Home-lighting control doesn't just mean timers anymore

by Julianne Tveten
March 30, 2015

When Utz Baldwin and Glen Burchers joined forces, they had one goal: to improve home lighting. That was in 2012, when the “smart home” sector of consumer electronics began to go mainstream. Lighting control was becoming an increasingly popular subset of that market, and, Baldwin and Burchers thought, the time was right to put their ideas to work.

Thus began Plum, a startup featuring a suite of smartphone-operated home devices. The crux of the company’s product offerings is the Lightpad, a “smart” answer to the traditional lightswitch. Controlled by Plum’s smartphone app, the Lightpad can adjust lights remotely (both throughout and away from the home), configure different lighting settings, and monitor the energy used by the lighting.

Installation is relatively simple: A user shuts off the power to the lightswitch to be replaced, then removes the plate and disconnects the wires. She connects the corresponding wires and screws the Lightpad unit into place, followed by the faceplate. From there, she controls the device’s timing, brightness, and other qualities with the Plum app.

Because it’s controlled by the app, Burchers said, the Lightpad eliminates the custom design, proprietary hardware, centralized processors, and custom programming required for most connected home lighting systems.

“Each Plum Lightpad has five processors and has the processing power to control the lights without the need for a central processing unit. By combining the intelligence of the Lightpad with the processing power found in today’s smartphone and a powerful cloud, we eliminate the need for custom programming. This allows the homeowner to easily set up lighting control in their homes using only their smartphone,” Burchers said.

Burchers said the app’s data collection enables it to alert users when they’ve left a light on after they’ve left the house and give them the option to turn it off, or to inform them how much they’re spending on lighting, room by room. “For instance, we can tell the homeowner that they’re spending 10 percent more on their kitchen lights this month vs. last month and offer ways to help them save money on their lighting,” he said. (Though Plum allows users to opt out of data collection, Burchers, unsurprisingly, recommends that they don’t.)

In addition to the Lightpad, the startup is in the process of developing two WiFi-powered products: the Smart Plug and Duplex Electrical Outlet. The former, which Burchers described as a “screwdriver-less way to enjoy appliance and lighting control,” works in concert with the Lightpad to make any light dimmable. The latter “allows the homeowner to wirelessly turn their outlet on or off and measure energy consumption for that device,” he said.

Though they’re dependent on an Internet connection, Burchers said Plum products continue to function even when the WiFi’s down due to internal scheduling capabilities, which work in accordance with lighting patterns the user has dictated.

“Each Plum Lightpad stores its control program, scene information, and schedules locally in internal memory.  If a homeowner loses Internet connection, all Lightpad functions operate normally except for the ability to control lights when you are away from home,” he explained. “When the local WiFi LAN goes down, each Lightpad continues to function normally as a light dimmer. It remembers its schedules and can turn on and off according to the homeowner’s pre-set schedules.”

Burchers said the 13-employee company plans to expand to 40 by the end of the year to help fulfill the startup’s backlog of over 10,000 pre-orders. Building on that momentum, he aims to release the plug and outlet in 2016 and expand internationally. “The demand for our products is significant across Europe and Asia,” he said.

Reflecting on the scope of interest in the Plum vision of smart-home technology, Burchers said, “It’s clear that we are finally on the cusp of making the smart home, or connected home, a reality.”

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