For years, I’ve used programmable switches at our Utah vacation house to turn exterior lights on at dusk and off at dawn. Having a well-lit exterior is a deterrent to potential thieves, and creates a nice visual setting when returning home at night. Previously, I used four Intermatic EJ500 switches, which I purchased at Lowe’s for around $25 each. Each switch powered a separate exterior circuit: porch lights, garage exterior lights, soffit lights, and a walkway light. It was kind of a pain to switch the clocks twice a year for daylight savings, and it was more of a pain when the small hearing-aid size batteries in the switches would go dead, rendering the timer functions useless. The EJ500’s LCD screen and tiny interface font were hard to read, especially without any back light, so I’d have stick my nose right up to the switch to see the ON/OFF status, do any programming, or reset the clock. Still, none of these annoyances were “showstoppers,” so I put up with them for many years.
Fast forward to 2012, when I decided to replace all exterior lighting at the Utah house with energy efficient LED bulbs. LED bulbs are considerably more expensive to purchase than traditional incandescents, but they use a fraction of the energy for the same light output (7W vs. 50W) and can last decades without burning out. However, after replacing my front porch can light bulbs with soft white LED bulbs, I noticed something strange: with the Intermatic switch turned ON, the light was fine. But when switched to OFF, the bulb blinked on and off rapidly. Some web searching revealed that this is a common problem with both CFL (compact fluorescent) and LED bulbs when working with some timer switches and dimmer switches. If I wanted to save money with my exterior bulbs, I’d have to spend money on some new timer switches.
So, after researching a number of LED- and CFL-compatible options from Intermatic, Honeywell, Leviton, and General Electric, I opted for the Honeywell EconoSWITCH RPLS740B. Well… I technically opted for the 741B, which is the light almond colored version that matches my existing cover plates, but otherwise the switches are identical. Retail price is around $50, but I bought them for $38 each on Amazon with free shipping, and I’ve recently seen them drop below $30 on-sale.
Installing the Honeywell switches was straightforward, and they came with an easy-to-read install guide. After killing the circuit breaker, I removed my old Intermatic EJ500 switches. The Intermatics only needed to be wired to the incoming hot wire (black) and out to the load (the lights); no neutral wire was needed to power the switch itself, because the timer and LCD display functions were powered by batteries. The Honeywells, however, don’t have any on-board batteries, so they need to connect to the neutral wire (white) in the box, which provides power to the switch and enables a number of features (discussed below). The Honeywells came with their own wire nuts and each took about 5 minutes to install. The switches are deeper than a standard wall switch (and also deeper than the old Intermatics I removed), so with the addition of an extra neutral connection, the only tricky part was fitting the switch and all the wires back into the wall box, especially in multi-gang boxes containing more than one timer switch. I eventually got everything to fit, replaced the switch covers, turned on the breakers, and tested things out.
Setup and Programming
The initial setup of the EconoSWITCH was just as I expected. Set the year. Set the month. Set the date. Set the hour. Set the minutes. Set the… longitude and latitude. Huh? That was a surprise, but a super geeky cool one. By entering the longitude and latitude of your address (easily located with a web search), the switch automatically calculates the correct sunrise and sunset times for your precise location for every day of the year. And then — that’s it! If you just want your lights to come on at dusk and turn off at dawn, you don’t need to set anything else. If you want to get more creative with the programming you can, including adding offsets to the astronomical sunrise and sunset times. For example, I set my lights to turn on 30 minutes after sunset, and turn off 20 minutes before sunrise. You can also set multiple on/off times throughout the day, and/or build separate programs for individual days of the week. But for most applications, the default settings in Automatic Mode are probably want you want, and you won’t have to touch if after the initial setup.
And speaking of not touching it, the EconoSWITCH also has an option that you configure during setup to tell the switch whether your location participates in Daylight Savings Time, and then it automatically updates the time as needed on the appropriate days. That makes four fewer clocks I have to change around the house!
Manual and Vacation Modes
The EconoSWITCH’s Manual Mode is exactly as it sounds: it turns it into a manual ON/OFF light switch… with the added coolness of having a clock handy. The large primary button can also temporarily override the current program setting until the next programmed ON/OFF event.
The Vacation Mode is designed to make the house looked occupied, but it’s smarter than just randomly turning the lights on and off throughout the day. Using the calculated sunset time for that specific day, the switch turns the lights on at sunset, keeps them on for a random amount of time between 60 and 90 minutes, turns the lights off for a random amount of time between 15 and 30 minutes, and keeps that random cycle going until it turns the lights off for the final time at a random point between 10:30 PM and midnight. It’s a great way to not waste electricity during daylight hours, and still get the security of a “lived-in” look while you’re away.
While the initial setup and operating modes of the Honeywell EconoSWITCH are solid, the interface is where this product really shines (pun intended). Visually, the switch looks far more “upscale” than other products I researched, with the exception of the Leviton Vizia (which I almost bought instead, but found the Honeywell a better value). The design is sleek, and it fits almost flush with the wall plate. There are only three buttons, and using them is intuitive. The LCD screen is large and easy to read, with a blue back-light that can be adjusted to bright, dim, or off. But my favorite touch is a tiny blue LED light in the lower right corner of the switch, which is illuminated only when the switch has the circuit turned ON. This makes it easy double-check that the switch is in ON mode without having to bend over and squint at the screen.
In the above photo, you can see that the current time is 6:43 PM, the switch is in the Program Mode (top left clock icon), the switch has calculated that it’s past sunset (moon icon), the day is Wednesday, the switch is ON (text and blue LED), and that program #1 is currently running. The switches look equally cool in the dark:
Batteries Not Included
One of my main gripes with my old Intermatic switches was that they required batteries to power the timer, meaning that if the batteries went dead on a day where I wasn’t at the house, it could be weeks (or maybe longer) until I’d discover it and replace the batteries, and the exterior lights wouldn’t come on until I did.
As mentioned above, the Honeywell EconoSWITCH powers its timer functions using electricity from your house, but in the event of a power outage, it uses an on-board 0.22-Farad super-capacitor to keep your programming settings intact. It acts like a battery backup for the switch while the power is out, but a super-capacitor won’t wear out like a battery. It’s a great feature in an already great device.
The Honeywell EconoSWITCH RPLS740B (white) and RPLS741B (light almond) are a big jump from the previous generation of automatic timer switches. It’s compatible with the latest LED and CFL lighting technologies, install is straightforward, setup is a breeze, the functionality is solid, and the interface is well thought-out. It’s a worthwhile upgrade for any do-it-yourself homeowner, and can quickly and cheaply increase the security and visual appeal of your home. Look for my old Intermatic EJ500s listed as “used” on eBay. 🙂
- Operating modes: Automatic, Manual, Vacation
- Programs: Up to 7 ON/OFF times per week. Programs can apply to just one day, or can be repeated daily (programs that repeat daily are still considered just one program)
- Connection: Three-wire (neutral, line, and load)
- Max load: 1,800 W
- Fixtures supported: Incandescent, CFL, Halogen, LED, and motors (pool pumps, pond pumps, bathroom fans, ceiling fans, etc.)