The Best Smart Home Lighting

I get a lot of questions about how best to add automated lighting to a smart home. There is no single solution to this problem. If someone tells you to just use 'smart bulbs' or just use 'smart switches' then it's because they don't understand the issues or the technology. The best solution depends on each specific lighting application and how you want to use it. There is no 'one size fits all' solution.

There are many people that consider remote control via an app of connected devices and services as 'smart home'. There are also many people that link a connected bulb to a connected sensor and also consider this 'smart home'. These definitions are fine if that's all you want to do but smart home lighting has the potential to be so much more powerful. We like to think of the smart home as providing fully autonomous lighting that just works around you and anticipates your needs. Having said that, we also want to retain some manual control, so we are able to take control if required. The smart home should never lock users out of the control process (roles and permissions enforcement aside).

User experience is everything. Let this determine the technology you use for each lighting application in your home. This is why we are using a wide range of 'smart' lighting and in some cases DIY solutions to get the best user experience possible.

Regardless of which technology you choose, my advice would be to avoid anything that is cloud based or has dependencies on the cloud. Do you really want you lights to stop working because your Internet connection is down or your cloud service provider has been hacked?! This is generally true of any smart home features though.

Smart Bulbs

Philips Hue lighting
Philips Hue hub and smart bulbs.

There are a lot of 'smart' bulb brands on the market and they vary a lot in price. You generally get what you pay for though in terms of light output, reliability, support, compatibility, quality of light output (colour accuracy, colour temperature, etc.). Cheap light bulbs (dumb ones and smart ones) are generally cheap for a reason.

Not all smart bulbs have full colour changing capability and in reality few can actually display a full range of colours well. Some smart bulbs are dimmable only (have a fixed colour but variable brightness) and some only provide a selection of white colour shades (e.g. cool white to warm white in colour). A key factor to look out for with smart bulbs is the maximum light output in normal operation. A lot of them are really not very bright compared to dumb LED bulbs. In many applications, this is not as issue. If you are replacing a single bulb in a ceiling rose though, it may be.

The main issue with smart bulbs is that they require a permanent power supply and ideally one that can not be switched off. This limits where they can be practically used in many homes. Some smart bulbs can work reasonably well with switches but you still lose the ability to control them if the power is switched off. The other downside is that by being permanently powered, they use more energy. Smart bulbs have other control and networking electronics in them that require power in addition to the LEDs providing the light. Some of the smart bulbs we have use more than 2W of power when "off". Smart bulb manufacturers are not always totally honest in describing the electrical characteristics of their bulbs.

I've seen a lot of people go to extraordinary lengths to stop people using (now redundant) wall switches that are connected to smart bulbs. There are many switch 'covers' available but these are a massive compromise and look horrible to most people. Some people deploy new wireless switches alongside blanked off and disabled legacy switches. Neither approach looks very professional. The simple fact is that retro-fitting a smart home will always involve compromise unless you are prepared to alter the infrastructure of your home.

The main reason to use smart bulbs is their amazing flexibility. They can be used for mood lighting and set to pretty much any colour or brightness you want. They can be linked to scenes, used for alerting, ambient lighting functions, etc. The added flexibility adds complexity to the user experience though. A simple on/off switch is no longer an option.

Think carefully about where you need to install smart bulbs. In our smart home only we only have 5 smart bulbs (less than 5% of our lighting) because we simply don't want much of it to change colour.

Control of each individual bulb can be very powerful but it can also cause user experience issues. To control several at once you will need to group them, either by using an app or in software. Even then, they will get controlled one at a time and the inherent latency means you often see the bulbs coming on in sequence. Some people (myself included) don't like this. The more bulbs you have, the more obvious it becomes.

To enable automated control, the bulbs or associated hub will need to expose some kind of API. This may be local or via a cloud service. The best performance and reliability occurs when a local API is used.

Some bulbs can be used with switches and a few even retain their state when the power is resumed. They issue with a lot of smart bulbs though (including the Philips Hue and LIFX bulbs we current use) is that they come on at full brightness when power is applied. Many smart bulbs doing this could result in a lot of power being wasted, especially if the power outage occured whilst you were out of the home or on holiday.

Wireless technologies are not 100% reliable. On rare occasions the commands don't get through. Lighting is one of those applications where wireless networking issues become very noticeable. All wireless networks (Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, etc.) are susceptible to interference and congestion.

Whilst the LED bit of a smart bulb should last many years, the control circuit may not. This is especially true if you buy cheaper smart bulbs. Another problem not generally mentioned much (because this is a fairly new technology), is that the protocols behind a lot of these smart bulbs will not last as long as the physical bulb will. You can now expect your bulbs to become obsolete technology before they physically stop working. If the vendor goes out of business you may be left with useless lighting. Anything that is app controlled is going to need the app to be updated to work with the latest Android and iOS versions.

Some people say they prefer to use smart bulbs because it makes it easier to move house later. This is completely missing the point of the smart home, which is about a great user experience and improving quality of life. Just using smart bulbs alone is going to mean making major compromises on both counts.

LIFX smart bulbs
LIFX smart bulbs and app.

Smart Switches & Switch Modules

People like switches, they are familiar and intuitive. Guests coming into your home also expect them to work. Smart lighting modules fit behind your existing light switches and allow the switch to work as normal in parallel with the home automation. One thing to note though is that a single light switch will no longer be off in one position and on in the other. The state of the light bulb is no longer tied to the absolute switch position.

Fibaro Relay Switch
Fibaro relay switch module.

The biggest issue with smart switches or modules is that many of them need a permanent live and in many homes, only a switched live feed is available at a legacy light switch. There are some devices that can work in this situation though but there are many less options available. The second biggest technical problem with switch modules is that the pattress boxes are not always deep enough to have room for a switch module, despite most of them being quite small.

Another big issue is that mains wiring is dangerous. Switch modules need to be fitted by a competent electrian, if it is to be done safely.

With switch modules that support dimming capability, it often makes sense to change the switch and switch plate from an on/off switch to a momentary on-off-on switch. This allows the top to be used to turn the light on (short press) or brightness up (long press) and the bottom to be used to turn the switch off (short press) or brightness down (long press). This small change can still confuse some people.

Smart switches can be more cost effective because a single switch/module can be used to control many bulbs at once.

Dumb Bulbs

Even when using automation to control dumb bulbs you have to consider factors such as are the bulbs dimmable, colour temperature, light output, etc. Some transformers also expect a minimum load and swapping traditional bulbs for dumb LED equivalents can cause issues.

Low Voltage Lighting

Not all lighting has to be 'mains voltage' (typically 220V ac or 110V ac depending on where you live). There is one major advantage of using lower voltage lighting and this is that it is easy to protect it from mains power failures. This is why we use 12V dc powered lighting in our home for safety lighting and in other places.

12V lighting is cheaper to buy, easier to control and generally more reliable. It is much more efficient too. The biggest downside is that the light output is typically lower but this is not a problem for many applications.

12V lighting is also safer, especially when used in areas that involve damp conditions, e.g. outside, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. All of our garden lighting is 12V dc 'dumb' lighting under intelligent control because there are so many products on the market and so many options to suit each application.

The biggest limiting factor in using 12V lighting is the 'voltage drop' when long cables are required. This can usually be overcome by using current limiting devices next to the 12V bulbs/lights though.

DIY Lighting

If you have the technical skills, you can take a DIY approach to smart lighting. This approach can provide all the benefits of smart bulbs AND smart switch modules, with few of the disadvantages.

  • The primary reason for doing this is to get the perfect user experience and to have lighting that can be configured to work exactly as we require. In many cases it provides a zero touch user experience.
  • The cost of the hardware is a LOT cheaper than current consumer products. Typically 1/10th of the cost for any given application, sometimes as little as 1/50th of the cost.
  • Mostly we are aiming for a zero touch user experience but everything we connect to our smart home inherits its wider set of capabilities including all of the other user interface options (text, voice, app and web control, bespoke switches and buttons, context adaptive schedules, etc. control).
  • Our own smart lighting has been built to be incredibly efficient and provide excellent performance. We experience amazing response times, resulting in a great user experience.
  • Our DIY smart lighting has been designed and built with quality and reliability in mind. Some of it has now been in non-stop use for over 11 years.
  • The majority of our DIY smart lighting runs from 12V dc and can be used with our 12V UPS, to ensure it all keeps working during a mains power outage.

Smart Lighting

None of the above technical options make a smart home. They are all technologies to enable 'home automation', the basic capability to control your lighting from inside your home and (in many cases) from outside your home. This is not smart and in many cases it provides a poor user experience. If this level of remote control is all that you require then that is fine but, it is the next step that many people struggle with.

Once you have basic automation capability, you then need to add some control logic. Sometimes this can be done with the associated hub or gateway that comes with the lighting (e.g. Philips Hue) in conjunction with an app. Some lighting has an API that allows it to be controlled by cloud services such as IFTTT. This is fairly basic control though, typically in the form of simply rules.

To perform anything beyond this basic control, you usually you need some king of smart home controller which defines the automation logic and the relationships between the sensors and the lighting. There are many types of controller on the market, typical examples being SmartThings, Vera, Wink, etc.

  • This can take the form of simple schedules and these can adapt to local sunrise/sunset times.
  • The lighting can be 'triggered' by sensors, e.g. a PIR sensor.
  • The controller stores the state of the lighting (e.g. on, off, 50% brightness, colour, etc.).
  • The lighting control can be based on higher level or more abstract concepts such as room occupancy.

This article isn't going to cover the controllers in detail but the main differences between them are:

  • Some of them have dependencies on the cloud (i.e. you must have an Internet connection) to use some or all the features they provide.
  • They quality of user experience and level of user skills required to configure and use them vary a lot.
  • They will have varying levels of support for different home automation technologies and standards. This includes radios to support ZigBee, Z-Wave, etc.
  • Some will have power back-up, so they continue to function if the mains power fails.

The best controllers support features that makes your life much simpler, such as:

  • Higher level, abstract concepts such as room occupancy that make the rules much simpler to define. E.g. While the lounge is occupied and it is dark outside, the lounge lighting should be on.
  • Managing the conflicts when many different sensors and user input are used as inputs to the control logic. E.g. my entrance hall light uses a light switch, 2 PIR sensors, 4 door contact sensors, an NFC reader and a keypad as inputs.
  • Managing the timing of lights being on or off.
  • Doing all of the above and allowing adaptive schedules, where adaptive context includes home status, local weather, etc.

Summary

  • The is no one solution that works in all situations.
  • The best solution is the one that provides the best user experience for the smart home owner. Their choice might not work well for other family members and guests though.
  • Do you want the light switches to continue working as before? This is a key factor in the technology choice.
  • The two most common ways to add smart lighting to your smart home both come with flaws from a user experience perspective.
  • Aiming for a zero touch user experience is likely to provide a solution that works for most people.
  • Think carefully about whether you really need colour-changing lighting. It generally makes the user experience more complex.
  • If you really want you lighting to be smart, then you will need some kind of controller or hub. These vary a lot and none of them are perfect.

Share ...
We are on ...
Facebook Twitter
YouTube Flickr Follow us on Pinterest