How to Get Started with Home Automation – Part 2: Lighting

2014-01-15-13.35.12-590x330When most people think of a smart home, they think of automated lighting.  Automating your lighting is probably the easiest way to get started with home automation.  It also helps save money on electricity, adds a layer of security and impresses the neighbors.  Automated lighting is incredibly diverse, with many options available at many price points.  There are simple automation methods like timers and motion switches, more complex methods like smart switches and outlets, and standalone options like wifi enabled light bulbs.

Whichever method you choose to get started with automated lighting, I recommend you read part one of my getting started with home automation guide and plan ahead.  Proper planning will save you time, money and heartache in the long run.  The last thing you want to do is buy a bunch of $40 WeMo light switches only to discover your house doesn’t have the required neutral wires in the switch boxes.

In the following guide I’ll go over some of the more common types of automated lighting for your smart home, point out some pitfalls like the neutral wire mentioned above, and dispense some sage advice you may not already know.


Timers and Sensors

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, all smart devices can be automated, but not all automated devices are smart.  Most of the sensors and timers I mention in this section are examples of automated devices that are not smart.  As in, they can turn on or off on schedule, because of motion or daylight, or when another external event triggers them, but they generally can’t be networked or accessed remotely.

People hate when I bring this up, but the simplest way to get started with automated lighting is probably sitting in a drawer in your house right now.  You know that plug in light timer you dust off every time you go on vacation?  It’s not glamorous, it’s not wifi aware, it needs to be constantly adjusted for changing daylight hours, but as long as there is power, it’ll perform its assigned duties every day like clockwork.  Plus you can usually get a two pack for around ten bucks, which makes it about the cheapest entry point into home automation that you will ever find.

Plug in timers work great in rooms where you just want light on a fixed schedule.  I keep one of these in my living room, where we tend to pass through, but never spend a lot of time.  It turns on every night at dusk (I have to adjust it about once every two weeks) and turns off around the time we normally go to bed.  Of course if you lose power, these have to be completely reset, and since there is only one schedule, this will turn the lights off at the assigned time no matter what…even if it’s the middle of a party.

A slight step up from plug in timers are timer switches, which generally cost between $15 and $30.  Most of the newer switches have backlit LCD displays, although you can still find some pretty hideous looking timer switches with dials or a bunch of tiny buttons crammed onto the face.  Aside from the aesthetic benefits, one of the advantages to timer switches is that many of them automatically reprogram themselves for daylight savings time, so you only have to set their schedule once and leave them alone forever.  A major downside is that these switches can be only a few dollars cheaper than their smart alternatives which offer significantly more features.  If you are considering installing a timer switch, I highly recommend you spend a little more and get a smart switch that corresponds with the smart home protocols you plan to use.

I’m a big fan of exterior lighting with built in motion and daylight sensors.  It usually costs a little more than a plain fixture up front, but it gives you automation and savings out of the box.  It is also a lot cheaper and easier than trying to add that functionality after the fixture is installed.  After upgrading the floodlights over my driveway to these LED motion and daylight sensing lights, my goal has been to spend as little time atop 20 foot ladders as possible.  If you already have automated fixtures like these installed outside, you can always add the functionality of a smart switch or smart light bulbs, which will give you the ability to control them with apps and add if/then functionality.  I’m not a big proponent of exposing expensive smart bulbs to the elements or excessive moisture, so I generally lean towards smart switches for exterior lighting.  You can also upgrade an existing fixture with a screw in motion detector, but they usually make the bulb stick out of the housing.  They are best used in situations where bulbs are already exposed, like basements, attics or garages.

Smart Switches, Outlets and Light bulbs

When it comes to smart switches, outlets and light bulbs there are so many choices it’s dizzying.  There are plug in modules, hard wired components, fan controllers, and a myriad of bulbs with different requirements.  This is why planning ahead is so important.  I started my journey down the smart lighting rabbit hole with WeMo switches.  They have virtually every feature that I need and do not require a hub or bridge since they use wifi for communication.  An added bonus I would later realize, is that they work with Amazon Echo out of the box.  This means it takes even a novice just a few minutes to go from controlling their WeMo with an app, to issuing voice commands to Alexa.

For most applications, I recommend using switches or outlets to automate your devices.  The first benefit is that one smart switch or outlet can control multiple devices.  For instance I control two exterior lights withtemp_product_light_switch one switch, whereas I would need two smart bulbs to do the same thing.  Another benefit is that switches and outlets aren’t usually exposed to the elements.  I feel a lot better having a $40 switch in my house than I would having multiple $30 smart bulbs outside.  Also, you can use switches and outlets to control virtually anything that plugs in, whereas a light bulb is….well it’s a friggin light bulb, it only has so many uses.

That said, there are plenty of applications where a smart bulb would work, and not everyone is comfortable wiring up switches or outlets.  Hue and Lifx bulbs can change to virtually any color you like.  You’re not going to get that functionality at the switch/outlet level.  There are a ton of applications for the color changing feature including parties, gaming or movie color syncing, and even alert and emergency situations.  Hue has expanded their line to include plain white bulbs, light strips, wake up lights and a ton of other offerings.  Plus, Hue also works with Amazon Echo right out of the box, although Hue does require a network bridge installed somewhere in your house.

It doesn’t happen often in the smart home game, but sometimes the cheaper option is the better option.  Currently there are many smart bulbs that cost at least $10 less than the switches, outlets and plugin modules that would give you similar functionality.  If you can get all the functionality and integration that you need from a standalone bulb, I recommend saving the money and buying the bulb.

If you decide to get involved with smart lighting, you will have to decide which standards you want to use.  As I mentioned, I started with WeMo switches, and I will continue to use them where applicable.  I recently added an Insteon hub and two plug in lamp controllers.  WeMo and Insteon aren’t directly compatible, but both are compatible with Amazon Echo, which is the main way we control our lights outside of scheduling.  Even though the WeMo’s and the Insteon devices aren’t directly communicating, I was able to set up lighting groups with devices from both families.

Many people have asked me why I chose Insteon over other standards like Zigbee or Z-Wave.  The main reason was the out of the box functionality with Echo.  I also liked that Insteon uses both power line and radio frequency to communicate between devices.  They claim that it helps eliminate communication issues.  I haven’t had any issues, so I have to assume they’re right. Insteon offers a wide range of products under a single brand insuring comparability.   This includes bulbs, sensors, controllers, switches and more, whereas many Zigbee or Z-Wave manufacturers make only a single device.  I view Insteon as the professional grade solution for the DIY’er.

Regardless of the standard or brand you may be interested in, many switches, outlets, plug in modules and bulbs add functionality to fixtures that previously didn’t exist.  To go back to my Insteon example, the two plug-in modules that I bought not only gave me the expected functionality of scheduling, remote access, grouping and Echo compatibility, but also added the ability to dim the lamps even though they’re not on a dimmer.  Even cooler, is that the Echo can control Insteon dimmers, so I can just tell Alexa to set the den lights to 25% when I want to watch a movie without ever having to touch the Insteon app.

I will be installing Insteon switches in my kitchen and dining room instead of WeMo’s specifically for the ability to dim the lights.  As much as I love WeMo, the current version of the switch only has on/off capabilities (EDIT: Belkin has since released a dimmable WeMo switch.  It is not as attractive as an Insteon dimmer and has less range).  This ability to mix Insteon and WeMo devices to control my lights with Echo was my plan from the start and it worked out well.  My wife and guests don’t have to worry about having an app handy if they want to control the lights, and I only have to access the apps when I want to alter the configuration or control the lights while away from the house.


Automating lighting around your house can be very simple, or very complex.  While I tried to cover many aspects of smart lighting in this guide, I have only scratched the surface.  Depending on your needs and technical abilities, you may find yourself getting deeply immersed in automation.  I recommend sticking to your priorities and automating the lights you feel would most improve your life first, and expanding from there.  When you decide you want to automate a light, remember that you have a lot of options, and some can save you time, money and effort.



< Part 1: Planning | Part 3: Thermostats >