Yet another little corner of the web

Random thoughts and experience, committed to electrons

A Matter of Hue

For just over the last month my family and I have been living in a house where the owner has bought quite extensively into the Philips Hue ecosystem. Every room is fitted with one or more Hue bulbs or fitted light units, with LED strips and PIRs (motion detectors) used in a number of locations. I have been allowed to adapt the setup to meet our requirements and to have a bit of a play. As a result I’ve had the opportunity to gain an insight into life with Hue but without the substantial investment that would come from deploying such an extensive setup. I wish to share some of my thoughts and experiences for those considering this path into home automation.

The good bits

There are a number of things I really like about the system.

For the most part, setup seems fairly simple: - Plug in a base station and connect to your home network - Load the Hue app on your phone (or I assume tablet) - The bulbs have a unique code, so these can be put in a powered light fitting and the unique code used to find them in the app - The light switches and PIRs have a setup button on the back, this allows them to be discovered through the app. I believe removing the battery tab for the first time also results in them being in the correct state to be discovered. - Bulbs and the accessories can be given meaningful names, added to rooms (to allow multiple bulbs, etc. to be controlled together easily) and actions assigned based on switch/PIR generated events.

The switches (at least the ones I’ve used, in combination with the lights that are fitted) allow for dimming via dedicated buttons. The “on” button cycles through a 5 slot cycle when pressed as well, which allows a number of presents to be configured, including “previous state”. For me this has been fairly useful to define a set of preset light levels, to set subdued lighting when watching films etc. As this can be used to control all the lights in a space, nice lighting effects can be achieve from multiple lights (main light, maybe some corner uplighters and some LED back lighting) quite easily. The PIRs can also be configured to behave differently at different times of the day and night, this is useful to provide low light levels automatically at night. It’s nice be able to enter rooms without fumbling for a light switch in the dark (or needing to cross a darkened room to get to a light switch) and as the system can be configured to turn the lights off after a period of in activity also means the lights don’t get left on where used.

I like the was the switches magnetically attach to a backing plate. This means you no longer need to leave your bed to turn off the light switch, as long as you think ahead and take the switch with you. That said, this is not something we’ve actually found we’ve been using in practice.

Bad bits

Whilst I’ve been impressed by the bulbs in some ways, as I’ve got used to the system a bit more there are a number of things that I’m not so keen on.

This is very much a consumer focused system broadly allowing people to add the home automation without requiring and real electrical skills. The Hue switches are required in addition to the existing light switches, which results in a bit of a mess of switches, with Hue switches mounted on the wall long side the original light switches. Care must also be taken not to switch off the existing light switches, the bulbs only work if they have power…

The very consumer oriented nature means that things look like they’d be hard fully integrate and hide. For example the power lead on the LED strips appears to be permanently attached to the control module and is a fixed length with a moulded plug for use with a wall plug power supply. I’d like to be able to wire it in a bit more permanently and not use power sockets in the room.

I’m not really sold on the colour changing aspect of the lights, I’ve only really felt the need to use this to change the warmth of light. I note that some of the lights limit the colour changing to just this and there appears to be bulbs that don’t offer colour changing. If I was looking to implement this myself, I’d probably use those as they appear to be a but cheaper.

It seems that in a larger property you’ll need more than 1 hub. The app can only link to one hub at a time making it cumbersome to control the lighting from a phone, needing to switch to being connected to the correct hub before being able to control some of the lights.

I have found the simple 5 action loop/state machine used in the switches results in slightly cumbersome actions. All 5 slots seem to need to be filled, you can’t have 4 or less states in a loop without redundant states or more than 5 states. You can add the “previous state” option to avoid needing to provide more states, or set the same state more than once, but this still results in needing to press the button more times to get back to earlier states than ideal. Minimally they could do with a “skip” option in addition to the “previous state” option so that smaller state loops could be setup, or enable number of states to be configurable.

The PIRs, as always, also have limitations. Lights might turn off automatically if your out of range/sight but still in the room or just not moving a lot (such as when watching TV) and I’ve not found a way to override the PIR using the switch. Not having an ideal place to site the PIR can also be a problem, leading to room lights not reliably turning on when walking into it or turning on when walking past the room if the door is open.

The interaction between a PIR and a manual switch isn’t great in other ways either: - PIR set to turn the light on low. - Switch set to turn light to previous level as first state. - On entering the room the PIR turns light on low. - Pressing the switch results in the light remaining in a low state.

This is because by default the first state on the switch is “previous state” (which we’ve generally found useful when using the switches), thus requiring multiple presses to step past this state and actually change the light level.

Conclusion

I feel that gaining a better understanding of the Hue ecosystem has been a valuable experience for me, though it’s not a solution that I’m going to be buying into myself at this point.

It has given me an appreciation for dimming bulbs that I’ve not had before and this is something that I’ll be keen to integrate into whatever home automation I setup next. The redundancy in light switches is definitely deal breaker for me - I want a solution that’s a bit better integrated. The cost of the bulbs is also a deal breaker, they are multiple times the cost of a standard dimmable LED bulb and I’d prefer a solution that didn’t put so much of the smarts in one of the most consumable elements. In our previous house I experimented with installing Sonoff Mini units for home automation (reflashed with ESPHome), whilst I can see that these are much limited in their functionality, the level of integration into the home wiring, whilst not something that everyone will be comfortable with, is something that I’m looking for.

21 Mar 2021 #home automation