Home Lighting Automation with Philips Hue and Zigbee 3.0
I've been running Hue Smart Lightbulbs in my house for a couple of years. The basic idea is there's a hub that connects to your home network and then communicates with light bulbs or other devices over some sort of wireless protocol. Prior to 2018, Hue used an older variant of the Zigbee protocol called ZLL or Zigbee Light Link. While some bulbs from other manufacturers used ZLL and would work with the Hue system, other bulbs used a different Zigbee variant called Zigbee Home Automation or ZHA.
To make this even more fun, some manufacturers produced devices that used ZLL in Europe, but ZHA in the US.
As you can imagine, this created great confusion and made it very difficult to determine which devices could interoperate. Thankfully, the folks in charge of this realized it was a problem and unified the protocols for Zigbee 3.0. The result is that any device that claims to be Zigbee 3.0 compatible should be interoperable (although there are still a bunch of caveats).
When Philips upgraded the Hue system in late 2018, they upgraded the system to Zigbee 3.0, which opened up lots of possibilities for using third party devices. The great thing is that this upgrade was done across their hardware - any existing Hue hub now supports Zigbee 3.0, and the same goes for the existing bulbs (I believe).
When I first got started with Hue in my house a couple years ago, I had a very simple setup: the Hue hub and two light bulbs. Even the most basic bulb cost more than $20 so it quickly got expensive to upgrade your whole house. Also, bulbs aren't very convenient without wireless remotes, because someone will just turn the power off to the lamp or fixture and then your bulb is no longer on the network. Thus I also purchased a Hue wall mounted remote to control the bulbs. So really to make a useful system, you need a remote in each room and hue bulbs in every fixture. That's expensive.
This all worked just fine, but it wasn't really a comprehensive system. Also note that there weren't really many different kinds of Hue devices: there were a few types of bulbs and and remote switches and that was about it.
Discovering Zigbee 3.0
In 2018, I found out about the move to Zigbee 3.0 for Hue systems, so I wanted to find some third party devices to use. In particular, I wanted a smart outlet I could use with my Hue. I tried a couple different ones from Sylvania and GE that other people thought might work. No luck. I finally found one on Amazon: the 3A Nue Zigbee 3.0 Smart Plug. This plug worked just fine with Hue, once I understood how it operated.
One thing that continually annoys me is there are very few options for overall Hue light brightness. Basically every light is "60 watt equivalent". In my case, I have a living room lamp with a very bright normal led bulb. I wanted to keep that bulb in that lamp - thus the solution of finding a Zigbee 3.0 outlet.
How it Works
One thing that confused me about the 3A outlet is that it does not appear to Hue as an outlet. Instead, it shows up as a non-dimmable light. This makes sense in the context of Hue but it is confusing. For example, the Hue app has an option to add supported outlets to the system. However, you do not use this. Instead, you just add a normal light.
Once you put the outlet in pairing mode by holding down the switch on it until it changes color, you start light detection in the Hue app on your phone. The Hue bridge will detect the outlet as a "FelBit On/Off Light". After that, you can use the outlet as a normal on/off light with your Hue system. Obviously, dimming and color changing are not available for these outlets.
Now I have the bright light I want in my living room, and it's controllable via Hue. This setup has worked very well for me.
Zigbee 3.0 Remotes
Now that Hue works with Zigbee 3.0, the door is open to add other devices from other manufacturers. One of the first devices I added to my system was a third party remote, which has turned out to be incredibly useful. Here's the remote that I use. The important thing to understand about remotes like this is there is a two step process for setting them up. First you have to join them to your Zigbee network, and then you have to configure which lights the remote controls. Note that the remote never interacts directly with the Hue hub. In essence, it's a completely separate controller on the same network which can change the state of lights or groups of lights.
These remote take advantage of the new Touchlink provisioning method introduced in Zigbee 3.0. To tell the remote to control a particular light, you hold it within a few inches of the light and press a special button combination. This allows the remote to bind to that particular light and control it. Multiple lights can be controlled in a group by using Touchlink to join them to the same button on the controller. However, there are a few caveats to this process and to using these remotes in general:
- Not all devices support Touchlink. Lights themselves generally do, but the 3A Nue outlet does not, so it won't work with remotes.
- The Hue hub does not see the state change, so if you use the remote to turn off a light, Hue won't know it's off.
- Lights only respond to Touchlink under certain conditions, for security. Hue bulbs will only do Touchlink for 30 seconds after power on.
Even with these limitations, Zigbee 3.0 remotes are very useful as an alternate way to control your lighting. The one I reference above is relatively cheap (around $20) so it's an easy way to increase the flexibility of your lighting system. Note that is only controls on/off/dimming for lights or groups of lights. It can't be used to change the color of bulbs.
Another great reason to obtain one of the above remotes is that they support sending reset commands to Zigbee devices. If you for example have a third party light connected to your Hue hub and you want to reset it to factory settings, there's no easy way to do this. Generally only the hub sold by a particular manufacturer has the ability to completely reset lights made by that manufacturer. I don't know why this is, other than vendor lock in. The RGBGenie remote can send a Zigbee reset to any Zigbee device. This is incredibly useful when you are trying out different lights from different manufacturers., or you want to move a light between hubs.
Another Zigbee remote worth mentioning is the Eria Remote. It works similarly to the RGBGenie remote, although is only supports controlling one light or group of lights - the RGBGenie has five groups. I've used both remotes with my Hue system with great success.
Other Brand of Lights
I've experimented fairly widely with connecting lights from other manufacturers to my Hue hub. Some work and some do not. I'm not going to provide a full review of all the various lights you can use with a Hue hub, but here's a brief overview of what works and what doesn't:
In general, the lights that do work fully support Zigbee 3.0. The lights that don't work generally seem to only support the older Zigbee ZHA protocol, as described above.
Right now my setup is a mix of Hue, Eria, and Cree bulbs. Two things to keep in mind about using bulbs from other manufacturers:
- There's no way to upgrade the firmware in third party bulbs via the Hue app. The Hue app does this automatically for Hue bulbs.
- You can't modify the default power on behavior with third party bulbs connected to a Hue hub. With Hue bulbs, you can set them to either come on after power loss automatically, stay off, or return to the last state.
Advantages of Hue
I'm generally pretty happy with my Hue system for the following reasons:
Hue makes it easy to control your lights when you aren't home, by automatically connecting them to the cloud. It's nice to be able to monitor your home's lighting when you are away.
As I mentioned previously, the Hue app and hub automatically upgrade the firmware in official Hue devices to fix bugs or enable new features. This is how Philips rolled out the ability to change the power on behavior last year.
Default Power On Control
As I discussed earlier, you can only modify the default power on behavior for individual Hue devices. This only works for official Hue products. Depending on your application this could be a very important feature - in safety or security situations, you probably want lights to default to on after power loss, but in other situations you probably want them to default to off. As far as I know, only Philips allows you to configure this behavior directly in the lights.
Rock Solid Performance
Hue stuff just works. Once you join it to your network and configure it, you can forget about it. This is a big plus when compared to other home automation systems, which can require considerable amounts of fiddling.
Disadvantages of Hue
The Hue ecosystem is not perfect, however. First of all, it's expensive. One of the advantages of using third party bulbs is that they are less expensive than official Hue bulbs. Also, the selection of official devices is limited. You can buy plenty of different Hue lights, but if you want something like a remote control outlet, you have to go with another vendor.
Hue interoperability can also be difficult to understand. As I said, it seems like most Zigbee 3.0 devices seem to work ok with Hue. However, if a device just says 'Zigbee' and not 'Zigbee 3.0' on the box, all bets are off. It may or may not work, for example if it's a ZHA vs ZLL device. Vendors do not make this clear in their documentation or packaging.
Remote Access is both an advantage and a disadvantage. I enjoy the convenience of being able to control my lights when I'm not at home, but I acknowledge that is both a security hole and potential privacy concern. Once your home automation connects to some vendor's cloud, you have no idea what that vendor is doing with your data.
Other Ways to Obtain Zigbee 3.0 Devices
While I've generally include Amazon links in this article, there are definitely other places to purchase Zigbee devices. One I've been exploring recently is Ali Express. The Nue 3A outlet is currently out of stock on Amazon, but you can buy it on Alibaba. There are also some other interesting devices currently only for sale here where I plan on investigating, such as this Zigbee 3.0 lamp dimmer.
The Future, and a Conclusion
I'm very excited to see that Hue now works with Zigbee 3.0, as this greatly increases the usefulness of the system, and provides opportunities to use less expensive third party devices with my existing Hue hub. I'm also happy to see that I can now use third party Zigbee 3.0 remotes with Hue.
Going forward, I will be testing more devices from other vendors, and working more on automation with my Hue system. At some point I will be experimenting with a Samsung Smart Things hub as a possible alternative to the Hue hub. I'm also investigating some interesting open source software tools for expanding this system, specifically using Home Assistant and zigbee2mqtt so stay tuned for future updates.