How to use smart switches with your smart bulbs
Lots of experts recommend smart switches over smart bulbs because they are easier to use. However, without smart bulbs, you won’t get the awesome benefit of color changing or white-shifting lights.
You can debate the pros and cons of each (which I’ve done here), but I don’t want to choose one or the other. I want the best of both. I want to be able to combine the cool, color changing effects of smart bulbs with the convenience and usability of smart switches.
Can it be done? Of course! Here’s how.
What makes a perfect smart switch for controlling smart bulbs?
1. A smart bulb needs to have constant power
A standard switch and most smart switches cut power to the light fixture when you turn the switch off. This is a problem if you have smart lights connected to the fixture. Without power, the smart lights can’t be controlled by your smart home. They would effectively become dumb lights until you turned the switch back on.
For a smart switch to be compatible with a smart light, it needs to let constant power through to the fixture. Each of the products listed below has a method for doing this.
2. An existing switch should not become a source of confusion
The “acccessory” (see below) smart switch solutions don’t actually replace the old manual wall switch. In those cases, the old switch can become a nuisance if someone who doesn’t know any better turns the switch off. There needs to be a way to cover or disable the old switch for these accessory products to work well.
3. Minimal delay between pressing the switch and the light turning on
For many automations, a minor delay is not a problem. For example, if I ask Alexa to open my garage door, it takes about 2 seconds before the garage door starts to open, and that delay doesn’t bother me.
However, when it comes to automating lighting, it’s important that the lights turn on as fast as possible. We are used to the nearly instant on/off with traditional lighting. Anything less will not feel like an adequate solution. Nobody wants to walk into a dark room, hit the switch, and have to stand there blind for 2 seconds.
4. (Optional) A smart switch should have the ability to select color
I’ve found that I usually only use wall switches for quick on/off control and use voice control for setting different colors or scenes. However, additional functionality is always welcome if it can be done without sacrificing usability or aesthetics.
A couple years ago, there were not any decent commercial solutions for using switches with smart bulbs. If you had some electrical knowledge and some serious DIY spirit you could hack together a decent solution. However, most people with smart bulbs reverted to simple, low tech solutions such as the always fashionable switch cover:
or, a sternly worded post-it note:
This is no longer necessary so don’t be that guy.
Accessory smart switches
These smart switches don’t require any wiring. Consider these devices a retrofit that work with your existing switch rather than replacing it.
Philips Hue dimmer switch
One of the most popular options for integrating smart lights with smart switches is the Philips Hue dimmer switch. It can connect to and control any Zigbee 3.0 lights, but in order to get the full functionality (see scene control below) you’ll have to connect it to the Hue hub. It works really well. Its response time is fast, and setup is nearly foolproof.
The dimmer switch has 4 buttons (on,off,dim up,dim down) but has a little more functionality than meets the eye. You can use the Philips Hue app to set up to 5 pre-programmed scenes for your lights. Press the on button of the dimmer to turn on the lights to the default setting. Keep pressing the button to cycle through each of the scenes.
It’s basically a remote control for your Philips Hue bulbs. But, it comes in a form that is easily mounted to the wall which gives it the appearance of a permanently installed wall switch.
This is especially cool in places where you maybe don’t have the best switch location. You can add one of these in exactly the place it’s needed with zero tools. It’s as simple as sticking it to the wall. Be careful though because it really sticks. If you have to move it, you might tear off a piece of the wall covering.
You could also use it to add a switch where you don’t already have one. Just plug a smart bulb into a lamp, pair the Hue dimmer with the bulb, then place the Hue dimmer switch wherever you like.
However, if you do have an existing switch for the lights you’re controlling, there is a bit of a problem. The dimmer switch does nothing to disable the existing switch, so someone who didn’t know any better could still easily turn off power to the smart bulbs.
There are several industrious people that have created adapter cover plates that allow the Philips Hue switches to be mounted over those troublesome existing switches. They allow the existing switch to remain intact while simultaneously hiding it (by placing the Hue dimmer on top of it) so no one can use it.
They look okay, but I’m not a huge fan. I think the Philips Hue switches are somewhat ugly to begin with and this plate makes them stick out from the wall so that they are even more noticeable.
Ultimately, the functionality is nearly everything I want in a smart switch that works with smart bulbs, but the lackluster looks make my overall opinion of the dimmer lukewarm. If you’re like me and prefer a more seamless, traditional look, see the Lutron Aurora dimmer below.
The Lutron Aurora is a “Friends of Hue” product, so you’ll have to be a Philips Hue user to make the most of it. Like most Lutron products, it’s well made and very reliable. In addition, it solves two of the most common problems people have with smart bulbs without sacrificing any usability. I think Lutron really knocked it out of the park with this one.
Installation is a breeze. You don’t need to do any wiring. You don’t even have to remove the switch cover plate. The Aurora simply mounts to the toggle part of an existing toggle switch using a screwdriver.
Also, if you ever want to remove the Aurora dimmer, there’s no electrical to mess with. You just loosen the screw and it pulls right off. This is THE way to go for renters.
Once mounted to the switch, it locks the switch in the “on” position so you no longer have to worry about someone turning off the power to your smart lights (problem #1). And since it installs on top of the existing switch, you don’t have to solve the problem of the extra switch (problem #2: see Philips Hue dimmer switch above).
You can press the button to toggle on/off control or turn the knob for dimmer control. You can also set a default scene or color in the Hue app for when you press the “on” button. However, you are limited to only one scene or color, so it doesn’t quite have as much functionality as the Hue dimmer switch.
It can be configured to connect directly to the lights or to the Philips Hue hub. It took me about a minute to connect mine to the Hue hub using the Hue app.
NOTE: As of this writing the only compatible bridge is the Hue bridge. However, it works using Zigbee 3.0 so it should be able to connect directly to any Zigbee 3.0 certified lights.
The response time is superb. When you press the Aurora’s button, the light comes on almost instantly. Dimming action is the same. It’s so smooth and responsive, it could probably fool someone into thinking it was an analog dimmer switch.
I really like that it looks and works like a standard knob style dimmer switch. That way guests or other family won’t have any question about how to use it.
It’s a little more expensive than a Hue dimmer switch, but I prefer the clean look of the Aurora over the Hue switch enough that I think the extra cost is worth it.
Built in smart switches
These smart switches replace the old manual switch. Therefore, the problem of the “leftover” switch is immediately solved. However, installation will require working with electrical wiring.
Inovelli Red Series
The Inovelli Red Series smart switches have an option to disable the relay that controls power to the light fixture. This allows constant power to pass through the switch to the light fixture so that smart bulbs installed in the fixture never lose power. It is THE feature that makes the Inovelli Red unique and an ideal choice for controlling smart bulbs with a smart switch.
When you press the on/off paddle with this option enabled, instead of directly switching the power to the bulbs, a message can be sent to a hub to turn the smart bulbs on/off.
NOTE: The Inovelli switches are Z-Wave smart switches. They require a Z-Wave compatible hub for smart automations (I use SmartThings). The dimmer works with no neutral.
Once you have your switch connected to a hub, the true power of these switches can be unleashed. Multiple taps (up or down) can be used as a trigger for different automations.
For example, I have an overhead light and two bedside lamps in my bedroom. One tap up/down turns on/off the overhead light. Two taps up/down turns on/off all three lights.
Furthermore, when you use automations, you are not limited to controlling only lighting. You are only limited by what your hub can do.
I do love the Inovelli Red dimmers, but there is one issue that stops me from going “Full Inovelli” on my smart lighting.
Any switch that relies on double taps or triple taps will end up needing a minor delay. For example, if you tap up on the paddle to turn the lights on, it can’t send the “on” message the instant you tap the switch. Instead, it must wait a split second to make sure you aren’t trying to do a double (or triple, etc) tap.
The result of this is an unavoidable built-in delay of about a half second. I know it’s not much, but it’s definitely enough to be noticeable and in my opinion degrade the user experience.
The responsiveness of your switch will also depend on your hub and the lights you would like to control. Each step in the chain of communication introduces a potential delay/failure.
With my SmartThings v3 hub (which is cloud based), automations usually have a delay of 1-2 seconds. It may be better to use a local hub like Home Assistant or Hubitat to avoid any delays caused by cloud communication.
The Inovelli switches also have the ability to connect directly to Z-Wave bulbs using Z-Wave association. I have tried using the Z-Wave association to directly control Illumin bulbs (also made by Inovelli) and so far, the performance is disappointing.
My thought was that by communicating directly with the bulbs I could cut out any delay caused by the hub. I did get it to work, but it was unreliable. Sometimes I would press the paddle and it would work. Other times nothing would happen.
To be fair, I have not contacted Inovelli about my problem. Both the Illumin bulbs and the switches have only been available for a couple months so it’s possible there’s still some bugs that need to be squashed. Inovelli has a reputation of having outstanding customer support so my hope is that the reliability issues I’m having will be addressed in a future firmware update.
The Inovelli Red switches are the most powerful smart switch I’ve found (from a home automation standpoint). However, they lack the phenomenal response time of the Philips Hue solutions that is so crucial for lighting applications. I don’t know…maybe I’m just acting like a spoiled brat and I should learn to live with a half second delay? What do you think?
I haven’t tested this yet, but I just ordered one (1/8/2020) so I’ll be updating this entry soon.
This slick looking device is a smart light controller that installs in place of a standard wall switch. It’s made by RGBGenie and is the only smart switch I have found that has full RGBW color control at the switch.
The controller let’s continuous power pass through to the light fixture (requires a neutral) so the smart bulb can remain powered whether the light is on or off. Unlike the Inovelli switches, the pass through feature is not optional, so it can only be used with smart lights.
The RGBGenie controllers are available in either Zigbee or Z-Wave wireless protocols. I use the Philips Hue hub for many of my smart bulbs so I decided to stick with Zigbee for mine.
The touch panel is covered with buttons and a funky color ring. I’ve never seen anything like it on a switch. Of course, I’ve never seen a switch that was designed to control color before either.
The buttons are fairly intuitive, so even if you’ve never seen or used it before, you won’t be fumbling around aimlessly trying to make it work.
On one hand, it looks fancy and modern and all the functionality is exciting, but on the other hand I worry about the usability.
I’m used to walking into or out of a room and blindly flipping/tapping a switch. The whole process is done without thinking. I don’t even have to look at the switch. I know where it is and can physically feel when I turn the switch on/off. With a touch panel (that has many buttons) I will have to stop, look, and carefully press the correct button.
Either way, I’m excited to give this a try. It allows you to select scenes and colors right at the wall switch which should give you more flexibility than voice control and be less cumbersome than having to open an app.
For the purpose of home lighting, it’s best to focus on the basics first. A smart switch needs to be responsive, easy to use (for anyone), and look good. Once those three parameters are in place, then we can go wild with extra home automation features.
The Phillips Hue dimmer switch is a relatively low-cost solution with a fair amount of functionality as long as you use Philips Hue lights. The dimmer can be mounted anywhere and allows you to cycle through up to five scenes.
The Lutron Aurora dimmer has the most basic features (on/off, dim) of the switches I found, but it absolutely nails the basics. It’s super-simple to install, and using it is foolproof because it looks and works like a standard dimmer switch. The main drawback is that it is limited to Zigbee 3.0 lights.
For a little more functionality and flexibility, the Inovelli Red series switches are hard to beat. Although they are Z-Wave switches, they can connect to any smart light through a compatible hub.
The RGBGenie switches are packed with lighting features. They give you full RGBW controls as well as an option for either group or scene selection.
I do my best to stay updated on the latest products, but this is one area where new options are coming out all the time. If you know of better products or techniques to use smart switches with smart bulbs, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!