Right Smart Lighting: How to Choose it for Homes

Smart lighting is the most crucial innovation in lighting since the invention of the lightbulb. It adds so much functionality to a critical part of our lives, elevating the concept of lighting our homes beyond just the utilitarian.

But intelligent lighting is something you have to experience to understand its benefits. To many people, it just seems complicated, fiddly, expensive, and way too complex compared to screwing in a “dumb” lightbulb. 

Benefits of Smart Lighting

Bright lighting is when your lights are controllable remotely using a wireless connection and a smartphone app. You can set timers for your lamps and create schedules or routines to turn them on and off at a set time or based on specific actions.

For example, you can sync your lights with sunrise and sunset, dim or change their color, control groups of lights simultaneously on more than one circuit, and have lights turn on and off automatically based on motion and / or occupancy. You can also control the lights using voice commands or programmable wireless buttons and remotes.

  • Security and Safety: You will 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, 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 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 and useful as a notification. 

There are two categories of intelligent lighting: smart bulbs and smart switches. You do not have to pick one over the other. The most effective brilliant lighting setup in a home will likely be a mix of smart bulbs and smart switches.

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 an innovative home platform such as Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings, or Amazon Alexa to manage all your lighting.

Thanks to a new intelligent home standard called Matter that promises cross-platform compatibility, the good news is that you won’t need to worry about which smart home platform a light works with or which technology it uses to communicate. If a Matter-certified bulb or switch, 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 starting your imaginative 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 more extensive intelligent lighting system as you get more comfortable with the technology and how it fits your needs.

The most popular type of intelligent 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.

Philips Hue is a premium brand of smart bulbs offering good color, decent brightness, and broad compatibility. It has one of the most extensive ranges of smart bulbs and light fixtures, including white, tunable white, and color-changing bulbs in A19 and BR30, as well as dimmed specialty bulbs and light strips.

A starter kit includes three white bulbs, a bridge, and 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. 

Sengled’s bulbs are excellent and inexpensive, starting at $7.50. There are many bulb types and protocols, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave compatible A19, BR30, and specialty bulbs, plus light strips. All the bulbs work with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, and the Zigbee version is HomeKit compatible.

For a basic budget smart bulb, Wyze produces good quality A19 dimmable bulbs in tunable white or full color, starting at $8.50. It also has light strips. The bulbs go from 30 to 1100 lumens and work over Wi-Fi; there’s no need for a hub or bridge. Wyze’s app is easy to use, and you can pair the bulbs with Alexa or Google Home for voice control and other intelligent home automation.

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 intelligent switches. Smart bulbs are also suitable for lamps, small fixtures, and another decorative lighting such as wall sconces.

Unfortunately, intelligent bulbs have a fatal flaw in all lighting applications: the light switch. Once you turn the physical switch off, the intelligent bulb loses power. With no power comes no control.

While a bright bulb is simple to install (it is like screwing in a lightbulb), once in place, your existing light switches become useless.

There are some workarounds beyond the janky tape hack 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 automation using a smartphone app or innovative home platform to turn your lights on and off at set times of the day or by using intelligent motion sensors (separate hardware is often required, but most manufacturers sell compatible sensors). But these solutions can be complex to determine exactly how you live your life, especially as life changes! Motion sensors are best suited to hallways, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.

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 course. You can’t use two intelligent buttons to control one lighting circuit, especially if you want to use dimming. Instead, you need to install one smart switch and remote control for the light switch in the second location.

Currently, Lutron Caseta and Leviton’s bright switch lines offer some of the most straightforward solutions for this and have wall plates you can use to mount the remote so that it looks just like a switch. Smart plugs are an excellent complimentary tech to intelligent switches.

They address the problem of lighting that isn’t hardwired into the wall and can’t be controlled by an intelligent controller. They are the best alternative to smart bulbs for holding lamps and other plug-in light fixtures. You can also opt for intelligent outlets, but those require installation the same way as smart switches.