What Do You Need for Smart Lighting? We Asked a Lighting Expert!

As more products and devices become available, smart lighting is becoming more common in households. They are often the first step to developing a smart home. Starting your smart lighting system can bring many questions of where to start and what to start with. I spoke to Joe Reybarreou, an associate professor at the School of Interiors at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. He specializes in lighting and gave his opinion on how to approach starting a new smart light system. Find out more in the article below.

Start your smart lighting system with smart bulbs, which are easy to install, do not need additional hardware, and can be controlled with your cell phone. Following a tiered approach, you can integrate smart switches and dimmers in key areas such as living areas and bathrooms. This system can become more complex with further integrations and light “paths”.

This is the advice that Joe gives, and he expands further on the options that you have when expanding your smart lighting system until you reach the most complex “whole-home” system where all lighting devices in the home are integrated into one system and can be expanded to systems beyond lighting. Read on to find out what the basic requirements are to start your smart lighting journey and what you can aim for with a “whole-home” system in your smart home.

What are the basic parts of a smart lighting ecosystem?

Light bulbs

“My approach to smart lighting in terms of a tiered approach is, to begin with, smart bulbs which are very easy to install and easy to control with your cell phone.  The next step up would be to integrate smart switches and dimmers in select spaces such as the dining room, living areas, and bathrooms.” – Joe Reybarreou  

Joe is not the only one who recommends starting your smart lighting system with light bulbs. The fact that your ability to screw in a light bulb makes you capable of installing this type of lighting system yourself; added to the lower cost of bulbs compared to other smart lighting hardware, makes it an ideal choice to quickly transform your lighting system into a smart one.

If you are planning on building on your system and expanding it, you should consider choosing these bulbs mainly for your secondary lighting choices and entertainment areas where you want the option of changing the colors of the light to create a suitable ambiance. 

The reason to avoid using smart bulbs in your main lighting sources is the fact that smart bulbs always need a power source to be controlled as a smart bulb, meaning they always have to be switched on at the hard switch on the wall.

The likelihood that someone unknowingly switches off the wall switch is rather great, making your smart light bulb useless if you plan on controlling it remotely or as part of your smart home system.

The constant energy use also makes smart bulbs less energy efficient than your second option, the smart switch. Because you can change their color and create various effects with their light, smart bulbs are ideal for accent lights and lights in multifunctional areas, where you need different types of lighting for various activities.

You can use your smart dimmers installed in strategic places in your home and create a pre-set scene for a path of light to light up with one tap between two rooms, such as your bedroom and bathroom, or your bedroom and the kitchen.

Light switches and dimmers

Light switches and dimmers are a popular choice for your main lights in different rooms and Joe recommends them as either single-room solutions or you can take advantage of the fact that they are wireless and integrate them to create multi-room scenes and paths of light between rooms.

This concept of “paths of light” is becoming very popular.

Lighting Hubs

A lighting hub acts as a communication channel between your smartphone and your smart devices. It is not necessary if you do not plan on integrating your lights with other devices such as motion sensors or with other rooms to control multiple lights at one time.

If you want to expand your smart lighting system and aim to build a “whole-home” system where all devices in your home are integrated, then it is a good idea to build your smart lighting system around a lighting hub. 

The hub is also beneficial if you plan on using a variety of brands in your lighting products, as these can all connect to the hub and be integrated within the home system.

Some lighting systems, such as Ring lights, are built around a hub anyway, while others benefit from a hub system as it provides more stability and makes it possible to control the lights even if the internet is down. A hub is also necessary if you want to control Bluetooth-connected lights when you are not home or out of range. 

Smart light brands often sell their specific hubs that are compatible with their devices, but Amazon’s Echo and Samsung’s SmartThings hubs are other options that have a wide range of brands and products that they are highly compatible with.

Unless a smart bulb is specifically labeled as being compatible with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it will need a hub to function. Some smart light bulbs that do not need a hub are listed below.

A strong Wi-Fi connection

If you are not using a smart lighting hub, or have opted for Wi-Fi bulbs, you need to make sure that you have a strong and stable internet connection as your smart lighting system quickly loses its ‘smarts’ if the internet is down.

The reaction time of the lights to commands sent through the app may also lag with a slow internet connection, interrupting the convenience and streamlined effect of smart lighting and making their use inefficient.

Should I get a smart light starter kit?

A smart light starter kit can be a very convenient and easy way to jump onto the home automation bandwagon, but it does have some downsides that you should consider. Look at the list below and see which statements suit your needs best to help you make the best choice for your home.

You should consider buying a starter kit if one of the following statements applies to you.

  1. You only want to install this single system and do not plan on making any other smart home purchases soon.
  2. You are new to home automation and are not sure how far you want to expand but it is possible to build on your chosen starter kit with minimal compatibility issues.
  3. You do not want to have to research different components of a lighting system and are looking for the easiest way of installing smart lighting.
  4. You want to save money as starter kits often work out cheaper than buying individual components.
  5. You can use every item in the starter kit.

You should not buy a starter kit if the following statements apply to you.

  1. You are expanding your smart home systems quickly and will outgrow your starter kit in a short time.
  2. You are planning on using and integrating many different devices and brands in your smart home system, leading to possible compatibility issues.
  3. You do not need all the components included in the starter kit.

Plan ahead and consider what home automation system you are ultimately aiming for. If the starter kit serves as a useful stepping stone in this process, you should buy it. If you cannot find any benefit of buying a starter kit, skip that step and move on.

Which Voice Assistant is most compatible with smart light bulbs?

The most compatible voice assistant for smart lights is Amazon’s Alexa, while Apple’s HomeKit with Siri is the least compatible for smart home integration.  The table below shows the compatibility between the major smart light bulb brands and the three main virtual assistants, namely Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri.

Smart Light Bulb BrandAmazon’s AlexaGoogle AssistantApple HomeKit with Siri
Philips Hue

Is IKEA smart lighting compatible with Google home?

Yes, IKEA’s Tradfri smart lighting range is compatible with Google Home and Google Assistant, a big benefit to Google Home users looking for affordable smart lighting. The lights do need a hub to connect them to an internet source to be functional though and IKEA has added one to their range to be compatible with their Tradfri lights.

Some third-party hubs, such as the Philips Hue or Amazon Echo Plus, are also compatible. 

IKEA lights and switches work on the Zigbee protocol. If you already have a hub that is compatible with Zigbee devices, that is great news for you. If you don’t, you will need either the Tradfri Gateway or another Zigbee compatible hub to connect the lights to an internet source.

They need to an internet source to be functional  and for you to be able to add them to your Google Home app. You will also need a steering device and the Tradfri app for the initial setup on the Google Home app. Although the initial setup is more complex, the benefits of the integration make it worthwhile later.

What is a smart lighting bridge?

A smart lighting bridge is also called a hub. There was a difference between the two devices for a time, but these differences became minimal as the technology developed. By now both terms mean pretty much the same thing.

The bridge or hub connects the devices within your home and acts as the central control point to allow your smartphone to communicate with your smart devices from anywhere. Some smart devices do not connect to your phone through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and need a bridge to function.

Others merely experience a more stable connection and better integration through the bridge.

The hub or bridge has many benefits. These include that Bluetooth devices can be controlled even when you are out of Bluetooth range, a decreased network traffic and the possibility to integrate smart devices from your entire household.

This makes it possible to  control them all through one device instead of using different apps for separate brands and devices.

What is the “whole-home” system in a smart home?

According to Joe Reybarreou, the “whole-home” system is the most complex smart home system and the final step in a tiered approach to building your smart home. This system can integrate many and if you want to, all the lighting devices in your home.

As the name implies, you can also integrate other components and devices such as window shades, thermostats, security systems, and sound systems. If this is your ultimate goal as you build your smart home, you must consider your future expansions when you choose your voice assistant, hub, and light bulb, switch and dimmer brand to ensure maximum compatibility across devices and brands. 

Home Streamliner’s Take

A basic smart lighting system only needs a couple of smart light bulbs to get you started. They are easy to install, and they give you the chance to experiment with the different options of smart lighting before you choose to expand further.

If you enjoy the smart bulbs, smart switches and dimmers can be added to the system for improved energy efficiency and better integration across rooms. If you decide to be brand loyal or want an install that requires minimal research and practical skills, a starter kit is a good choice for you to begin with and to slowly build your lighting system on, especially if you want to buy all the included components and would like to save some money. 

If you want to find out more about smart lighting and the options that you have when using it in your home, the following video is an excellent beginner’s guide to home tech.

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This blog aims to share my research and first-hand knowledge in a helpful way. My goal is for you to be able to save time and find happiness in a streamlined home.