Why wifi?

When you browse Amazon for “smart outlet” or “smart switch” you’ll find a myriad of options that say “No hub required” or “Works with Alexa”. For the most part, these switches connect to your home’s wifi during set up and then respond to commands sent over wifi via the proprietary app from the manufacturer. TP-Link  switches are a common example of this and they are controlled by TP-Link’s Kasa app. Belkin’s Wemo switches and plugs are another common example. Recently, Amazon released an extremely low cost, self-branded line of smart switches that often go on sale. Leviton makes an extremely reliable and high quality switch as well.

These wifi components are certainly worth considering. They work well and are very reasonably priced. They integrate easily with Alexa and Google Home. Many, including the TP-Link, will work without an internet connection if your phone is on the same wifi network as the switch.

However, there are a number of downsides to be aware of before jumping in with both feet.

While consumer-grade routers and wifi access points have steadily increased in quality over the last decade, there are still practical limits on how many devices they can handle simultaneously. Think of your wifi network as a large room in which you are hosting a party. If a few guests ask the bartender for drinks at the same time, he can probably handle those requests easily. Now picture 40 - 50 guests shouting their orders from all over the room simultaneously. Not only will many guests' orders get drowned out by a nearby shouting guest, but the poor bartender has to hear, remember, understand, and make each drink order! And the one jerk that ordered that 71 ingredient drink will tie up the bartender for hours! The analogy, while far from technically perfect, can help us understand why adding an additional 10 - 50 devices on top of the multitude of phones, computers, tablet and TVs already on the average home wifi network  can cause degradation for all the users of the network. And when you are trying to stream 4k video from Netflix while the kids are playing Fortnite and your iPad is downloading updates, that wifi will struggle even harder to keep up.

Another consideration when deciding if wifi switches are for you is the proliferation of different brands. If you start out with Kasa switches and then see a great deal on Wemo plugs, expect to control each of those from its own app. Alexa and Google Home can provide voice control for both of them which levels the playing fields a little bit but expect to be installing and dealing with a separate app for each brand of switch you introduce.

That's a lot of apps needed to control a few lights!

And finally, choosing wifi devices limits the type of automation you can do. There aren’t any portable, battery-operated motion sensors that you can use to as triggers for lights because wifi radios require a lot of electricity; more than can practically be provided by a small battery. The lack of sensors means you’re limited to using timed events to automate them turning on and off, they can behave like a standard timer. While this is certainly useful, it is definitely limiting.

Wifi devices are perfect if all you need are a few switches or plugs and want to control them via a voice assistant, phone or timers. If you want more (and I know you do!) let’s keep looking!

PS I don’t want it to seem like I am naysaying all wifi devices. As I mentioned earlier, most homes have multiple system types in play. Wifi is one of those systems; we’ll see how it best fits in when we talk about cameras, doorbells and thermostats.

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