Why do I need a hub to set up a 3 way?
Now for your excellent question: do you need a hub at all to set up a three-way light case?
If you’re going strictly with the physical three-way, then no. You don’t need a hub. You just set up the master switch, use physical traveler wires to connect it to its recommended auxiliary, and you’re done. GE is a good brand for this. Both of the switches will work just like regular nonnetworked switches.
However, in this set up you’re not going to have any home automation features it all. You can’t talk to the master switch by your phone or your computer. It’s just exactly the same as any old light switch, except it’s ready to eventually talk to a Z wave controller when you get one.
On the other hand, if you want to do a virtual three-way, where the auxiliary might not even be on the same circuit as the master and you are not using physical traveler wires between them, then you need to have someone to talk to those devices.
There’s a whole separate question of do you want to be able to control the light from your phone. We’ll get to that one later.
The hub does two different things: establish the initial network and manage traffic going between devices on that network
If you want to use any home automation features it all with the switch, you have to establish a zwave network that it can belong to. That requires a “Z wave controller.”
There are many different available zwave controllers.
A $20 minimote can be a controller and establish a network. You don’t get any other fancy features with it, there’s no phone app or anything, but it can set up a network.
Leviton and Cooper both make tabletop lighting controllers which are only intended to run a few zwave lighting devices, and they can be a good solution for some people. They can establish the network. They will let you set up timed schedules for the switches and some scenes. But I don’t think they have phone apps. And I don’t think you can control the switches when you aren’t home except with a time based schedule. But they do give you a few more features than the minimote does.
However, it may surprise you to know that both of these devices typically cost between $120 and $200. That is, significantly more than a SmartThings hub! And they do way less, although at the present time they do it much more reliably. If they look like 20th century technology, yeah, they pretty much are.
There is also a nice $35 aeon USB stick which is a Z wave controller and has some good software with it, but you have to be much more technical to use it and it has to be plugged into a laptop which is running all the time. And it still won’t give you a phone app or remote access.
(If you want to go that way, I recommend getting the indigo home automation software. But again that’s adding more cost. )
What if I just get the minimote?
So let’s say you just get the minimote. It should cost about $20 at www.zwaveproducts.com and once you do get your hub you’ll still be able to use it as a handheld remote.
It can act as a primary controller and establish the network. So now what does that give you that just a GE switch wouldn’t?
The main thing is that it would let you “associate” two zwave switches that are in the same room so that they can talk to each other. Or a motion sensor and a switch in the same room.
So you could set it up without any coding at all so that when the motion sensor detected activity the switch came on. Or so that when you turned on one switch, the other switch also turned on. This is your true virtual three-way.
That would work just fine. You wouldn’t have a phone app, you wouldn’t have time schedules, you wouldn’t have the ability to use it outside the home. But it doesn’t require Internet and it gives you a three-way even if the two switches are on completely different circuits. It also gives you the ability to have some other devices, most commonly motion sensors, trigger the light.
so it all comes down to what you need
If you just want to wire your switches ahead of eventually getting a Z wave controller, you can use the GE three-way kit that uses physical wires. You won’t have any home automation, but it will work just fine as physical switches.
If you want to get a little bit of home automation, in particular if you want to set up a virtual three-way so that you have two switches that are not connected by physical traveler wires and maybe not even on the same circuit and both control the same light, you can get zwave switches that support “association”, use a minimote to establish the network and create the Association, and you have your virtual three-way. You don’t have timed schedules or a phone app or a way to control them from outside the home, but you do have a virtual three-way. You can even throw in a motion sensor. But all the devices have to be in the same room.
However, if you want timed schedules or The ability to control devices in multiple rooms or from outside the home, then you need to go a different direction and get at least an Aeon USB stick. At which point it is probably time to ask yourself why aren’t you just getting a regular hub?
The other alternative
The alternative to all of this, and the one I usually recommend for people trying to ease into home automation, is to get a Phillips hue bridge and their $15 hue white light bulbs.
These work great. You get a phone app. You get control from outside the home. You get control of bulbs anywhere in the house. There’s no wiring required.
If you want a wall switch they have a nice $25 dimmer switch that controls up to 10 bulbs at once. You can put them on a time schedule. They work with voice control with the Amazon or apple’s HomeKit.
They have an IFTTT channel which gives you a whole bunch of other options.
And it’s a very reliable system. I’ve had mine for over a year and have not had one day when they didn’t work as they were supposed to.
These are definitely 21st-century devices. And, you’ll be able to use them with SmartThings if you get it eventually, and with most other home automation hubs. There’s a reason this brand is so popular.