Gadgets

A Beginner's Guide To Smart Lights

Gone are the days when a light bulb had a hot filament that came on when you flicked a heavy switch. Today’s smart lights offer flexibility, security and real cost savings. But how do you get started?

This month, Gizmodo Australia will be hopping in our domestic DeLorean to bring you what the future will have in store for the way we live. The Home Of The Future series focuses on smart tech for your home life and beyond. We’ve got a great month planned full of news, reviews and features.
Welcome to the future.

What Do I Get With A Smart Light?

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with existing lighting solutions, save for the fact that they’re essentially binary devices.

There’s typically one switch, and they’re either on or off, and you have to be present to make that kind of state change. That’s the way they’ve been since electrical lighting was first deployed at the end of the 19th century. That’s some time to be stuck with a single technology solution.

Smart lights work differently, using local networking infrastructure — wired or wireless — to give you a greater deal of control over everything from the brightness and colour of your bulbs to the exact circumstances under which they’ll fire up. This opens possibilities for special lighting for social occasions, security lighting to keep the bad guys at bay and optimised lighting solutions to lower your power bills by switching off depending on timers or other set periods.

If you want to get particularly clever, you can use Internet-based logic tools such as IFTTT to manage your lighting automation for you from just about anywhere on the planet. That beats getting up off the sofa to switch the lights off at movie time by a serious margin.

What’s On The Market??

There’s a couple of different approaches to what’s called “Smart” lighting, depending on whether you want to go with a fully flexible self-installed solution, or integrate smart lighting into a larger home automation process, in which case your lights are often effectively “dumb”, but controlled by smart switches or relays. In the more self installed space, there’s a variety of product types you can opt for. The most basic of which are just smart bulbs, visually identical to the kinds of screw type bulbs you’re already using, albeit a little more pricey.

Philips has the largest mindshare locally in this space with its Hue brand of smart bulbs and the associated “Friends Of Hue” Bloom and Lightstrip products.

Belkin also offers smart lighting products under its WeMo brand, including its smart LED light bulbs. Insteon sells an LED light bulb to fit into its wider family of Insteon home automation products. If you fancy something a little more homegrown, you’ve got a couple of Australian smart lighting choices to pick from. Specifically, the highly successful Kickstarter-funded LIFX family of smart light bulbs, which come with either Edison or Bayonet type cap fittings to fit most sockets.

How Are They Installed?

At the simple globe level, there are products that can be self-installed with minimal fuss, whether it’s the Australian-developed LIFX bulbs or Belkin’s WeMo Smart LED Bulbs that install and then connect directly to your existing Wi-Fi network.

However, not all smart lighting products work that way.

There’s a number of solutions that use your existing lighting infrastructure alongside smart network connected switches, or other home automation solutions for a larger whole-of-home automation project. This is where it gets more complicated, because while you can purchase many of the components that make up a smart lighting solution, outside of bulb installation and networking you’re required by law — and self-preservation — to use a qualified electrician to do any fiddling around with power lines in your home or office.

That’s an entirely sensible precaution, because power lines are nothing to be mucking around with without the proper expertise. I’m not sure we can stress this enough.

What’s The Cost?

Home automation, of which smart lighting forms just a part, is one of those projects that can have exceptionally open-ended budgeting. Or in other words, write down a figure you expect to pay, and as your ambitions grow, that figure will grow as well.

It’s particularly noticeable in the smart lighting space, because depending on how you choose to implement and grow your smart lights you can pay quite a lot of money.

At a base level, smart light bulbs are markedly more expensive than their “dumb” LED equivalents. As an example, a single Philips Hue bulb will cost you around $70. Belkin’s starter set of WeMo LED Light bulbs with the WeMo link are $169.95, and then additional individual bulbs will be $49.95 each. LIFX bulbs, meanwhile sell individually for $129 each, or a little less per bulb if you buy a multipack.

If you opt for an integrated automation solution that keeps your lights “dumb”, the prices can vary even more, because you’ve generally got to take installation costs into account.

There are self-install options available depending on the lights, however, so you could match up, say, a Belkin WeMo Switch with a lamp at a very simple level, and that’d only cost you $59.95 plus the cost of the lamp.

Opt within that same ecosystem for the Belkin WeMo Light Switch to control ceiling or external lights the way you would with a regular light switch and you’re up for $69.95 for the switch itself plus the costs associated with getting an electrician to safely fit it for you.


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