Smart light bulbs explained: costs, types, and how they could brighten our world

08 April 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

There are few things in your home that can’t be made smarter. And smart light bulbs are another bright idea to make your home more energy-efficient, and your life easier. 

Find out more about how smart technology can add value to your house, and keep reading for everything you ever wanted to know about smart lighting. 

A man changing a smart light bulb at home

What is a smart light bulb – and what makes it so ‘smart’?

Smart bulbs let you control your lighting from wherever you are – even when you’re not home. 

They can usually be controlled via an app on your phone. With a tap of your thumb, you could flip the lights on while you’re away, to deter burglars. Or, if you’re home and want to impress your guests, you could dim the lights without even getting up. 

They also come with some fun extras – like the ability to light your living room in all the colours of the rainbow. After all, why not?!

You could also automate your smart lighting, so lights come on and off, or turn more (or less) bright at certain times of day. Which is a cool feature if you like the idea of your lights turning on gradually in the mornings – a bit like your own personal sunrise!

Some smart light bulbs also work with voice-activated assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Home. And of course, you can still turn them on and off at the wall, if you prefer the old-fashioned approach.

Find out more about what a smart home is and how to set one up

How do smart light bulbs work?

Smart lights can communicate with each other, and with your phone or other devices, wirelessly. This wireless technology is built into the bulbs themselves – that’s what makes them so smart!

Some smart bulbs do this by using your existing WiFi network or Bluetooth. Others have their own ‘mesh network’ – usually Zigbee, a wireless network used by lots of smart devices. In this case, the bulbs usually need a ‘hub’ to help them work. This is a small device that plugs into your router, and allows your bulbs and app to talk to each other (so to speak).

The kind of hub you’ll buy depends on the brand of bulb you’re choosing. For example, Philips Hue smart bulbs can either be used with Bluetooth, or with Zigbee. If you choose the former, you don’t need a hub – but with the latter, you do. Philips call their hub ‘Hue Bridge’. It costs a bit more than just getting the bulbs – but it gives you more options and better range for your smart lighting. 

Once your hub is set up, all you need to do is download the relevant app and create an account. Your smart bulb manufacturer will give you instructions on how to get set up quickly and easily. Then you’ll assign names to different bulbs and rooms, and adjust your settings for each. 

Finished setting up? You should be ready to command your smart light bulbs via your app or voice controls.  

A Philips Hue smart bulb

Photo credit: Philips / 

Do smart bulbs work without WiFi?

The answer to this question depends on which brand of bulb you’re using. 

Smart bulbs do need to have some kind of connection to each other – and your phone – for their ‘smart’ features to work. Most smart light bulbs work by connecting to your WiFi. Others can use Bluetooth.

The good news is, if your WiFi disconnects, you won’t be left in the dark. Smart bulbs will just work like regular light bulbs if they’re not wirelessly connected. Though you will have to get up from the sofa to turn them on!

Do smart bulbs use power when they’re turned off?

Smart bulbs do use a small amount of power when they’re in standby mode. When devices use energy while they’re switched off, it’s known as ‘vampire power’. TVs are often guilty of this!

Your smart bulbs use vampire power because they need to stay connected to your WiFi or Bluetooth network. This means that even when they’re ‘off’, they’re ready to be turned on when you need them.

That may not sound ideal – but smart light bulbs are still more energy-efficient than regular bulbs. How? Because they’re usually LED bulbs – which are much more efficient than traditional incandescent light bulbs. The old-fashioned incandescent has been known to waste as much as 90% of its energy as heat1!

And while smart bulbs do use slightly more energy than non-smart LED bulbs, the difference is pretty small

If you’re not fussed about having ‘smart’ wireless technology in your light bulbs, but you still want to save energy, consider switching to LED bulbs. They’re cheaper than smart bulbs, and they’ll help you cut down your energy bills.

Read more about energy-saving light bulbs, and how to switch to them.

Find out how to install a tado Wireless Smart Thermostat in 5 easy steps, without the expense of calling in an engineer, in our handy guide. 

Benefits of smart light bulbs

  • Add fancy colours, and even music to your lighting. Many smart bulbs come with extra bells and whistles. You could get colour-changing bulbs, and even sync the colours to your favourite tunes (or get a bulb that actually streams the music, too). Perfect for that home disco!
  • They could make your home more accessible. Some disabled people could reap the benefits of being able to use their phone (or voice control) to operate their lights. 
  • Deter burglars from breaking into your home. Leaving the lights on when you’re away from home is an old trick to deter burglars. But by using your app to control the lighting instead, you can save energy, and use randomised settings to make it look more like someone’s really home.
  • Sleep (and wake up) better! You could use smart lighting controls to create lighting that works with your body’s circadian rhythms (the internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle). So rather than going straight from bright light to darkness, slowly dimming your smart lights helps you wind down through the evening, to help you get ready for bed (and vice versa). 
  • It’s a cheap way to invest in smart home tech. If you’re interested in making your home smarter, light bulbs are an inexpensive way to start experimenting. 

How much do smart light bulbs cost?

How much you fork out for your smart bulbs depends which brand and model you choose. They start at around £6, and can go up to as much as £45. According to Which?, the average price of a smart bulb is £27.87. 

If you choose smart bulbs that use a hub, you’ll also need to buy that – which could add another £20 to £80. But remember, smart bulbs last a very long time (as much as 20-25 years), so they’re well worth the initial investment.

How to control your smart lighting

Do smart light bulbs work with normal switches?

Smart light bulbs can work with your regular light switches. That makes them super-easy to set up, because there’s no rewiring needed.

However, you might find that your regular switches sometimes interfere with your smart lighting. If you turn off your bulb at the wall, then it also turns off the smart features. This means you won’t be able to turn the light back on from your phone until you’ve also turned it on at the wall. 

This can be annoying if you’ve invested in smart bulbs specifically so that you can control them without touching the switch. For this reason, you might want to consider installing smart switches, which you can also control remotely. 

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Do you need special light fittings?

Nope! Smart light bulbs are designed to work with regular light fixtures. So you just need to screw them in as you would a normal bulb!

Can smart bulbs be dimmed?

Yes, they can be dimmed from your app. But beware: traditional dimmer switches don’t work very smoothly with smart light bulbs. This is because the dimming mechanism that’s built into your bulb clashes with the one built into your switch – so it can cause the bulb to flicker or strobe. Which means it’s best not to use smart bulbs with old-fashioned dimmer switches.

How to choose the best smart light bulbs for your home

So, you’re sold on smart lighting, and you’re ready to get kitted out. What now?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How do you want to control your lights? Perhaps you want to be able to use Alexa with your light bulbs – or maybe it’s important to have control via your phone. It’s worth having a think about how you want to use your smart bulbs, and whether you’ll be running them via WiFi or Bluetooth. 
  • Are you okay with having a hub? This can add to the upfront cost of your lighting, but they usually mean better connectivity.
  • What’s your budget? There’s a very wide range out there at the moment, so figure out how much you’re willing to spend. 
  • Which features are most important to you? Maybe you want something voice-activated, to fit with your existing smart home tech. Or perhaps you’re really after something flashy (excuse the pun), with the ability to change colours at the drop of a hat. 
A woman using her smart phone at home

The best smart light bulbs

Once you know exactly what you’re looking for in your dream smart bulb, it’s time to go shopping. Here are a few key contenders:

Philips Hue bulbs have been on the market for a long time. They’re among the most popular, and come highly recommended by Wired and Which?.

More budget options include IKEA’s Trådfri range, which starts at just £6 per bulb. 

If you have a Hive hub, Hive’s own range of bulbs are a good fit. And if you’d rather go with no hub at all, then the LIFX range is dependable, and connects directly to your WiFi.

Make your home smarter with OVO Energy

Want to cut your energy bills, along with your carbon footprint?

Smart home technology is the future of greener, more efficient homes. And here at OVO, we’re helping our members smarten up their homes – quite literally!

When you switch to OVO, we’ll install a smart meter in your home for free (as long as you’re eligible). Smart meters can help you manage your energy use, and cut your bills in the process. Find out more about how to get one. 

Plus, we’ve teamed up with tadoº, to get our members fitted with smart thermostats at an exclusive price!

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