Smart lights can help transform any drab suburban semi into a sparkling, welcoming home. But while smart lighting can adapt to your moods and liven up your living space, what are the realities of buying and living with it? Will you need the internet, will you need an electrician, and will smart bulbs ever save you money? We answer the basics.

What is smart lighting?

Smart lighting gives you a greater level of control over the lights in your home. Far from just turning bulbs on and off, smart lights can behave in a more intelligent way. You can dim them, change their colour, or run them on a schedule. Smart bulbs can even help keep your home safe!

Smart lighting products typically combine a bulb or lighting controller (like a dimmer switch) with software ‘brains’ on the internet. Connected over broadband, smart lighting works with phone apps and other data sources, and acts on the instructions it receives.

The most affordable smart lights are smart bulbs, which simply replace conventional ones. These are usually energy-saving LED bulbs, packaged with some control circuits and a Wi-Fi controller. Smart bulbs can be turned on and off, or dimmed through the use of an app. Some smart bulbs can glow any colour, helping you set almost any brightness and mood you want around the house.

You can get smart bulbs in several styles, from opaque white ones that look like any energy-saving bulb, to statement bulbs with exposed filaments. You can even get concealed lighting strips for amazing indirect effects.

And although they’re less common, you can buy smart lighting controllers. Domestic ones replace a standard light switch with an electronic, app-controlled dimmer. These are a great way to control a wider range of lights, or more bulbs, from one device. For example, you’d only need one to operate and dim a chandelier. On the down side, you’ll need to wire them in, and you can only use them with dimmable bulbs.

Why do I need smart lighting?

The truth is that almost nobody needs smart lighting, but it can make a big difference to your home environment. If you don’t already have dimmers, smart bulbs are a quick, cheap way to add dimmable lighting to any room. Colour-changing smart bulbs might seem like a gimmick, but they can help set the mood – for example by moving from bright white for working, through to a soft blue for movie night, or even multi-colours for a party.

Smart lighting can save you money through energy efficiency, or smart features that automatically turn lights down or off. However, you probably won’t see big savings unless you’re upgrading from old incandescent bulbs.

The world’s longest lasting lightbulb – California’s Centennial Bulb – has been burning almost continuously since 1901.

Smart lights can definitely boost your home security. Many have an away mode, during which they’ll turn on and off randomly to make it look like someone’s home. Alternatively you can configure your own schedules. Some lighting systems support geolocation, so you can configure lights to come on automatically as you return home.

How does smart lighting work?

Smart lighting generally connects a low-energy bulb or a digital light switch to the internet, using a wireless signal. This allows the device to get instructions from a ‘brain’ on the internet, usually run by the manufacturer of the device. It also means that you can check the status and give your own instructions from a smartphone app.

While white smart bulbs have only dimmable white LEDs, colour-tunable bulbs use three sets of coloured LEDs. By varying the brightness of each, they can create almost any colour – just like a TV does.

Do smart lights work without the internet?

Smart lights usually carry on working without the internet, but they’ll lose all or some of their smart behaviour. In some systems, app control still works provided your home Wi-Fi is up, whereas in others no broadband means no control at all. Previously configured changes and schedules may break, too.

For this reason we recommend configuring all smart bulbs so that they come on at full power after a power cut. This means that in the very worst case, you can still turn them on and off from the light switch like a regular bulb. Our smart lighting reviews will always tell you exactly what happens to a device with the internet switched off.

Can I install smart lights?

How many smart home enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? Fitting smart lighting can be as simple as unscrewing the old bulb and screwing the new one in. As with any bulb change, it’s important to choose a new bulb with the right fitting, although many smart bulbs come with a bayonet/Edison screw adaptor. Always change bulbs with the light switch turned off – if in doubt you could turn off power to the lighting circuit.

Fitting a smart light switch is less easy, particularly if it’s not designed for the UK market. Some such switches will work fine, but they may be a different physical size to the UK standard – meaning you’ll have to wire them and do any DIY work to tidy up afterwards. It’s vital that you don’t fit any device that isn’t approved for UK use. It’s also essential that you wire up any mains device correctly. If in any doubt, you must consult a qualified electrician.

Generally, we’d recommend that DIY enthusiasts stick to bulbs and don’t attempt to change switches themselves. However, while some smart lighting systems, like Philips’ Hue, require a starter kit, this is easy to set up.

Contents of a Philips Hue starter kit

How do I get the best out of smart lighting?

At the very minimum, you need to install the relevant app to configure and control your smart lights. You can stick with manual changes, for example using the app to dim the lights at night. Most systems let you design more sophisticated lighting scenes, for example turning off the kitchen lights and dimming the sitting room when it’s time to eat in front of a film.

It’s a good idea to experiment with schedules, especially sunrise actions that can automatically turn off any lights you leave on overnight. If your system supports it, set up geolocation. This will let you trigger lighting actions when you come home – for example, turning on hall and porch lights to greet you. It’ll also let you configure lights to switch off when you leave.

Is smart lighting worth it?

Smart lighting probably won’t save you any money if you already have low-energy bulbs, particularly if these are LEDs. However, it can make a fun and stylish addition to your home. We’d recommend it as an upgrade over old incandescent bulbs, but there are precious few of these still around. If you do replace modern LED bulbs with smart bulbs, make sure you sell or donate them to a good cause – think twice before creating more electrical waste.

See also: What do I do with an old low-energy bulb?