The dumbest devices in our homes (our lights, not our dogs) have gotten an IQ boost over the past year. It’s as if someone was spiking the electricity with ginko biloba.
So what makes a smart light smart, and why should you care?
Lights are the most pervasive technology in our homes. We can hardly function without them. Even the most rustic campers take flashlights when they head out into the woods. Why do we still settle for such basic functionality as on/off? It’s Neolithic.
The term smart lighting means different things to different people, or different companies. I actually prefer terms like advanced or controllable lights, but whatever word you use, they all lead to the same place.
One of the best features of smart lighting is versatility of control—for most people this means not having to rely on a dedicated wall switch to control the light. Smart lights let you control them from where you are—in your chair, from another room, from another state. The method will depend on the specific device and control protocols, but they all offer convenience over the old-fashioned way of being tied to a specific switch to power a light.
The biggest move is toward controlling lights wirelessly via apps on smart phones or tablets. This method is convenient because it allow you to adjust lights anywhere in the house—perfect for shutting down all the lights for the night, turning off lights your kids left on or dimming a room to watch TV.
Insteon Smart LED lights
With comprehensive lighting systems (rather than just individual smart lights) custom scenes can be programmed, lights can be grouped, ungrouped, timed and customized to your heart’s (or your programmer’s) content.
Smart lighting can lead to energy savings in a several different ways. Simply dimming a lamp a small amount can have a positive impact on your energy use, and you probably would never noticed the difference in light output (many lighting programmers will automatically program the lights to be dimmed 5- or 10 percent by default.
Using things such as motion sensors and times can help prevent energy waste. Also, by combining smart lighting with smart window shades and blinds, you can maximize the sun’s free natural light while you use less electricity.
Lutron smart dimmer
When smart lighting is combined with LED-based lights, which use very little electricity compared to incandescent bulbs, the energy savings are even greater.
Smart lighting allows light to become integral to your room’s design and function. Rather than just turn on a chair lamp in the evening, you can set a reading scene that adjusts the light intensity specific to your task. Lights that are color-adjustable can even be changed to different shades of white, which can make reading more comfortable.
Philips Hue Wi-Fi controlled color-adjustable LED lights
Most people use smart lighting scenes for their main tasks of the day—wake up, dinner, goodnight… A scene for movie watching may turn off all the living room lights at one button press. I visited a home where the kitchen keypad had a scene programmed for morning that turned on can lights above the coffee maker and the breakfast nook, and then rose to full brightness slowly so as not to be a shock to an early riser.
Vacation or away scenes are also very useful, especially when they employ a little random on/off to give the appearance of occupancy.
One of the newest innovations in smart lighting is color adjustable lights. It may seem like Philips launched the trend with its Hue LED light bulbs, but professional integrators have been installing colored LED lighting for several years. Home theater screen maker Screen Innovations even offers colored LED lighting on its Black Diamond Zero Edge projection screens. What Philips did was make the technology easier and more affordable for DIY buyers.
The Philips Hue app
Color-adjustable lights may seem like a gimmick, but they can do a lot to enhance and change the look of a room. Soft blue lighting is great for a lot of TV watching because it doesn’t distract or reflect as much as white light. Red or purple lighting can help create a romantic mood.
Reviews: Philips Hue LED and Tabu Lumen LED color-changing bulbs.
Smart Lights, Smart Switches or Smart Systems?
A lot of the emphasis on smart lighting is in the light or bulb itself, but is that really the best way to manage your move to smart lights? Several of the new smart LED solutions are based around LED lights that have wireless radios (Wi-Fi or something similar) built into them. Sometimes (but not always) a hub device connected to your router is required. This setup is easy to install because it requires no wiring work, but it’s also limiting. When the smart technology is in the bulb, not the switch, then the only way to control the lights is through the app.
For a more integrated solution, install smart lighting switches that provide feedback status so you can control lights from your switch/dimmer/keypad as well as from your phone or tablet app. When lighting is part of a total home control system, your lighting can function in sync with your security, HVAC and entertainment settings.
Read a lot more about smart lighting and related technologies here:
Review: Belkin WeMo Light Switch and Sensor
What Can Your Lights Do?
How to Add Lighting Control to Your House
Inside an AT&T Digital Life Home
Who Left the Lights On?
Theo Kalomirakis Talks Home Theater Mistakes, Lighting and Automation
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.