors. The second is the flat in London, when my now wife moved in. And the third one is the current flat we moved into together. You may notice a hole in this setup: Dublin. Despite having lived there for longer than in London, I don’t have anything to talk about when it comes to light setup, or even in general about home; looking back, it sounds like I have actually spent my time in Dublin taking it nearly as a temporary hotel room, and spent very little time in “making it mine”.

A House Of Horrible Wiring

In that 2008 post I linked above, I complained how the first LED lights I bought and set up in my bedroom would keep glowing, albeit much dimmed, when turned off. Thanks to the post and discussions had with a number of people with more clue than me at the time, I did eventually find the reason: like in many other places throughout the house, deviators were used to allow turning the light on and off in different places. In the particular case of my bedroom, a switch by the door was paired with another on a cord, to be left by the bed. But instead of interrupting the live of the mains, they were interrupting the neutral which meant that, turning the light “off” still allowed enough current to go through between live and ground that the LEDs would stay on.

This turned out to be a much, much bigger deal than just a simple matter of LED lights staying on. Interrupting the neutral is not up to regulation: you may still have phase and get shocked if touching the inside of the lampholder, even with the switch turned off, but most importantly, it looks like it causes a number of CFLs electronics to be “stressed”, with their lifespan being seriously shortened by that. This was actually something that we have noticed and complained for many years, but never realised it was connected.

Eventually, I fixed the wiring in my bedroom (and removed the deviator I didn’t quite need), but I also found another wiring disaster. The stairwell at my mother’s had two light points, one on the landing, and one on the top of the stairs, and they were controlled together by switches at the top and bottom of the staircase. As expected, these interrupted the neutral, but most importantly, each position was wired into the live of the floor it was closest to, ignoring the separation of the circuits and passing through a phase even when turning the circuit of. And that explained why no bulb ever lasted more than a year for those.

Unfortunately, fixing the deviators there turned out to be pretty much impossible, due to the way the wiring conducts were set down inside the walls. So instead, I had to make do with separating the two lights, which was not great, but was acceptable while I was still living with my mother: I would turn on the light upstairs for her (I was usually upstairs working) and she would not need the light downstairs. But I had to come up with a solution after I prepared to leave.

The first solution to this was adding a PIR (Passive Infra Red) movement sensor at the bottom of the stairs to turn on the light on the landing. That meant that just taking the first step of the stairs would illuminate enough of the staircase that you could make your way up, and then the timer would turn it off. This worked well enough for a while, to the point that even our cat learned to use it (you could observe her taking a step, wait for the light, then run all the way upstairs).

Then, when I was visiting a couple of years back, I noticed that something wasn’t quite working right with the sensor, so I instead ordered a Philips Hue lightbulb, one of those with BLE in addition to ZigBee, so that it wouldn’t require a bridge. At that point my mother could turn the light on and off with her phone, so that the sensor wasn’t needed anymore (and I removed it from the circuit).

This worked much better for her, but she complained earlier this year that she kept forgetting to turn off the light before she would get to bed, and then she’d have to go back to the staircase as her phone couldn’t reach the light otherwise. What would be a minor inconvenience for me and many of the people reading this, for my mother was a major annoyance, as she starts getting old, so I solved it by getting her a Hue Bridge and a couple of Smart Buttons: the bridge alone meant that her phone didn’t need to reach the light (the bridge would be reachable over WiFi), but the buttons restored a semblance of normality about turning the light on and off as she used to before I re-wired the lights.

This is something that Alec from Technology Connections pointed out on Twitter some time ago: smart lights are, at the very least, a way to address bad placement of lights and switches. Indeed, over ten years later, my mother now has normal-acting staircase lights that do not burn out every six months. Thank you, Internet of Things!

While we won’t be visiting my mother any time soon, due to the current pandemic and the fact she has not been called in for the vaccine yet, once we do I’ll also be replacing the lightbulbs in my bedroom. My office there is now mostly storage, sadly but we have been staying in my old bedroom that still has the same lights I wrote about in 2008. A testament to them lasting much longer now that the wiring is right, given that for the most part I don’t remember spending more than a few months without needing to replace a lightbulb somewhere, when I was living there.

The 2008 lights I chose to keep the light to a minimum before going to bed, which I still think is a good idea, but they do make it hard to clean and sort things out. Back then I was toying with the idea of building a controller to turn on only part of the lights, but nowadays the available answer is to just use smart lights and configure them with separate scenes for bedtime and cleantime. And buttons and apps mean that there is no need anymore for having a separate bedside lamp, for the most part.

Sharing A Flat Planned For One

When I moved to London, i went looking for an apartment that, as I suggested to the relocation aide, would be “soulless” — I had heard all of the jokes about real estate agents defining flats falling apart as having “characters” or big design issues considered “the soul of the building”, so I wanted to make clear I was looking mostly for a modern flat, and something that I would be able to just tweak to my own liking.

I also was looking for an apartment that was meant to be mine, with no plan on sharing. Then I met my (now) wife, and that plan needed some adjustments. One of the things that became obvious early on was that the bedroom lights were not really handy. Like pretty much all of the apartments I lived in outside of Italy, that one had GU-10 spotlight holders scattered throughout the ceiling, and a single switch for them by the door. This worked okay for me alone, as I would just turn the light off and then lay on the bed, but it becomes an awkward dance of elbows when you share a fairly cozy mattress.

So early on I decided to get an IKEA Not floorlamp, and a smart light. I settled for the LIFX Mini, because it supported colours (and I thought it would be cool), didn’t need a bridge, and also worked without Internet connection over the local network. The only fault in my plan was to have gotten a Not with two arms at first, which meant we have a few times turned the wrong light off, until I Sugru’d away the main switch on the cable.

I said “at first” there, because we then realised that this type of light is great not only in the bedroom but also in the living room. When watching TV keeping the light on would be annoying (the spots were very bright), but turning it entirely off would be tiring for the eyes. So we got a second Not lamp, and a second LIFX bulb, and reshuffled them a bit so that the two-arms one moved to the living room, as there the additional spotlight is sometimes useful).

This worked very nicely for the most part, to the point that I considered whether my home office could use some of that. This was back in the beforetimes, where the office (i.e. the second bedroom) would mostly be used to play games in the evening, by my wife when not using the laptop, or in the rare times I would be working from home (Google wouldn’t approve). That meant that in many cases having the full light would also be annoying, and in other cases having very dim light would also not work well. In particular, for a while, I was keeping company to my wife while she played by reading, and I would have wanted light on the side of my seat, but not as much on her side.

Since the office only had four spots, we decided to buy four LIFX GU-10 lights. I’m not linking to those because the price seems to have gone off the charts and they now cost more than twice what we paid for them! These are full-fledged LIFX bulbs, with WiFi and the whole colour range. Lovely devices, but also fairly bulky and I’ll get back to that later on.

Overall, this type of selective smart lighting helped significantly with the enjoyment of the flat, by reducing the small annoyances that would be presenting on a regular basis, like navigating the bedroom in the dark, or having the light too bright to watch TV. So we were looking towards replicating that after moving.

No Plan Survives Contact With The New Flat

When we moved to the new flat we knew that a number of things would have had to be changed. For instance, the new office had six rather than four spots, and the rooms layout meant that some of the choice of where to put the lamps would be not as good as we had previously.

Things got even a little more complicated than that: the LIFX GU-10 bulbs are significantly bigger than your average GU-10 spots, so they didn’t actually fit at all in the receptacle that this flat used! That meant that we couldn’t get them in, even if we decided to only keep four out of the six.

It’s in this situation that we decided to bite the bullet and order a Philips Hue Bridge for our flat, together with six White Ambiance spots: these spots are the same size as normal GU-10 spots, and do not have issues with fitting in the receptacle, so they could be used in the new office. While there is a model supporting colour changes as well as white temperature balance, in the office we never really used colour lighting enough to justify the difference in price (though we did and still do rely on the colour temperature selection).

Once you have a bridge, adding more lights becomes cheaper than buying a standalone light, too. So we also added a “reading light” to the bedroom, which is mostly for me to use if I can’t sleep and I don’t want to wake up my wife.

Another thing we would have liked to do was to replace the clicky switch for the ensuite with a soft/smart button. The reason for that was twofold: the first is that it took us months to get used to the placement of the switch in this flat, the second is that the switch is so damn noisy when clicking that it kept waking the other up when one of us went to use the toilet overnight. Unfortunately changing the switch appears not trivial: with our landlord permission we checked the switch connection, and it is not wired with the correct L/N positions or colours, and I could see a phase on three out of the four positions.

Instead, when we could confirm that the switch did not control the extraction fan, we decided to put on three Hue spots in the bathroom, this time not the temperature controlled once, but just the dimmer ones. And at that point, we could keep a single one at 1% overnight, and not need to turn anything on or off when using the restroom during the night: it gets very dim, so you don’t wake up, but you can still see plenty to use the toilet and wash your hands. This by the way was an idea that came to me after watching some of BigClive videos: the very low level light makes for a good light to have overnight to avoid waking youself up.

To explain just how useful this setup ended up being for us, the ensuite has three spots: one is pretty much in the shower box, the other two are by the door and in the middle. Overnight, we only leave the shower spot running at 1%, with the other two being off. If we need more light, for instance to brush our teeth, or for me to get my insulin, we have an “on” scene in which all three spots are at around 30%. When we’re taking a shower, we only turn on the shower spot to 100%. And when we’re cleaning the bathroom, we set all three to 100%. At maximum light, the new bulbs are brighter than the old ones were; in the “on” scene we use, they are much less bright, because we don’t really need that much light on all the time.

We also have ordered more spots, this time from IKEA, that sells an even cheaper model, although with not as good low-light performance. We could do this because I’ve recently replaced the Hue Bridge for a ZigBee stick on our Home Assistant, and I’ll go into more details about that in a future post. At the time I’m writing this the spots have not arrived yet, but we decided that, now that we’re more likely going to be going out again (we both got our first dose of vaccine, and soon to receive the second), it makes sense to have a bit more control of the light on the entrance.

In particular, the way the entrance is currently set up, we turn on six spots all the time in the T-shaped hallway. When coming back during the day, only one spot would be necessary, to take off shoes and put down keys, the rest of the flat is very bright and does not need illumination. And similarly when just going back and forth during the evening, only the two or three spots illuminating the top of the T would be needed, while the ones at the door are just waste. Again smart lights in this case are helpful to shape inflexible wiring.

Conclusion

I wrote before that I get annoyed at those who think IoT is a waste of time. You can find the IoT naming inane, you can find the whole idea of “smart” lights ridiculous, but however you label it, the ability to spread the control of lightbulbs further than the origin wiring intended is a quality of life improvement.

Indeed, in the case of my mother’s house, it’s likely that the way we’ll solve the remaining problems with wiring will be by replacing most switches with smart lights and floorlamps.

And while I have personally some questions about keeping the “off” lightbulbs connected to something, a quick back of the envelope calculation I did some months ago shows that even just the optimisation of being able to automate turning on and off lights based on presence, or the ability to run the light most of the time at lower power, can easily reduce the yearly energy usage considerably (although not quite to the level that buying all new bulbs would save you money, if you already have LED lights).

So once again, and probably not for the last time, I want to tip off my hat to Home Assistant, Electrolama, and all the other FLOSS projects that work with the wishes of people, rather than against them, to empower them to have smart home technologies they can control.

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