Get Smart With Stacey: How to Control Outdoor Halloween Lights

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This week's column is a little different; it isn't based on a user question, but I promise it's worth it. I'm going to tell y'all how to automate your holiday lights.

This weekend, we decorated for Halloween, which means a few sets of lights, an LED spider, and some cheap spider webs. Managing outdoor holiday lights is one of the best use cases for home automation ever. And because Halloween is like Christmas on a smaller scale, I thought I'd demonstrate how it's done in case you want to start stockpiling your gear ahead of December.

First, my setup is something you can do with a few hundred dollars and an hour. My connected Halloween lighting looks like this in the front:

And this is the back:

Not like this, which requires a professional lighting designer:

When it comes to holiday lighting, smart switches are your best friends. They will carry 90 percent of the workload. I've covered which ones to get for indoor use in this column, but for outside, you really only have two options. The iDevices outdoor switch offers Wi-Fi capability with two plugs, for $55. The benefit of this switch is that you can just plug it in and it will sync with HomeKit ("Hey Siri!") or Alexa ("Alexa, turn off Halloween!").

GE Z-wave outdoor moduleThe downside of the iDevices switch is that it's expensive. The workhorse in my setup is a GE Z-wave outdoor module for $35. The downsides of this product is that it only has one outlet instead of the two found on the iDevices one, and you need a hub that speaks Z-wave to use it. I'd go with SmartThings or Wink because they are both integrated with the Amazon Echo in case that's important for you. Otherwise any Z-wave hub will do.

My smart switch setup for Halloween is three GE outdoor modules that talk to the Wink hub. In previous years I have run them through SmartThings as well. If you have trouble connecting your Z-wave switch to either hub, reset the outlet using either hub's Z-wave controls to exclude the device. Then try to add it again.

When naming my lights, I tried to come up with something that is easy for Siri or Alexa to understand on the off chance I don't want to control it as a unit. I also use these modules in different places during different times of the year, which leaves me with two naming options. The first is to name each switch and then label the outlet with the device name. The second is to name the switch based on where I am using it.

The benefit of the first is that I don't have to manually remove and then add each outlet whenever I want to use them. But the downside is when I use them in different settings, I lose the ability to use a descriptive name with Alexa or Siri. Mine are called Lower Balcony, Upper Balcony, and Backyard. Also, be aware that you want a name that is different from other connected device names you have.

I also have two strings of Bluetooth-connected lights along the walkway that I use for Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas, and any party we host. They are the iTwinkle lights from GE and they cost me about $60 a string. I do not love these for a variety of reasons, including the fact that you can't string two sets together, they are finicky to connect, and they don't always remember the last lighting setting.

That said, there are still few great connected outdoor holiday lights. Lumenplay is one product, but it seems to have its own flaws. Another are these pre-programmed Bluetooth lights from AppLight. Most people get frustrated because the programs aren't customizable or because the lights don't save previous programs, so they can't work off a timer. Since our plan is to put these lights on a smart switch timer, consider that capability if you want to use already-connected strings of lights.

Illumi just launched a $80, two-meter Bluetooth light strip that works outdoors, but it isn't shipping quite yet, so I wouldn't bank on it for holiday lighting needs.

Outside of switches, the other element that's fun for outdoor holiday lighting are regular flood lights. Illumi makes a color-changing connected LED flood light for $70, but it's Bluetooth-only, so it currently only works through its app. That means if you want to set everything on a schedule, it will work just fine, but if you want to create a unified Alexa command or Siri command, you are out of luck. You might be able to cobble something together using multiple If This Then That commands, but just thinking about doing that makes me tired.

So to sum up, my gear for automating my holiday lights is:

The next step after getting all of my lights in place and connected to their respective smart switches is to create a schedule and a way for me to control the lights using voice. I do both because voice is a nice way to countermand the schedule if needed.

Depending on your platform, you're going to have to do these different ways. For Wink I basically group all the switches (plus my porch light) into a group called Halloween. Then I made a schedule that turns "Halloween" on 10 minutes after sunset. I then made a second schedule item to turn the lights off at 10:15 p.m. after I go to bed.

SmartThings and Apple's HomeKit offer the ability to schedule something at sunset, which I like, especially as the days are getting shorter pretty quickly.

For voice control, I simply created a group—also called Halloween—in the Smart Home section of my Alexa app and put the individual lights I wanted to control into that group. I didn't have to tell Alexa to discover new devices, because the Wink hub and SmartThings both update fairly quickly once they are linked to the Echo.

Remember, whatever you name the group you create in the Alexa app is the keyword you'll say to trigger the group. If I want to trigger a specific light, such as lower balcony, I'd just have to tell Alexa to "turn on lower balcony." This is why I'm a fan of descriptive names because come Christmas, it's far easier for me to tell Alexa to turn on Santa Claus to refer to my light-up Santa than it would be to remember a dedicated switch name.

At Christmas, the number of switches I use triples, and sometimes I create a special Christmas morning group tied to a motion detector on the stairs, so when my daughter trips it, magic happens. (This obviously won't work if your kids sneak downstairs on Christmas morning.)

As for Halloween, other than lighting you can create a bunch of fun motion-based actions with a little creativity, some If This Then That recipes, and something like LittleBits or an Arduino. But start with lights. They're fun.

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