One of the benefits of smart plugs that I’ve recommended a few times is the ability to turn the internet (i.e. your WiFi router) on and off via the smart plug. This can be particularly useful for enforcing an hour of “no internet”, or having a “dinner’s ready” routine that announces that food is ready, and then turns the internet off…!
But one of the obvious concerns of this approach is: if the WiFi router is off, how can a WiFi smart plug turn it back on again? After all, smart plugs usually say that they need WiFi to work! This actually has an interesting answer, but the gist is…
Some WiFi smart plugs (such as TP-Link Kasa) store “on/off” schedules on the device itself, so they work even if the internet is off. ZigBee and Z-wave smart plugs work the same way. But you’ll still limited in what you can do when the internet is off.
Why you might want to use a smart plug to turn the internet off
Hooking a smart plug up to your internet router (i.e. plugging a smart plug into the wall socket, and then plugging the router into the smart plug) might not seem too sensible, but it actually has a range of possible uses and benefits:
- Setting out a “no screentime” rule, and backing this up by disabling the internet. Yes smartphones have mobile internet data too, but turning the general WiFi off will usually help a lot for setting out such a rule.
This can easily be achieved by using timers (or schedules) on the smart plug, setting it to turn off at a set time (the start of the ‘no screentime’ rule) and turn on again at the end of the ‘no screentime’ rule. Your kids may not like it, but it’s a useful idea!
- A similar idea: turning the internet off during meal times. Constant screen use during family meals can have a range of downsides. They are a really important way of families to discuss their day to day lives and anything important, so having most people around the dinner table
There if you have set meal times, you can again use the timer/schedule feature on the smart plug to disable the WiFi router at this time. Alternatively you can build a routine on Alexa (or Google Home) which:
- Announces “dinner is ready” to all Echo devices in the house.
- Turns off the WiFi router.
- Anything else which is useful… sets the lights to a dimmer, more ambient setting perhaps?
- Disable smart cameras. This might seem a weird point, but bear with me: many smart cameras don’t have local storage. They instead upload any video footage to the cloud in real time. This means that if the internet is off, any captured video footage will be lost.
This can vary per smart camera, of course, but the main ones (Ring and Nest) both work this way. Therefore if you wanted to temporarily disable your smart cameras – perhaps you want privacy from your backyard camera whilst you have a backyard party – you can use a smart plug to turn the internet router off. Problem solved!
- Manage your router’s power usage. Whilst many internet routers are fairly low power (with a typical household router only costing around $10 per year), some more expensive routers will use more power. Therefore using a smart plug which has energy measuring capability can be a good way of tracking how much the router is costing you.
The problem with using smart plugs when the internet is off
So the general way that smart plugs work (once they’re already setup) is that you pull out your smart phone, press “on/off” on the smart plug app, and it’ll turn the plugged-in device on/off accordingly.
Or you issue a voice command to your Echo (or Google Home) device, which will interact with the smart plug in the cloud, and carry out your instruction (e.g. turning the smart plug on/off, as you requested).
The flaw with both of these approaches is that when you use your smart plug app or issue a voice command, this sends a request up through the internet to the smart plug cloud service. For example, when you say “Alexa, turn my Kasa smart plug on“:
- Your Echo device hears your request.
- It sends this to Amazon, who turn your words into machine language (i.e. a set of instructions that it can carry out).
- Amazon Alexa (in the cloud) will understand that you want to turn your Kasa smart plug on, so it sends a request to TP-Link Kasa’s servers.
- Kasa’s servers then sends a request to your smart plug, telling it to turn on.
Phew! That’s a long winded explanation, but have you worked out the problem yet? Yes, you guessed it – if your internet router is off, your request won’t make it to the public internet! The same is true if you use the phone app instead.
This is the big downside of using smart plugs to control your internet – but thankfully there are some solutions…
Solution #1: use a quality WiFi smart plug
Some of the better quality WiFi smart plugs actually store the on/off schedules on the device itself. This is true of TP-Link Kasa’s range of smart plugs which are often available at a great price on Amazon:
The way that Kasa smart plugs work is that when you set-up schedules to turn the smart plug on/off at set times, these schedules are actually stored on the device itself. This means that it’ll still come back on even when the WiFi router is off.
It actually makes perfect sense to design smart plugs this way, otherwise Kasa’s cloud servers could be bombarded at peak times due to having to send out loads of ‘pings’ to turn smart plugs on/off at key time. It’s much better for smart plugs to store schedule/timer information on the device itself.
Unfortunately many don’t do this, even Gosund smart plugs which are a big seller on Amazon. So it’s worth sticking to a make like TP-Link Kasa’s smart plugs if possible.
Having said all this, one problem with Kasa’s smart plugs is that you won’t be able to turn the internet back on with the app (or a voice command) when the internet router is off. This is because this is a manual action, which couldn’t be stored on the device. Solutions 2 and 3 cover ways around this.
Solution #2: use a ZigBee or Z-Wave smart plug
ZigBee and Z-Wave are different ways that computerized devices can speak to each other (i.e. they’re different to WiFi and Bluetooth). I go into this in a lot more detail here, but all you need to know for now is that ZigBee and Z-Wave work independently of WiFi.
This means that if your WiFi router is off (and plugged into a ZigBee or Z-Wave smart plug), it can still be turned back on using a ZigBee or Z-Wave ‘message’ to the smart plug.
What does this mean in practise? Well, Philips Hue’s devices all communicate over ZigBee – to a Hue Bridge setup near your router. Some of their more modern products also work via Bluetooth on your phone.
Since Philips Hue’s smart plugs ‘speaks’ ZigBee (not WiFi), they can potentially turn back on even if your internet router is off. The way that you do this will vary, though.
If you have set-up various timers (schedules) for the smart plug, these will be stored on the Hue Bridge and messages will be sent to the smart plug (from the Hue Bridge) when it’s time to turn on/off.
In this way they’re like the Kasa smart plug (which also stores schedule information within the house, so they don’t rely on internet access). But where things differ is that Hue’s smart plug can also turn the router back on even if the router if off:
- If you have the latest Bluetooth compatible smart plug, you can use the Hue Bluetooth app to turn the router back on.
- If the smart plug doesn’t support Bluetooth, fear not. Whilst you won’t be able to use the normal Hue app to turn the smart plug on (since this will require internet access), you can use Hue’s dimmer switches or tap buttons.
Huh – using a dimmer switch to control a smart plug?! Well yes… this actually works well. Hue’s dimmer switches and tap buttons allow you to turn ZigBee devices on and off.
Since the Hue smart plug is also ZigBee, it’ll be able to ‘listen out’ for the Hue switch/button and turn back on as needed.
The Hue dimmer switch is often cheaper than the tap switch, and it’ll also support dimming of your bulbs – so it’s probably worth buying compared to the tap switch in my opinion:
A final solution is to simply purchase a smart plug which has a physical on/off button on its side.
Both of the smart plugs I’ve spoken about so far (Kasa and Hue) have this. Whilst it does mean that you have to make the long, arduous journey over to your router to turn it back on (via the smart plug’s on/off button), it can be a good simple solution if you don’t want to rely on schedules or ZigBee buttons.
Just turn your WiFi router off via your smart plug (using your voice, the app or a routine), and then turn the smart plug on again when you’re done. Simple!