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Ethernet Based Smart Light Switches: A Good Idea?

If you’ve been into smart home technology or the Internet of Things for a while, odds are you’ve thought about being an early adopter for a new bit of tech. Being an early adopter is exciting. You get to try out a cutting edge technology before it gains widespread appeal, but it does have its drawbacks.

Ethernet smart light switches could, in theory, vastly improve both smart home infrastructure as well as a few other key aspects of IoT. These light switches connect into your smart home systems, but skip Wi-Fi connections in favor of a wired connection.

Ethernet based smart light switches can be a great idea as long as you are ready to be an early adopter. They can offer an upgrade to your security, the reliability of your internet connection, and they also offer some exciting new design potential. As with any early adopter situation, you can expect this to have more DIY elements than pre-packaged Wi-Fi solutions.

Why Say Goodbye to Wi-Fi?

Smart homes and IoT are supposed to be about convenience, right? If that’s the case, then why should you drop devices that use Wi-Fi in favor of switches with physical connections?

There are actually some pretty compelling reasons why you should consider the Ethernet route over having all of your devices connected over Wi-Fi.

My BT HomeHub internet WiFi router in my garage, with a flashing purple light meaning it can't connect to the internet.
My BT HomeHub internet WiFi
router in my garage.

Security

IoT and smart home technology opens up new security risks that need to be considered. The phrase “someone hacked into my fridge and now it’s sending me spam” would have made no sense a decade ago, but today this is a real concern.

Wi-Fi trades a little security vulnerability for convenience. You don’t need to be physically connected into the network, but neither do any malicious actors. Without getting into cyber security specifics like threat modeling, it’s worth pointing out that these additional devices on your Wi-Fi network create more risks for a security breach.

Cyber security might seem like it’s all about code and hackers, but really it’s all about people. In order to hack into a wired system, you need to physically connect into it. Your Wi-Fi can be hacked from anywhere, but your Ethernet system is safe and sound inside your home.

Whilst some smart device ‘hacks’ happen externally (i.e. based on login credentials being compromised and dumped on the internet), there are generally more attack vectors with a WiFi network than an Ethernet network.

Reliability

Wi-Fi uses radio signals to send information from one device to another. Yes, I said radio signals. Just like a walkie-talkie or a radio station, however your home Wi-Fi uses a different frequency (2.4 GHz or 5 GHz) so that these signals don’t overlap.

This signal has a limit to how much information it can carry. This is your bandwidth. If you have too much data going over your connection, your Wi-Fi experience will get worse. When there are too many devices connected into your home’s system, you can experience everything from temporary breaks in your connection to the internet to slower response time from more demanding services like gaming and movies.

Using Ethernet connections for switches and other smart home devices can help you save space on your Wi-Fi bandwidth.

Ease of Use and Design Potential

YouTube thumbnail image showing me showing me holding a router and an Ethernet cable.
YouTube thumbnail image showing me showing me holding a router and an Ethernet cable.

Here’s the really compelling reason to ditch Wi-Fi for wired: it just works better!

Well, maybe not just yet, but the potential is there. Ethernet switches are an emerging technology that haven’t quite gotten their footing in the market yet. Options are definitely out there for dedicated smart home users who want to make a serious upgrade, but it does require a little more work than those Wi-Fi enabled smart lights you can buy at the hardware store.

The biggest barrier here is the conditions in which our homes were built. Many of us live in buildings that predate the internet let alone IoT and smart home devices. They were built with electrical connections in mind, not Ethernet connections. However, just like having a coax wall plate installed for a cable TV connection, you can have an electrician install Ethernet ports throughout your home.

This has the potential to change how we approach the smart home as a concept. Right now most smart home technology comes down to, essentially, having a bunch of devices on your walls, but it could be so much more.

Ethernet switches are a small part in a future that has homes that are, down to their very design, smart.

The Return of the Ethernet Cable

A Netgear network switch installed on a piece of wood in a loft, with three ethernet cables going in and one power cable (for the switch) in the back.
A Netgear network switch installed in my loft.

In a time when Apple’s iPhone has ditched the all-important headphone jack, it’s hard to believe people are heading back to physical connections. Is it possible we lost a little too much when we moved everything over to wireless radio frequencies?

Wi-Fi is a great technology and there’s no doubt about that. Ethernet certainly has its limitations and trade-offs, but what if we put these two technologies together?

The return of the Ethernet connection for smart home users can offer us the potential of a fully integrated smart home experience. Built right into the walls. If only we can catch up to the technology, have a good availability of products, and have the relevant home infrastructure (such as network switches and network points in the walls) required to utilize this tech.

Are There Any Ethernet Based Smart Light Switches On the Market?

Ethernet connections are still pretty rare when it comes to smart home technology. There are a few options for people looking to explore how they can make the most of this technology. If you have been looking to be on the ground floor of Ethernet light switches, here’s where you start.

UniFi

UniFi is an IT company that specializes in solutions and products for all kinds of IT products including home automation.

They make a variety of lighting and lighting switch products that use Ethernet to connect to lights as well as controllers. Their Ethernet light switches are designed to be connected to their smart lights and can be controlled via their UniFi LED App and UniFi LED Controller.

This can be a great place to start for Ethernet based light switches. The UniFi system is designed to work with other UniFi technologies which might limit how it can be utilized. This tech also comes with a hefty price tag if you want the full system.

CBus

CBus is another IT company that designs products for a variety of audiences. They have some smart switch products that are very interesting for our needs. They have switches that operate by using CAT5 cables. These are the same cables that we use for Ethernet connections. However, instead of using them to connect your CBus switches to the internet, they are designed to connect into the CBus system.

This limits your options, but if you want wired solutions and are willing to have a full CBus system, this can be a good alternative.

DIY

When in doubt, you can do it yourself.

There are DIY options for people who are dead set on having Ethernet switches for their smart lights. There are many plans for Ethernet light switches online (a Raspberry Pi usually comes with Ethernet ports, but you can buy extra circuity or adapters to get Power over Ethernet support too). All of these solutions work, but might not have the finished look you imagine when you think of smart home tech.

That’s an easy fix. A little 3D printing or woodworking and you can make attractive housings for these switches.

The world of smart home tech has often been defined by the people who are willing to innovate and use the DIY spirit to shape future tech. Light switches are going to be no exception to this rule.

Before you either run off and start ordering Power over Ethernet smart switches or return to the tried and true Wi-Fi connections, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a wired connection.

The Pros of Going Wired

Let’s get connected.

We already did a rundown of why people might want to cut down on their Wi-Fi reliance, but what about Ethernet specifically. Are there any advantages to this technology?

The first place to start is speed. Ethernet connections are just plain faster. I know, I can hear you asking about Wi-Fi 6. This new standard of Wi-Fi looks faster than Ethernet on paper, but that number is deceiving.

The speed of Ethernet has to do with the consistency of the connection. It’s a lot harder to interfere with Ethernet connections than wireless ones. This means that fans of smart home tech stand to get faster response times, more reliable connections, and lower the burden on their Wi-Fi bandwidth all in one upgrade.

These are three takeaways if you are looking to talk yourself into taking the plunge into Ethernet switches:

  • You will be able to streamline your smart switches instead of having all of those devices stuck to your walls with 3M tape
  • Physical connections are always the safer choice for smart homes from a cyber security standpoint
  • Ethernet switches are part of the smart home ecosystem that are a little more advanced than out of the box solutions, and can help you achieve a truly smart home rather than just a home with smart technology in it

The Cons of Physical Connections

As with all things in life, there are trade-offs with being an early adopter of the new and unproven. There are a few downsides to consider when it comes to wired smart light switches. One of the biggest hurdles to Ethernet light switches is going to come from an unlikely place.

Your cable jacks, light switches, and outlets all connect into what electricians call “gang boxes.” Regulations are in place that prevent these boxes from being overstuffed with too many components which can cause electrical shorts or even a fire. Common practice follows these rules and generally keeps communication and power in different boxes.

This could be a roadblock to Ethernet-based solutions that require external power at the switch. Thankfully, many existing Ethernet switches use Power over Ethernet which may allow you to dodge this problem altogether.

Here are a few other quick considerations for people thinking about using Ethernet light switches:

  • Your smart home lighting will now be split over two systems that may, or may not, talk with each other.
  • This tech is less common which means both a higher price tag as well as less community support.
  • Physical wiring requires physical infrastructure that you might not be able to add. This is especially true for renters. After all, who wants to run CAT5/CAT6 cable into their walls – something which is ultimately a messy and destructive job:
Running CAT7 cable into my drywall after chasing it out
Running CAT7 cable into my drywall after chasing it out

Also be sure to check out section 725-54 (a)(1) – exception number 2 – of the NEC guidelines which specifically discuss having LV (low voltage) and HV (high voltage) cables in the same box. It seems like you should be fine to run Ethernet cables into a light switch, but you must take the necessary steps to ensure this is safely done.

Why there’s so few Ethernet smart light switches

As some of the benefits above demonstrate, Ethernet is a pretty robust way of networking your devices around the house – especially compared to WiFi. However, there are communication protocols that are specifically designed for home automation and hence they typically work better for smart homes:

  • Zigbee: a radio-wave based technology that works over 2.4 GHz (like WiFi), but with end-to-end encryption and networking meshing built in from the start. This means that Zigbee is a fast, secure and robust network for smart homes. It’s used within Philips Hue and similar smart lighting systems.
  • Z-wave: this is another radio-wave based technology, but it works over 908.42 MHz in America. Z-wave also has a network mesh and uses encryption, and this is used for smart alarms, sensors, switches and a whole load more.
  • KNX: if wired connections are important to you, KNX is basically the standard you want to check out (compared to Ethernet). Whilst there are far more wireless smart devices, many wired smart devices use KNX – especially since it supports up to 57,375 devices, much more than a typical WiFi router!

1 thought on “Ethernet Based Smart Light Switches: A Good Idea?”

  1. Another problem with using the pre-existing switch gang box is that there is rarely a neutral available there, if you need power and not PoE. Thanks for the article.

    Reply

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