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Everyone loves sunlight—except when you’re trying to watch a matinee in your home theater, or when it’s making your room unbearably warm in the summertime, or when you want to take a nap. With Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shades covering your windows, you can control just how much sunlight comes into a room with a remote control. And since they’re outfitted with Z-Wave radios, the shades can be incorporated into your smart home system, opened and closed on a schedule, and controlled with a voice command to Alexa or Google Assistant.
When I first considered outfitting my home theater with shades, I didn’t think much beyond the fact that I wanted to darken the room during the day, and that I wanted a motorized model, so I could incorporate them into my Vivint smart home system. I had no idea that there were so many other decisions that I would need to consider. Graber’s website has a handy decision guide that quizzes you about the shape of your windows, how much light you want to pass through the shades, the degree of privacy you want them to afford, if you want insulation as well as light control, and the color and type of material that will match your room’s décor and your personal design aesthetic.
I found it to be a very educational and useful tool, but Graber doesn’t sell its product directly, and its website barely touches on how motorized shades operate or how they can be incorporated into a smart home system. It’s also worth noting that Graber doesn’t offer any means of controlling the shades other than with a remote control. As you’ll learn from this review, if you want to get maximum benefit from them, you’ll need to have a Z-Wave-compatible smart home hub as well as a smart speaker.
One of Graber’s dealers, ZebraBlinds, specializes in window treatments for smart homes, and they provided two Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shades for this review (two so that I could test options for controlling them as a group). They also offered helpful advice as I was installing the shades and incorporating them into my own smart home system.
How to choose a shade
The larger of the two windows in my home theater has a southern exposure, so the sun beats down on it incessantly, making the room uncomfortably warm in the summertime. I also wanted a window treatment that would darken the room in the daytime, so we could use the room for its intended purpose on weekend days: To watch movies. Based on Graber’s decision guide, echoed by ZebraBlinds, I opted for double-celled cellular shades using Graber’s Cocoon fabric. This honeycomb-formed fabric, according to Graber, consists of three layers of metalized polyester film sealed between spunlace fabric.
These shades don’t render the room nighttime dark. That said, they block more than enough sunlight to not only allow my Samsung Q7F QLED TV to deliver the best picture possible, but also to let me fire up a ceiling-mounted Epson PowerLite Cinema 500 video projector at any time of day. What’s more, closing the shades on very hot days keeps my home theater much cooler, reducing the amount of air conditioning my home needs.
According to third-party test results (from Architectural Testing, Inc.) cited by Graber, these shades reduce heat transfer into a room by 56 percent when they’re mounted behind dual-pane windows. If you live in a colder climate, you’ll be interested to know that the shades also have strong insulation properties, reducing heat transfer out of the room by 22.2 percent. Some of those energy savings will be offset by any lights you turn on in the room, assuming the ambient light from your TV or video projector isn’t enough for you to feel comfortable. You can view and download a PDF of that report by clicking on the link below.
Installing Graber’s motorized shades
Graber provides metal brackets that you’ll need to screw into your window frame. You’ll also need to decided where you’ll mount the shades before you order them. They can be installed inside the window frame, which will allow light to come through a fraction-of-an-inch gap at the top and on either side of the shade, or outside and slightly above the window frame. In the latter scenario, you might want to purchase an optional valance to cover the headrail containing the motor. I elected for an inside mount, despite the resulting light gap, because we have decorative trim around our windows that I didn’t want the shade to cover.
Graber uses a 12-volt motor from Somfy to raise and lower the shade, and the motor is controlled by a Z-Wave Plus radio. Somfy also provides simple two-button, single-channel Z-Wave remote controls. I mounted the remotes on the wall next to my light switches, but you can slide them off their plastic mounts and carry them to the couch.
Fancier remotes are also available at an added cost. For example, there’s a three-button remote that adds a “home” button that can return the shade to a preferred position, and a multi-channel remote with a monochrome LCD display that can control up to 24 motorized shades. The multi-channel remote has a total of 12 channels, each of which can control one or multiple shades, with a maximum of eight shades per channel.
The shade’s motor requires electrical power, of course, and it comes with a wall wart for that purpose. Most homes don’t have electrical outlets in their window frames, however, so Graber provides a battery pack that can power the shade. Raising and lowering the shade requires a lot of power, so you’ll need to install eight AA lithium batteries if you don’t want to deal with that wall wart.
If you’re mounting the shade outside the window frame, you’ll attach the battery pack to the wall above the headrail—even more reason why you’ll want a valance in that situation. With an inside mount, the battery pack hangs off the back of the headrail on the same type of bracket that attaches the shade to the window frame. But while hanging the battery pack off the back of the headrail keeps it hidden when you’re in the room, doing so comes with two downsides.
First, you’ll need to take the shade down to access the battery pack when it’s time to replace the batteries. This can be cumbersome when you’re dealing with a larger shade, and you might need a helper. Second, the back of the headrail—as well as part of the motor, the battery pack and its cable, the antenna for the Z-Wave radio, and the three or more mounting brackets—are all exposed to anyone looking at the window from outside your home.
The exposed hardware certainly isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but you probably won’t care if there’s some distance between the window and a spot where someone could reasonably be expected to look at it from outside. If there’s a patio, porch, or sidewalk immediately adjacent to the window, on the other hand, it is a minor eyesore. Also, if you choose a room-darkening shade like I did, you’ll want to know that the back of the shade that faces the window will be white, no matter what color you choose for the interior side. This helps to reflect sunshine, reduce heat transfer, and is much less likely to noticeably fade than a dyed fabric.
Graber shades as part of a smart home system
Raising and lowering the shades with a remote control is fun, but why push buttons when you can command your digital assistant to do it? Since neither Amazon nor Google smart speakers support Z-Wave directly, however, you’ll need to have a smart home hub in between. ZebraBlinds tells me a lot of its customers use Samsung SmartThings or Hubitat Elevation smart home hubs for this, but I elected to enroll the shades (and their remotes) into my Vivint Smart Home system.
The wrinkle is that Vivint doesn’t directly support motorized shades, so if you run into a problem, the company’s tech support might not be able to help you, and it is highly unlikely to roll a truck out to your home. But to the company’s credit, it doesn’t outright bar you from installing products it doesn’t support. And for me, that’s the best of both worlds: I get all the benefits of a professionally installed, monitored, and tech-supported smart home system, but I can take the DIY path whenever I’m so inclined.
To prevent anyone from hacking into your Vivint system, you need to call technical support and provide your security password to have your control panel temporarily unlocked. You can then enroll the shades as if they were Z-Wave dimmer switches. Once I’d done that, I could control the shades with the Vivint app, from the Vivint Sky control panel, or with Alexa via my Amazon Echo and compatible Sonos smart speakers. I have Google Home speakers, too, but I talk to Alexa much more often.
Since the shades are treated like dimmer switches, you’ll need to control them as such. In the Vivint app, for example, the direct shade controls range from “off” (the shade is entirely closed) to five degrees of “on” (effectively, 20, 40, 60, 80, or 100-percent open). This is just like all the other Z-Wave dimmers I’ve installed.
Vivint’s smart home app makes it easy to create custom routines using a variety of events as triggers, so I created a rule that sets the shades to 80-percent open at sunrise, and 0-percent open (closed, in other words) at sunset. As with direct device control, your choices here are 10-, 40-, 60-, 80-, or 100 percent.
I could have created other rules based on time schedules (on at 60 percent at 7 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, and then off at 6:30 p.m. on the same days); according to the status of my security system (off when it’s in armed-stay mode, when I’m typically in bed for the night); or even open to a given percentage when one—or any—of my exterior doors are opened. There are many other possibilities, although not all are appropriate. I could have the shades open or close when my video doorbell detects a visitor, for instance, but would I want that?
Curiously, the Vivint system lets you assign devices to groups—I created one called “Theater Shades” and assigned the two theater shades to it—but then I discovered that while you can control a group of devices manually, you can’t create rules for groups. I originally reported that this forced me to create separate rules for each shade, but a Vivint spokesperson reached out to tell me I can include more than one device in my rule definitions (by placing a checkmark next to each device), even though rules for grouped devices are still on its developer's roadmap.
Controlling Graber shades with a smart speaker
Vivint works with both Alexa and Google Assistant, but as I mentioned earlier, I primarily rely on Alexa-compatible smart speakers, so I’ll describe my experience with that digital assistant here. Unlike Vivint, Amazon does allow you to control groups of smart home devices, so they can operate in sync. Using the Alexa app, I first created a room called “Theater,” and then I assigned the two shades, named “Theater Shade” and “Theater Shade Two” to that room. That lets me push a button in the app to open both shades at the same time—“All On”—and I can close them both at the same time with a button labeled “All Off.” Vivint’s app is actually better on this score, allowing me to specify how far open I want the shades to be (the same value for both).
With the Alexa app, on the other hand, I can create custom routines that trigger either shade or both shades at the same time, and I don’t need to speak to Alexa as if I’m controlling a dimmer switch. For example, I created a custom routine that sets the larger of the two motorized shades at the 50-percent mark when I say “Alexa, open the big shade halfway.” That’s a whole lot more natural to say than “Alexa, set ‘Theater Shade’ to 50 percent.” What’s more, you’re not limited to five increments of “open.” You use a slider to select any number on a 100-point scale.
I set up other Alexa routines to open the shade with the southern exposure to 80-percent open (to block the afternoon sun when it’s high in the sky), and the other shade (which faces west) to 100-percent), and another to close them both at the same time.
If you have other compatible devices in your smart home system, you can mix those into Alexa routines, too. I created a routine so that when I say “Alexa, it’s movie time,” both motorized shades close, my TV turns on, the sconces on both walls come on at 42-percent brightness (they’re all controlled by the same Z-Wave dimmer), and the ventilation fan in the entertainment center where all my other A/V equipment is installed turns on. Keep your phrases easy for Alexa to understand, and there’s virtually no limit to what you can ask her do if you have the right devices.
Decadent, but pricey
Shades aren’t an off-the-shelf product or an impulse buy; they need to be custom made for your windows, and you’ll need to wait a few weeks for delivery (ZebraBlinds’ lead time is 2.5 to 4 weeks, depending on demand). In addition to the other decisions mentioned up top, you’ll also need to decide which style you want, what type of fabric, which color, and more. Each of those decisions will impact the price of the shade. Graber and its dealers, including ZebraBlinds, will send you free swatches so you can pick something you’ll like.
And you should take your time, because these things are anything but cheap. ZebraBlinds charges around $580 for the larger window shaded needed for my home theater (58 x 58 inches), and about $483 for the shade needed for the narrower but equally tall window (33 x 58 inches). But a ZebraBlinds sales rep told me via email that the company routinely offers discounts on its website, and that it frequently offers deals to “home automation customers that come through forums, such as the SmartThings community forums. It does vary but we always have something (customers can ask us for the coupon or check various forums for it).”
In one discount scenario, ZebraBlinds was offering a 41-percent “SmartThings discount,” which would have reduced my $1,063.50 order for both blinds to just $627.46. Another scenario offered a 15-percent “site-wide discount on select cellular or pleated shades,” which would have reduced my order to $744.45. Since any order you might place will be customized, and we have no way of knowing which discounts might be available when you buy, we’ve left pricing off this review’s “At a Glance” box.
The bottom line
These Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shades turned out to be less expensive than I thought, but they are definitely among the priciest accessories with which you can outfit a smart home. The fabric these shades are made from looks and feels luxurious, and the honeycomb design offers great room-darkening and insulating features.
The Somfy motors that raise and lower them are moderately quiet. Sitting on my couch about four feet from the window, I registered an increase in noise level of 9.6dB opening the shade from its fully closed position (I measured the average background noise level in my home theater to be 24.9dB, compared to 34.5dB while the shade motor was operating).
The motor needed less than 30 seconds to roll up the 58-inch shade, or to lower it to its completely closed position using the remote control. Commands relayed via the Vivint Smart Home app or Alexa were delayed slightly by the need for the instructions to travel up to and back down from the cloud.
You can use these motorized shades without a broader smart home system—the Z-Wave remotes come pre-paired to the shades, and they’re very easy to use—but you’ll get the most benefit from them if you have both a smart home hub and a smart speaker. And on that front, be prepared to invest some time into how you can control the shades, both alone and in concert with your other smart home devices. But that will be the fun part for any enthusiast.
I’d like to see Graber come up with a better design for the battery compartment (one that doesn’t require dismounting the shade to replace the batteries), and developing something for the back of the headrail that covers the exposed bits and pieces would add aesthetic value to the shades. Apart from those nits, Graber’s motorized shades deliver plenty of bang for the buck.
Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shade
Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shades aren’t as expensive as you might think, though you’ll also need a smart home hub and a smart speaker to get the most benefit from them. They’re also stylish, supremely convenient, and some models can help reduce your heating and cooling costs.
- Can operate on demand or—with a Z-Wave smart home hub—on a schedule or in concert with other smart home devices
- Custom made for your windows, so you’ll get a perfect fit
- Stylish looks, and some models will help insulate your home
- Graber doesn’t offer any control solution beyond wireless remote controls; you’ll need at least a smart home hub
- Components on the back of the headrail, including the battery case, can be seen from the other side of the window
- Shade must be dismounted to replace the batteries
- Custom made can also mean expensive, especially if you need to cover more than a couple of windows