PSA: Why Smart Plugs Are Often Pointless (Electric vs Mechanical Switches) – New Video

The marketing of smart plugs is great: easily control your household appliances and devices from anywhere in the world, or even via smart routines and schedules. Simple. However if you look at the “fine print” of many smart plugs, they say that they only work with mechanical switches. Many devices have electric (not mechanical) switches, making smart plugs pointless.

Hence this video explores everything you need to know about this topic:

The timestamps are:

  • 0:00 Intro
  • 0:57 Example of smart plugs being pointless
  • 1:35 Devices without any switch
  • 2:12 Mechanical switches
  • 2:58 Electrical switches
  • 3:47 How to solve this
  • 4:47 Wrapping up

Video Transcript

Hello, I’m Tristan from Smart Home Point. Smart plugs are one of the better selling smart home products, alongside things like smart speakers. The idea of them is great – you can easily turn your household appliances on and off from anywhere in the world, or set up timers and automation routines to do this smartly.

But within the slightly grandiose marketing of them, many smart plugs fail to mention one simple fact: that they are often fairly pointless. I wonder why they don’t mention that! You even have to scroll down quite a long way to find mention of this with the Amazon Smart Plug: if you keep scrolling, then half way down the page, amongst lots of pretty marketing pictures, there is a single text-only sentence saying that they only work with appliances that have a mechanical switch.

Which is a little bit annoying! In other words…

Right, let’s make myself a lovely cup of coffee by turning on my smart plug. Click. Oh, it’s on but nothing’s happened. C’mon, work! Oh wait, you need to turn it on there and then do that. Oh, this smart plug’s pointless.

Oh fine, let me just make myself a cup of tea instead with my kettle. Let’s turn it on. It’s on… what’s it… c’mon, come on. Oh, you have to clip that, don’t you?!

Right, so when buying a smart plug for an appliance, there are three types of appliances and switches to consider: firstly, some appliances don’t have any switch at all. Once plugged into a wall socket, they are permanently on. This actually includes TVs which therefore often have a standby mode to save power, and these standby modes are often incompatible with smart plugs.

After all, if you switch power to the TV on with a smart plug… it’ll just be stuck in standby mode. You instead need to use an IR blaster device to make this work smartly – smart plugs simply aren’t useful for this type of electronic item.

Ignoring that case completely, the other two types of appliances and switches to consider are (1)mechanical and (2)electric switches. In other words, some devices – such as lamps – have a mechanical switch that physically controls power to the device, and these ARE compatible with smart plugs. This is what the Amazon Smart Plug sales page says, and they offer a further bit of advice too:

“To check if your device is compatible, turn on the device and unplug the power cord from the outlet. Then plug it back in. If the device is on and works, it’s compatible with the Amazon Smart Plug.”

So what about the other type of switch – electric switches? Well, these are used in many kitchen appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers, along with computers, laptops, most coffee makers, and loads more. These switches do not usually control the actual flow of electricity to the device – they sometimes just alter the state of the device, often driven by microcontrollers. Theory aside, what this means is that even if you turn power on to such a device with a smart plug, you need to then click the electric switch before it’ll ACTUALLY come on. Which again means that smart plugs aren’t that useful.

And since most devices actually have an electric (not mechanical) switch, smart plugs are often pointless. So… is there any solution to this problem? Well, you have two real options: firstly, you could go to a stop and just buy a different appliance – get one that comes with a mechanical switch, and then this CAN be controlled with a smart plug. Alternatively, you could explore something which is known as SwitchBot – which are really useful devices that clip onto a device, and this can be used to smartly press the electric switch.

These could be used alongside smart plugs – allowing you to turn the power on with a smart plug, and THEN press the electric switch with SwitchBot. However SwitchBot can have automated schedules too, meaning that you could just use SwitchBot INSTEAD of a smart plug. It really depends on how you want to control your devices.

The one downside of SwitchBot is that the initial purchase price will be closer to $70 when including the SwitchBot Hub, so this option works out more expensive than a simple smart plug.

Still, if your device has an electric switch, you don’t have much choice – and SwitchBot might be a simple, smart solution to your problem.

Thanks for watching this video, I hope you found it useful. If you did, please click the things up button and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

About Tristan Perry

Tristan Perry is a software developer who is passionate about tech gadgets, DIY and housing. He has therefore loved seeing smart homes hit the mainstream. Tristan also has an academic background (in Math & Computer Science), and so he enjoys digging into the technical ways that smart home devices work.

Tristan owns close to a dozen Amazon Echo devices, way too many Philips Hue bulbs and lightstrips, a boat-load of Ring Cameras and Doorbells... and a bunch of other smart home devices too (from Reolink, Google Nest, GLEDOPTO and others).

If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions about this article, please leave a comment below. Please note that all comments go into a moderation queue (to prevent blog spam). Your comment will be manually reviewed and approved by Tristan in less than a week. Thanks!

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