Smart Bulbs vs Smart Switches (Why Some People Are Wrong)

Whenever I see newcomers to smart homes ask what the best smart bulb to buy is, I often see one or two replies saying “Noooo, smart bulbs are POINTLESS!! Just get smart switches instead!!“.

And then they say nothing else to back up this view point. Mkay… that’s helpful! In reality, there can be some truth to this statement. Whilst smart bulbs are much easier to sell to people (“You can set them to bright orange, and dim them too!!”). there are some instances where a simple smart switch is all that people actually need.

However in other cases, a smart bulb is better to buy – especially as mood lighting, or when you want dimming capability. Hence I wanted to write this post and go through when it’s best to buy smart bulbs vs switches, and when it’s best to mix the two. To summarize my personal opinion though:

The decision of whether to get a smart bulb or smart switch is very much dependant on people’s requirements and the room they’ll be used in. A genuine smart home will actually end up with a mix of both smart bulbs and switches – not just one or the other.

How smart bulbs work

A Philips Hue starter kit (B22), and four E14 White Ambiance bulbs.
How I got started with smart lighting: a starter kit and four E14 candle bulbs.

Smart bulbs are one of the easiest smart devices to get set up with. After all, they just screw into an existing light socket and they turn on. No complex installation needed. Then you download the relevant app and start playing around with them: changing their color, dimming them to 5% brightness and back up to 100% brightness, and turning them off randomly to confuse other people in the house!

Whilst some smart bulbs work over WiFi (such as LIFX) and other bulbs work over ZigBee or Bluetooth (such as Philips Hue), in general smart bulbs offer the same sort of features:

  • The ability to change the color of them. Many smart bulbs support full RGB color, meaning you can set your bulbs to bright pink or orange if you’d like! Whilst some other smart bulbs only support white or ‘white ambiance’, meaning they can be set to bluey and yellowy colors to track natural day and night cycles.
  • Dimming capability (without extra wiring needed – yay!). Pretty much all smart bulbs allow you to turn down the brightness of the bulbs, all the way down to essentially a night-light setting. This is actually what I do with my landing smart bulb at night: use it as a night-light as I have young children.
  • Turn on/off with ease. You can turn the bulbs off at the wall if you’d like (without damaging the smart bulb), but you can do this by using your smartphone app, using a voice assistant like an Echo or Google Home device, or do this automatically based on time, sunset or sunrise. Nice!
  • Automation. You can set smart bulbs to go on/off (or change color) at set times of day, or even link it with other smart devices. For example, some people turn their lights on for 10 minutes after their Ring cameras detect motion (or their Ring doorbell is pressed). This is all trivial to setup with supported smart devices (Nest cameras excluded, unfortunately!).
  • Setup scenes. Many smart bulbs allow you to configure ‘scenes’, which is where you configure one or more of your bulbs to go to a particular color and brightness. This can then be triggered in the app or with a voice command to your smart speaker. Scenes can be awesome for creating mood lighting in various rooms of your house.
  • Fun stuff like syncing to music or a movie! Some (but not all) smart bulbs allow you to sync your lighting to music or movies, such as frequently dimming and brightening bulbs (and changing the color) to match the music or the movies. An awesome of this can be seen on YouTube:

As a result, I’m personally a big fan of smart lighting. However the truth is also that for some rooms, you just want to smartly turn lights on and off. In this case, smart switches can be more useful – and much cheaper.

How smart switches work

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

Smart switches replace the standard ‘dumb’ switch on your wall, and they mainly work with standard ‘dumb’ bulbs – allowing them to be turned on and off in a smart way. They therefore need to be wired in to your house and thus require some level of electrical competence to install.

Smart switches also nearly always require a neutral wire, which not all houses have, and most smart switches don’t support dimming. They tend to just support turning the linked light on and off.

This might leave you wondering what they point of them are (considering that smart bulbs support on/off, dimming and color changes) – but a good example of why switches can be better is my kitchen/dining room.

It has 12 dumb spotlights in it. If I wanted to upgrade this to have smart functionality, I could either pay $45 each for Hue color spotlights – costing $540 in total.

Or I could change the wall switch to be smart, costing me $45 in total. I’d still be able to have the 12 spotlights come on smartly based on the time or via routines, and I could turn them on and off smartly as well.

In other words, some key features of smart switches include:

  • The ability to turn them on/off smartly, either via the smartphone app, or a voice command to a smart speaker.
  • The ability to turn them on/off as you currently do with normal wall switches, meaning that you don’t have to have smart switches in conjunction with other smart technology if you don’t want to.
  • Some smart switches support dimming or have motion sensors, to add extra useful features to the mix.
  • Lower overall price when you have multiple lights controlled by a switch. As mentioned above, a smart switch would save me $495 (over 90%!) in my kitchen-diner compared to using all smart bulbs.

In general, smart switches are great for task based rooms and uses – i.e. kitchens and bathrooms where you’ll often want to just turn lights on/off.

The flaws with using just smart bulbs

One of the big reasons why people sometimes say “Nooo, don’t just buy smart bulbs, use smart switches instead” is that with smart bulbs, you still have a wall switch controlling that smart bulb. Smart bulbs need constant power so that their smart functionality can work, but yet it’s very common for people to turn wall switches off when leaving a room – it’s a learned behavior nowadays.

This means that the smart features of that bulb(s) in that room can no longer be used, until the wall switch is left on. As a result, you sometimes see people ‘tape off’ their wall switches:

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 sort of thing shows that there’s a problem with your smart lighting setup. Smart technology should be intuitive and help make everything easier. If you get frustrated every time your housemate turns a wall switch off, perhaps using just a smart bulb (with a standard wall switch) isn’t the right answer!

However that’s not the only flaw with only using smart bulbs:

  • The overall price is much higher, since each smart bulb usually costs as much (if not more) than a smart switch.
  • You’re more reliant on other smart home technology, be it a smartphone app, a smart speaker or centralized hub. This is because all the awesome features of a smart bulb (such as full RGB color and dimming) can’t be activated with a single, standard wall switch.

    And if someone does turn the light off at the switch by mistake, sometimes smart bulbs will come back on to a boring, bright white color. This then forces you to dig out your smartphone app to restore the fun color/settings you had for it before.
  • RGB color can sometimes be an unused gimmick. When you first get a color smart bulb, you’ll probably change the color loads. It’s awesome! But after a few weeks, I bet that you’ll barely ever change the color.

    Many smart bulbs end up languishing at their default white color… in which case you could have saved yourself $40+ per bulb by getting a standard white bulb! Or by a single smart switch for a room, and you’ll still have saved a tidy bundle.
  • Smart bulbs often can’t be used when the internet is down. Whilst the situation is better with higher end smart bulbs such as LIFX and Philips Hue, if your internet goes down, your smart bulb routines and schedules won’t work. And sometimes you won’t be able to get into the smartphone app to control your smart bulbs that way.

Despite all these flaws, I’m still a fan of smart bulbs – as I explain later on in this article.

Why “only use smart switches” is bad advice

When I hear people say “never buy smart bulbs, smart switches are all you need“, I look like this:

Me - Tristan - looking confused
Me looking confused!

This is because whilst smart switches are great for some purposes (more on this in the next section), I also feel that they have a bunch of limitations and flaws:

  1. The majority of smart switches don’t support dimming. A feature of smart bulbs that I’ve found really useful is the ability to dim the light. This is great in the evenings when winding down, and at night as a night light. Whilst some smart switches support dimming, they’re usually more expensive and can require extra wires (and naturally, bulbs that support dimming).
  2. Smart switches are linked to the specific bulbs, as per your house’s wiring. As a result, you can’t set your smart switch to control 10 different bulbs around your house, unlike smart bulbs which make this trivial. Hardwired smart switches only control the bulbs in that room. Whilst this can be a benefit (as per my kitchen-diner example earlier, where I’d say hundreds of dollars with a smart switch), it can also be a flaw depending on where your switches are located.
  3. You can’t always buy the correct smart switch to replace your existing switch. A simple one or two way switch can easily be replaced with a smart switch as there’s loads of compatible switches on the market. But if you have a more complicated wall switch (such as a four way switch, one of which increases the voltage to a fan), you might not be able to find a smart switch with the necessary wiring and functionality.
  4. Smart switches often require a neutral wire. With some exceptions, your houses wiring should be sufficiently modern (after 1980s) to include a neutral wire, before you can install smart switches. This means that houses with older electrics may not be compatible with smart switches, unlike smart bulbs which will work just fine.
  5. Smart switches require electrical competence to install, or electrician bills! If you don’t feel comfortable changing light switches around, you’ll instead have to hire an electrician to install your light switches – which can quickly cost hundreds of dollars. At that point, any cost savings you have (compared to smart bulbs) will have disappeared.
  6. Finally, renters or lodgers probably won’t be allowed to install smart switches. This is because it’s a building modification, which is nearly always disallowed. Of course, sticking a smart bulb into a light socket is completely allowed – another benefit of smart bulbs compared to smart switches!

Whilst I was able to quickly think of 6 flaws of smart switches, they can still bring various benefits – especially when a home has a mix of smart bulbs and smart switches.

The best uses for smart bulbs and switches

Someone on Reddit said the following, and to me it perfectly answers the whole ‘smart bulb vs switch’ debate:

Bulbs for lamps (accent lighting). Switches for fixtures (task lighting).

DynaMike_, Reddit, 19th August 2020

When you’re likely to want fancy lighting effects – with various colors and/or dimming – then smart bulbs make perfect sense. This is especially true in living rooms.

However when you go into the bathroom, you’re not likely to want ‘dancing’ smart lighting, rapidly changing color and brightness! You’ll probably just want utility lighting – a simple smart switch will do just fine. Ditto with hallways and often kitchens.

In other words, smart bulbs should be used in some parts of the house, and smart switches in other parts. There shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” approach to this debate.

Heck, you might have a smart switch controlling a strip of 15 spotlights, but have the end few spotlights (overlooking a table or worktop) be smart bulbs. Then you can set just these final few spotlights to be a different color or brightness level.

This involves mixing both smart switches and smart bulbs, and this can be a great idea too. As long as you don’t buy an incompatible smart switch (some dimming smart switches alter the voltage going to the bulb, which can damage smart bulbs), there’s no reason why you can’t get the best of both worlds with both smart switches and bulbs in the same room.

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