The 10 Best Remote Control Outlet Switches
Burning Down The House
Synthetic polymers began to replace the organic insulation in the mid-20th century, with manufacturers eventually settling on various formulations of high-temperature PVC.
Over 100 years ago, the most cutting-edge electrical systems relayed power using the knob-and-tube method. This wildly precarious setup consisted of a network of fully exposed live wires held a few inches away from a building's flammable timbers by a flimsy metal rod. The charged lines snaked through ceramic tubes as they passed through wooden walls and floor joists, providing a thin shield of non-conductive material between the possible spark and its potential fuel. By its very nature, K&T wiring dissipates a considerable amount of energy as wasted heat. This compounded matters, because wrapping the cables to protect them from arcing actually caused the insulation to melt, causing even further catastrophe.
Today, knob-and-tube configurations are illegal, except in approved cases of historical restoration.
We were able to ditch that dangerous design with the 1922 invention of Romex, the brand name of the original non-metallic sheathed cable. Containing positive, negative, and ground wires, and ultimately wrapped in some type of non-conductive insulation, this groundbreaking development changed everything about how we use electricity. It arose from early armored cable, which was protected by a rigid outer layer of solid metal that also served as the ground. The new, flexible wire was initially wrapped in a cotton mesh and sealed with a resinous compound. Synthetic polymers began to replace the organic insulation in the mid-20th century, with manufacturers eventually settling on various formulations of high-temperature PVC.
The 1962 revision to the United States National Electrical Code was one of the most important industry milestones, and led to the safe and plentiful power that we now enjoy. A federal mandate for fully grounded, three-wire setups in all new buildings ensured a future rife with multi-functional, high-amperage devices operating simultaneously on multi-level networks designed around each building's construction.
The Oldest Switcheroo
Electricity, itself, was not invented, or even really discovered. It's been right out in the open and subject to observation for all of human history in the form of lightning, also one of the primary natural causes of fire. And just like fire, electricity became relevant when people learned how to control it.
These two relatively simple mechanisms allowed us to control homes with our fingertips, but today we live in a world inundated with invisible waves of information.
Less than two years after Edison illustrated that centralized power was a real possibility, John Henry Holmes became the first to control it with the flip of a switch. Prior attempts to create a mechanical break in a power line all caused an arc flash to form in the space between contacts. As one of the conductive surfaces shed electrons, it would break down and start to disintegrate. The flash of electricity oxidized (i.e., burned) some of the constituents of air, leading to a buildup of material, moisture, and corrosion. Holmes' design ensured that the opposing surfaces joined and separated too quickly for the atmosphere to light up, allowing for countless on-off cycles before the connection noticeably degraded.
How quickly this occurs is the deciding factor behind whether a switch successfully controls a circuit, or melts itself into an open circuit upon first use. Heat dissipation spikes during the moment of transition from a closed to an open circuit (or vice versa), and the longer that moment takes, the greater the chance that the switch will fail.
While on-off switches rely on quick, snappy action to work safely, modern dimmer switches are little more complex. Earlier versions simply diverted some of the electricity into a resistor, but the most recent type takes advantage of the consistent AC sine wave to portion out less than 110 volts. A dimmer switch actually disconnects the circuit as the sine wave approaches the base of the X axis, and while the relevant outlet still receives a signal at 60 hertz, it possesses only a percentage of the original charge.
These two relatively simple mechanisms allowed us to control homes with our fingertips, but today we live in a world inundated with invisible waves of information. Once switches joined up with that modern wireless technology, and started talking to each other in user-defined, programmable languages, the stage was set for the potential automation of an incredible range of devices.
Being Smarter Than The Smart Home
Technology has shaped few societies the way it has the modern United States. Radios, television sets, and eventually smartphones have all served as major gathering points for Americans in all walks of life. And while we haven't quite started beaming multimedia entertainment straight into consumers' heads, it seems like that might not be so far away. As it stands today, plenty of radio waves bombard our bodies at all times. Every different wireless technology, like each, individual mobile 4G network, and your home's dual-band WLAN, operates within a certain frequency range that the FCC has allotted it. Electromagnetic interference notwithstanding, some of those frequency bands are bound to be empty, and ripe for carrying pre-programmed timing information to lights, air conditioners, and sound systems.
Alternately, some transmitters utilize the margins of a building's existing electrical wiring as a data pipeline. In a simple system, the end result of powerline and wireless transmission are the same: control at a distance, without the need for running new conduit. But one of the most common applications for wireless switches is simply to make an end-run around complex or inaccessible wiring. Some of the most popular such solutions involve little more than pulling off some adhesive backing and sticking a switch to the wall. Other units are geared specifically toward coordinating multiple lights. Some advanced options communicate with wireless devices over the home Wi-Fi network and allow for multi-step programming, often using the If That Then This protocol. Still more models are integrated with comprehensive families of compatible smart products, just waiting for someone to take the plunge and install the entire line in their home of the future.
When it's all said and done, you can enjoy as little or as much automation among your appliances as you like. If you're just getting into the world of wireless home control, a light switch is a straightforward place to start, and it doesn't require much of a commitment or investment.