Save Your Money: Skip the Hue Lights

/ Lights, Tips

Take it from someone that's bought a BUNCH of Hue Lights that now sit in a box: if you want to build an integrated smart home, skip the Hue Lights. (Or any smart "bulbs" for that matter.)

Unless you are in a property where you are unable to make more "permanent" changes, smart bulbs, like the Hue Lights, ultimately introduce some very painful trade-offs:

  1. Your "real" light switches become "off limits"
  2. It's a very EXPENSIVE way to make your lighting smart
  3. Your lights do not easily tie-in to your future smart house

The Light Switch Problem

Perhaps the biggest problem with "smart bulbs" is that they make your existing light switches "off limits." When standard "dumb" bulbs are replaced with smart bulbs, they require power at all times in order for the smart capabilities to work. That means any light switches that control the sockets with smart bulbs must ALWAYS remain on. If the switch is ever turned-off, your smart lights won't work until the switch is manually switched again.

In my experience, this is a BIG obstacle to getting everyone in a house to buy-in to the benefits of smart lighting. Flipping light switches is a natural behavior. So when you have to tell your spouse or kids -- DON'T TOUCH THIS LIGHT SWITCH -- it makes the smart home feel fragile, or even hostile.

Hue does a good job trying to solve this problem by providing a physical switch that can be placed on a wall to make it easier for people control smart bulbs without pulling-out a phone, but it doesn't change the fact that the "kill switch" for a smart bulb is always sitting the wall, waiting for someone to forget it's off limits, and break the smart house.

The Cost

Maybe the light switch problem doesn't bother you. Maybe it's just you in your apartment. Or maybe your housemates are all super accommodating and ready to change their behaviors to make the smart house work. Either way, the next big problem you'll encounter with smart bulbs is the cost.

Putting smart bulbs in a single room or in a few lamps is fine. And that's where a lot of people start with systems like Hue and get hooked on the idea of smart home lighting. "That was easy! That was fun! Look, my room can do disco lights!"

Now what? Time to put smart lighting throughout the house (or apartment or condo or flat or whatever)!

That's when you realize how many bulbs a single light switch or lamp controls. Upgrading a single room can require 3 or more individual smart bulbs. Does your lamp have more than one bulb? Yep, each one needs to be replaced. It adds-up. In a hurry. ESPECIALLY in houses.

The Smart Home Integration Problem

Last, and, frankly, least is the challenge that smart home bulbs create if you're trying to integrate them in a complete smart home setup. While smart bulbs can be used with smart home hubs, they have a few key drawbacks:

  • Every bulb must be added and managed in the smart home hub separately (particularly annoying if a single room has many bulbs)
  • A smart home hub must send commands to every bulb when processing scene changes
  • Individual bulbs can get out of sync with room light settings

Clearly, all of these challenges can be overcome, but as your smart home grows, managing armies of smart bulbs only increases the odds of something going wrong.

The Alternative: Smart Switches

To solve all of these problems in one fell swoop, install "smart switches" (or dimmers) instead of smart bulbs.

A smart switch replaces the switch that's already in your wall, allowing you to use any bulbs in your fixtures (including good 'ol incandescents or modern LEDs). With a smart switch:

  • Switches on the wall still work! Even if you control lights via the wall, the switch remains powered and ready to work with your smart home programs.
  • One smart switch can control MANY bulbs! If a light switch controls 4 bulbs, one upgrade makes all of the bulbs smart.
  • Your house has fewer switches than bulbs...so...there are fewer devices to add and manage in your smart home hub (and your hub has to communicate with fewer wireless devices).

Smart switches also make it possible to automate lights that don't have smart bulb options. Things like fluorescent tube lights or fixtures with tiny candelabra bulbs. And while you're at it, you can use smart switches to automate switches for ceiling fans or switched outlets.

Every way you slice it, a smart switch is a more robust and usable solution for adding smart lighting to a house. A true home upgrade instead of a fun party trick.

Choosing a Smart Switch

There are MANY options on the market for smart switches, which is great for creating selection and competitive prices. How do you choose?

First, if smart switches are your first smart home device, try to "standardize" on a wireless smart home protocol. Whether it's ZWave or ZigBee or Insteon or something else, in the long run, filling a smart home with devices using the same protocol produces superior results (and a stronger device mesh network). For my money, I'd choose ZWave.

Second, decide if you want to install a smart switch or a smart dimmer. Even if your "dumb" switches did not include dimmers, upgrading to smart dimmers opens-up opportunities for your smart home to do things like dimming the lights in the evening or making lights brighter when it's gloomy outside. A smart dimmer creates a truly "upgraded" smart home experience, but if that's not important to you, smart switches get the job done. A smart dimmer usually adds about $10 to the cost of a switch.

Third, unless you plan on upgrading EVERY "dumb" switch in your house, make sure you're buying smart switches that match the style of your existing switches. Usually there are switches that don't make sense to upgrade, so installing smart switches that look like your current switches makes it possible to do a partial home upgrade without a mess of mismatched switch styles.

With these factors considered, based on my own experiences, I'd highly recommend the ZWave switches from HomeSeer and GE:

These switches are reliable, relatively affordable and built to last. And since they're ZWave, they'll work with any other ZWave device or ZWave-enabled smart home hub.

Caveats

Smart bulbs are not all bad. There are definitely cases where a smart bulb is the only available option, especially if you're living somewhere you cannot make permanent modifications to switches or your house lacks the required wiring. Smart bulbs can also be a good option in lamps that have a single bulb, though even there smart outlets are often a superior choice. And let's not forget the party trick disco light mode!๐Ÿ’ƒSmart switches, sadly, cannot do that.

Smart switches also have the distinct drawback of being more difficult to install. If you are not comfortable working with your home's wiring, smart switches will require professional installation to get started. If you can (safely) make your way around home wiring, installing a smart switch is relatively "plug-and-play" (assuming your house has the required wiring -- which usually means your lights have the white "neutral" wire, used by most smart switches for power).

As in all things smart home, YMMV, but if you can install smart switches, you should.

Meanwhile...does anybody want to buy a box of lightly used Hue bulbs? ๐Ÿ˜

Todd Anglin

Todd Anglin

Todd writes about smart home living and technology, with a particular focus on wireless "DIY" smart homes. He has worked as a graphic designer, software developer and held various executive roles at professional software development companies. Todd speaks frequently at software developer conferences, and is the creator of Invisible: Controller.

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