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).
Philips Hue is a premium brand of smart bulbs offering good color, decent brightness, and broad compatibility. It has one of the biggest ranges of smart bulbs and light fixtures, including white, tunable white, and color-changing bulbs in A19 and BR30, as well as specialty bulbs and lightstrips, all of which are dimmable. A starter kit includes three white bulbs, a bridge, and a remote control for $99. But you can skip the bridge and pick up a single bulb for $16 that will connect to your phone or smart speaker.
Communication protocols: Bluetooth, Zigbee (with a bridge) Works with: Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Samsung SmartThings, IFTTT, Apple HomeKit (with a hub)