How Smart Bulbs Work With Switches (Regular And Smart)

Smart bulbs are one of the most popular – and fun – smart products available on the market. After all, you can change their color to anything you want, and sync the bulb to music or your TV (depending on the bulb manufacturer). But sometimes they don’t work too well with wall switches – whether they’re smart switches or standard switches. As a result, I wanted to write this article to cover the ‘dos and don’ts’ of using smart bulbs alongside switches.

In general, you shouldn’t turn off normal regular switches if you still want to use your smart bulb’s functionality (since smart bulbs need constant power). Smart switches are better in this sense, but you can’t always mix smart switches and bulbs.

How smart bulbs and switches work

My Amazon Echo (with a blue ring, in listening mode) next to a Philips Hue E14 White Ambiance box.
My Amazon Echo next to a Philips Hue E14 (candle) box.

Smart bulbs can be turned on/off via various of methods (including on a timer), and can be dimmed and have their color changed too. Whilst they aren’t the cheapest smart product (a quality color smart bulb can be around $50), I was recently converted to smart bulbs after realizing that I could save a couple of hours each month using them.

Since they’re a smart home product, you can also integrate them with your other smart devices – for example, turning on a smart light when someone rings your smart doorbell, or when your smart camera detects someone walking past.

You can also use your smart speaker to control your bulbs, such as saying “Alexa, turn off my hallway light” or “Hey Google, dim the lights“.

Smart switches, on the other hand, can also be turned on/off in various ways and can be controlled with smart speakers too, but they don’t allow color changes and most smart switches don’t support dimming either.

This is because smart switches are hardwired into your house’s electrics, replacing your existing wall switch. This also means that a smart switch is tied to the light bulbs that the old switch controlled.

Whilst this may seem like a limitation, it actually makes your smart home feel more natural because the smart switch will work in an expected way – unlike smart bulbs which can have a few quirks (as I explore below).

Of course, you don’t need to mix smart bulbs and switches and have both in a room. In many cases, people only use one or the other (i.e. smart bulbs with a regular switch, or regular bulbs with smart switches).

How smart bulbs work with regular (dumb) switches

Smart bulbs require constant power to be flowing to them, so that even if you turn the smart bulb ‘off’ (e.g. via your smartphone app or a smart speaker), the smart bulb can still be turned ‘on’ later.

In other words, smart bulbs always consume a little bit of electricity, even when they’re off. It’s a bit like a TV in standby mode: it barely uses electric, but it’s still ‘on’ so that it can respond to your TV remote.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that it’s a really crucial point, that not everyone realizes. If you have smart bulbs with standard wall switches – some people call them ‘dumb’ switches to prevent confusion – then you shouldn’t turn the wall switch off. Whilst it won’t damage the smart bulb, it’ll prevent you from turning the bulb on with the app or your voice. It’ll also stop any automation routines (such as turning the bulb on at a set time, or when your doorbell is pressed) from working with that bulb.

As a result, sometimes people tape off their wall switches or put a reminder for other housemates not to turn them off:

A sticky note put over a standard wall switch, saying "Smart bulb!!! Don't turn me off!!!"
A sticky note put over a standard wall switch. Clearly this is the best solution..!

This is a bit of a hacky solution! Another slightly nicer alternative is to purchase a wall switch guard:

Two examples of light switch covers. The top is a simple magnetic cover to prevent accidental misuse, whilst the bottom is a screw-in cover to prevent accidental and intentional misuse.
Two examples of light switch covers: a simple magnetic cover, and also a screw-in one.

Whilst this still isn’t a highly professional solution, at least it looks good and it clearly shows that people shouldn’t turn off specific switches.

This then allows your smart bulb to stay in ‘standby’ mode when ‘off’, so that it can be smartly controlled as normal. To be honest though, needing to do this to your dumb wall switches is one reason why some people prefer using smart switches (more on this later).

How smart bulbs work with smart switches

Marketing image for the Leviton Decora Smart WiFi 15 Amp Light Switch
Marketing image for the
Leviton Decora Smart Switch

Since smart bulbs and dumb switches don’t work very naturally together, can smart switches help instead? The answer is that it very much depends on the smart switch that you purchase.

An increasing number of recent smart switches work quite nicely with smart bulbs – they can be physically turned on/off as normal, but they still supply power to the smart bulb meaning that the smart bulb can then be operated as usual.

Some have this support built in, whilst others – such as the Inovelli Red switches – allow you to disable the power relay which would otherwise stop power flowing to the light bulb when the smart switch is off.

However some other smart switches don’t have this feature, meaning that turning them off (either physically, or via the app) will stop power flowing to the smart bulb – hence giving the same problem as I explained earlier.

Secondly, some smart switches have dimming capability, but the way that these dim bulbs (by lowering the voltage to the light fixture) can actually be incompatible with smart bulbs – causing visual glitches at best, and damaging them at worst.

A side lamp with an Amazon Echo Dot in-front of it
A dimmed side lamp.

This is because smart bulbs need constant power to be supplied to them (or to be completely turned off). If the supplied voltage keeps varying – as dimmer switches typically do – then the smart bulb won’t receive the necessary power for it to work reliably.

It’d be a bit like randomly supplying less electricity to your TV or desktop PC – they will either just turn off, or it’ll have weird side effects.

In general though, mixing smart switches and bulbs can work well. You can even have a smart switch that controls a bunch of spotlights, and have most of the spotlights as dumb lights, but a few (possibly overlooking a table, or a worktop) be smart spotlights.

In short, you can sometimes get the ‘best of both worlds’ by mixing smart bulbs and switches, but be sure to check your smart switch and know roughly how it works, and thus whether it’ll work well when controlling smart bulbs.

Whether to just use smart switches (no smart bulbs)

Due to the almost fundamental flaw with smart bulbs in many cases – i.e. that they can be turned off at the wall switch, rendering them useless – it’s reasonable to ask whether you should just use smart switches instead, scrapping smart bulbs entirely?

Well, this is a bit of a ‘personal preference’ question but I like to say that each can have their benefits in certain cases.

For example, if you want mood or accent lighting, you can only get this from a smart bulb. Smart switches won’t spit out bright pink light, after all! Equally if you want to dim your lights in certain places but your current light switch wiring doesn’t support this, it’d be much more cost and effort to upgrade your wiring and install a dimming smart switch – just buy a smart bulb!

However when you go into a utility based room – such as a bathroom or utility room – you’re unlikely to want orange lighting that dances to music! In this case, a smart switch can be much more practical – especially one with motion detection, allowing the switch (and hence light) to come on automatically as you enter the room.

In other words, whilst smart bulbs do have their flaws and thus a genuine smart home will probably have a bunch of smart switches, there’s still plenty of cases when you’ll want to use smart bulbs – both with standard, dumb switches, and smart switches.

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