Make your home safer!
That sounds like a cheesy infomercial, but smart lights can actually deliver on all of these promises. I enjoy these benefits in my house today, but it wasn’t always that way. It is critical that you choose the right products and set them up in the right way or you won’t get the full benefits that smart home lighting can provide.
I wrote this guide to share the tips, tricks and pitfalls to avoid when building a smart lighting system in your home. In this smart light guide, you will find answers to questions such as:
This guide answers these questions and many others. If you have a specific question that wasn’t answered, please post it to the comments section and I will do my best to help you get an answer. I want this lighting guide to help as many people as possible!
This lighting guide contains a lot of information. Use the index below to jump to the topic you want to learn more about (or read the entire guide if you really want to).
Lighting is arguably the most critical element in your smart home. Every person that enters your home will interact with your lights. This interaction should be as natural and easy as any “dumb” (traditional) lights found in most homes. However, your smart lights should offer an unexpected level of convenience that wows your family and guests. And I don't mean wow them with something that is extravagant and over the top. I mean your smart lighting system should wow them with simplicity and usefulness.
But remember, a simple and useful smart lighting setup offers much more than just convenience. Done correctly, your smart lights should make your home safer, more energy efficient and simply more enjoyable.
Your smart lighting system should wow guests with simplicity and usefulness.
Most people start looking at smart lights for the convenience they provide (plus it is just cool!). We see futuristic homes in the movies and are intrigued at the thought of having technology serve us in such a magical way. Well the future is now! Whether you live in a house, apartment, condo or dorm, you can enjoy the benefits of smart lights.
The above example paints a picture of what daily life can be like with a smart lighting system in your home. The convenience alone makes an investment in smart lights worth it. The next two benefits just make the decision even easier...
I was completely shocked at how much money I saved by installing smart lights in my home. I admit, I started my project for the conveniences discussed above. However, I have a background in finance so I was curious if the investment I was making into my smart home provided any measurable impact on our monthly budget. I expected some impact to our monthly energy usage so I tracked it for the 12 months before and the 12 months after installing smart lighting and automation in our home.
The chart below shows my monthly energy bill before and after installing and automating the smart lights in our home.
Every single month showed a savings compared to the same month the prior year (orange is before and blue is after). The average monthly savings during this time was $28.99 per month. You are not going to change your retirement plans with these savings, but it shows that the cost of building your smart home will be partially offset by energy savings. Those monthly savings add up really fast! Plus, there is a benefit to the environment by using less energy, which is always a good thing.
I discuss these items and more later in this guide so you know what to use, when to use it and how to set it up. Now let me share with you how these features and others can improve safety and security in your home.
Darkness is scary! If you watch a horror show, the scary scenes aren’t typically in the middle of a sunny day. Instead, they take place in darkest basement you have ever seen. Unfortunately, darkness seems to attract the bad guys and cause more accidents. The good news is that smart lights in your home can improve both safety and security.
Imagine never having to stumble through a dark room again! That is one the greatest benefits that automated smart lighting will have in your home. Accidents occur when you step on things, run into things (everyone hates stubbed toes!), or miss that last step because you can’t see. When you set up your smart lights correctly, your lights will be on when you need them...automatically.
Smart lights such as Philips Hue can also communicate important information to you about your home. For example, I have a water sensor in my basement by the sump pump. If that sensor detects water then all the Hue light bulbs in my home turn red to alert me to an issue.
Lighting plays an important role in your home security. However, just leaving lights on isn’t effective in deterring crime. Studies actually show that that leaving your lights on can attract burglars to your home. What works is motion activated lights and light timers. Both of these items are part of your smart lighting solution and are easy to set up in your home.
There are many benefits to installing smart lighting in your home: Convenience, Energy Savings. Safety and Security. Whether you are interested in one or all of these benefits, you will be happy with your investment.
The next step is making sure you choose the right products and set them up in the right way. The remaining sections of this guide walk you through that process.
As you learned above, there are an incredible number of benefits for adding smart lights to your home. The products you choose and your approach to setting them up will determine just how beneficial they will be in your home.
In this section of the guide, we focus on choosing the right type of smart lighting products for your project. The primary questions we answer are:
The first decision is whether or not you will add a smart home hub such as Samsung SmartThings to your setup. A smart home controller is NOT required to setup your smart lighting. However, I highly recommend it due to the low cost, expanded product choices, and large increase in automation options.
Answer the following questions to determine if you should add a smart home hub to your setup:
If you answered yes to even one of the questions above, then it is worth the minimal investment to build your smart lighting including a home controller. The home automation hub that I recommend and use in my home is the Samsung SmartThings controller.
If you answered no to all of these questions, then you will probably be OK with setting up your smart lighting with just a phone app or a smart speaker such as Amazon Echo. If you choose this approach then you should choose cloud or WIFI based devices in the recommendations listed below.
Once you have decided whether or not to use a smart home hub in your home, you can start selecting your lighting products.
Your choices include light bulbs, light switches and outlet plugs that are offered by many different companies. You will find that these products use multiple technologies such as Z-Wave, ZigBee, WIFI, and bluetooth to communicate. If you use a smart home hub, then you can mix and match multiple products and technologies that are all controlled by your hub. If you don’t use a hub then you are mostly limited to WIFI and cloud based products.
My home uses the Samsung SmartThings hub and I strongly recommend that you build your project using this controller too. Each product listed in the recommendations below will state whether or not a smart home hub is needed.
Where do you start?
It is critical that you select the right type of product for each light in your home. Bulbs, switches and plugs all have a place in your smart home, but your project will fail if you choose the wrong product.
...your project will fail if you choose the wrong product.
That last statement might sound like an exaggeration, but its not. If you put smart light bulbs in the main ceiling light of your room, I guarantee a guest or family member will turn off the light switch. As soon as the power is switched off, your smart light bulbs are useless and all of your automation will fail. This is a perfect example of why you have to choose the right products for each light in your home. You can review each section below to help choose the right product for your situation.
Starting a new lighting project?
Ready to expand smart lights throughout your entire house?
I recommend that you start your lighting project with smart bulbs. Smart bulbs are the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to add or expand smart lighting throughout your home.
Smart bulbs are the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to add or expand smart lighting throughout your home.
Dimmable white LED bulbs can be purchased for around $10 each, which makes it relatively cheap to add them throughout your home. Put a bulb in a lamp in each room and you can quickly automate your entire home.
Lamps, recessed lights and accents lights are the lights you want to turn on automatically with motion sensors. They provide the right amount of light for you to walk through a room, without blasting your eyes with the bright lights.
Smart light bulbs should be used in single bulb lamps, accent lighting and other secondary lighting sources in your rooms. Try to avoid using them in the primary ceiling lights. Smart bulbs require the power source to be on constantly. It is easy to control the power in lamps and accent lighting since they aren’t controlled with a wall switch. Lights that are controlled with a wall switch will eventually get turned off, which will immediately render your bulbs useless for wireless control and home automation.
Smart bulbs are available in many size and color options. Just about every style of bulb you use in your home today can be replaced with a smart bulb.
Bulbs styles include:
Finding the correct size of bulb shouldn’t be an issue. The biggest decision will be selecting the right type of bulb for your needs. Here are the main types of smart bulbs you will find and where you should use each type:
These are standard dimmable light bulbs that have a fixed temperature (warm white, cool white, etc.).
These are dimmable light bulbs with a temperature that can be changed anywhere from warm white to cool white.
These are dimmable bulbs that can be set to millions of different colors or the full range of white (warm to cool).
Smart light bulbs are are easiest of all lighting choices for your home. If you can screw in a lightbulb then you can install a smart light bulb. The complete setup depends upon your choice of technology.
Some bulbs, such as Philips Hue, connect to a light hub or gateway that is included with the starter kits. With this setup, the bulbs connect to the light hub using a ZigBee mesh network and the light hub connects to your phone, smart speakers, or home automation controller (SmartThings, etc.) through the cloud or your local area network (LAN). I recommend this approach for the majority of your smart bulbs due to stability. Home automation triggers, timers, and scenes will continue to operate with this setup even if the internet is down.
Other bulbs, such as Lifx, connect to your WIFI network. These devices don’t need a light hub or gateway, but the downside is they rely on the quality and reliability of your WIFI network and router. In many cases, these smart bulbs will lose their ability to function as programmed if the internet is down. However, they can still be turned on and off like a normal bulb. I believe this choice of product is best for small lighting projects that are not critical to the home.
Philips Hue is the smart bulb you will find in my home. The combination of price, selection and integration with other products is unbeatable.
I recommend that you start with the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit to begin your Hue system. This kit includes the Philips Hue Hub and 3 or 4 color changing bulbs at a price lower than buying the bulbs by themselves. This kit will allow you to place bulbs throughout your home so you can get visual notifications for events.
My recommendation for the best smart light bulb is Philips Hue by Signify. Philips Hue has more smart lighting options than any other company today. They are constantly innovating and adding more products, which allows you to expand using the same technology and setup.
Philips Hue uses a light hub or gateway that can connect up to 50 bulbs and 12 accessories. The hub connects to the individual light bulbs using ZigBee mesh network. If you choose to use SmartThings as your home automation controller, then it will connect with your Hue hub through your LAN. That means even if the internet is down, your Philips Hue light bulbs will continue to function with home automation triggers (motion, etc.), timers, scenes, etc.
Philips Hue is recommended by almost all tech sites as the best smart bulb.
Our Pick - “The Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 bulbs are the best all-around smart bulbs you can buy.”
Editor’s Choice - “The Hue is a top-shelf bulb.”
“Hue remains the undisputed heavyweight king”
Smart Home Focus:
Used in My Home - “Philips Hue is the smart bulb you will find in my home.” Read my full Philips Hue review.
Smart light switches are the best choice for your primary home lighting.
Ceiling lights. Ceiling fan lights. Pendant lights. Chandeliers.
These lights are usually the primary task lighting in your room and they are controlled with wall switches. Smart switches work like traditional toggle or paddle light switches on the wall. However, they can also be automated, included in lighting scenes, and controlled with an app or smart speaker.
Smart switches are the perfect blend of traditional lighting and smart lighting in your home. Guests can use the switches like usual without messing up your automation routines.
You don’t need to replace every light switch in your home with a smart switch. If you replace a switch, it should serve a purpose in your home automation.
There really isn’t a wrong place to put a smart switch, but it should provide some value to you with automation. I don’t have my restrooms or kids bedrooms automated (maybe they will learn some responsibility). However, I can see the value in automating the restroom lights for those late night trips. You should automate the light switches that will provide you with the most benefit.
Smart lights switches come in two primary choices: on/off switches and dimmer switches.
What about switches for ceiling fans?
Smart switches can be used for things other than lighting. They even make specific switches just for ceiling fans. Just make sure to check the wattage and amp limits of the switch. Higher wattage switches are available for powerful appliances such as microwaves, space heaters and coffee makers.
Smart switches aren’t any harder to install than a regular light switch, but you do have to work with wires and electricity. There are many videos available online showing how to install a light switch, and it only take about 15 minutes. However, if that is something you are not comfortable with then definitely find a friend or a professional to help. Electricity can be very dangerous!
The GE Z Wave Smart Switch is my choice for the best smart switch based on quality, reliability and price.
Z-wave smart lighting switch. Add smart home control and automation to your existing lights. This product also acts as a z-wave repeater to extend the range of your smart home products. A neutral wire is required for installation.
* A Smart Home Hub (such as the SmartThings Hub) is required with this product
Quality - GE is a name we know and can trust. I want to be comfortable that any electrical product in my walls is safe.
Reliability - ZWave and ZWave Plus is one of the leading smart home technologies found in millions of devices.
Price - GE isn’t the cheapest product, but it is the best value smart switch on the market.
The GE Smart Switch simply works. It also blends into your home like any other light switch. The switch comes in two colors, white and almond, that match the standard colors found in other devices and wall plates. This allows you to mix it with regular switches while still maintaining a seamless look. The switch has a blue LED on the bottom that can be illuminated when the light is off, on or never. This is easily customizable in the settings area within your home controller.
I have multiple GE Smart Switches in my home and they are very reliable. I have used some of them for a few years and I can’t recall a single time when the Z-Wave smart home connection failed. The switch is fast and the lights turn on instantly. You can dim the lights with the switch by holding the paddle down or up, with your voice using a smart speaker (Alexa) or through your home automation app on your phone.
The bottom line: You will be hard pressed to find a z-wave light switch that provides more value than the GE Z Wave Smart Switch.
GE Smart Switches are reviewed and recommended by several technology sites. However, what I find more interesting is when the GE Switch isn’t part of a review for smart switches. In these reviews, you will find several comments at the end of the article from users like you and me recommending these devices.
“Our pick for the best Z-Wave switch goes to the GE Z-Wave In-Wall Smart Switch”
Smart Home Focus:
Used in My Home - “GE is the best smart switch based on quality, reliability and price.”
The third option for smart home lighting is a smart plug. These devices simply plug into any existing wall outlet in your home. After that, you can plug your lamp into the smart plug, which makes it a smart lamp. Using the smart plug, you can turn the lamp on/off or even dim the light depending on the plug you use. Smart plugs can also be used to turn on or off any other device that plugs into an outlet.
Smart plugs and smart outlets perform the exact same function. However, smart outlets are a more permanent solution and they are much more difficult to install.
I recommend using smart plugs instead of outlets due to ease of use and portability.
I recommend using smart plugs instead of outlets due to ease of use and portability. A lot of smart plugs are very small so you don’t have to worry about them being an eyesore in your home. If you decide to move your lamp then you can move the smart plug in seconds.
Smart light plugs are perfect for filling the gap where smart light bulbs fall short. There are three primary situations where smart plugs are the best solution.
There is an ever increasing number of smart plug choices. The options you have when selecting a smart plug generally fall into three groups: Function, Capability and Size.
All smart plugs can turn a lamp on or off, but some plugs also have the ability to dim a light. Another common function you will find is an energy monitor. Plugs with an energy monitor report on the wattage used by the device plugged into it. This information can be used in automation routines if you use a smart home controller. For example, receive a notification when a device turns on or off.
Smart plugs are great for controlling lamps, but they can also be used for turning on or off any device plugged into them. For example, use a smart plug to turn on a floor fan with your voice or through home automation. If a device has simple on or off controls then it can be controlled with your smart plug. Just make sure that you buy a plug that is rated for higher wattage/amperage if the device needs it (space heater, coffee maker, crock pot, etc.).
Turn on the holiday lights with your phone, your voice or automatically using a smart home controller.
Most people only think of indoor smart plugs. However, there are also smart plugs that are waterproof and can be used outdoors. Outdoor plugs are great for controlling and automating holiday lights. You will find it extremely convenient to turn on the holiday lights with your phone, your voice or automatically using a smart home controller.
The shape and size of your smart plug can be a big factor when selecting the best product for your home. Most plugs have one outlet, but some plugs have two or more. Buying a multi-outlet plug could be a great choice if you need more than one smart outlet in the area.
You should also consider whether or not the smart plug will interfere with other standard outlets in a duplex. The size of some smart plugs won’t allow you to use the second outlet or will limit the size of plug that can fit.
Installation of a smart plug is as simple as plugging it into your outlet. You will then follow a simple process of pairing the device to your smart home hub or connecting it to your WIFI network.
Your technology choices are basically the same as a smart light switch: Z-Wave, ZigBee and WIFI. Use WIFI for simple setups and Z-Wave or ZigBee with a home hub like SmartThings for a more capable solution. Smart plugs typically act as a repeater for your Z-Wave and ZigBee mesh networks so they are a great way to expand the reach of your home controller. Being a powered device, the smart plug is a perfect device to act as a repeater and I highly recommend using the ZigBee or Z-Wave option in your setup.
The best smart plug for your advanced smart home is the Samsung SmartThings Outlet.
ZigBee smart outlet. Turn on / off any device that plugs into an outlet. Use this to control existing under cabinet lights, floor fans, lamps, etc. This device acts as a ZibBee repeater, which makes your mesh network stronger.
* A Smart Home Hub (such as the SmartThings Hub) is required with this product
This is a ZigBee device that requires a home automation hub to operate. This device is perfectly paired with the Samsung SmartThings Hub, which allows you to create a fully automated smart home.
The SmartThings Outlet is a premium performer with virtually zero delay in turning a device on or off when triggered. Additionally, the device is a repeater of the ZigBee mesh network, which expands and strengthens your network. This is a great device to add to your smart home.
Smart Home Focus:
That being said, several sites and customers agree that TP Link makes the best best WIFI smart plug: the TP-Link Smart Wi-Fi Plug Mini.
Editor’s Choice - “...easy to use and has a robust set of features”
Editor’s Choice - “...a lot more elegant than its cumbersome name would suggest.”
Bulbs, switches and plugs. There are a lot of lighting products to choose from for your smart home. Choosing the wrong products or technology will only lead to frustration and eventually you will stop using them. Follow the smart lighting guides above to ensure you select the right products for your home and experience all the benefits of smart lighting.
Once you have the right products, you should focus on setting them up in the right way to fully experience the benefits of smart lighting. The two best ways to control your smart lights are voice control and automation. I recommend setting up voice control with a smart speaker such as Amazon Echo and automation using a smart home hub such as Samsung SmartThings.
Most people already have a smart speaker such as Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home. These devices are great for questions, timers, weather and other information. But they really show their potential when they are integrated with your smart home for voice control. I strongly recommend the Amazon Echo Dot, which has been sold for as little as $25 per device. At this price, you have the ability to add smart speakers throughout your home without breaking the bank.
Alexa (Echo devices) make it easy to control the lights you want. My favorite feature is the ability to associate specific lights in your home to one of your Echo devices. After setting this up, you can simply say “Alexa, turn on the lights” and the lights you selected will turn on. If you are in the bedroom then the bedroom lamps come on. If you are in the living room then the living room lights come on. This makes it easy for guests to use the smart lighting voice control. Everyone can remember the command “turn on the lights”.
Voice control of your lights is cool, but do you know what is even better? Lighting automation. If you only control your smart lights with an app on your phone or with a smart speaker, then you are missing out on one of the greatest benefits of a smart home.
If you only control your smart lights with an app on your phone or with a smart speaker, then you are missing out on one of the greatest benefits of a smart home.
Smart lighting automation ticks all the boxes for convenience, energy savings and security. These benefits are the primary reason I recommend setting your smart home up with a home automation hub such as SmartThings. With a home automation controller, you can build all of the advanced lighting automation and scenes to achieve these benefits.
If you want to automate your lights, you need three items: 1) smart light bulbs, switches or plugs, 2) something to trigger the lights and 3) a controller to define what happens when the trigger occurs.
You already know the best bulbs, switches and plugs to use and when to use them from the previous section. The next step is selecting the correct trigger for your lights. Any device connected to you smart home can trigger a light (for example, a water sensor), but there are three primary triggers that you will use.
Once you have your lights and triggers, you can set up the lighting automation in your smart home controller. The smart home controller allows you to create IF THIS THEN THAT types of logic to control the lights. For example, IF the living room motion sensor is triggered THEN turn the lights on to 80%.
Home automation hubs like SmartThings make this type of automation easy and they can do much more complex actions. Here is an example from my home:
IF the family room motion sensor is triggered AND the time is between sunset and sunrise (its dark) THEN set the recessed fireplace lights to white at 40% dim level set the family room lamp to white at 40% dim level turn on the kitchen under cabinet lights set the kitchen lamp to white at 40% dim level ALSO turn off all lights if motion is not detected for 15 minutes
You can easily create the perfect automation routines or scenes for your purposes with the right products. I recommend that you use a home automation controller so you can create reliable and complex automation as shown above. The home automation controller also expands your product choices and works with a lot of devices even if you internet is down.
If you set up your smart lighting correctly, your family and guests will seamlessly enjoy all the benefits and convenience offered by smart lighting. If you set up your smart lighting automation incorrectly, you will irritate your family and guests and you will eventually default back to standard dumb lights.
Don't irritate your family or guests!
I made the mistakes and had to completely redo my lighting automation. At one point, my family wanted me to turn off the automation so they could just control the lights the old way. It is even more difficult to design your automation in a way that is usable and understandable by guests. However, with the right products, setup and implementation you can build smart lighting that is enjoyed by everyone.
There are 3 main elements to consider when setting up your smart home lighting:
Yes. I intentionally started with secondary lighting automation because these are the lights you should automate based on motion. Secondary lights are the lamps, under cabinet lights, recessed lights and other accent lights in your home. These lights are perfect for motion based automation because they give you enough light to see without blasting you with bright lights.
My home has an open concept living room and kitchen. I have a motion sensor monitoring this area that is positioned in a way that covers all entrances into the room. When this motion sensor is triggered, my kitchen under cabinet lights are turned on, my recessed fireplace accent lights are turned on, and my family room and kitchen lamps are turned on. These lights are turned on at 40% brightness so it always provides a relaxing level of lighting. If I want it brighter, I can ask Alexa to turn on the primary room lighting or I can turn on a lighting scene as discussed below.
This setup perfectly provides the right level of lighting when someone enters the room. Many times the lighting isn’t changed from this setup. I recommend that you find the most commonly used lighting levels for your room and use that as your motion based lighting setting. This setup should work when you walk into the room at 3AM for a drink of water or when your family comes home from dinner at night.
Surprising, the primary room lights will play a minimal role in your motion based lighting automation. Primary room lights are usually the lights on the ceiling that are controlled by a switch and really light up the room. How you automate your primary home lighting depends on the room.
1. Areas for Relaxation - Family room, living room, bedrooms and other similar areas
2. Areas for Work - Garages, Offices and other similar areas
3. Pathways - Hallways, entryways, foyers and other similar areas
5. Kitchens - Kitchens are unique because they are work areas but they are commonly connected to a relaxing area in open concept homes. Additionally, we often make quick trips to the kitchen just to get something out of the refrigerator.
Remember that we are always automating the secondary lighting in the rooms, which is why we don’t always need to turn on the primary lighting. For example, the under cabinet lights in a kitchen are a great secondary light that allows you to see to get a drink out of the fridge without blasting on the main lights.
The suggestions above are a good place to start with your smart home lighting. However, you should tweak the automation to fit your family’s needs and lifestyle after testing it for a few days.
Lighting automation provides a great convenience ensuring your path is always lighted. The next step is setting up lighting scenes in your home to provide the perfect lighting for the task at hand. Scenes are just a combination of lights that are set to the right brightness and color for the activity you are doing. Scenes involve controlling both the primary and the secondary lighting in your home.
My family loves using the scenes we have set up in our home. What makes scenes even better is when you activate them using a smart speaker such as Amazon Echo. Here are some example scenes used in my home:
Lighting scenes are the pinnacle of convenience. Every scene involves multiple actions and lights that are controlled in one single command with your smart home. Without the automation scene, I would never walk to each light and lamp and set it to the desired level as detailed in the examples above.
I hope you have enjoyed this smart lighting guide, and reference it as you continue to build and automate your smart home.
Smart lighting is one of the greatest benefits of a smart home. Smart lighting is convenient, provides energy savings and makes your home safer. Make sure you choose the right products (bulbs, switches or plugs) for each area of your home. Finally, make sure you automate them using the guides above to ensure you fully experience all of the benefits that are provided by smart home lighting.
Alexa. Turn off the lights.
P.S. Please leave a comment below to ask a question, help someone else or share your experiences. Thanks!
Husband, father and Smart Home enthusiast. I look forward to discussing Smart Home products and projects with you. I have over 100 connected devices in my home, and I'm excited to share what I have learned to help you build a Smart Home that works!
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