Smart lighting is the most important innovation in lighting since the invention of the lightbulb. It adds so much functionality to such a key part of our lives, elevating the concept of lighting our homes beyond just the utilitarian.
But smart lighting is something you have to experience to really understand its benefits. To many people, it just seems complicated, fiddly, expensive, and way too hard compared to screwing in a “dumb” lightbulb. Here, I’ll explain why and how to get started with smart lighting, how and when to decide between smart bulbs and smart switches, and explore some good options for each.
The benefits of smart lighting
Smart lighting is when your lights are controllable remotely using a wireless connection and a smartphone app. You can set timers for your lights and create schedules or routines to turn them on and off at a set time or based on specific actions. You can sync your lights with sunrise and sunset, dim or change their color, control groups of lights on more than one circuit simultaneously, and have lights turn on and off automatically based on motion and / or occupancy. You can also control the lights using voice commands or with programmable wireless buttons and remotes.
Smart lighting has a lot of great uses, here are just a few:
- Security and safety — Never come home to a dark house again; set lights to turn on randomly while you’re away to deter miscreants. Use motion sensors to trigger outdoor lights at night without any wiring.
- Convenience — If you often fall asleep with the bedside light on, it can shut off automatically. At night a single command or schedule can turn everything off, then back on again in the morning. Motion sensors turn lights on automatically when you walk in a room and then off when you’re gone.
- Health and wellness — Waking up to a gently increasing light is less jarring than an alarm and actually works. Syncing your lights to the color of the sun throughout the day has been shown to help you feel more energized when you need to and start to wind down when it’s time. Color-changing bulbs are fun for parties and events but also useful as a notification. For example, Philips Hue lights can be set to turn blue if it’s raining outside or red if you just got an email from your boss, through the IFTTT service.
The skinny on smart switches versus smart bulbs
There are two categories of smart lighting: smart bulbs and smart switches. You do not have to pick one over the other. In fact, the most effective smart lighting setup in a home will likely be a mix of smart bulbs and smart switches (though it’s unwise to use smart bulbs on a smart switch — more on that below). The challenge here is that there are very few companies that offer both. So, rather than opening three different apps to control your lights, you’ll want to use a smart home platform such as Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings, or Amazon Alexa to control all your lighting.
The good news is that — thanks to a new smart home standard called Matter that promises cross-platform compatibility — you won’t need to worry about which smart home platform a light works with or which technology it uses to communicate (Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, or other). If a bulb or switch is Matter-certified, it will work with any Matter-compatible platform and interoperate with any other Matter device.
The bad news is that Matter won’t be here until later this year, so in the meantime, you will need to pick a platform and a protocol before you start your smart lighting journey. (See “How to pick a protocol” below for more on this). If that all sounds too daunting, don’t worry — you can start with just one brand and get your feet wet using its app for control and grow into a larger smart lighting system as you get more comfortable with the technology and how it fits your needs.
When and why to choose smart bulbs
The most popular type of smart lighting is smart LED bulbs, mainly because they are easy to install and set up. While they used to be very expensive, prices have dropped dramatically, and you can buy a smart, connected LED bulb for as little as $5. While that’s twice as much as a comparable dimmable LED, it’s far more affordable than just a few years ago.
Most (but not all) smart bulbs are dimmable, with three types: white, full-color spectrum, and tunable white lighting (where you can adjust the color temperature from cool to warm, which is how circadian rhythm lighting works).
Standard white smart bulbs are mainly useful if you want individual control of single bulbs in a multi-bulb fixture or on a single electrical circuit. For example, I have a room with eight ceiling-mounted can lights. With smart bulbs installed, I can just have two of them on. That’s not possible with a smart switch.
Another reason to choose smart bulbs is if you want the ability to change colors and / or use tunable white lighting. These are more expensive, but you don’t get this functionality with smart switches either. Smart bulbs are also good for lamps, small fixtures, and other decorative lighting such as wall sconces.
Solving the light switch problem
Unfortunately, in all lighting applications, smart bulbs have a fatal flaw: the light switch. Once you turn the physical switch off, the smart bulb loses power, and with no power comes no control.
While a smart bulb is simple to install (it is indeed, just like screwing in a lightbulb), once in place, your existing light switches become useless.
There are some workarounds beyond the janky hack of tape over your light switch. You can try to encourage your household only to use voice control. But this takes longer than flipping a switch and will meet resistance. You can set up routines and automations using a smartphone app or smart home platform to turn your lights on and off at set times of day or by using smart motion sensors (separate hardware is often required, but most manufacturers sell compatible sensors). But these solutions can be hard to dial in to exactly how you live your life, especially as life changes! In general, motion sensors are best suited to hallways, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.
The simplest solution to the light switch problem is to buy wireless remote controls for your smart bulbs. If you wall-mount them, they become wireless light switches. The benefit is that you can install them yourself without messing with wiring. But you may need to cover up your old switches, which can involve dealing with wires.
Another downside is most remote controls are battery-powered, and one day, that battery will run out, and you’ll have to deal with replacing it. Some smart solutions power themselves kinetically every time you press them, such as Click for Hue, but these are as expensive as many wired smart switches and don’t always respond to the first press.
Smart switches remove the pain point of smart bulbs because they control the power. Unlike smart bulbs, smart switches don’t turn off when someone flips the switch. Instead, they stay powered even when “off,” so they can continue running automations and accepting commands from you and your smart home.
Since a switch controls an entire circuit, when you install one, any lights controlled by your old switch are now smart. This means you probably won’t need to buy new bulbs, but if you want to use the dimming capabilities of most smart switches, you will need to have dimmable LED bulbs.
Smart switches are generally more expensive than smart bulbs. They range in price from $25 to $80 (and upwards); the more basic on / off is the cheapest, and those with dimming and / or motion-sensing cost more. However, one smart switch could replace the need for a number of smart bulbs, making it often the cheaper option. This also makes smart switches a good choice for rooms with recessed ceiling lighting, large light fixtures with multiple bulbs, and any light fixture that doesn’t have a replaceable or common bulb type.
Smart switches are also a good solution for lights in hard-to-reach places such as vaulted ceilings and for outdoor lights controlled by indoor switches.
A downside to smart switches is there’s no color control. You can’t add tunable lighting or bathe your living room with the colors of your favorite sports team on game day. Pairing a smart switch with a smart bulb doesn’t work as the smart switch turns off power to the bulb, just like a regular switch. Dimming switches also don’t mesh with smart bulbs as dimming disrupts the power to the bulb, making it do whacky things like flicker or go unresponsive.
Another issue with switches is installation. They have to be hardwired to your home’s electrical wiring, and this is one of the more involved DIY smart home projects you will tackle. If you don’t know what you are doing, you should consider hiring an electrician.
Neutral wires, three-ways, and other smart switch considerations
Most smart switches require a neutral wire to provide continuous power to the switch. This ensures that the switch is still on when the lights are off. A lot of older homes built before the 1980s don’t have this third wire. A few companies have developed workarounds, offering no-neutral wire smart switches. Most of these require a separate hub, as the switches use a low-power wireless protocol like Zigbee or a proprietary RF frequency.
The final challenge with smart switches is that there are many different types, and you’ll need to figure out the best solution for your setup. There are single-pole (on / off), dimmable, motion sensing, and three-way switches, plus combinations of all of the above and specialized switches. While the first three are somewhat self-explanatory, three-way switches can be tricky.
A three-way switch is when a single lighting circuit is controlled by two separate light switches in different locations — so there are three ways to the circuit. You can’t use two smart switches to control one lighting circuit, especially if you want to use dimming. Instead, you need to install one smart switch and put a remote control for the light switch in the second location. Currently, Lutron Caseta and Leviton’s smart switch lines offer some of the simplest solutions for this and have wall plates you can use to mount the remote so that it looks just like a switch.
Another option is the Brilliant line of smart switches, which are a combination of a touchscreen controller and a physical switch. These are wired like a traditional light switch, so you won’t have to deal with replacing batteries. But they are very expensive (a touchscreen switch starts at $400) and may be more than you need if you are just looking to control some lighting. Brilliant is one of the only smart switches I have tested that works with smart bulbs; as discussed earlier, most smart switches can’t properly control smart bulbs.
What about smart plugs?
Smart plugs are an excellent complementary tech to smart switches, as they address the problem of lighting that isn’t hardwired into the wall and so can’t be controlled by a smart switch. They are the best alternative to smart bulbs for controlling lamps and other plug-in light fixtures. You can also opt for smart outlets, but those require installation in the same way as smart switches.
Smart plugs are easier to install than switches: just plug one into a regular outlet and plug your lamp into the smart plug. They have most of the same features as smart switches. As with smart switches, some add the ability to dim your lamps. You can also use a smart power strip to control multiple lamps. For example, two lamps on either side of the bed can be controlled by one smart outlet strip under the bed.
Weatherproof outdoor smart plugs are a good solution for existing plug-in outdoor lighting, such as string lights.
All smart lighting products rely on one of a number of wireless protocols to enable their smart, connected features. The most popular options are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Mesh, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or a proprietary RF developed by the manufacturer. We are also starting to see a handful of Thread options, with more likely to be announced later this year when Matter arrives.
While Matter should allow you to control your lights in any smart home ecosystem and let you mix and match protocols more easily, you still need to think carefully about which protocol you pick. There are significant differences in price, setup, and reliability.
In short, Wi-Fi smart bulbs don’t require a separate hub or bridge, so there’s less initial expense. Bluetooth mesh does need a hub for things like out-of-home remote control, but many can use an Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker in that role. However, Bluetooth has limited range and can experience significant latency (the time it takes the light to respond to a command). Zigbee, Z-Wave, and proprietary RF protocols are generally the most reliable but require a separate bridge, which can be expensive. Lutron’s Caseta bridge is $80, for example.
Thread is a newer option with limited products in the market, but early examples, such as Nanoleaf Essentials A19 bulbs and Eve smart plugs, indicate it is both fast and reliable. It is one of the primary protocols Matter will run on when it arrives later this year. It doesn’t require a proprietary hub but does need a Thread border router. Many border routers are available today, including Apple’s HomePod Mini and Amazon’s Eero Wi-Fi router. Google Nest hubs and some Amazon Echo smart speakers are scheduled to become Thread border routers, too.