A Beginner's Guide to Smart Bulbs

Last week we discussed the various options available for replacing your light switches. Another way to smarten up your home’s lighting is with smart bulbs. These are light bulbs that are controllable via your all-purpose hub or a dedicated bridge via an app or automations. Smart bulbs have several advantages and disadvantages over smart switches which means they might have a place in your home, even if you’ve installed switches!

Let’s talk about some of the pros of using smart bulbs:

They’re easy to install. Do you know how to screw in a light bulb? Then you can probably handle installing a smart bulb. There’s no need to touch your wiring or circuit breakers; just screw ‘em in and you’re good to go. This means that they’re perfect for situations in which you can’t install smart switches; such as rentals, if you don’t have a neutral wire (and you can’t use a non-neutral switch), or you don’t have a switch at all (my closets have pull chains).

Individual bulb control. If you have a ceiling full of downlights or spots all connected to a single switch, smart bulbs will allow you to control each bulb (or group of bulbs) separately. Instead of having all the lights in your living room on or off, you can have the lights over the TV off while the rest of the room can be dimmed to 20%.

Color control. Many smart bulbs offer the ability to change colors! This opens up all types of opportunities for mood lighting. Or you can set up automations to have your lights turn red to remind your kids (or yourself) that it’s bedtime. Or have them go multi-colored for disco night.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons not to replace every bulb in your house with smart bulbs. These bulbs, especially the premium brands, are pricey. And if you have multiple bulbs, you can spend hundreds of dollars outfitting one room that, had you replaced the light switch, would have cost under $50.

Another issue with smart bulbs is that they need electricity to power their radios so they can respond to on/off/dim/color commands. So if you, or someone in your household, turns off the light switch, that effectively kills all power to the bulb. With normal bulbs, that’s what you want - cutting power to a bulb turns it off. But with smart bulbs, that also cuts power to the bulb’s internal radio and it can no longer be remotely controlled until the light switch is turned back on. To avoid this issue, people have resorted to covering the light switches to remind household members not to touch them. More drastically, others have gone so far as to remove the light switch completely and connect the wires permanently so that the bulb can only be controlled by its app or automation. Both of these solutions change the way people expect to interact with lights. The best solution I’ve seen is to attach a cover to the switch that contains another, battery-powered switch that can talk to your bulbs. In fact, Lutron just announced a great looking dimmer dial called Aurora that is meant to cover an always-on toggle-style switch while acting as a control for Hue bulbs. This way you don’t have people accidentally turning off the power to the bulbs but still have manual control via a switch.

Similarly, you shouldn’t use smart bulbs on circuits that are controlled by a dimmer switch. Dimmers work by sending less electricity to the bulb. Smart bulbs need a full dose of electricity to power their radios and perform dimming by using their own built-in circuitry.

So which smart bulbs should you choose? The king of this space is Philips Hues. They have the largest selection of bulb types and sizes, from candelabra bulbs to standard A19s to BR30 flood lights to light strips to sunrise-mimicking bedside lamps. They also have different levels of customizability; some have full color control, some are tunable white (meaning you can adjust the temperature or how yellowish or blueish the light looks), and some are just dimmable. The catch here is that Philips Hue bulbs are very expensive. As in $40 per bulb expensive. They go on sale fairly often and the simple dimmer bulbs can sometime be found for $10 but, any way you look at it, outfitting your home with these bulbs is going to be an investment.

You’ll also need the Philips Hue Bridge to connect these bulbs to your phone or home automation hub. Philips uses a form of Zigbee to communicate with its bulbs which is only partially compatible with popular hubs like SmartThings or Hubitat. Using the Bridge ensures complete compatibility so your automations work reliably. Hue also provides battery-less kinetic powered dimmer switchesbattery powered switches,  and motion sensors that work with its Bridge to round out its smart home offering.

Of course, wifi bulbs are also an option. Lifx makes high quality bulbs that can be color controlled via its app and most home automation hubs. Yeelight is a low-cost and flexible entrant in this space with many different bulb styles as well but are not as highly regarded (or warrantied) as Lifx. These being wifi bulbs, no hub is actually required but all the downsides to wifi devices we talked about here still apply. Edit: In late breaking news, Wyze (the $26 camera company!) has announced their own brand of cheap smart bulbs. No word yet on any external automation integration. We'll follow that story for any new developments.

Finally, there are plain Zigbee and Z-Wave bulbs available that will talk to your home automation hub natively. I like Sengled bulbs  because they are so competitively priced - less than $10 a piece for the dimmable bulbs and less than $25 for color. They use standard Zigbee protocols and will work with most hubs (including SmartThings and Hubitat) without any additional hubs or bridges. Ikea’s Tradfri line of bulbs as well as those by Sylvania are also similarly priced. The Tradfri and Sylvania bulbs will also act as Zigbee repeaters but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Zigbee bulbs in general have been known to be unreliable as repeaters and can interfere with your Zigbee mesh if they misbehave or someone turns off the switch they are attached to. Having a non-repeating bulb help avoid any mesh issues should your light get turned off.

The bottom line: Stick to smart switches as much as possible unless you need color control or want to control different bulbs on the same switch separately. Single-bulb lamps are another good use case for smart bulbs. For quality and versatility, go with Philips Hue - but make sure you have or buy a Bridge. For value, buy Sengled.

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