The biggest story in the world of lighting over the past decade has been the phase-out of inefficient incandescent light bulbs. Between the increasing efficiencies and decreasing costs of the replacement compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), as well as the implementation of federal energy-efficiency standards, customers across the United States are now widely familiar with the more efficient alternatives and enjoy the savings on their power bills. If the past 10 years were a story of home lighting becoming more efficient, though, the next 10 years will undoubtedly be recognized as the time when home lighting became smarter.
Smart home products, including not only smart lights but also smart speakers (like the Amazon Echo) and smart thermostats (like the Nest), have become incredibly popular and are commonly offered from many different manufacturers and stores. But many people are still afraid to dip their toes into the smart home world, be it for confusion about how to best do so, uncertainty about what the exact benefits are, or even just for out of not completely understanding what smart products are.
When it comes to smart lighting, though, taking an initial plunge doesn’t have to be intimidating. To get started, here’s some background information about the smart lighting revolution and some tips about how to get involved yourself.
What is smart lighting?
Controlling the functions of your home remotely or automatically used to sound like something you’d only see in futuristic movies, but the past few years have really seen the home automation and control market take off. Within these smart home products, lights are among the easiest to integrate into your daily life.
Put simply, smart lights enable automation and control of your home lighting systems as connected through a central hub that takes the form of an app on your phone or a program on your computer or tablet. This degree of control enables homeowners to adjust properties of the lights, including level of dimming, schedule of turning them on or off, color of the light, and more. This control can take the form of live, in-person adjustment, scheduling it on a timer, or even programming them to respond to other inputs (e.g., sensors detecting occupancy or levels of natural light). Smart lighting puts you in direct control of your lights to a degree that was never before possible.
The complexity and features offered by smart lights range from the simplest of products that simply turn on and off remotely to the more advanced products that allow for full control over color, allow the programming of flashing lights in specific patterns, adjust the light levels based on the amount of natural light sensed in the home, and even some models that will use artificial intelligence to learn the typical lighting schedule in your home and automate based on that. Smart lighting is a broad term that covers a rapidly expanding market of products, but again it all boils down to one thing: giving you complete control over your lights.
How does it work?
The process for setting up your smart lights will depend on the specific model you’ve purchased, with some as easy as simply screwing in the light bulb and opening your phone and others requiring a bit more complex of a set-up process. That fact shouldn’t scare you off, as smart light providers have typically adopted one of a few types of automation standards.
All smart lights have some sort of communication function built into them, which takes the form of WiFi capabilities, Bluetooth functionality, or specially designed communication protocols (such as Zigbee or Z-Wave). These communication abilities each enable you to connect with them through your phone or other device, adjusting the light levels in real-time or via automation. However, when selecting your lights, it’s important to recognize the advantages and disadvantages of each:
- WiFi lights connect to your home internet, so you can control them from anywhere in the world when you have an internet connection. The downside, though, is that if your internet goes down then so too does your remote control.
- Bluetooth lights communicate with each other without any outside equipment (such as an internet router or smart hub), but they can only be connected to a single user’s device (which can be frustrating in a home with multiple people) and they cannot be controlled when you are out of Bluetooth range.
- Special protocols enable your smart lights to communicate effectively with any other smart home products you may have, but they typically require a secondary piece of equipment known as a hub that communicates with all the devices.
Regardless of the type of smart light you choose, though, the manufacturers will include clear instructions and indications of what other products/systems with which they are compatible.
What are the advantages?
All products on the smart lighting market are LEDs or CFLs, so if you are still lighting your home with incandescent light bulbs then new smart lights will inherently be much more efficient. But even if you’ve already been using these efficient lights, among the prominent advantages of smart lights is that the level of control they offer enables you to maximize the energy efficiency of your home.
These optimized efficiencies are achieved with a complete home lighting system arrangement. Specific efficiency strategies using smart lights include dictating lower levels of light in less-frequented areas or those with sufficient natural light and using occupancy sensors and timers to eliminate lights from being accidentally left on. These simple strategies have been proven energy savers: the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership finds that only 10% of residential sockets are installed on dimming switches, so using smart lights with their inherent dimming abilities can greatly reduce overall energy demand for lighting; meanwhile, other studies find that motion sensors connected to smart lights in areas like busy hallways can reduce the associated energy needs by up to 90%.
While energy savings, and associated drops in electricity bills, are certainly among the most exciting advantages of smart lights, the benefits don’t end there. Smart lights can be used as a home security measure, by scheduling your lights to turn on and off while on vacation to deter burglars. Additionally, some smart lights can even turn on automatically when they sense that you (and your smartphone) are approaching the front door, eliminating the safety concerns of walking into a pitch-black home. These products can even be used to maximize your health and productivity, adjusting colors and light levels in the perfect way to gently wake you up in the morning, transition your mind for sleep at night, and minimize strain on your eyes when staring at a laptop for hours.
How do I get started?
If you’ve been convinced that smart lighting is right for your home, the only question left is how to get started. While most light bulbs you’d previously buy at the hardware store were interchangeable, the nuances of different models of smart lights requires buyers to consider what features and characteristics are most important:
- Power use: Not only do efficiencies of various smart lights differ, but they also use varying levels of standby power, even when off
- Light levels: Whereas wattage used to be used as a proxy for light levels (most 60-watt incandescent lights put out about the same amount of light), buyers need to carefully consider the level of illumination offered by different bulbs.
- Dimming capabilities: Most, but not all, smart lights offer dimming
- Geo-fencing: If a smart light offers geo-fencing, it can turn on and off based on GPS signals from your phone telling it your location
- Color control: Some lights don’t offer control over color, some allow for adjustments of warmness of the white light, and others offer any color of the rainbow
- Communication system: Based on the previously mentioned advantages and disadvantages of WiFi vs. Bluetooth vs. other communication protocols, you’ll have to select which is the best for your needs
- Compatibility: Not all smart home products communicate well with each other, so if you’re looking to create a whole home system then it’s important to ensure they’re all compatible (the packaging will typically address this for you)
- Price: With the above and other features available, smart light prices fall across a spectrum depending on how sophisticated they are, so you’ll need to balance your needs with the resultant price
Once you have these factors identified, you’ll be well on your way to choosing the smart lights for you and beginning the home automation process. Some utilities will even offer incentives or rebates for you to purchase smart lights (Atlantic Energy even offers three WiFi LEDs and one Bluetooth speaker bulb in its Smart Home Bundle), so be sure to check with them first!