A Finishing Touch for the Home Theater – WeMo Remote Light Switches

Barring an audio equipment upgrade that I have planned for the future, my home theater construction project was completed last year. However, I never really felt that it was finished, and small but lingering issues have continued to annoy me. I finally resolved one of those over the weekend with the long overdue installation of Belkin WeMo remote light switches.

This may seem like a minor gripe, but I’d grown increasingly irritated over the past year about having to get out of my chair and walk to the back of the room to turn the lights in my home theater on or off. I’ve wanted to remotely control my lights from my seat for a long time, but most of the home automation solutions I’ve looked at were far too complex and expensive for my needs. I don’t need my lighting put on a timer or tied to the control of anything else in my home theater. All I wanted was an inexpensive and easy to install DIY solution that would allow me to turn my lights on or off with the push of a button – preferably from my Android smartphone.

Enter WeMo.

While WeMo is certainly not the only product of its kind on the market, its support for Android devices, the ability to connect multiple switches together in the same room, and its relatively affordable price (currently slightly over $40 per switch on Amazon) made it the most appealing for me.

Prior to this, I had a standard gang-plate of four switches just inside the entrance to my room. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take any photos of this installation project until I was halfway through it, but here’s an old picture where you can see the switches in the distance:

WeMo - Old Light Switches

And here they are after I uninstalled all four switches and the plate. You get the idea.

WeMo - Old Light Switches Uninstalled

WeMo - Old Light Switches Uninstalled

Step 1: Cut the Power

Don’t be an idiot and get yourself electrocuted. Whenever attempting any sort of electrical home improvement project, shut off the power to the affected wiring at the circuit breaker. This is not optional.

WeMo Installation - Circuit Breaker

Of course, a consequence of this is that I lost all the lights in the room. Because this is a light-controlled home theater with no windows, I had to run an extension cord from another room and bring in a work lamp on a stand. Not a big deal, but a little annoying.

Step 2: Wiring and Installation

Getting the old light switches uninstalled is pretty straightforward, so long as you keep track of which wire goes where and don’t let them get mixed up.

The WeMo switches come with a very simplistic set of installation instructions. Basically, each switch has four wires (one ground, one neutral, and two live/load) that need to be connected to your electrical service using plastic wire nuts. The instructions cover this entirely in two illustrations.

WeMo Instructions 1

WeMo Instructions 2

No big deal, right? Well, if I were only installing a single switch, I probably could have had this project wrapped up in ten minutes. Unfortunately, things get more complex when connecting a plate of four switches. First off is the obvious fact that you’ve now got a lot of wires to sort out. This was especially difficult when it came to the neutrals, which were previously wrapped in a bundle of five (one for each switch and one going out). I needed to add four more to that, which just plain wasn’t practical. What I had to do was create two separate bundles connected with a jumper between them. This isn’t at all covered in the instructions, but my father-in-law gave me some good advice to help me through it.

WeMo Installation - Wiring

Even more problematic is that the switches themselves are much larger than the old flippy-type. Combined with all the extra wires and wire nuts, I had a very hard time cramming everything into the box. My first couple of attempts were dismal failures. I had to disconnect everything, lay out each wire, then connect and install the switches one at a time, carefully stuffing as many wires as I could behind each one. It’s a very tight fit in there, but I eventually got all the switches in.

WeMo Installation - Switches without Gangplate

Each WeMo switch comes with a single faceplate. That didn’t work for my needs, so I had to purchase a separate four-switch gang-plate. Fortunately, the WeMo switches are a standardized size designed to fit any rocker-style plate.

WeMo - Installed Switches

Voila! The hard part is done.

Step 3: Setting It Up

All that’s left is to turn the things on. To do that, you first must install the free WeMo app from the Apple or Google Play Stores onto your smartphone or tablet.

WeMo App Icon

WeMo works using WiFi, so the switches need to be in range of a strong WiFi signal. Assuming you remember your network password (or have it saved somewhere), the setup process only has a few simple steps. With multiple switches, figuring out which new WiFi signal equates to which switch will involve some trial and error, but once you get it figured out, you can name each switch individually in the app.

WeMo App

Step 4: Profit?

After all that effort, do the WeMo switches actually work as promised? Yes… mostly.

Honestly, my initial impression was that the WeMo app was frustratingly glitchy. I’ve had the switches installed for a couple of days now, and the app lost the WiFi signal and refused to connect to an individual switch enough times to be annoying. It would also sometimes flip a switch on its own a few seconds after I’ve taken an action (turning a light off right after I’d just turned it on, or vice versa). Typically, this can be resolved by going into the phone’s Settings menu and Force Stopping the WeMo app, then launching it again, which will re-establish the WiFi link, but that’s a real nuisance. There’s no “Off” or “Close” command for the app short of doing a Force Stop from the phone’s Settings.

Exiting to the phone menu doesn’t turn off the app; it just closes the display. I believe this was an intentional design decision to keep the WiFi connected so that the app is always aware of the on/off state of each switch. However, in practice, the constant use of WiFi will needlessly drain your battery. I’m not sure if it times out eventually, or only turns off when you leave the room beyond the WiFi range of the switches.

After first setting up the switches, the app prompted me to do firmware updates on all of them. I put this off initially, but finally agreed to it a day later. Once begun, a message came up stating that the update should take about 10 minutes, but that same message was still there saying “10 minutes” a good two hours later. Once again, a Force Stop seemed to fix the problem. I believe that the switches themselves actually got the updates, and it was only the app that was stuck. The switches work now and I haven’t been prompted to do any more firmware changes.

The jury is still out as to whether the firmware update fixed some of the WiFi glitchiness. At this particular moment as I’m writing this, everything seems to be working well. My fingers are crossed that I don’t have any more problems.

However, even if I do, these issues were relatively minor nuisances. The WeMo remote light switches serve their purpose and overall I’m very happy to be able to control my home theater lights without leaving my chair.

[Buy WeMo at Amazon.]

Update 2/27/16: See my Comments below this post regarding three of the switches inexplicably dying on me a couple months after the 1 year warranty expired. With this experience, I can no longer recommend this product.

11 comments

  1. Have you considered one of those wi-fi boosters, or does your main wi-fi source come from your theater? Are those switches dimmable or just on/off? Love the little Zyber twins pics. Assuming that’s them.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      My WiFi router is in the home theater room about five feet away from the switches. They seem to be behaving better since the firmware update, so I hope that fixed the problem. The switches are not dimmers, just on/off.

  2. William Henley

    So the state of the switches is kept in the app, not the switch? That’s odd, what if Mrs. Z wanted the app on her phone as well?

    Can you manually turn the switches on or off, say if your phone was dead?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The switches can be turned on or off manually. The current state is kept in the switch itself, which is one reason they need to use WiFi rather than IR, RF or Bluetooth from a normal remote. The phone app communicates with the switch to determine its current state.

      So if I turn off the lights from my seat, and then my wife enters the room and turns on the lights manually, the app will update to indicate that the lights are now on.

      If Mrs. Z installs the app on her phone and sets it up to communicate with the same switches, her app will update when mine does.

  3. NJScorpio

    This is a cool idea, and totally my sort of project, but I’d find it unnecessary in my home theater.

    Sure, I black out the room for movies/games, but what I typically do is first turn on my projector. The splash screen option I have is just bright blue, which creates enough ambient light in the room for people to move around and get to their seats (after shutting the lights). Then, when I’m done using the projector, I get up and turn on the lights…then turn off the projector. If I was going to do something that needed light, I have a small light near my favorite seat (to read a poorly laid out remote, etc). But generally, turning on and off my lights hasn’t been that big of a deal.

    But, I totally get how cool it would be to have my ceiling can lights to be on a remote. Actually, I’d rather have them connected to a light sensor, so that when the projector kicks on, they gradually dim like a movie theater till they are off.

    • William Henley

      Yeah, same here, I have a table lamp right next to my couch, so its unnecessary, but I plan to move next year, so something like this sounds interesting.

      I would also like the idea of moterizing curtains over windows and stuff (no basements in Texas), but then you are probably looking at going with a Creston system,
      http://www.crestron.com/markets/home_theater_and_whole_house_home_automation/

      and that is probably going to cost way more than I want to spend. $40 on a light switch though sounds tempting. It can be annoying to get all settled down to watch a movie, turn off the table lamp and…. DARN, left the light on in the kitchen, and its glairing on the screen.

  4. mak99

    Josh – congrats on the latest addition to your awesome home theatre! Be warned – it’s just part of the eternal tweaking that you’ll be doing until the end of time… Trust me, you are not alone… 🙂

    My two comments:
    #1: Get a screwdriver and align all those screws on your wall plate! It’ll instantly look 100x better if they are all perfectly vertical. You’ve put hundreds of hours into the entire room to make it look fantastic, so don’t ignore the tiniest of details…
    #2: If available, switch those on-off WeMo switches for dimmers. Nothing like pressing the button on your remote/phone and have the lights gradually fade off when the main feature begins. I have a Lutron Maestro IR dimmer in my media room (controlled via Harmony 1100’s RF blaster) and have it programmed this way. For a few extra $$, I think you’d enjoy the dimming capabilities.

  5. Seth

    Can I assume you didn’t have a 3-way switch in the mix to deal with? I was hoping to control my front porch lights, but I have a 3 way switch downstream of the wemo that no longer receives power unless the Wemo switch is on. I really wanted this to work, but wife is not happy that porch lights must be on to operate hall light.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      It’s funny that you would find this post now. I’ve had the WeMo switches for one year and two months. They were working fine until one suddenly and inexplicably died on me last weekend. Then a second switch did the same thing the very next day. They won’t respond to WiFi. They don’t even work when I try to manually turn them on. I wasn’t able to turn the lights on in my room at all until I unwired them and swapped the two still-working switches into the slots for my critical lights.

      Belkin support gave me instructions for how to reset the switches, but that did nothing. Two are still dead. Of course, the warranty expired after one year. So now I have to buy and install two new switches.

      I’m pretty annoyed with the product right now.

      To answer your question, no I don’t have any 3-watch switches.

  6. EM

    Back in college my high-tech audio system was a CD/audiocassette boombox my parents got me for Christmas freshman year. (My first CD player!) It was pretty sweet, but my lazy butt did tire of having to actually get up from my dorm-room bed to work the controls, for that merry music machine neither came with a remote nor was built to work with one. But that didn’t stop me. I engineered the most reliable remote control I have ever had. It was a wooden stick with a rubber foot, both of which I bought at the local True Value hardware store. My solution worked wonders…I got so that I could work that remote with my eyes closed. And I never had to change the batteries!

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