A common first step into the world of smart homes and home automations is to get smart lights.
You see pictures of them everywhere, cool colorful lights in fancy houses that look like they belong in the set of a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Yet they are reasonably affordable, and there are several companies that produce them. You can get simple white WiFi enabled smart lights from a variety of manufacturers for as little as $12 a light.
This is really enticing for people that perhaps rent a small apartment and only have a few light sources to begin with.
Then there is the dominant (smart) lighting company, Philips Hue. With dozens of lights and accessories for any home setup it’s hard to see why you would want anything else.
However, as you dive deeper down into the smart home rabbit hole, you’ll hear about smart switches and smart dimmers.
And you’ll ask yourself, why would I get a smart dimmer over a smart light, or vice versa?
And that’s what we’re going to explore today. Let’s start with the basics.
What is a smart light and what is a smart switch?
A smart light is simply just a light bulb that you can control remotely (e.g. via an app). They will have their own controller electronics within the bulb that can change the brightness or color.
I know lightstrips and tiles can be considered smart lights, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll consider them accessories, as they don’t directly compete / clash with switches and dimmers.
Like most other smart home devices, they come in a variety of connection methods, WiFi, Bluetooth, Z-wave, Zigbee being the main ones. Some even require their own Hub for communication (Ikea Tradfi and Philips Hue).
If you’re interested to learn more about the different connection methods, leave a comment below, and check out this link. Since both smart lights and smart switches come in all combinations, there’s no benefit to either product in this regard.
Note: I’m going to use switch and dimmer synonymously in this article, since for 90% of use cases they can be used interchangeably.
A smart switch on the other hand, is simply a light switch that you can control remotely. They have the ability, just like the regular light switch they replace, to control all of the lights on their circuit.
Similarly, they come in the same variety of connection types.
Simply put, a smart light is a single light bulb that can be controlled remotely, and a smart switch is a light switch that can be controlled remotely to turn on/off the lights connected to it.
You probably already knew all of that, or were able to deduce it on your own, but it was worth getting out of the way to cover all bases.
So why would someone choose one over the other?
There are a variety of factors that you look at when purchasing smart home devices. Cost, functionality, compatibility, ecosystem, etc.
Benefits of smart lights
Firstly, they’re fairly inexpensive. A quick amazon search will reveal that you can get a Sengled white LED bulb for $8 (though it requires a Hub), and even multicolor LED smart lights for about $15 a light. Some of the higher end color lights will cost around $40-$60, but you get what you pay for.
For someone that lives by themselves, or lives in a studio or 1-bedroom apartment with not many lights, this is very cheap and easy way to add some smarts to your home.
Speaking of easy; ever changed a light bulb? Because that’s how easy it is to get a smart light to work.
Simply remove the old one and screw in the new one. There may be a quick setup on your Home App of choice and you’re good to go.
If you’re quite set on having color bulbs, there’s not much contest from smart switches, since they don’t fully overlap in functionality.
There is a certain level of fun and novelty to having different parts of your home or room glow in different colors that is undeniable; and it’s great to show off to friends when hosting parties or get togethers.
There are also downsides to smart lights, two in particular.
First, they may not be able to fit or replace an existing light in every fixture or location.
For example, light fixtures or chandeliers may have very specific types of light bulbs that don’t exist in smart form. Especially fancy looking ones that may utilize a series of LED strips instead of bulbs.
Smart lights are also not compatible with dimmers. So, if you already have a dimmer switch in place, you really shouldn’t use it with smart lights. Even at 100% brightness it won’t be ideal for the smart light, as it will mess with the internal electronics.
Secondly, and this is the big one; they must always be ON at the switch.
What this means, is that in order to communicate with the light, there needs to be electricity running to it.
So, if you replace your ceiling light with a smart light, and there’s a light switch that controls that light; that light switch must always be in the ON position, otherwise there will be no power going to the smart light, and it won’t be accessible remotely.
This is a typical problem that many smart light owners run into pretty quickly. Aside from the problem that you can’t access it remotely, essentially nullifying the “smart” aspect of it.
It is wildly impractical to rely on either your phone or AI assistant (Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri) to turn on your lights every time you walk into a room.
You could theoretically just turn the lightswitch off / on each time, but supposedly that isn’t great for the internal electronics of the smart lights.
Some people will swear by motion detectors but unless it is a bathroom or closet, I’ve found motion detectors to not be practical enough to be used anywhere else. You often have to account for too many variables, and inevitably your lights will turn off in the middle of dinner and your wife will never let you forget about it.
Some workarounds for smart lights
Luckily there are a number of solutions to this problem. None of them are necessarily perfect, but they work well enough to either mostly fix the issue or make it livable, and their effectiveness can depend on your household.
If you have kids or a partner/roommate that isn’t as tech savvy you may need to take more extreme measures to make your smart lights always work. If you’re living on your own, then you can make due with simpler solutions as you’re not likely to avoid them.
The easiest method is to get something like a remote or button that you can stick on the wall, and program it to turn the light or group of lights on / off.
This is a great solution if you live alone or if your roommate is as savvy as you are. Philips Hue makes a dimmer remote with 4 buttons that you can program to enable various scenes with your lights.
Lutron even makes a dimmer dial that you can place over a toggle style switch, that can be connected to your Hue lights. This is convenient for Hue users, but may be a bit limited elsewhere.
If your roommate or kids are prone to not listening and using the light switch anyways, then the next easiest step are 3D printable mounts that go over the existing light switch, so there isn’t a chance to turn the light off. I will say though, they’re not exactly sleek and elegant looking.
The most invasive option is to actually remove the switch altogether, and connect the live and load wires so that the lights are always receiving power. You can then place a button or dimmer remote in place of the switch without it looking really out of place.
That brings us to smart switches.
If you are able to do very basic electric work in your home, then smart switches are a very viable option for you.
Benefits of smart switches
Firstly, they can be cheaper overall if you have a larger home. This is especially true if you have recessed ceiling lights, and a single switch powers several lights at once.
My living room and kitchen each have four ceiling lights, but only two switches. So, to control all those lights, I would just need two smart switches, instead of 8 smart lights.
Secondly there’s no learning curve or additional devices needed to attain the same level of functionality. The smart switch at its core works the exact same way as a regular light switch, but with the additional connected functionality, meaning you would never have to implement any of the workarounds detailed above.
This also means you won’t need to rely on your phone or Alexa to turn the lights on each time you enter a room, but rather you can just flip a switch, just as you would expect.
Not only that, but just as anyone else would expect. If you have roommates you won’t need to teach them how to use a light, they may not even notice anything has changed. Same goes for kids or even guests.
Of course, there are drawbacks to smart switches as well.
Namely, they are an “invasive” addition to a home. Most people probably aren’t too comfortable with electricity and working with it. Rightfully so, it’s potentially very dangerous and most of us don’t know too much about it.
You can mitigate this of course by having an electrician replace all your switches for you, but there is going to be a substantial cost associated with that as well.
This also means that if you are renting, you probably aren’t allowed to mess with the switches, nor would you necessarily want to. It’s not your property, and it could end up being far more trouble than it is worth.
Having smart switches also means that you most likely won’t be able to use smart color lights. As mentioned before, smart lights need constant power going to them, so while in theory you could have smart lights connected to smart switches (but NOT dimmers), it’s a bit redundant for minimal gain.
So, when and where should I use either smart lights or smart switches?
To sum up all of the various pros and cons of these two products, I think it we can boil it down to these few scenarios.
Smart lights should be used when renting, as it may be your only option. When paired with a dimmer remote you can achieve all the functionality that you need.
Smart lights are also great in any sort of lamp or light fixture that is simply plugged into an outlet. You could argue that a smart plug is more useful in this scenario, though if there are multiple lights in the lamp, then you may want individual light control. Especially if one is an ambient light and one is a reading light.
Accent and color lighting are also where smart lights win out. These border on the “accessories” category that I mentioned earlier, but if you are set on color lights for cool accents and effects in your home, then there’s no competition really, a color smart light is your only choice.
Smart switches can be used just about anywhere else. All lights that you turn on and off with a wall switch are ideal to be controlled by a smart switch. Particularly ceiling lights, chandeliers, and other light fixtures in your home.
I don’t want to delve into which products are necessarily the best in either category, but I will just point out the ones that I personally use.
For smart lights, I think Philips Hue is hard to beat. They’re certainly on the pricier side, but their color, quality, and ecosystem is second to none. And now they’ve updated their lineup to include Bluetooth so you don’t need to get the Hub if you only want a couple lights.
As for smart switches, the first distinction is whether or not you have a neutral wire, as some older homes do not. If you do not, then the Lutron Caseta is going to be your best choice. They are also on the pricier side, but they are also the gold standard when it comes to lighting.
If you do have a neutral wire, I personally use GE Z-Wave Plus smart switches and dimmers. They are on par price-wise as with most other competition, and they offer excellent quality.
Their updated lineup is also 20% smaller than before, and even has a smart detection feature where you can plug the live and load into either port on the switch, and it will figure it out for you; this is great for those that are less electrically savvy.
So there you have it. Hopefully this will help you determine which product is best for you and your smart home.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this debate between smart lights vs smart switches. Leave your comments down below, or tweet at me, @techtechamtech. Which do you have, and how have you designed your setup?