In general, it is better to replace the switches with smart switches rather than just the bulbs. The primary reason for this is that it gives a better experience. If your dumb switch is turned off, your smart bulb will not work. Also, people have come to expect to be able to have the easy local control of the light. With that said, let’s dig a little deeper into issues that might affect this blanket answer.
Here are some other factors that can go into this decision…
- Do you rent or own?
- Do you need to be able to control the color or color temperature of the light?
- What are the price differences between switches and bulbs?
- What are the user experience differences?
- Are there multiple things you want to control from a location in your house?
- If I use smart switches, how can I handle 3-way or 4-way switches?
- Does it require an electrician to install switches?
- Are there any other complicating situations with switches?
Do you Rent or Own?
This can be a big contributing factor to your decision to use bulbs or switches. Bulbs are much less invasive to install. So, if you are a renter there are more things to consider. With a bulb, all you need to do is screw one or more of them into the fixture and you are done.
With a smart switch, it will involve opening up the electrical box where the switch is installed, removing the old dumb switch from the wiring, and attaching the new switch.
This may be something you are comfortable with or maybe not. Even if you are comfortable doing this yourself, how will your landlord feel about this? Do you have to do this yourself? What happens when you leave?
Especially if you want to use switches, don’t be shy about asking your landlord about this. Some might be OK with this. Some might even like the idea as it will add some value to their property. In that case, you can get them to pay for it and maybe get them or their handyman install it. Also, it is easy when you leave, the new smart switches are part of the property and stay with it.
Do You Need to be able to Control the Color or Color Temperature?
This comes into play because a smart switch has some pretty simple functions to it; it can turn on, off and can dim. It will simply use the bulb(s) that are in the fixture that the switch is wired to. Those will be a fixed color and color temperature.
With smart bulbs, there are more options. There are simple on/off/dim daylight or soft light bulbs. There are light bulbs that add the ability to control the white color temperature. (I.e. 5000k/daylight or 3000k/soft/warm light or somewhere in-between) Then, there are bulbs where you have full control over the color of light that they produce.
There are some interesting bulbs from Lifx that no only allow you to control the color and brightness level, but when they are off, they will emit an invisible infrared (IR) light. What is good about that? Well, you may want to have security cameras around your house. This invisible IR light will help those cameras see when no visible light is coming from them.
What are the Price Differences between switches and bulbs?
Here is where things get interesting. I will start with some bare-bones basics of the economics of this question. A basic smart bulb will probably be in the range of $10-$15. A basic smart switch will be in the range of $40+. Based on this, it seems like the clear winner from a price point-of-view is smart bulbs. Not so fast.
Look at the light fixtures that you have around your house. How many of them have one bulb vs. multiple bulbs? It is likely some mix. As the number of bulbs goes up so does the price advantage for just using smart bulbs. You may see that you have some fixtures that have quite a few bulbs; 4 or 4 regular A19 bulbs. Other fixtures might have even more smaller specialty bulbs. A single switch can control the on/off/brightness of all of these bulbs.
That is a straightforward example. There are many varieties of bulbs as I talked about earlier. There are also many types of switches. They might just be fancier with LEDs that indicate the brightness. They might be keypad switches that not only control the light in the room but can have additional buttons to control other lights or other types of devices.
As you can see it is not a cut-and-dry economic advantage for one or the other. You don’t, necessarily, need to make the same decision for every room.
What are the User Experience Differences?
I eluded to this in the answer given at the beginning of the article, but here are some real user experience problems if you do not replace the switches.
Firstly, if someone leaves the switch turned off, your new fancy smart light bulbs are not going to work from remote control. Even though you might know this, you’ll probably feel pretty dumb if you have to go turn on the switch so that you can control it from your app.
Secondly, think about the fact that other people in your family may not be as hip to this new technology and wonder why the switches no longer work the way they used to. Do you want to be the one who is always scolding them to, “Never turn the light switches off.” It gets even worse for your guest that comes to visit.
This is the single biggest reason that you have to change the switches. Even if you want color bulbs in some locations, replace the bulbs AND the switches. Note that if you replace both you will have to account for this by using switch technology or a smart hub that can be linked to the bulbs that you use.
Are there Multiple Things you want to Control from a Location in your House?
I eluded to this earlier, but there are more types of switches than the simple on/off/dim switches. There are switches that have many buttons on them. They might have 6 or 8 buttons on them. These are referred to as keypads. In addition to controlling a local light (load), the other buttons can be assigned to control lights in other rooms.
These other buttons don’t need to be used only for lights, they can control other types of devices. They might control your ceiling fan or other appliances.
These can also be used to control scenes. One button could set a series of lights to full-on. Another might be “Party” where is turns on or off some light and dims some for ambiance.
If I use Smart Switches, how can I Handle 3-way or 4-way Switches?
This is a simple one. The answer is, yes. Some types of switches have a main switch to which you can add special 3/4 way remote switches to them. Other types might use the same switch for each 3/4-way switch location. The “remote” switches will just be controllers for the main switch.
Is an Electrician Required to install a Smart Switch?
No, an electrician is not required. However, it may depend on how handy you are. Single switches are usually very straight-forward. It can sometimes get a bit more complicated with 3-way or 4-way switch configurations.
Although you should not be afraid to give this a try, be smart about it. The most important thing to do is to make sure the power is OFF. You will turn it off at your breaker or fuse box and put a piece of tape over it so nobody turns in on by accident. Always double check even after the power is turned off. If you are going to do any kind of electrical, it is critical to have a simple tester, at least.
With all of that said, it is beyond the scope of this article to get into the basics of wiring these up. You should refer to the instructions and diagrams that came with the switch that you bought.
One thing I will warn you of, however, is that most switches will require three wire in your box; a hot, neutral, and load wire. This is more commonly found in relatively newer hoses, (since the ’70s), but that is not even guaranteed. In older houses or even in some rooms in your newer house, you may find that it just has two wires. There are smart switches that can work in this situation, but you need to pay careful attention when purchasing them to make sure they can work in a two-wire box.
Are There any Other Complicating Situations with Switches
Controlling LED Bulbs
Switch designs that are a bit older were designed to be used with incandescent bulbs. In some cases, you might find that if you use LED bulbs with these switches, the bulb will not turn completely off, but rather be very dim. Sometimes this behavior can be fixed by a different brand of bulb or if there are multiple bulbs you can use one incandescent and the rest LED.
There are some designs where the manufacturer will say that you cannot use LED bulbs or it may harm the switch. I have personally experienced this. Anyway, when purchasing switches, pay careful attention to this as almost everyone uses LED bulbs these days.