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DIY smart home: Why I’m using smart switches instead of smart lights

DIY smart home: Why I’m using smart switches instead of smart lights
(Image credit: Getty Images)
DIY smart home

This story is part of an ongoing DIY smart home series. Be sure to check out the latest installments to follow the renovation process from start to finish.

Smart light bulbs may be my favorite connected product category, but since I’m creating a DIY smart home, I had to decide whether they’re the right choice for automating my kitchen and living area’s lighting. Alternatively, I could use smart switches.

Both the best smart lights bulbs and best smart switches offer a number of benefits to anyone looking to raise their home’s IQ. Using a smartphone app or voice assistant like Alexa, you can control which lights are on at any given time, as well as adjust the brightness and even temperature. You can incorporate these lighting options into your smart home routines, too. 

But there are pros and cons to using one method over the other, several of which I had to weigh before taking the next steps in smart-ifying my parent’s home. We already skipped on smart kitchen appliances and committed to Alexa instead of Google Assistant, so it’s time to start buying actual products. 

Here’s the case for smart lights: As long as the bulb shape is compatible with your existing sockets, set up is a breeze. You can install it as you would any bulb, pair it to your home network and voila — you have smart lighting. Some brands like Philip Hue lights offer a special bridge that minimizes strain on your internet, supports dozens of different bulbs and keeps the bulbs functional if your Wi-Fi goes down.

Certain lights also let you adjust their temperature from warm yellow to cool white, and color bulbs totally transform the vibe of any space. These features often come at a higher cost, with Philips Hue charging $50 and Lifx charging $45 for color-capable A19 bulbs — the ones with the familiar light bulb shape. While there are more affordable alternatives — Wyze just announced a color version of the E26 Wyze Bulb, which costs $34.99 for a pack of four, or less than $9 each — I want the best possible products for the 15-ish floodlights and spotlights in our smart home.

The alternative is to use smart light switches, which aren’t as easy to install, but could save money if you have a lot of light sockets. Smart switches cost somewhere between $40 to $60 depending on the brand and features, and can be used with several basic LED bulbs that cost about $1 per piece, or less in bulk. In other words, a single smart switch can be more cost-effective than a set of high-end smart bulbs.

Electrical work can be hazardous, so consult an electrician if you’re unfamiliar with your home wiring. That said, we’re confident we can install some smart switches. This is a DIY project, after all. And despite my love of smart lights, I think we’re going to take this route.

How come? First, our light fixtures need to be organized by group. We’re working with kitchen flood lights, the living room floodlights and the entryways spotlights. And if we use smart bulbs, we’d have to set up each of those bulbs individually, which welcomes headaches with software updates or glitches. Smart light bulbs app and smart assistant platforms let you group bulbs however you want, but that won’t prevent isolated issues.

Second, smart switches provide a manual control that smart light bulbs don’t, unless you purchase a separate smart light remote control. The issue with having an intelligent space is that when you have guests over, they could get tripped up with adjusting our devices. There are also times when me or my family members don’t want to use our voice or smartphones to turn the lights on or raise their brightness. Not to mention times when we’d misplace a remote. With a smart switch, we could use the wall-mounted toggle as we would with a standard switch. Whereas with smart lights, you always need to leave the companion switch flipped on.

smart switch

(Image credit: GE Lighting)

Tom’s Guide has tested a number of excellent smart switches. Of them, we’re going to use ones from Cync (formerly C by GE) for the renovation. The C-Start Smart Switch Motion Sensing Dimmer is our top choice, but the company offers an impressive range of smart switches for nearly every kind of electrical wiring, including a 3-wire switch for homes lacking neutral wires.

Be sure to check out my guides to the best smart home devices (and best cheap smart home devices) for more gadget recommendations. Tune back in next week for another DIY smart home installment, and, as always, email me at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the connected space.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.