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How Do Smart Bulbs Work? Everything You Need to Know!

Smart bulbs have become an essential piece in any smart home system. They allow for better light control and the ability to program situation-dependent actions. But what makes these high-tech light fixtures work? While the technology behind the lightbulb has been around for a century, smart bulbs add to this foundation with better connectivity and a longer lifespan.

Smart bulbs work by adding advanced remote control capabilities, scheduling, and other smart-home features to light fixtures, often while being cost-competitive with traditional bulbs. Different brands of smart bulbs work on different wireless platforms and may require ZigBee or Z-Wave hubs, but some will use whatever Wi-Fi system you have already.

When you look at a smart bulb, you see a familiar form factor. Most smart bulbs aim to emulate the look and feel of a traditional bulb. But, behind the classic face lies a surprising amount of tech. These devices can connect over a network, take remote signals, and come in a dizzying array of colors. But what is a smart light bulb in detail?

What Are Smart Bulbs?

Using Smart Light Bulbs in Regular Fixtures - Featured Image - Smaller

Smart bulbs are devices that replace your traditional incandescent or “dumb” LED bulbs with LED lights that utilize interconnectivity and smart functions. Basically, you can control them wirelessly. While this idea is not new, smart bulbs’ technology takes it into the 21st century by adding connectivity to other smart devices through smart hubs.

What this allows for is a whole slew of functions and commands. When paired with a voice-activated smart hub, like the Echo Show, you can control your lights’ functions with your voice. But, it is more than just on and off. With smart bulbs, you can do lot’s of different things, including:

  • Dim the lights on command.
  • Setup scheduled light functions, like for them to come on at a specific time.
  • Turn off the lights when you are away to save energy/money (and bring them back on when you return home).

Smart bulbs, especially when paired with smart switches, can be incredibly intelligent devices when you know about all of their features (our guide). They can even work to your specific customizations. You can do things like have triggered events and scenes and program if-then commands to your devices.

It can add efficiency to your home lighting and help create specific moods and environments through light. With smart bulbs, you won’t need to get off the couch to turn off the lights for movie night. You also will never worry about having the lights on when you are away with remote control functionality. They are genuinely fantastic home devices. But, what makes them tick?

What’s Inside a Smart Bulb

Looks can certainly be deceiving when it comes to these smart light devices. From the outside, they look just like a traditional incandescent bulb. But the situation is much more impressive. Not only do these bulbs use LED lighting instead of an incandescent filament, they also play host to several electronic components that allow them to function. Here is a quick breakdown of all the components that are working inside your smart bulbs, and all the things that tiny computer inside is doing:

  • Power Management – The power coming from the socket needs to be available for the LEDs to use. This component takes care of that. 
  • Microprocessor – This stripped-down processor handles all the security functions, running the drivers, acquiring data from sensors, and handling all the data transmissions.
  • Wireless Radio – Usually WiFi, ZigBee, BLE, or Z-Wave, although modern devices may support more than one.
  • Environmental Sensors – These components may vary depending on the brand/type of smart bulb, but you might see motion detection, humidity, temperature, or a whole array of other sensors. Usually these sensor suits are part of other smart home devices, but some exotic smart bulbs do have extra sensors.

As you can see, a lot is going on inside your smart bulb. If you have ever held one in your hand, you might have been surprised by the heft of the device. Now you know, all the weight comes from the extra electronic components that help the bulb function. All of these components work in conjunction with each other.

They provide the stable connection necessary to transmit signals over your selected network. Also, the more sensors your device has, the more processing power it may need. To put it simply, though, all these components allow for the electricity coming from the socket to be used. They convert the electricity into a lower voltage to keep the electronics from being fried. 

Power Use From Smart Bulbs

You may be realizing that smart bulbs are continually using power to stay connected to your system. You may also know that LED bulbs have a longer life and use less energy than traditional bulbs. But do these two variables cancel each other out? First, let’s tackle the continuous power usage, also known as vampire power draw.

While it may seem worrying, keep in mind how small the power usage is. A recent study done by How-to-Geek found that the average smart bulb uses around 5 cents of electricity a month from continuous use. So if you only had a handful of bulbs, you might not even notice the change on your electricity bill. Second, LED bulbs use far less electricity than their traditional counterparts.

How much? Well, an LED bulb, on average, uses around 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs. To put it in perspective, an incandescent bulb uses 120/240V while smart LED-based bulbs can use 12V, 6V, or 3V. This is why you need the power management components in smart bulbs. They can take the higher voltage and step it down to a lower voltage usable by the electronics and LEDs.

The Big Difference Among Smart Bulbs – The Smart Home Platform

Smarthome Home Automation System Smart Smart House

When it comes to smart bulbs, one of the defining elements is how they communicate. There are several different protocols used with smart bulbs. So, it is important to understand the differences before setting up your smart home platform and bulbs. Additionally, some devices can work across multiple platforms and protocols. But, not all carry this feature. Mainly, you will see four smart home platforms used with smart bulbs, including Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth.

Zigbee and Z-Wave are true smart home protocols that use mesh networks to operate. Wi-Fi is capable of using your existing network to operate your bulbs. These three are by and large the most popular platforms used with smart home devices. In contrast, Bluetooth is less popular, but with advances in Bluetooth, mesh networks may become more accepted in the future.

Keep in mind that devices that use either Zigbee or Z-Wave will still need access to a network for setup. Wi-Fi-only products will need this access for operation. Additionally, products like the Phillips Hue System (on Amazon) will require a proprietary networking hub to connect to your network. In this case, the Phillips Hue Hub (on Amazon).

Furthermore, Wi-Fi smart bulbs exist that don’t need a hub for use. For example, LIFX bulbs (on Amazon) simplify the process using your home network only. There are downsides to these Wi-Fi-only devices, namely range, number of devices, and integration.

This is why a lot of smart bulbs operate using either Zigbee or Z-Wave. These protocols allow for better integration with other smart devices and a more reliable network. Since they base themselves on mesh network technology, they are perfect for this application. But between the two, which is better suited for home use?

Zigbee vs. Z-Wave

Both protocols are based on mesh network technology. Each protocol essentially accomplishes the same task but carries with them different benefits. But, there are differences including the number of devices; how they communicate; the range, the power they use, as well as the ability to traverse the network. More on each of these factors here:

  • The number of devices – Zigbee can cope with around 6500 connected devices, while Z-Wave can handle 232 at a time.
  • How they communicate – Z-Wave operates at 800-900 MHz, and Zigbee uses the common 2.4 GHz band. 
  • Range – Z-Wave can send a signal around 40 ft without obstruction, and Zigbee can handle a more extensive range of around 100 ft.
  • Power use – While both protocols draw a very negligible amount of power, Zigbee tends to use just a little less.
  • Ability to traverse the network – Hopping is an essential function in mesh networks. Z-Wave can handle four hops while Zigbee has no limit.

While these differences may seem consequential, in reality, the differences may not affect your system’s performance. For most applications, either Zigbee or Z-Wave will handle your mesh networking without issue. Things like range and number of device hops only start to become sticking points in large networks.

For home applications, you will seldom run into an issue where 232 devices are not enough. One factor that may sway your decisions is backward compatibility. Since Z-wave operates on a unified standard, all devices that use the protocol will work together. In contrast, Zigbee is an open-source protocol.

While this is great for developers when a new version comes out, it cannot operate with the older version. This means there will be compatibility issues. This unified standard that Z-Wave uses also makes the setup and operation a bit easier. But, in recent years, Zigbee has also addressed the ease of use issue. So, while both should be usable by non-tech-savvy individuals, Z-Wave takes a small advantage here.

Are Smart Bulbs Worth It?

With all these functions and underlying tech, you may expect smart bulbs to be expensive. While historically this is true, recent advances in production and popularity have driven the price down. What was once a niche product is now accessible to the everyday consumer. This is not to say that they are as cheap as regular bulbs. It may be a decade or two before we get to that point.

But, with an average price of around $20, they make for a reasonable purchase. When fitting a whole house, this may still seem steep. But, if you consider all the other savings you are getting, they are more valuable in the long run. Here are just a few things to consider when it comes to smart bulbs:

  • Longevity – Since smart bulbs use LED for lighting, they can last for 15,000 to 20,000 hours without the need to be replaced.
  • Energy-efficient – Not only are LEDs 90% more efficient than traditional bulbs, with smart light scheduling, but you can also reduce your energy consumption even more.

When you factor in these savings, it is almost a no-brainer to purchase smart bulbs. They can help save you energy and money, give you better control of your lighting, and add some fantastic features to your home.

What You Need to Know Before You Buy Smart Bulbs

Before you go out and start purchasing smart bulbs, there are some things you should think about. Namely, which platform you are going to base your smart lighting system on. Keep in mind that not only are there several to choose from, but not all work together. This means that picking a platform choosing compatible devices is extremely important. We have already explored the different platforms you can choose from.

Once you have decided which is best for you, it is imperative to source smart bulbs that are compatible. Some products, like the Sylvania Smart + Bulbs (on Amazon), only work with Zigbee. Others, like the Sengled Smart Bulbs (on Amazon), work with Z-Wave.  There are products designed to work with both but make sure they are labeled as such. Always assess your next purchase based on the type of protocol used, or you will have a bulb that won’t connect.

Final Thoughts

Smart bulbs make for a perfect addition to any smart home setup. They provide reliable lighting with advanced smart functions like voice commands and interconnectivity. When purchasing bulbs, it is important to keep them in their respective protocols. This will ensure that everything works correctly. The tech behind these devices is quite advanced but is fastly becoming cheaper and more accessible.