Smart light bulbs are becoming more and more popular and are one of the first things people think about when considering a ‘smart home.’
They offer many benefits over standard lighting, with only one real drawback – the cost. Smart bulbs can be expensive, but there’s a lot you can do with them.
So are smart bulbs suitable for you?
Read this extensive guide to learn everything you need to know, and make up your own mind.
How Does Smart Home Lighting Work?
Smart light bulbs are essentially the same as a regular light bulb but with an extra chip inside.
This chip lets you control many bulb features, from the simple on/off functionality to the brightness and color in some bulbs.
You do this through an app on your smartphone or tablet.
Download the relevant app for your chosen bulb(s), and with a little bit of setup work, you’ll have complete control from the palm of your hand.
Let’s get a bit deeper into different aspects of smart bulbs.
Different Types of Smart Lighting
There are three main types of smart lights that you can buy.
The first is a smart light bulb.
These are the same as any bulb you can buy and come in different sizes (to mirror the exact measures of regular light bulbs) and in both screw and bayonet fittings.
They work in any regular light bulb fixture too.
The second type is smart light strips.
These are strips of LED lights that you can stick to almost any surface and can then be controlled via the app on your phone, just like the bulbs.
Smart strips are ideal for up-lighting in coving, for surrounding your TV, or as highlights for staircases, under kitchen units, or in other darker alcoves.
You can read more about strip lighting in my other guide.
The final type of smart light is the self-contained light.
Essentially these are enclosed lamps that come in various shapes and sizes with the same smart light technology.
If you want to use smart lights in a lamp, these give you more options, although you can also just use a smart light bulb in a typical desk or floor lamp.
You have the choice, depending on what works best for you.
One of the more exciting features of smart lighting is the choice of colors available to you.
The majority of light bulbs are a single color.
They can be a warm white that’s more of orange color or a cooler blue, but often a standard bulb will be somewhere in the middle of the Kelvin scale.
With smart bulbs, you could opt for a ‘normal’ white color, or you might prefer a bulb that runs the range of white shades.
Often called ‘white ambiance’ or similar depending on the manufacturer, these let you change the color temperature of the light, so you can use a cooler white when you need to stay focused, and change to a warmer temperature when you want to relax.
Alternatively, if you pay for the most expensive smart lights, you could choose full RGB spectrum lighting.
These lights offer complete color customization – in theory, around 16 million shades are available, just based on the different color codes you could choose from.
The RGB lights have several uses.
They’re great for modern lighting setups where you want to set a mood or for kids’ bedrooms if you’re going to give them something fun.
Just be careful that they don’t discover the option to cycle through flashing colors if you want to avoid upsetting the neighbors.
Smart Light Benefits
What are the main benefits of having bulbs you can control from an app?
Well, most of us carry our phones with us everywhere we go.
Even at home, it’s generally in a pocket or on a desk or the arm of a couch within easy reach. You don’t need to get up to turn off a light; you can do it from your phone.
This might sound lazy but think of some of the practical applications.
Do you enjoy reading in bed, but you don’t have a lamp or a switch near you?
Now you can turn off the lights when you’re about to doze off, without having to leave your comfy spot under the covers.
Children in need of a nightlight to help them get to sleep?
Use a smart bulb, and you can set a dim light that you can then turn off after a couple of hours without needing to creep in and potentially wake them.
And that’s before you get to some of the cleverer applications.
Many bulbs have routines you can set or even create – why not wake up to a gradually brightening light in the morning, bringing you gently out of your deep sleep, so you feel more refreshed?
And if you want to really delve into some clever third-party apps, you can have your lights do all sorts of neat tricks on top of their regular use.
You could set them to mirror flashes of lightning to scare trick or treaters on Halloween?
Or just have them flash when your pizza order is about to arrive?
If you buy a smart fire alarm, you can even set them to flash when the alarm is triggered, which is fantastic for anyone hard of hearing.
This just scratches the surface of some of the potential ways you can use smart lighting in your home.
Smart Lighting Costs
So, intelligent lights don’t need special fixtures, and they offer a lot of extra features that can be really handy.
Why haven’t we all made the switch to only buying smart bulbs already?
The main reason is the cost.
Smart lights are a lot more expensive than a standard light bulb.
For example, if you buy a Philips Hue White A19 smart bulb on Amazon you’re likely to pay around $15.
You could buy a 6-pack of non-smart Amazon Basics brand LED bulbs of the same size for the same price.
It gets worse if you decide on RGB bulbs.
Don’t be surprised to see a Hue RGB bulb set you back around $50, although you can often find bundles that offer better value.
You may also want to buy a hub to make it easier to control a large number of bulbs or operate them remotely.
Expect to pay another $50-60 for that standalone, unless you decide to begin with a starter pack that includes the hub and at least one bulb.
WiFi vs Bluetooth vs Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Technologies Used In Smart Lighting
There are a number of different network technologies used within smart bulbs. Here’s a breakdown of each of them, and their benefits.
There’s no twist here – WiFi just refers to your regular WiFi network at home.
Smart lights that use a WiFi signal will use your WiFi router as a communication hub. When you ask your phone to turn off your lights, it connects directly via your home wireless connection.
This has its benefits – your coverage will be pretty strong (if you have an OK router), you don’t need to buy an extra hub. WiFi networks are designed to control a lot of devices (although, eventually, bandwidth may struggle, mainly if you stream a lot of videos or make online video calls too).
The main drawback is WiFi’s unreliability.
How often has someone in your family asked if the WiFi is down, even if it’s fine for other devices?
It generally works but can be temperamental.
Newer generations of smart bulbs often include Bluetooth technology.
Bluetooth’s another easy-to-use option that doesn’t require a hub – your phone will just connect directly with the bulbs to control them.
However, there are some drawbacks to Bluetooth. The range is low – approximately 30 feet, though that can vary – and you can only communicate with so many bulbs at once.
As an example, with Philips Hue, it is 10 bulbs. Unfortunately, this typically isn’t enough for your whole home.
You also can’t group bulbs, which would let you switch off all lights in one room at a time.
Zigbee is described as a ‘self-forming mesh network, which just means that as soon as you power on a Zigbee-enabled device, it will instantly reach out and connect with other Zigbee devices in range.
Each device also acts as a mini-hub to relay your ‘messages’ from the app to other devices, which boosts the range.
Zigbee networks are very similar to WiFi, operating on a 2.4Ghz radio frequency – there is a small chance of interference between the two, but it’s not common – and you do need a separate hub.
This might be a branded lighting hub for smart lights, or you can buy a dedicated hub for a wider range of smart tech.
Some smart speakers, like the top-end Amazon Echo Plus, work as a Zigbee hub.
Z-Wave is another technology similar to Zigbee, requiring its own hub to work and operating separately from your WiFi.
Z-Wave works on the 800-900Mhz range, so it has no chance of interfering with your WiFi.
Z-Wave devices also automatically connect with each other and extend their range.
However, it is less widely available – it is starting to be used in some smart lights, but its main use so far has been in smart sensors.
Which Network Is Best?
There’s no easy answer for which of these networks is best.
Philips Hue bulbs are Zigbee, while TP-Link bulbs run on WiFi alone. Hue bulbs can also work on Bluetooth, but it’s a newer tech.
Generally, WiFi is the go-to option for cheaper smart bulbs. More expensive ones will use Zigbee with the option of Bluetooth included.
Z-Wave is still an emerging tech.
Zigbee and Z-Wave are more expensive than WiFi tech. Until recently, Z-Wave was a closed technology, so manufacturers had to pay a high fee to license it.
You do get more control and customization options between your smart devices with these more advanced options though.
|Range||Depends on your router, but usually good||Low range of 30 feet||Great, as each new Zigbee device extends the range||Great, as each new Z-Wave device extends the range|
|RF Band||2.4Ghz or 5Ghz||2.4Ghz||2.4Ghz||900Mhz|
|Hub required?||Regular WiFi router||No||Yes||Yes|
|Availability in smart devices||Widely available||Uncommon||Common||Rare|
Smart Bulbs And Hubs: Do You Need One?
In a lot of earlier generations of smart lighting options, a hub was an essential requirement.
Now, not so much as many bulbs can work without one on a Bluetooth connection.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore a hub, as they give you a lot more control over your lights.
But what exactly is a hub?
A hub is a tiny bit of kit that connects all of your smart bulbs in your home over WiFi.
It then acts as a relay – your smartphone app connects to the hub, not directly to the bulbs.
When you change a setting, the app tells the hub, which then commands the bulb – often on a different type of network like Zigbee to your WiFi one.
Now, many bulbs are Bluetooth enabled, so your app does connect directly to the bulb. But as I said previously, you can only connect to so many ~10.
It means you can group them to one named command. So, you can turn off bulbs individually or command all 10 at once.
But you can’t link 4 of them to one group and 6 to another.
If you want to do that, you’ll need a hub. This will let you set multiple rooms in your home, so you can turn all the living room lights off but leave the bedroom and landing lights on.
Another thing that a hub lets you do is control your lights remotely.
The main benefit of this is making it look like you’re at home while you’re on vacation – you can do this with routines. Still, you can also control it manually if you prefer.
This can help deter any potential intruders while you’re gone unless you plan to leave Kevin home alone :).
If you have more than 10 smart lights in your home, or you want to group them into various rooms, a hub is a handy bit of a kit.
It’s easy to set up – it just needs a power outlet and then an ethernet cable running directly from the hub into your router so that your non-Zigbee or Z-Wave devices (AKA your smartphone) can communicate with it.
Do Smart Lighting Works With Home Assistants?
Not only do smart light bulbs work with home assistants, but they’re also practically made for each other.
There’s nothing easier than asking Google, Alexa, or Siri to turn on your lights as you get home, and it’s even faster than opening the app on your phone to do it.
Depending on your WiFi connection, it’s really quick, too – there’s no need to stand waiting around when you arrive through your door while the command is carried out.
And if you’re using a hub, you can set room names, and it becomes even easier again. For example, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” or “Siri set Steve’s lights to 30% brightness” is all it takes.
And again, if you combine your smart lights with another smart tech in your home and some clever third-party apps, you can set whole routines with just your voice.
“Hey Google, start movie night” could turn the main lights down, set your strip lighting to a cool color, open Netflix on your smart TV, and even set the thermostat to kick in while you get cozy.
There are lots of customization options.
How To Install Smart Home Lighting
Installing smart home lighting is really simple, and here’s why:
- You don’t need any special base or fitting
- You don’t need special wiring
- You don’t need any extra power, or a fixture with extra wattage
Smart bulbs will literally just replace your standard bulbs and work.
However, there is one thing you need to consider – the strength of your home WiFi network.
If you have a large home or a poor-quality router, your bulbs might not connect properly. And the more bulbs you add to your network, the more strain you’ll be putting on it.
Every smart bulb takes up bandwidth in your network.
Think about how many devices you have connected to your network at once. Maybe a couple of smart TVs, a few smartphones, and a couple of laptops?
Now add in 12 light bulbs. You’ve just doubled the number of devices fighting for a bit of space.
It might not be a problem immediately, but some cheap routers – especially those often provided for free with your internet package – will eventually start to struggle. So you might want to upgrade your router.
And if you don’t have many devices, but your home is large, consider a WiFi extender to boost your signal to reach your bulbs.
How Many Bulbs, And Where?
When you’re installing smart lights in your home, you might be tempted to swap every bulb if you’ve got the budget to spare.
But think for a minute, do you really need to do that?
It might make sense to only swap some of your more frequently-used bulbs or those that are often switched on or off.
If you have a light that you don’t use a lot or that tends to stay on for many hours at a time, it might not be a priority upgrade.
Having said that, if you do want to splash out, you might not want to limit your smart lighting to the inside of your home.
Porch and garden lights can also be smart if you want them to be. Although many outdoor lights already work on a motion sensor, consider whether it’s worth the investment.
Also read: Do Smart Bulbs Work With Touch Lamps?
Choosing The Right Lights
There are various types of light you could choose for your home, and it’s essential to plan your lighting carefully when installing a new smart lighting system.
Don’t just assume that the best thing to do is replace the main bulbs.
Consider the mix of bulbs and light strips.
Strips are suitable for highlighting alcoves or ceilings or for running under kitchen units.
Also, don’t neglect the purpose of your lighting.
If it’s for safety, traditional bulbs will likely illuminate your space more. Still, if it’s more about creating a gentle mood, a strip light can do a better job of creating a subtle accent or projecting light into darker corners depending on where the strip is positioned.
Take some time before you shop to plan your intended light levels, and then work out whether you need to invest more in bulbs, strips or a combination of the two.
Also read: Do Smart Bulbs Work In Ceiling Fans?
Best Smart Lighting Systems For Home
There are many different brands of smart bulbs available. If I was to write about every single one, then this guide would become an entire book.
So instead, I will offer some general advice and then give you thoughts on two of the most popular brands.
Generally, smart light bulbs will either fall into the cheaper WiFi-only camp or run on a dedicated Zigbee network (or, in some rare cases, Z-Wave).
Suppose you want the full range of customization options, including linking lights with other smart devices for routines.
In that case, it’s best to go for a Zigbee-based solution.
If you just want to directly control lights individually, WiFi is perfectly fine.
A bulb from a reliable smart brand will last you between 15,000 and 25,000 hours. If you use the bulb even for 10 hours a day, that’s between 1,500 and 2,500 days, or 5 and 8 years.
The US government places a much more conservative estimate of 1.4 to 1.6 hours per day for lightbulb usage, so a 15,000 hour bulb could last 25 years.
With a cheaper bulb, don’t expect the same quality.
Parts will be manufactured to lower standards and will absolutely burn out much faster.
You need to be prepared to replace your bulbs more regularly if you decide to save money upfront with a lower-cost brand.
And then there’s the app functionality.
Remember that major brands invest money in their hardware and their software, including user experience.
If you buy a cheap bulb, don’t be surprised if the app is slow to open and not the most user-friendly when it does work.
Philips Hue is possibly the most renowned brand of smart lighting in the western world.
They were one of the first manufacturers of Zigbee-based smart lights and have a huge range of lighting options.
Not only can you buy regular smart bulbs, but they also have a wide range of smart lighting strips, including those more suited to outdoor use.
They’re also the most prominent manufacturer of self-contained smart lights such as the Hue Bloom or the Hue Impress Outdoor Light.
And they have a range of accessories including switches, extension cables and more.
One seriously cool feature is the option to buy a Play HDMI Sync Box, which works with your TV or games consoles and syncs up your lighting to match.
As the colors on the screen change, so do the lights in the room for a totally immersive experience. You don’t need a Sync box if you buy certain Philips Ambilight TVs, which have built-in technology (and lights).
Hue bulbs and accessories are also some of the most expensive. Still, the reliability of how they work, the ease of the app, and the extensive compatibility with home assistants and other smart devices make them a solid choice, especially for users who want something that works.
- Simple to Get Started; Set the mood with 16 million colors. Control your Philips Hue Smart Lights all with just the touch of a button on your mobile device or your favorite voice assistant. Add up to...
- Lifetime: 22 years or 25,000 lifetime hours (based on industry average usage), Energy Star Certified
- Previous Hue Customers; This smart light, while Bluetooth compatible, will continue to work with your Hue Hub and can be seamlessly integrated into your current Hue Ecosystem. With the Hue Hub, you...
- Set the right mood: Style up your home decor with color accents or set up fun light colors for your next party. Support your day with pre-set light recipes, to get you energized in the morning and...
- Certified for humans: Struggle-free, tinker-free, stress-free. No patience needed—they’re actually simple.
Last update on 2021-10-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
TP-Link bulbs work on WiFi, so there’s no need to buy a separate hub to get them to work – you can control them on your home network.
They’re an excellent quality bulb with a lifespan to rival that of Philips Hue.
However, because they work on WiFi, they don’t have the same number of features.
You can control them with a smart speaker/home assistant, but you’ll need to install the “skill” as it doesn’t work out of the box.
A skill is the name of a downloadable feature with smart assistants. For example, go to the app that controls your smart speaker, and search for the TP-Link skill to download.
Suppose you aren’t too concerned with setting up complex routines, linking your bulbs with other technology, and you’ve got a robust WiFi network. In that case, TP-Link could be a much more affordable solution.
- CONTROL FROM ANYWHERE Turn electronics on or off from anywhere with your smartphone using the Kasa app (Compatible w/ Android & iOS)
- VOICE CONTROL Works with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana supported devices for a hands free experience
- TUNABLE 60 Watt Equivalent, dim brightness and fine tune light appearance from soft white (2700 K) to daylight (6500 K)
- KASA SCENES & SCHEDULES; Schedule the Smart Bulb to automatically turn on and off when away
- NOTE: Requires a secured 2.4 GigaHertz Wi Fi network connection
Last update on 2021-10-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Do Smart Bulbs Need Special Wiring?
Smart bulbs don’t need any special wiring – they’ll work in any regular light fixture or, for strip lights, when plugged into a regular outlet.
That’s because they operate on the exact power requirements of a regular bulb. So the chip that lets the bulb be controlled by the app doesn’t draw much extra power.
Also smart lighting doesn’t use more electricity.
Do Smart Bulbs Require a Smart Switch?
You don’t need to buy a smart switch if you buy smart bulbs, although some smart lighting manufacturers do sell their own wireless switches, to save you opening the app on your phone.
You may not need smart lights if you already own a smart switch since you already have a non-wired control device.
Just make sure the smart switch is within easy reach, and you won’t need an app.
Smart lighting does have more features than a standard smart switch/regular light bulb combination, though. Hence, it is still worth considering the upgrade.
Can I Combine Multiple Smart Bulb Brands In Home?
Technically, nothing stops you from mixing and matching smart lights from different manufacturers in your home.
However, you won’t be creating one elegant lighting system.
You’ll likely need to use multiple different apps to control your lights, and you won’t be able to easily group them into rooms. In contrast, voice commands like “switch off all lights” won’t work.
There are some ways around this using third-party apps that can use different programs or ‘scenes,’ but that’s a lot of extra work to set them up, and with each new bulb you add to your system, you need to rework it.
It’s much easier to always buy from the same manufacturer. Even if you spot a deal that looks really tempting for a rival brand.
Do Smart Bulbs Work Without WiFi?
Not all smart bulbs require WiFi to work.
Many can be controlled over Bluetooth.
If you don’t plan on installing many bulbs and you have no need to control them remotely, a Bluetooth connection could be just what you need.
And if you rely on the WiFi but you have internet problems, don’t worry.
You can still control smart light bulbs manually using regular light switches.
If the switch is set to on, but the bulb is off, just flick the switch to the off position, wait approximately 5 seconds, then switch it on.
The bulb should illuminate if you’ve bought from a reputable brand – this reset ensures you can still turn on your lights even if the WiFi is down.
Are Smart Bulbs A Security Risk?
Some people are worried about whether smart lights can spy on you.
They don’t have cameras or microphones, so they can’t ‘spy.’ Still, a sophisticated hacker could use their connection to your router to compromise your home network.
But, they could do the same with your smart TV, or your phone using malware, or indeed any device that you connect to your network.
Smart bulbs aren’t inherently riskier, and buying from a reputable manufacturer ensures you get regular safety updates too.
Just follow essential security tips, like using a complex WiFi password and regularly updating your devices, and you should be fine.
Smart home technology is constantly evolving.
As little as 5 years ago, smart lighting was the preserve of the actual tech experts in their homes, but it’s becoming a lot more mainstream now as people realize it’s not as scary as it can seem, and there are a lot of excellent benefits.
The great thing about smart lighting is you don’t have to swap out every bulb at once.
Why not start small, with a couple of bulbs in one room, and then slowly build on that?
That way, you can spread the cost and get used to the setup (and having the freedom to control lights in new ways) before you convert your whole home.
Which smart light brand do you use at home? And do you have any fun routines set up that your lights play a part of?