Smart light bulbs are the gateway drug to a smart home. Smart light bulbs are relatively affordable, easy to install, and provide some functional, fun, and sometimes frivolous features. The market for smart light bulbs has absolutely exploded in recent years with several new manufacturers bringing clever new products to market. For example, last year LIFX launched their Clean LED line of smart lights that are actually capable of disinfecting surfaces and the surrounding air using scientifically proven HEV lighting. In this article, we’ll explore what smart light bulbs are and their many benefits.
Here’s what we’ll be covering (feel free to skip around).
- What are Smart Light Bulbs and How Do They Work?
- How Much Do Smart Bulbs Cost?
- Smart Bulb Colors and Luminance
- How Do You Control Smart Light Bulbs?
- Smart Bulb Features
- Do Smart Bulbs Need a Hub?
- Advantages of Smart Lighting
What are smart light bulbs and how do they work?
The light bulb has an incredibly rich history of entrepreneurs and innovators that helped bring us out of the dark candle and oil lamp lit nights that our ancestors endured. When you think of the light bulb and its inventor, Thomas Edison immediately comes to mind. Edison didn’t actually invent the incandescent light bulb, but he did make it a commercially viable product that helped usher in an era of electrification. Over the last 200 years, continual innovation and improvement (albeit with a bit of stagnation through the early 1900s as a result of corruption by the Phoebus Cartel) have been the hallmark of lighting driven largely by improving the longevity of light bulbs. The smart light bulb revolution officially kicked off back in 2012 when Phillips launched the HUE line of smart bulbs and to this day Phillips Hue is still the market leader. There are now hundreds of different smart light bulbs on the market from dozens of manufacturers.
So, how do smart light bulbs work?
While the number of smart light bulbs to choose from has exploded in recent years all smart light bulbs share two common traits, they all use light-emitting diodes (LED) and wireless networking technology. Let’s break down these two technologies a bit more.
An LED produces light when an electric current move through a microchip illuminating tiny light sources called diodes resulting in visible light. LEDs are a solid-state technology emitting light from solid matter as opposed to a vacuum used by incandescent bulbs or a gas used by compact fluorescent bulbs. These technical advancements have had a huge impact on the amount of energy it takes us to light up our world. LEDs output more quantities of visible light (lumens) than a traditional incandescent bulb at a much higher luminous efficiency. A 60-watt incandescent bulb generates roughly 750-900 lumens, but the same output from an LED bulb uses only 6-8 watts. That same LED bulb can last upward of 25,000 hours compared to less than 1,500 hours for the 60-watt incandescent.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the wireless networking technology used in today’s smart light bulbs. Bluetooth, WiFI, Z-Wave, and Zigbee are the most common methods used by smart light bulbs to connect to either your mobile device or home automation hub. Z-Wave and Zigbee are communication protocols that use small, low-power digital radios to create a mesh network where data is transmitted from one device to another. WiFi is another network communication protocol that (similar to Zigbee) operates on the 2.4 GHz band but it is not a mesh network so WiFi-enabled devices don’t repeat signals. WiFI, however, uses much more power than either Z-Wave or Zigbee. Finally, Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology standard that is used for exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances using UHF radio waves in the ISM bands, from 2.402 GHz to 2.48 GHz. Leveraging wireless technology allows smart bulbs to become an Internet-connected device that we can now control from the palm of our hand or through our voice.
How Much Do Smart Bulbs Cost?
There is a wide range of pricing for smart light bulbs based on the manufacturer, size of the bulb, the quantity being purchased (many are sold in multipacks), and the features offered with the bulb. Let’s take a look at the most common bulb shape, the A19, on the low end you can expect to pay anywhere from $8 to $12 per bulb. We’ve seen promotions as low as $6.25 per bulb. On the high-end prices, we’ve seen prices for $40 – $60 per bulb.
Smart Bulb Colors and Luminance
Smart light bulbs are typically marketed as either white or color. Most color smart bulbs boast 16,000,000 different light bulb colors. Yes, this is technically true, in fact, it’s more like 16,777,216 colors because manufacturers are using an RGB (Red, Green, Blue) LED array each capable of 256 color levels. 256 x 256 x 256 equals 16,777,216 possible colors. However, the vast majority of people can’t distinguish between colors that vary by 1-pixel value. Similarly, manufacturers of smart light bulbs claim 50,000 shades of white. You’ll often see tunable white, which allows you to adjust the color temperature from warm to cool measured in degrees of Kelvin (K). Kelvin temperatures for lighting typically range from 2,700k (warm) to 5,000k (cool).
How Do You Control Smart Light Bulbs?
There are several ways to control smart light bulbs. The most common method is through an app on your phone or using your voice through a smart home hub like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, or Apple HomeKit. Yes, you can turn your lights on and off or set the color of the bulb from your phone or use your voice, but the real power of smart lighting happens when you aren’t really “controlling” the lighting at all. With most smart light bulbs you can set up automated scenes and routines that adjust your lights automatically. We’ll explore some of the popular ways that people configure smart lighting in the next section.
Smart Bulb Features
When it comes to smart lightbulb features there are two primary activities you can perform with a smart bulb i.e. how you turn the lights on and off and what color or color temperature you set the lights to. It’s really how you perform both of these activities that separate different smart light bulbs.
Another factor to consider is what location and fixture you can use the smart light bulb. Some smart light bulbs are only for indoor use while others will work outdoors as well. Some smart light bulbs work in enclosed fixtures and some don’t.
You should also determine how you plan to use the smart light bulb or bulbs. Are you looking for just one for a lamp or are you trying to convert your whole house to smart lighting in which case features like group control are an important consideration?
Some smart light bulbs also only work on 2.4 GHz band wireless frequencies and while most of the popular smart light bulbs don’t require a hub, there are some additional benefits that a hub can provide like control of more lights.
Since all smart light bulbs are built using LED technology, most manufacturers are claiming in the range of 15,000 to 25,000 hours of use, which for the average consumer is expected to last a couple of decades. However, each manufacturer does offer a different warranty length with the longest we’ve seen is 3 years.
- Smartphone / App-based
- Voice Control (Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit)
- Timers / Schedules
- Routines / Recipes / Scenes
- Motion Sensors / Motion Detection
- Sync to Music
Popular Scenes / Routines / Modes
- Wake Up
- Movie Night
- Energy Saving
Do Smart Bulbs Need a Hub?
We often get the question, “do smart bulbs need a hub?” The answer is, no, not all smart bulbs require a hub or bridge. However, hubs and bridges do provide some benefits and additional features that may be of interest, like being able to control more lights. In the case of Philips Hue, for example, adding the Hue Hub allows you to control up to 50 light points vs. 10 lights without the hub.
In addition, we get people looking for Amazon smart light bulbs, Alexa smart light bulbs, Google smart light bulbs, and even Siri smart light bulbs, and while Amazon, Google, and Apple currently don’t make smart light bulbs many of the manufacturers of smart light bulbs leverage Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple Home Kit, and Samsung SmartThings as hubs to allow voice control of their bulbs as well as the configuration of scenes and other automation.
Advantages of Smart Lighting
There are three primary advantages of a smart lighting system. It’s not that flipping a switch to turn on and off your lights was a big chore before smart lighting, but the added convenience of being able to control your lights through your phone or by your voice is one of the main benefits of a fully configured smart lighting system. The next advantage of a fully configured smart lighting system is the enjoyment that comes from personalizing scenes or routines to the preferences of you and your family. Finally, the last major advantage of a smart lighting system is the environmental impact of not only switching to an LED bulb but the options of reducing wasted energy by only turning on the lights when you need them and automatically turning off the lights when you don’t need them.
Top Ten A19 60W (equivalent) Color Smart Light Bulbs by Manufacturer
Finding the right contractor can be the key to having a smart system installed correctly and safely, and is certainly easier than doing it yourself. Beyond word-of-mouth recommendations, local building inspectors or trade groups may have a list of licensed contractors in your area.