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How to design a smart lighting system

What is a smart light? Will I be able to control it from my smartphone? Is it safe to connect all the light bulbs in my house? In this article we will answer these questions, as well as telling you how to make your home look brighter, why you should do so, where to buy, and a couple of tips.

Smart homes are the order of the day. The comfort, savings and low environmental impact that they provide make them desirable, and one of the first things that many householders do is replace the incandescent lighting with a smart system of LED lights. In the process, many doubts arise.

What is a smart lighting system?

Although we use the word “smart” to describe the lights, strictly speaking we should refer to them as “automated” or “connected”. The new bulbs cannot think for themselves, but they can behave in accordance with their programming. There are two types of smart bulb:

Automatic bulb with light sensor. These were the first to be produced and are relatively more affordable. They operate like normal light bulbs and are turned on and off with the wall switch just like the ones you have at home. The difference is that they change brightness and colour during the day, adapting to ambient conditions to improve lighting.

Connected bulb, controlled either by infra-red or by WiFi. These bulbs can be turned on remotely and controlled with a remote control (infra-red) or an app (WiFi). They usually provide many more functionalities, but they are more expensive than automatic bulbs.

Currently, a combination of both types of bulb is used, with preference being given to LED bulbs connected via WiFi which can produce a large number of shades of white light, colours and degrees of brightness. As a result of these useful features they are much in demand.

Can I replace my bulbs with smart lights?

Yes. Like the bulbs in your house, connected bulbs use standard threads and sockets, such as E14, E27, B22, GU10, MR16, G9 or GX53, to name some of the most common.

The only difference is the remote control, so you can remove a traditional bulb and put in a smart one without having to call in an expert. The biggest difficulty will be linking the bulb to WiFi. This is a relatively simple step that consists of giving the manufacturer's app access to your WiFi network.

The smartphone will automatically detect the smart bulbs that are in range of the router, and you will then be able to turn them on and off, program a schedule or change their colour. You will also be able to disconnect them from the network.

Some manufacturers make use of hubs, a type of accessory that converts the WiFi signal into a Bluetooth signal. So instead of a WiFi receiver each bulb has a Bluetooth antenna. This slightly limits possibilities, especially in very large homes, due to issues of range.

Where can I buy smart bulbs?

There is an ever-increasing number of smart bulbs and other home automation lighting systems. Many brands and stores have these new devices. Some models can connect with Alexa, Google Assistant and IFTTT, as well as through the smartphone application. We recommend you ask your usual retailer about this type of lighting.

Is it worth switching to smart lighting?

Like all home automation, it will depend on how you use it. For example it might not make much sense to automate the home if you are going to continue turning the lights on and off with the wall switch. However, if your goal is voice control, programming different scenarios or creating patterns that make people think you’re are at home when you’re away on holiday, then this is for you.

This type of lighting is of great benefit in homes where there are small children who cannot reach the switches, elderly people or people with mobility problems. Voice control is an attractive solution that eliminates inequalities in this regard.

Another of the main reasons for investing in smart lights is the range of brightness and colour temperature to be gained. The same room changes completely when it goes from 5,000K white light with 2,000 lumens (bright white) to 2,500K light with 200 lumens (dimmed warm white).

An interesting way to combine lighting is to create light patterns, which practically all applications allow. Thus, the custom setting “Eat” will turn on the dining area lights, turning off the rest; while “Movie” will only turn on the soft LED strips that we have around the room, for example.

This customisation is generally what buyers are looking for, although there are other points in favour such as the fact that all these systems make use of highly energy-efficient and long lasting LED lights, with very low consumption. An LED bulb has an estimated life of 50,000 hours.

"An LED bulb has an estimated life of 50,000 hours."

How to position the light fittings in your home

If we want to set about changing from traditional lights to automated LED lights, we can expand the focus and consider changing the light fittings. In some homes this is easy because they use table lamps, but in others it will be necessary to carry out work to move the light fittings. That said, there are solutions that avoid having to drill or screw into the walls, such as trims that allow you to pass wiring through them.

The key is how we want our home to look, and how we are going to use it. If you’re into cooking and spend a lot of time standing over the stove, you’ll be interested in having a point of white light over the workspace, even though there’s a warmer point of light in the centre of the kitchen; and exactly the same applies to a workplace such as a home office.

Maybe at the end of the day you like to read in the living room, so you would be interested in a height-adjustable reading lamp, not too white; but you might also enjoy reading on weekend mornings, so the solution will be a connected light bulb with a broad spectrum capable of emitting reddish and white tones.

The location of the light points is determined by the use, so it is advisable to make a small sketch of the home to plan which lights will go where. In this way you can also make a budget tailored to your needs, prioritising the rooms that are used most.

The importance of security in connected objects

Autonomous vacuum cleaners, refrigerators that do the shopping, smart speakers, connected lights, and so on and so forth are elements that make up the IoT or Internet of Things. Perhaps due to their wide dissemination, the first IoT networks were rather insecure, to the point where the first “botnet” emerged.

This became notorious because it included at least one connected refrigerator that sent out hundreds of thousands of spam emails. A botnet consists of the hacking and hijacking of thousands or millions of devices, so that they become zombies or slaves. Some are even used to carry out denial of service or DDoS attacks against targets of all kinds.

But what can we do to avoid something like this? As users, our first concern is that no one should be able to access our home network through the lights, so the recommendation is to protect our router with a different password from the one that came as standard. The router instructions explain how to do this.

In addition, it is essential to protect the other end of the connection, the smartphone, with a PIN, pattern, fingerprint or password, as well as the home automation app with a password. The objective is to ensure that no-one can gain access either through our connection or because our phone has been lost or stolen. 

"It is essential to protect both the connection - the smartphone - with a PIN, pattern, fingerprint or password, as well as the home automation app with a password."

For this reason, we recommend smart IP cameras, vacuum cleaners and lighting systems with applications that incorporate this extra security step. At least, that is, if our goal is to avoid leaking information to the outside. Have you ever wondered what information a smart light bulb hack conveys?

A pirated home: these are your life patterns

Let us suppose that someone has managed to gain access to our app, either because we have been victims of phising (identity theft) or because we have not protected the digital perimeter with passwords. What can the cybercriminal see?

  1. Our work routines. The criminal can see when we wake up, when we go to bed and when we leave home. This makes a future break-in much easier.
  2. How many people live in the house, based on the number of lights at any given time or how many lights are on late at night. So cybercriminals can know when there’s no-one at home.
  3. What kind of leisure we like. For example, whether we tend to stay at home or on the contrary we disappear at weekends.

It is advisable to secure our smart lighting system .

Smart lighting systems are still quite simple, and it is we who must ensure safety. With this in mind they are perfectly safe, and indeed their advantages are such that it is only a matter of time before they become universal.

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