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Your Light Switches Should Be Smarter Than Your Light Bulbs

Installing a ‘smart’ light switch instead of smart light bulbs saved me hundreds of dollars, and made it easier to control my connected home

A Philips Hue bulb set photographed on a white background.
A Philips Hue bulb set photographed on a white background.
Photo: Neil Godwin/T3 Magazine/Future via Getty

The connected home market isn’t always obvious in how it benefits you, but I think lighting is one of the places it makes sense — if it’s done right.

I began installing “smart” bulbs in my home when I lived in Europe, slowly upgrading as I replaced burned-out lights. I admit to becoming something of an obsessive: I worked to add perfect lighting for each room, setting the bulbs to automatically turn on at the right time, and barked at Google Assistant to throw on mood lighting.

But when I recently moved to North America, there was a problem: None of my old bulbs worked. The voltage here is different, so I needed to start all over again.

Buying smart light bulbs is a significant investment. The most recognizable brand is Philips Hue, which makes LED bulbs that can be controlled via your phone and are generally priced at a eye-watering $49 per bulb. IKEA sells a cheaper, compatible bulb called TRÅDFRI for $29, but that will still make a dent in your wallet if you want to wire up your entire home.

Smart light bulbs can make life a little easier. They allow dimming even if there’s no dimmer installed on the wall, or a splash of light from an LED strip in a dark corner. Installing them allows you to control the environment in your home even if you don’t own it, and added functionality like the ability to sync with your TV to trigger “movie mode” is genuinely useful.

But, at $50 a bulb, I wondered, did I really need to replace every single lightbulb to make my home smart? Thankfully I found a better way: adding the “smart” to light switches instead. A single, internet-enabled light switch can control an entire room’s light bulbs, and if your existing lights are dimmable bulbs, it’s a great way to make your home smart on the cheap.

In rooms with a lot of lights, such as a downlit room, installing a light switch rather than smart bulbs can save hundreds of dollars. In my living room alone, I’d need to replace 15 GU10 bulbs to upgrade the space, which would cost me $300 with Hue. One smart switch achieved the same effect for just $50.

I chose Caseta by Lutron to replace my traditional switches because it covers a range of situations, such as three-way setups in which a light is controlled by two switches, and even ceiling fans. Caseta uses its own proprietary standard called ‘Clear Connect’ to connect its switches to its hub, which is much more reliable than WiFi but requires having another box hanging off your router.

Photo: Owen Williams

I did wish Caseta used Z-wave, an open wireless standard that’s like WiFi, but specifically for the smart home: it allows smart devices to communicate over greater distances, on their own network, with a high level of compatibility between devices. In my experience, Z-wave is much more stable than WiFi because it’s a dedicated protocol, but it does require an additional hub and technical knowledge.

There are a number of alternatives, as well: The $50–60 Wemo Dimmer is a similar light switch replacement, which also uses WiFi to stay connected. TP-Link also makes a similar switch, using WiFi to connect. It costs $40, and is often on sale for much less.

If you want to go high-end, there are other options. Brilliant makes a $299+ souped-up switch with a full touch-screen, Alexa and Assistant support, as well as Sonos integration, on top of the usual light-controlling functions.

For those thinking aloud right now “but my landlord won’t allow this,” you’re probably right — but if you keep the old switches and swap them back when you leave, your landlord is unlikely to know you changed anything at all. I’m not a lawyer, though, so take this advice with a grain of salt.

The caveat, of course, is that you need to be comfortable doing simple electrical work. Avoiding this is part of why Hue did $467 million in sales in 2018.

You’ll get almost all the benefits of individual bulb replacement — except full-color spectrum control — while saving yourself a bunch of money.

Luckily, rewiring a light switch is fairly straightforward. Usually you’ll need to disconnect the breaker, check that the electricity is actually disconnected at the light switch using something like an electrical test pen, then transfer two or three wires from the old switch to the new one. Caseta includes simple instructions that were easy enough for me to follow, but hire an electrician or ask a friend if you’re ever unsure.

After being all-in on Hue, and needing to reconsider when moving, replacing my switches has been a far more rewarding route for adding smart features to my home. The most cumbersome thing about using Hue is to convince everyone in your home to stop turning off the lights at the switch, otherwise you can’t control them with the app, or use their scheduling features.

That’s really frustrating if you don’t live alone, so you’ll probably end up replacing your switches anyway, which is why I recommend starting there. You’ll get almost all the benefits of individual bulb replacement — except full color spectrum control — while saving yourself a bunch of money.

I still went out and purchased a few Hue lights anyway, like the LED strips and “play” color bars for ambient lighting in full color, which gives me the option to add reds and blues behind a couch or shelf. I also find myself interested in their new “Edison” LED bulbs, which have a retro look and a little intelligence onboard. Even if you’re in the market for “smart,” don’t get too smart: upgrade your switches first, and retain control with the physical buttons you’re familiar with for your lights.

It’s not always obvious how the connected home market benefits you, but I think lighting is one of the places it does makes sense — if done right. It’s a delight to have the bathroom lights automatically turn on when I enter, and I’ve set my bulbs to adjust the brightness after sunset, so I’m not blinded in the middle of the night.

Before you’ve installed anything is the easiest time to get this right, so plan your connected things first, and do your research. It’ll make life easier if your lights actually talk to each other, and save you a headache in the long run.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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