Gift Guide: An Introduction to Smart Lighting

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With some holidays already upon us and others fast approaching, it’s the time for last minute gift shopping. Here at Josh.ai, we obviously think that the best thing you could give your friends and loved ones are smart devices that help them automate their home. Knowing which products make the most sense to get is becoming increasingly difficult with new options coming out practically every day. For those that rent instead of owning their homes, there are even more important details to consider. As an apartment renter who has automated nearly all of his lights, I present to you the Renter’s Guide to Smart Lighting!

The first thing to consider in automating your lights is whether to get smart bulbs or smart switches. Smart switches, if possible, are almost always preferable. With smart bulbs (we’ll give some examples later), there will always be a problem of the switch needing to be in the on position. Smart bulbs require a constant supply of power, even when the light is off, to power their radios that are listening for commands. If a guest happens to flip the switch to the off position, your smart bulbs quickly become very dumb, unable to turn on from whatever app or other “smart” means you wish to control them from.

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How to upset your landlord

Unfortunately, as a renter, replacing the switches in your wall can be difficult. It might be against the terms of your lease, or generally something your landlord would frown upon. It might be more effort than you are willing to make for a place that you plan on leaving after your one year lease ends. If your apartment building is older, it may even be difficult or impossible due to old wiring. Almost all smart switches and dimmers require a neutral wire, which you will often not find in older construction. If this is your only holdup, a few dimmers and switches exist that do not require the neutral wire. If you’re really unlucky (like me), you might find that some of your light switches are not even grounded (yikes!), which makes smart switches impossible.

One interesting option, which I unfortunately have no personal experience with, is switchmate. It provides a device which affixes on top of a standard light switch, using a motor to control the physical toggle underneath, while still allowing you to toggle it physically yourself. It’s an interesting concept, and potentially makes a lot of sense for renters, however, it is currently unavailable.

If you’re willing to brave all of the aforementioned difficulties, and decide to go with smart switches, then you probably really aren’t in need of this guide anyways. For the rest of us, we’ll focus on your other options.

If you’re just getting started, and would like to dip your toes before jumping in, I highly recommend LIFX bulbs. They run a bit more expensive per bulb than most other options, but since the bulbs communicate via WiFi, they require no extra hub, and therefore pose one of the lowest initial investments if you just want to get a single bulb. Also, they are the highest quality smart bulb I have encountered so far. The color version (typically $60), creates beautiful colors throughout the entire spectrum, where other bulbs (for example those from Philips) fall short. They are capable of dimming down to incredibly low levels, and have a great industrial design. The major downside to these bulbs is their size, they are quite tall, as well as heavy.

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In addition to the color version, LIFX has a white only bulb that can produce almost as much of the entire great white color range as the original bulb, and is priced slightly less ($40).

A single bulb from LIFX is a good start to experiencing smart lighting. You’ll have the ability to turn it on and off, dim it to any level, change the light’s temperature, and potentially its color, all from your smartphone. You can also set up interesting automations, such as automatically turning on at sunset, and turning off when you leave. If you’re like me, this will be enough to get you hooked and realize you need more!

Once you start to consider retrofitting something on the order of an entire room, there are a few solid options. Obviously one choice is to simply go with additional LIFX bulbs.

Another option at this point is to buy into the Philips Hue platform. Since these bulbs work via ZigBee (and their own proprietary version at that), they require the purchase of a Hue hub in order to work. The hub may be purchased for $60, or, as part of a starter pack that also includes three color bulbs, for $200. At this point, Philips offers many different types of bulbs that you can add on to the system, including additional color bulbs, white temperature controllable bulbs, and light strips. Philips now offers various hardware switches which can communicate with their bulbs, giving you a physical button that you can use to quickly turn on and dim the bulbs, relieving the pain of no longer being able to use the existing wall switch. You can even affix them to the wall next to (or on top of) your now useless “dumb” wall switch.

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The new Hue Dimmer switch (right)

At the point that you are seriously considering retrofitting most or all of your light bulbs to be smart, you will have probably realized a few things. First, this stuff is expensive. Second, and this helps with the first problem, color controllable bulbs, and even temperature controllable bulbs, make for a fun party trick, but for 99% of the time you use them are nothing but a gimmick.

Luckily, if all you want is for most of your lights to be dimmable, then more economical options exist. The LIFX ecosystem does not yet have an inexpensive dimmable only bulb, so it isn’t a great choice when you decide to scale up.

Philips Hue recently introduced the Hue White bulb, a $15 dimmable bulb that does not have color or temperature capabilities. You know, like a normal lightbulb. This is a far more palatable price point when you start to consider replacing everything.

A few other options exist at this price point as well. Two of the most notable are the GE link, and Cree connected bulbs. They both cost $15 as well, and also work via ZigBee, meaning they require a hub of some sort. At the moment, these bulbs can be paired with a Philips Hue hub. However, Philips recently removed, and quickly reintroduced this capability after public outlash. Trust this to continue to be an option at your own risk.

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The Cree bulb contains an internals scaffold which helps disperse the light in all directions.

If you’ve made it this far into your smart lighting adventure, it’s probably time to consider a true home automation hub. The first motivation for this comes from lighting. I find the most cost effective and high quality solution to replacing every light with a smart bulb to be the Cree connected bulb mentioned above. It requires a hub with a ZigBee radio however, and Philips Hue has proven that relying on their hub may not be a great idea.

The second motivation is that a generic home automation hub will allow you to begin to experiment with other smart devices, such as motion and door sensors. I recommend the SmartThings hub for this purpose. It will allow you to control all of the lights mentioned above, as well as set up some more interesting automations when you choose to add other smart devices. For example, you can add a motion sensor and configure it to turn on any number of bulbs of your choosing when it detects motion, and then automatically turn them off the motion stops.

Another solid option for a home automation hub is Wink. It should also be capable of controlling all of the lights mentioned, and has an arguably better app experience with better design. However, with the future of the company in flux, some slight hesitation might be in order.

The world of home automation gets more complicated daily. Deciding what products are the best option for your needs can be overwhelming with the number of choices out there. Lighting is a great place to start, but it all gets even more complicated if you’re a renter. I hope that this guide was able to provide the direction and recommendations to convince you to dive in!

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This post was written by Tim at Josh.ai. Previously, Tim was an engineer at NetApp before joining the Josh team where he works on interconnected device control. Tim has a masters degree in EE from CU Boulder, enjoys microbreweries, rides his bike to work, and loves everything outdoors.

Josh is an AI agent for your home. If you’re interested in following us and getting early access to the beta, enter your email at https://josh.ai.

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