How Do Smart Light Bulbs Work?

We’ll tell you everything you want to know about smart light bulbs.

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Jul 2, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Jul 2, 2021

Integrating smart technology into your home can seem like a daunting task, especially if you don’t know where to start. However, smart light bulbs are cost-effective and simple, making them a perfect first step in transitioning your home to a smart home.

How Do Smart Light Bulbs Work?

Smart light bulbs are very similar to regular, incandescent light bulbs, but smart bulbs can partner with a smartphone, tablet, or mobile device. Often, this connection occurs by means of a “hub,” like the Philips Hue bridge, which acts as a gateway between the smart bulbs in your home and your phone or tablet. The hub is attached to a port in your router, but sometimes, smart bulbs don’t have smart hubs at all.

There is wireless technology built into the bulb itself to send messages between your device, the hub (if any), and the bulb, resulting in the bulb turning on or off, changing colors, dimming, or brightening.

Pro Tip: Smart bulbs are best suited for socket-powered table lamps or power sources that lack manual wall switches.

How Do I Set Up a Smart Light Bulb?

Setting up a smart light bulb is simple, because it doesn’t require any heavy-duty installation like drilling or rewiring. Instructions for each bulb may differ, but generally speaking, to set up a smart light bulb:

  1. Plug in the hub. If your smart bulb came with a hub, plug the hub into your router.
  2. Get rid of incandescent bulbs. Remove your old bulb and screw the smart bulb into the desired light fixture.
  3. Visit the app store. Download the mobile application affiliated with the brand of the bulb you purchased.
  4. Connect the bulb to the app. Pair the bulb with the mobile application.
  5. Name your bulbs. Label the bulbs intuitively, like “bedroom night table lamp,” so it’s clear what bulb you’re controlling in the likely event that you pair several.

Where Can I Use Smart Light Bulbs?

You can use smart light bulbs anywhere you would use regular light bulbs, but they are best suited for table lamps and fixtures that are not connected to wall switches. In those situations, a smart light switch could be a better solution, potentially. Additionally, smart bulbs might not be well suited for lights like ceiling fans, because some smart bulbs, especially those without hubs, can be bulky.

What Are Smart Light Bulbs?

Smart light bulbs are lighting devices that you can control wirelessly via a remote.1 That way, you can control them from different rooms, or even set up different combinations of lights that differ based on the time of day.

Smart light bulbs last longer than regular light bulbs2 and are more energy-efficient, too. We’ll go into more detail on that soon.

LIFX Smart Bulb
LIFX Smart Bulb

Benefits of Smart Light Bulbs

Ease of installation isn’t the only thing smart light bulbs have going for them. Other benefits of smart light bulbs include:

  • Lower energy consumption: Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs reduce the amount of electricity needed; they use 25 percent to 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescents.3
  • Long life span: The average incandescent light bulb has a lifespan of 750 to 2,000 hours, while LED smart lights can work for up to 50,000 hours.
  • Security: Many smart light bulbs have motion-detection features and will turn on if someone enters the room.
  • Light customization for color and brightness: You can change the bulb color and brightness, designing different “scenes” to fit your various moods.
  • Scheduling: You can set up a predetermined schedule of when lights turn on and off.

Energy Saver: Scheduling when lights turn on and off can also lower energy consumption, since you’ll never accidentally leave the lights on.

Types of Smart Light Bulbs

There is a range of smart light bulbs with varying bulb shapes and base sizes. Each bulb has a code consisting of a letter and a number like A19,4 so you’ll want to pay attention to what type of bulb is listed as compatible with your fixture, whether that’s a table lamp or ceiling fan.

The most commonly used household bulbs are the A19 and the E26.

How Much Do Smart Light Bulbs Cost?

Smart light bulb costs vary based on the brand, if it’s for indoor or outdoor, wired or wireless, has a hub or not, and if it’s a lamp. The cheapest smart bulb on the market that we found is the Cree 60W bulb, which costs $2.24, while the most expensive option, the LIFX Mini Light Bulb can cost just over $60. In our analysis, we found the average cost was about $29.

Are Smart Bulbs Worth the Money?

Though there is an upfront cost associated with making the switch from regular bulbs to smart bulbs, smart light bulbs are a money-saver in the long run. Since the smart bulbs are LED, they are highly efficient and don’t use as much energy as incandescent bulbs. Further, scheduling your smart bulbs means that the lights are never on when no one is home. And, if by chance you leave them on accidentally, you can turn them off remotely, making saving energy super easy.

And with saved energy comes saved money! Smart bulbs can last between 15 and 25 years, as opposed to incandescent bulbs which only last around a year.

However, smart bulbs use energy even when the lights are off, because they are always connected to Wi-Fi.5 If you want to experiment with smart home appliances, smart bulbs could be a good introduction to see how you like smart living. And a couple of more affordable bulbs won’t break the bank. If you want to lean into the smart home world, we compiled our picks for the best smart home devices.

How Long Do Smart Light Bulbs Last?

LED smart light bulbs can last for up to 50,000 hours, while compact CFL bulbs can last for up to 20,000 hours.6 Both LED and CFL bulbs last far longer than incandescent bulbs, which last a maximum of 2,000 hours.

Will Smart Light Bulbs Be Obsolete?

Light bulb technology is evolving rapidly, and Americans are getting on board. It’s unlikely that smart light bulbs will be obsolete anytime soon,7 especially because incandescent bulbs are being phased out of households.8 However, as incandescent bulbs become a thing of the past,9 now could be a good time to think about switching to smart light bulbs, if you haven’t already.

What Do I Look For In A Smart Light Bulb?

There are quite a few features and settings to consider when choosing a smart light bulb. We’ve highlighted the most important ones below:

  • Does it require a hub? Not all smart light bulbs require a hub, but if the hardware is built into the bulb itself, it will have a bulkier look.
  • Different colors/color spectrum: This is the fun part of smart bulbs because you can choose from the full color spectrum. That means cool vibes without having to commit to a permanently colorful lighting landscape.
  • Pairing abilities: If you use Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant (Google Home), or Siri (Apple HomeKit) voice assistants, make sure the technology is voice-activated so you can control the lights with your voice. Of course, you’ll need smart speakers like the Nest Mini or the Echo Dot With Clock.
  • Design: Does the bulb look traditional, especially if it is going to be visible in your lighting fixture?
  • How it connects: Typically, smart bulbs connect through Wi-Fi, though there are Bluetooth, SmartThings, Z-Wave and Zigbee-compatible bulbs available.
  • Size: A19 is the standard bulb shape, and E26 is the most common base size for lamps. Make sure your bulb will fit in the lighting fixture you want to put it in.
  • App features: Is it easy to set up schedules and different light scenes for larger smart lighting systems? Are there ads, and is it intuitive to navigate to the parts of the app you’ll need most? Be sure to check the app’s ratings in the app store to get a sense of how current customers really feel.
  • Brightness: Brightness is measured in watts, and most smart bulbs are around 60 watts.
  • Cost: Obviously, the bottom line matters. However, there are lots of options to find something that fits in your budget, considering that the lower end of the price spectrum is around $2 per bulb, while the higher-end bulbs will cost closer to $60. Take advantage of smart home Black Friday deals while they’re up!
  • Scheduling features: The ability to schedule is a huge perk of smart light bulbs, so make sure it’s easy to do so via the device’s app.
  • Geofencing: Some smart bulbs can connect to the GPS in your phone, so the lighting turns off automatically when you leave the home and turns on when you enter.
  • Installation process: If there is a hub, you’ll have to connect it to your home’s router. However, installing a hub should not take more than 15 minutes.
Smart Light Bulbs
Smart Light Bulbs

Smart Light Bulb Alternatives

While we’re big fans of smart light bulbs, there are some alternatives we wanted you to know about as well:

  • Smart switches: A smart switch controls the flow of power to a certain area and replaces a traditional wall switch. It connects to the internet, and you can control it through a mobile app or a voice assistant like Google Assistant. Installing a smart light switch is more of an undertaking than installing a smart light bulb, because you’ll have to access the hardwires in your wall. However, it is still possible to do without professional help. Plus, smart switches make it possible to use smart lighting for overhead lightings like recessed lights or sconces.
  • Smart plugs: Smart plugs are adaptors that plug into existing wall outlets. Then, you insert a small electronic device into those adapters. You can control the plugs via a smartphone app, turning on devices remotely even if they’re not “smart.” Smart plugs work well to control lamps that are plugged in rather than hardwired, like a floor lamp.

In Conclusion

Smart home technology is the way of the future, and smart light bulbs are a great place to start if you’ve been curious about upgrading some of your appliances. If you find they’re not for you, no worries, since starter kits are a low-stakes purchase and don’t require complicated installation.

If you find you’ve discovered a new world of smart devices you want to double down on, we can help you to learn about those, too. Read about how home automation works and how to install a smart lock on your door.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the most common questions we get about smart light bulbs.

  • Do smart light bulbs need Wi-Fi?

    Yes, most smart light bulbs need Wi-Fi, but many have backup Bluetooth technology features so the lights can still operate in the event that Wi-Fi is down.

  • Do smart bulbs work in any lamp?

    Yes, smart light bulbs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations, so it is possible to find bulbs that fit in most lamps.

  • What is the point of smart light bulbs?

    Smart light bulbs enable users to minimize unnecessary light and energy usage in their households, control lighting by a remote or voice, and schedule lights to turn on or off. Some smart light bulbs offer different color options and the ability to create scenes of multiple bulbs, as well.

  • Do smart bulbs work with normal switches?

    Yes, you can use a smart bulb with a normal switch.

Citations
  1. BBC. (2016). New development could lead to more effective light bulbs.
    bbc.com/news/science-environment-35284112

  2. ScienceMag. (2005). Solid-State Light Sources Getting Smart.
    science.sciencemag.org/content/308/5726/1274

  3. Energy.gov. How Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs Compare with Traditional Incandescents.
    energy.gov/energysaver/save-electricity-and-fuel/lighting-choices-save-you-money/how-energy-efficient-light

  4. Lightopedia. Bulb Shapes and Sizes.
    lightopedia.com/bulb-shapes-sizes

  5. Chariot Energy. Do Smart Bulbs Use Power When They’re Off? That’s the Money Saving Question. chariotenergy.com/chariot-university/do-smart-bulbs-use-power-when-off

  6. The Lightbulb Company. Light Bulb Average Rated Life Time Hours.
    thelightbulb.co.uk/resources/light_bulb_average_rated_life_time_hours/

  7. The Economic Student society of Australia. (2012). Planned Obsolescence: The Light Bulb Conspiracy.
    economicstudents.com/2012/09/planned-obsolescence-the-light-bulb-conspiracy/

  8. BBC. (2016). Here’s the truth about the ‘planned obsolescence’ of tech.
    bbc.com/future/article/20160612-heres-the-truth-about-the-planned-obsolescence-of-tech

  9. Regency Lighting. (2021). Is there an incandescent light bulb ban? insights.regencylighting.com/was-there-actually-an-incandescent-light-bulb-ban#buy-incandescent