Building a Smart Home from Scratch [Installing Smart Switches]

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Lengzai the Husky showing you one of the many Smart Switches in our place. 💡

One of the key foundations of having a fully integrated Smart Home is to make sure almost every possible item your house – normal lights, ambient coloured lights, blinds, etc – is well, controllable. This can mean using a controller module or a Smart Switch to turn “normal” everyday things into part of your smart home.

Having said that, it’s important to make the decision to get everything controllable early in the beginning as you will need to get your interior designer or contractor to plan for it in advance. In our case where we designed and built our Smart Home from scratch, we directly got our electrician to modify the wiring circuit that came with the place to introduce a neutral wire (blue wire).

This is a very crucial part of the whole setup: Many smart switches, controller modules, and such require a neutral wire so that they can be “always on” in a low power state awaiting commands.

This way, we could literally turn every existing and new switch in the house to a smart one, one that is remotely controllable via Z-wave.

Why do you need a neutral wire?

Some of you might ask why not just use a WiFi Smart Plug? You know, the ones which look something like this:

Yea, and save all the trouble with complicated platforms, protocols, these cheem wiring setups and all.

I mean, sure, you could. Why not?

Well, in our humble opinion, these huge devices are quite ugly and bulky – really not seamless enough. Also, for high usage (or high power draw) sockets, the chances of the smart plug burning out are pretty damn high.

Do you honestly want your nicely flushed wall sockets to be crowded with these plugs when you could have something way nicer?

Also, WiFi networks aren’t really made to support that many devices at the same time, unless you actually invest in setting up a really high capacity WiFi network, but that’s really another topic for another time.

How to select a suitable Smart Switch for your house?

Currently, we are using mainly two brands of Z-wave enabled Smart Switches – TKBHome and MCOHome.

One of TKBHome’s Smart Switches – they come in a huge number of variants!

For TKBHome, most of their models come with (some sort of) tactile feedback, so that when you toggle between on and off, you actually know that the switch is being pressed. It also has a subtle blue LED to notify you of current the on/off status.

Design-wise, it’s actually very simple and non-intrusive. We didn’t want our switches to actively scream “HEY THIS IS A SMART HOME”, but instead blend into the surrounding home design.

Installation-wise, it’s also a breeze because the size (86mm) fits into our existing Singapore standard switch. You (or your electrician) could easily replace this into the existing socket box after installing the neutral wire. There’s really no guide needed on how to install it because it’s just so simple – unlike the other brand that we use – MCOHome.

MCOHome Smart Switch

As compared to TKBHome switches, MCOHome’s is obviously looking way more “high-tech” with its glass panel and glowing lights. It’s extremely touch-sensitive which can a good or bad thing depending on your habits.

Price-wise, MCOHome is almost triple the price of the TKBHome Smart Switches. Of course, from reviews, MCOHome stuff is supposedly better in quality too.

Installation-wise, it’s a real pain to install them due to the different thickness of the switches. MCOHome switches are built for European standard switch boxes which is slightly different from our Singapore standard – the European boxes are way deeper than the local boxes, and this can pose a bit of a problem if you’re using the existing switch boxes which are inside your wall already.

If you do somehow end up with a Smart Switch with super thick depth like the MCOHome and have no idea how to install it, fret not! I’m gonna write down a step by step guide on how to get it fixed.

Step 1: Electrical Box

You will need to get an additional socket/switch box as the MCOHome switch will most likely be too thick to fit directly into the existing socket box, as you can see above. That is actually the common box which is used locally for 2 x single socket or switch. It’s actually a very common item that can be easily purchased from any hardware store.

What we’re going to do today is to overlay the new socket box (above) on top of our existing wall socket box which is already “buried” within the wall to give it additional depth to fit the MCOHome switches.

The MCOHome switch’s dimensions are based on European standards, not exactly the same as our local standards.

We did try finding a box or some alternative solution but there seems to be none in the Singapore market. Even the official distributor that we got our MCOHome switch from couldn’t provide a solution nor did they have an electrical box that fits.

So back to the point here – How to get the MCOHome switch (or any European-standards Smart Switch) fixed in your Singapore Smart Home – assuming you already have your socket boxes built-into the wall and it’s too late to carve it out (such as in your bathrooms, where you aren’t supposed to hack stuff).

Step 2: Putting what you learnt from Design & Technology classes in Secondary School to good use.

Most Singaporeans who went through Secondary School education would have taken this compulsory module called Design and Technology where you were taught to be (somewhat) hands-on. There are always at least one or two classmates that always grumble about how useless these classes waere and you would never get to use it in real life. 🤷🏻‍♀️🤷🏻‍♂️

Now, here’s the time for us to be literally those vaguely acquired skillsin real life… because we don’t have a choice. 👩🏻‍🔧👨🏻‍🔧

  1. Attempt to fit the new socket box on top of the one already buried within your wall
  2. Plan your cutout portions and mark them out, taking extreme care to leave as many screw-hole portions as you can. You’ll need loads of support for your screws to go through (from your smart switch, holding it) and into your existing socket box
  3. Cut away with a mini dremel or rotary tool (you know, that one that has a “sandpaper-ish round blade-like top), taking care only to cut away essential portions

This is how my socket box looked like after cutting away the excess parts…

To be honest, it’s not as hard as you might think because you don’t really need it to be very precise or clean cuts as it would be hidden in the wall anyway.

As long as it fits, it’s good.

Ta-dah! Now you have a Smart Switch box made from a normal socket box. 🤣

The trick is to roughly outline the excess area that you would need to remove and use a hand-grinder like a dremel or rotary tool for this job. Normal handsaw and sandpaper would work too but it will take at least double the time.

This is how it looks like after the modification. ⛏

We left the right side of the socket box uncut because we had a “standard” jacuzzi switch that could be fitted perfectly without any modifications needed. Depending on your needs, you can admend it accordingly.

Now… the MCOHome Smart Switch fits in perfectly! 💡

Now you got the parts prepared and ready, it’s time to actually do the install!

Installation should be quite easy from here… until we realize that MCOHome switch is actually quite heavy, and weighs down the socket box very much to a slant.

Connecting all the wires to the switch. This is a bad example of the correct screwdriver to be used. Go buy a proper test-pen for safety reasons, not a generic screwdriver when dealing with electrical works!

Standard electrical wires in Singapore apartments come with only live wires which are Red wires. As mentioned, if you want to convert the socket or install Smart Switches, you would need to get the neutral wire installed which is the blue wire.

Ignore the green wire in the photo as it’s usually only for higher-draw devices, like, uh, a jacuzzi.

I would recommend having the netural wire done right from the start when your electrician is planning on where to run the wires during the renovation. If you were to decide on it later, it could be done too but it would definitely cost way more due to the hassle of removing and redoing the wiring again.

Making my Dyson Hairdryer work for its price… 🌬

Back to MCOHome switch installation, as the switch differs from TKBHome’s and is made off of glass, it’s much heavier too.

Usually, after installation, you will just need to apply some silicone sealant on the edges of the socket box and let it dry on its own. In our case, the MCOHome switch is so heavy that its weight just pulls the entire socket box down even before the silicon could dry to hold it in place.

That probably also explains why we needed a dryer to speed up the drying process.

Lengzai the Husky is inspecting the workmanship of my installation! I hope I got 5 stars from him. ROFL! 🧐

Ta-dah! All done!

Now you can pair your newly installed Smart Switch with your device and control it remotely via a 3rd party voice command platform such as the Google Home or your mobile phone.

All our Smart Switches are Z-wave controlled via the Samsung SmartThings platform and can be controlled by any of our 8 x Google Home (Mini/Max/Normal/Display) scattered around the house.

Some of you have actually asked via my social media accounts: What’s the difference between Samsung SmartThings and Samsung Connect Home? It’s actually almost the same just that Samsung SmartThings is the brand given for their UK/US markets and Samsung Connect Home is for our local Singapore market.

Back then when we were building our Smart Home, Samsung Connect Home was not yet launched in Singapore. The only choice we had was to get devices from UK market which are compatible with Samsung SmartThings… but hey, no regrets!

Read my related posts;

Totally Pimped Out 3-room HDB Smart Home [Overview]

Installing the August Smart Lock Pro in Singapore Apartments [HDB or Condo]

Building a Smart Home from Scratch [Installing Colour-changing Smart Glass on Sliding Doors]

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