Smart switches vs smart bulbs

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This is a well split camp in home automation groups and the subject of many long threads wherever you look. It probably goes along the lines of 45% will fight to the death for smart switches, 45% will fight to the death for smart bulbs and 10% don’t really care either way as long as the job gets done.

I kind of fall into the 10% group. The arguments on either side are valid.

Smart switches replace your normal on/off switch on the wall. This means that your household carries on as if nothing happened. No new behaviour to learn.

In a nutshell, a smart switch does what a dumb switch does. It cuts the power to the light to switch it off but it does it by opening and closing a relay that is controlled by pressing or touching something. You can also get smart dimmers.

Until recently, smart switches could only be used in newer houses with a neutral at the light switch. This is because the smart switch needs power and that relies on having a supply consisting of a live and neutral. Now, you can get them that don’t need a neutral but it’s rarer to find ones that will dim as well. And without a neutral you can have issues with bulb compatibility where the bulb flickers and then you have to do other things in the light fitting to fix it.

So it’s complicated.

But if you have a room with more than one light controlled by one switch then you only have to replace one switch for £30 or something rather than having to replace a whole bunch of GU10 bulbs at a minimum of £6 each. So that’s plus one for smart switches. The biggest downside is that you have no control over individual bulbs. So changing the colour of a bulb, changing from cold white to warm white, having different settings for different bulbs in a group… all of that is impossible. That might be fine. But, in your kitchen for example, you might have 10 recessed GU10s in the ceiling. You might want the ones over the worktop at a slightly higher brightness than the ones near the window. That’s out. Any integration you have with something like an app or Home Assistant is controlling the smart switch not the bulb. It’s like having a long stick that you use to poke a dumb switch. As if that would be a thing!

So we move onto smart bulbs.

Smart bulbs rely on a constant power supply. Easy to fit. You just change the light bulb. But then someone wanders in, hits the dumb switch on the wall and you’ve got a dumb bulb*. That’s one downside. The other is expense. Going back to the example above, if you have 10 recessed GU10s in your kitchen then the lowest you’ll probably pay is about £6 for an IKEA Tradfri bulb. That gives you a warm white dimmable bulb. £12 gets you a dimmable bulb where you can choose the shade or white from cold white through to warm white. £15 gives you the option of colour. So a minimum of £60, a maximum of £150 to replace the bulbs in one room, albeit probably the one that’s most likely to have lots of bulbs.

The advantage is that each bulb is controllable individually. You could have them all at different brightness levels or all at different colours. You could create small groups and have them all a bit different depending on the area that they’re lighting. You could set different modes for when you’re doing different things. Sitting in the kitchen reading a book and having a coffee. Cooking. Whatever you fancy. It’s all doable with smart bulbs.

In our kitchen, we have 2 smart bulbs in the ceiling lights. We have smart LED strips above and below the wall cabinets. We have a couple of anglepoise type lights on the wall, an IKEA Symfonisk lamp for the radio with a smart bulb. The cooker hood has smart bulbs and there’s a lamp in the corner with a smart bulb as well.

When evening hits, the LEDs and cooker hood lights come on at 10%. When someone walks in the room, the LEDs and cooker hood come up to 60% and the other lights apart from the ones on the ceiling come on at various levels. With no motion, the additional lights go off and the LEDs and cooker hood go back to 10%. this just means that you’re not walking into a pitch black room. There’s always a little bit of light in there.

If I’m cooking, I often want it a bit brighter. I have an Alexa routine so I just say “Alexa. I’m cooking”. This turns the ceiling lights on and raises the brightness on the cabinet LEDs so that the worktops are better lit.

Smart bulbs are also good if you prefer lamps. In our lounge we never have the ceiling lights on. We have 6 lamps, all with smart bulbs.

Yes, it’s not cheap. IKEA are fantastic value if you want to go down this route. But I have definitely gone in to buy a packet of meatballs and some of their gravy only to walk out with £200 worth of bulbs. For me, bulbs have the edge. But I’d never argue that you should buy them over switches.

*You can get round this. You can have the best of both worlds. I’ve touched on this in my post about disabling automations. I might do a more detailed post about the Tradfri Dimmers later.