Your Quick Guide to Smart Light Bulbs

What are smart light bulbs and how do they work?

Hand installing smart light bulb into light fixture
Installing smart light bulb. BanksPhotos / Getty Images

Smart light bulbs are LED light bulbs that can be controlled using a smart phone, tablet, or smart home automation system.

While smart light bulbs are more expensive than traditional light bulbs or even regular LED bulbs, they use less energy and should last as long as traditional LED bulbs (that's around 20 years). They are available in standard white or with a color-changing feature, depending on brand.

How Do Smart Light Bulbs Work?

Smart bulbs require a smartphone, tablet, or home automation hub to operate because they use wireless communication standards such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, or ZigBee to connect to an app on your device or to your automation system. A few brands require a special gateway to work (it's a small box that talks to the bulbs), such as the Philips Hue Bridge, which is necessary to operate Philips brand smart bulbs.

Many brands have the capability to use more than one wireless technology to better integrate with other smart home devices and systems you may already be using. For example, a smart bulb may work with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Apple HomeKit to allow you to configure your smart lighting using the option that works best for you.

Many people who invest in smart home technology eventually decide to use a hub or home automation system, such as Nest, Wink, or voice-activated systems such as Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple HomeKit.

When integrated into a smart home system, smart light bulbs can be programmed to work in concert with other devices connected to your home automation system.

For example, you can set up your smart lighting to illuminate throughout the house if someone rings your video doorbell after dark. Using a smart home automation hub still allows you to turn lights on or off while away from home, the same as smart lighting that connects to your smartphone through Wi-Fi.

Considerations Before Buying Smart Light Bulbs

There are a couple of considerations when deciding how best to use your smart light bulbs. If you opt to control your smart lighting using Bluetooth, know it limits you to only being able to adjust lighting and turn lights on or off when you are at home. If you leave home and forget to turn a light off, you won't be able to remotely turn it off from another location because you'll be out of the Bluetooth communication range of the bulb.

If you choose to control your smart lighting using Wi-Fi, the time it takes your lighting to respond to changes you make on your device or app can vary depending on how many other devices are also using your Wi-Fi at that time. With Wi-Fi, the bandwidth is impacted by the number of devices connecting to it.

So, if you have multiple televisions, computers, tablets, and smartphones already connecting to your Wi-Fi, your smart lighting system becomes another device taking up bandwidth. Also, if the internet happens to go out due to a storm or other problem, all devices that depend on Wi-Fi–including your smart lighting–will go out too.

Where to Buy Smart Light Bulbs

Most area home improvement stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, now carry several brands.

Smart bulbs are available at home electronics stores such as Best Buy, as well as office supply stores such as Office Depot. Availability may vary by location for any of these brick-and-mortar options so you'll want to check with the store to make sure they carry smart light bulbs before heading out to shop.

Online sellers such as Amazon and eBay are also good options, particularly if you're interested in installing smart lighting in several places in your home and might save money with bundle packs. Even IKEA is entering the market.

Sizes of Smart Light Bulbs

Smart bulbs come in different sizes, so you won't need to buy new fixtures to house the bulbs.

Right now there are standard sizes (the ones you see in your head when you think of light bulb), but there are floodlight sizes as well as thin light strips that can be placed in locations that couldn't house a normal bulb. More sizes are entering the market monthly.

Cool Smart Light Bulb Features

Depending on the brand and set-up you select, smart light bulbs have some cool features you won't get with ordinary light bulbs. Watching a movie or TV show that would be even better with coordinating lighting changes? Some smart bulbs can be synced up with what you're watching to change the lighting and colors based on the action on your screen.

Many smart light bulbs can use the GPS location of your smartphone while you walk through your home and automatically turn lights on when you enter a room or turn them off for you when you leave.

Still not sure about smart light bulbs? Here's a quick takeaway:

  • Higher initial cost
  • Longer life expectancy
  • More versatile (dare we say fun, too?)