The Challenge with Big Lighting Systems
Having recently completed a major project for a client (installing a lighting automation system with a large number of dimmers and switches), I was confronted with figuring out an optimal configuration for voice control options.
Sure it’s exciting to work on a large multi-room installation but when you get into a system of this size, there are a lot of things that you can’t ignore or sweep under the rug.
There’s several key “lessons learned” and tips from different aspects of this particular installation, but I want to focus on voice control – it’s one of my favorite features and very popular with the explosion in smart speakers from Amazon, Google, and Apple.
The challenge is as follows: With so many rooms and individual lights / light fixtures, how do you architect a voice control solution that preserves simplicity and ease-of-use? Voice control is very convenient, but lacks the physical, tactile and visual feedback we expect to guide our interactions.
If you have worked with voice control, even in a single room, you probably know that naming all the lights and keeping things straight can be a real problem. Current voice control technology is fairly primitive and requires strict or structured voice commands and a lot of memorization to identify the correct room and desired light.
Divide And Conquer
The first thing I did was to set the right objectives. Since this project has other means of lighting control, the goal for voice control was to provide a convenient alternative to other controls – not the primary interface.
So I could narrow the focus by eliminating the need to control every single light individually and, for this particular installation, exclude controlling scenes or house-wide commands by voice.
In discussion with the client, we determined that the primary use for voice control was convenience in turning all the lights in a single room on or off with a voice command. This would be particularly useful in the bedrooms and common areas including kitchen, home office, and media room.
As you’ll see later, this really helped in two areas that can be problematic – naming rooms and naming each individual light. By not focusing on controlling lights other than the room you are currently in, and by not needing direct control over every single light individually, the naming scheme was much simpler and not “mission critical”.
Choosing A Voice Platform
The next step was to choose which voice control platform to use. It was not by accident that the lighting automation system chosen supports all major voice platforms – Apple HomeKit/Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home Assistant.
The lighting controls were picked for what they do best without worrying about the voice overlay. Truthfully, there never was any doubt that I would be recommending and installing a Lutron lighting system and I already knew that Lutron works with all the voice systems under consideration so this wasn’t really a deciding factor.
The only lighting automation choice was to figure out which Lutron system (Caseta, RA2 Select, RA2, or Homeworks QS) would be appropriate. (That’s a topic for another day but spoiler alert, Caseta is too small, Homeworks QS is too big, so the decision was simply RA2 Select or full RA2.)
This is a bit of a Catch-22 situation – Do I recommend Lutron because I am a Lutron Residential Pro dealer or am I a trained/certified dealer because I found Lutron was always the best solution? Answer: Yes!
The Voice Decision Process
Every project is different so the choice requires balancing often competing needs or capability. This particular household is Apple based using iPhones, iPads and Mac computers but Apple HomeKit/Siri was not the right choice.
The client doesn’t want to carry their iPhone around the home and doesn’t use an Apple watch, so the only way to issue voice commands would be to install Apple HomePod smart speakers.
Freestanding HomePods would be required for guests and visitors so they could also use voice control without having to install a special app on their devices or be “invited” to HomeKit as a guest user.
In this install, multi-room music was not desired so investing $350 per room for HomePod’s would not be cost effective.
More subjectively, Apple HomeKit is not a good fit for a large installation like this. It is not mature enough and does not provide enough support/diagnostic features to fix problems when they arise.
Also, in my opinion, Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, is too “chatty” and doesn’t give predictable results for voice control as the same exact command will sometimes give different results. (Based on current capability and features; if I am fortunate that you are reading this at a future time, all bets are off and the choice may be different.)
Amazon Alexa was the platform chosen. With inexpensive $50 Echo Dots spread around the house, the goals could be met cost effectively. There are also a range of 3rd party brackets and adapters that allow hiding the power cords and mounting the Echo Dot directly to a wall outlet for a neat and tidy installation.
The “Secret Sauce” of Advanced Configuration
Like most devices today, the Echo Dot doesn’t come with much of an actual user manual or documentation. Most of us learn our way around by trial and error experimenting with various voice commands and seeing what they do.
The Amazon Alexa App for smartphones and tablets isn’t that easy to use and can be confusing to set up, so many people avoid it entirely.
Amazon has been continually improving the Alexa experience and features so figuring out the best way to setup a multi-room Amazon Echo system involves doing a lot or research, experimentation, and chasing a moving target.
With the usual YMMV, here’s the configuration that I found works well. The key is using a feature called “Smart Home Groups” that many Alexa users are not familiar with.
Understanding Alexa Groups
First I need to explain how Amazon has implemented regular device groups. Although you might consider groups to be the same as rooms, they don’t have to be.
You can create groups called “kitchen”, “guest bedroom”, “office” and place the appropriates lights or other devices into the group that corresponds to their physical location. That’s a convenient way to organize everything and a good starting point.
One way I use groups is to create alternate names (“aliases”) for existing devices. Here’s an example – I have a color laser printer called “XZY Color Printer” connected to a smart switch. This allows me to turn the printer on or off by voice command and also automatically.
In my home office, due to physical constraints, the printer is located upstairs so I like being able to turn it on or off without having to run upstairs first.
I also like to turn it off completely to save power as I don’t print all that often anymore, but like many people, I forget to do that so I have an automatic routine that turns it off daily at 11pm.
Now I’m lazy even when talking. I could say “Alexa, turn XZY Color Printer ON” but that’s a mouthful. I could rename the printer to simply “printer” so I could say “Alexa, Printer ON” but I like having descriptive device names so I know what everything is (I have several other printers too).
What I did is create a device group using the Amazon Alexa App and I call the group “printer” and place the “XYZ Color Printer” into this group. Now I can use the command “Alexa, Printer ON” easily.
This works because you can tell Alexa to turn a group on or off just like a device. The “Duh” moment for me was realizing you are allowed to have device groups with only 1 device in the group. Seems obvious, but I never thought of using groups with only 1 device until I realized i could use it to give nicknames to a device.
It gets more powerful – I actually have two printer devices that are in the group “Printer” so Alexa will turn both of them on or off at the same time.
In tech lingo, “Printer” is a virtual device which is a composite of multiple actual devices but operates just like a single real device.
Grouping The Lights In Each Room
Hopefully if I haven’t lost you and you “get this” you’ll realize the next step is to create groups for each room of your house and place all the lights and light switches into the appropriate groups.
Now you could create “kitchen”, “bedroom”, etc. but I prefer to use group names like “kitchen lights”, “bedroom lights”, or “office lights” to make it clear that the groups I am creating are for controlling only the lights – not other devices.
This is more than just cosmetic – if you have other devices in the room, say a fan or TV, you don’t want them turning on or off when you are trying to control just the lights.
So far so good, now for each room you can more easily control the lights with a simpler command. When you want to turn all the kitchen lights on you can say “Alexa, kitchen lights ON” and even if you have 3 or 4 sets of lights (ceiling lights, counter lights, hanging pendant lights, and more) all the lights are easily controlled with a single command.
You don’t need to know the names of the individual lights so you are free to use names like “Counter 2 led light strip”, “Corner overhead lights”, “Ceiling Downlights”, and other descriptive, but lengthy names to keep all the configuration clear without making knowing or memorizing the voice commands impossible for mere mortals.
When Is a Light Not A Light?
When it’s a switch! Seriously, Alexa knows what a light is and understands that you might want to turn it on, turn it off, or dim it.
If you have a light connected to a smart switch, Alexa doesn’t know that. Fortunately, Amazon has added a configuration command so you can manually change the configuration of a switch using the Alexa App and tell her that it is actually a light.
You may not need this, but if you run into trouble with lights not working the way you expect, this is one of the first things to check. It’s a subtle configuration option and was only recently added so many people don’t know this exists.
But Wait, There’s More…
Like a bad informercial, I can finally get you to the cool stuff. Amazon Alexa has a special kind of group called a “Smart Home Group” and it really ups the ante of what you can do.
When you have more than one Amazon Echo device, using the Alexa app you can add the Echo device to a specific group and that turns the group into a Smart Home Group.
With my client’s installation, I installed an Echo Dot in the kitchen, office, media room, and several bedrooms. To keep things straight, I renamed them in the Alexa app so they became “Kitchen Echo Dot”, “Office Echo Dot”, etc.
Using the Alexa app, I added the Echo devices to the appropriate groups. I added the “Kitchen Echo Dot” to the “Kitchen Lighting” group; I added the “Guest Room Echo Dot” to the “Guest Room Lighting” group, and so on.
The beauty of doing this is that when you have multiple Amazon Echo devices, they use a kind of “voice triangulation” to automatically figure out which Echo device is closest to you. That device is the one that will respond to your voice commands.
So when you are in the kitchen, even if it is close to the media room/family room, the Echo in the kitchen will respond, not both of them.
Here’s what is truly magical – this means Amazon can automatically figure out which room you are in. So when you are in the kitchen, you can say “Alexa, lights ON” to turn on the kitchen lights instead of saying “Alexa, Kitchen lights ON”.
Now you can go to any room in your house that has it’s own Alexa and use exactly the same command, “Alexa, lights ON”, to turn on only the lights in that specific room. You don’t have to know or use the room name, you don’t have to know the actual name of the lights, switches, or dimmers.
With this setup, guests and visitors will not be intimidated by your smart home. Even 80 year old Grandma can probably understand this simple explanation: Go to any room and say “Alexa, lights ON” or “Alexa, lights OFF”.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Now you don’t have to go completely crazy and put an Echo device in every single room. Just choose the rooms where you want easy voice control. It’s not all-or-nothing: You can start small and add rooms as you find the need (or other members of the household get jealous).
Don’t forget that as the “power user”, you can always use room specific commands. Just be kind – when you are in the media room watching a movie, don’t say “Alexa, Guest Bedroom Lights OFF” and prank your visitors. Trust me, they will want to harm you!
Voice Control Is Not A Gimmick
In addition to explaining the specifics of how I configured this particular system, I hope I have been able to show from a real-world example how voice control is useful right now.
I still hear too many people say “it’s a gimmick”, “it doesn’t work”, or “it’s just a toy” when I ask them about adding voice control. For me, the key is to keep it straightforward, as simple as possible, and make it easy to use.
I don’t try to “boil the ocean” making everything controllable by voice with overly complicated configurations and commands. Just careful use of voice commands to complement, not replace, tried and true controls such as physical light switches, keypads, and remote control devices.
What Do You Think?
Are you using voice control in your smart home? Which voice platform are you using or considering?