Review: Belkin WeMo Light Switch
Belkin first entered the iOS home automation space last year with the WeMo Switch and WeMo Switch + Motion -- two accessories designed to provide very simple, plug-and-play solutions for controlling wall outlet-based lights and other small appliances. While the company originally planned to stick to a "no screwdriver" rule to guarantee ease of installation, it conceded early on that it might have to break the rule in response to customer demand for additional modules that would provide more complete solutions.
Belkin’s new WeMo Light Switch ($50) is the first result of that concession. Designed to replace an existing light switch, the module connects to a home Wi-Fi network, allowing users to remotely operate a house light from anywhere using the company’s free WeMo application. Made from metal and white plastic, it arrives in a package with four wire nuts, a faceplate, and instructions.
Unlike the prior accessories in the WeMo line, you’ll need to be comfortable with doing basic electrical work to install the WeMo Light Switch, or at least be willing to call an electrician if you aren’t. It’s also very important to note up front that the wiring in your light switch boxes must meet certain requirements or you won’t be able to install the switch at all. Chief among these is a required “neutral” wire running through the actual switch box; unlike traditional light switches, the WeMo Light Switch actually requires the neutral wire to continually power the Wi-Fi and other electronic components even when the switch is “off.” Note that this is not a unique requirement; common electronic switches such as motion sensors and many dimmers have similar requirements for exactly the same reason.
Belkin provides a list of the requirements, as well as a pair of how-to videos linked on its web site and within the WeMo iOS app, covering both the requirements and installation procedure. Notably, your switch box needs to be at least two inches deep, as the WeMo Light Switch is larger both in width and depth than a standard light switch. Depending on the wiring in your box, you may still find the WeMo to be a tight fit—in our case, wiring the switch took less than five minutes, but we spent another half-hour trying to make the switch fit flush with the wall. The included faceplate is designed to be flush-mounted, however the switch uses a standard rectangular faceplate, allowing you to easily supply your own. If you find that you can’t get it mounted deep enough into the wall, you can easily find an alternative, deeper-bezeled faceplate for under $5 at most hardware stores—it would have been nice for the company to include one of these as an option. Note that Belkin specifically recommends against using a metallic faceplate to avoid Wi-Fi signal interference.
Once connected to a power source, the WeMo Light Switch is set up in much the same way as the other WeMo outlet-based modules. The switch begins broadcasting its own temporary Wi-Fi network, which you connect to with your iOS device and the WeMo app; this detects the switch and initiates a setup assistant to identify your actual Wi-Fi network, give the switch a name, and apply any necessary firmware updates. Once this process completes, the switch joins your home Wi-Fi network and can be controlled by opening the app. The Light Switch appears with a distinct icon on the same screen as any other WeMo devices on your network, and can be toggled on or off simply by tapping. Alternately, the switch can be controlled simply by pressing on its face, which is a clickable flat surface rather than a two-position toggle. It provides a small white LED when off and a green power LED that lights up when switched on. A Wi-Fi status LED is also hidden behind the white face and shines through during initial setup/startup and in the event of a Wi-Fi network problem; you should never actually see this LED illuminate during normal operation.
In addition to manually turning lights on or off, the app lets users set a lighting schedule, or time light activities according to the local sunrise and sunset. If you have a Belkin WeMo Sensor on your network, you can also create rules that turn your switches on or off based on motion, or a lack of motion. You can also enable remote access to allow you to control any of your lights or rules over the Internet from anywhere in the world and enable IFTTT (If This, Then That) integration for further Internet-based customizable control.
Belkin’s WeMo Light Switch fills what most would consider to be a necessary gap in the company’s home automation solutions. While the company’s initial plan to create an easy “plug-and-play” set of home automation accessories was laudable, it seemed inevitable that the “no screwdriver” rule would need to be cast aside for the WeMo family to be taken seriously. While the WeMo Light Switch is not as simple to install as plugging it into an outlet, it’s not any more difficult than installing an electronic dimmer or motion sensor light switch, and the electrical wiring requirements are comparable to other electronic switches. Anybody with basic electrical experience will have little to no problem installing this, subject of course to the design of your home’s existing wiring. While we’d still like to see Belkin continue to expand the WeMo family with other options such as dimmers, the WeMo Light Switch is a welcome addition that shows that the company is serious about working to provide both complete and user-friendly solutions for home automation.