It used to be we'd walk into a room and flip on the light switch, maybe slide the dimmer up or down a bit to change the brightness.
But that's so old school. Instead, press a tab marked "Cooking" on a wall-mounted panel to let all kitchen task lights come up to full brightness while lights in the family room dim so the kids can play video games.
Or hit the button marked "Romance," and the lights throughout the house go out while the lights in the bedroom ebb to a soft glow that turns a sultry blue.
Household technology is undergoing a transformation that's going to make lighting more integral to our everyday lives. Not only will we see better, but we're going to use light to alter our moods, protect our well-being, safeguard our houses, and save bunches of energy.
"Home lighting today is about lifestyle enhancements," says Paul Nagel, VP of lighting at Control4, a home automation company. "We want to know how to control light to create environments we're comfortable in, and have energy efficiency while we do it."
Lighting Our Homes With a Purpose
Today's progressive lighting schemes aren't about turning lights on and off; they're about being partners in your lifestyle. The concept is simple: Imagine all your home's light fixtures as a single system that can be programmed into a variety of zones. Each zone is dedicated to particular task or mood, and can be controlled by wall switches, a master wall panel, or a smartphone app.
So in addition to “Cooking” and “Romance” zones, you might have buttons for:
- Outdoor Entertaining – patio and walkway lights illuminate.
- Coming Home – triggered by a timer or a smart phone, the porch, entry hall, and kitchen lights come on.
- Nighty-Night – lights in kids' rooms slowly fade out as they fall asleep.
- Vacation – lights turn on and off in random patterns.
- Panic Mode – all lights in the house flash on and off.
If walking over to a wall panel is too much effort at the end of a long day, you can call up an app on your smart phone or tablet and control zones that way, all while curled up on the couch. If your app is voice-activated, you won't even have to swipe a finger.
Easing the Fear of Lighting Technology
Do your eyes glaze over at the thought of yet another layer of hi-tech added to your everyday life? Fear not: In the hands of a pro, zone lighting systems are relatively easy to install. Home automation companies and lighting contractors can retrofit your house with a single-zone system in half a day for as little as $1,500, and a whole-house system for under $5,000.
You'll get an easy-to-understand central control unit that "talks" with new switches, light fixtures, and bulbs that are specially made to receive wireless signals. You decide on your zones and, once everything's set up, have the light throughout your house change intensity and color on command.
DIYers Can Zone Out, Too
Relatively low-cost mini-systems are coming to market that'll let you install your own zones, even if your geekability quotient is near zero.
The Hue is a $199 do-it-yourself starter kit from electronic manufacturer Philips. It includes a wireless hub that plugs into your home router, and three LED bulbs that respond to wireless signals.
Once the hub and bulbs are installed, you control everything from your smartphone, setting up zones (called "scenes" by Hue), and choosing color combos from millions of possible hues. You can even add tricks, such as having your lights flash when one of your tweets is re-tweeted.
If you get hooked on your Hue, you can expand -- additional bulbs are $60 each. And because it's linked to your internet router, your hub can be accessed from virtually anywhere using your smart phone, tablet, or laptop. Working late? Delay your "Coming Home" mode for an hour -- and save energy.
No Dim Bulbs Here
Other DIY smart bulbs are hitting the market. They're made to replace any screw-in type light bulb -- all you need is a free app you download to your phone so you can dim lights, change colors, and turn individual lights on and off.
(FYI: Smart bulbs also work via conventional on/off wall switches; you're not locked in to controlling them with an app.)
ilumi bulbs come in two strengths -- a 1,100-lumen bulb (100-watt incandescent equivalent) for down lighting is $94, and an 800-lumen bulb (60-watt equivalent) for lamps and sconces is $84. You'll need to have your smart phone within range of ilumi bulbs (meaning within 100 feet) so that your phone's Bluetooth network, with its short-range capability, can talk to them.
LIFX bulbs ($69) are controlled by your Wi-Fi network and can be accessed from anywhere. Wonder about the popularity of smart bulbs? LIFX started as a crowd-sourced Kickstarter project seeking $100,000 in funding; they received more than $1.3 million. That says something.
Using Light to Alter Moods and Stay Healthy
If you're feeling blue, it may be the light. Light can affect our moods and, ultimately, our health. Just ask anyone with seasonal affective disorder. Known as SAD, it's a type of depression characterized by low energy and poor concentration. It's estimated that 20% of the U.S. population has some form of it. The therapy? Exposure to more daylight or to artificial lights that mimic the properties of natural light.
The health- and mood-altering properties of light haven't been lost on lighting manufacturers, who've come up with a variety of new home lighting products that claim to have health benefits. Although clinical proof of most claims is hard to come by, the products themselves are intriguing.
Dynamic lights vary between warm white (2600K) and cool light (5600K) so that the natural rhythms of daylight are reproduced indoors -- helping keep you happy in the depths of winter. Several manufacturers make dynamic light bulbs -- also called full-spectrum bulbs. A 2,800-lumen compact fluorescent bulb is about $12.
The Definity Digital Awake & Alert bulb from Lighting Science ($69.99) is touted as a "blue-enriched" LED biologically-corrected lighting solution that's "proven to boost energy, promote alertness, and enhance performance."
The Withings Aura sleep monitoring device measures heartbeat and breathing patterns to adjust light levels in your bedroom, providing deeper sleep during the night and gentle alarms and raised light levels to bring you gently awake in the morning. Multi-colored LED dimming and brightening technologies help regulate the body's melatonin -- the hormone responsible for the body's sleep/wake cycle. The system is about $300.
Kohler's Underscore Bathtub with Chromatherapy bathes you in underwater light as you soak. Choose from a variety of light colors to suit your mood. The tub is about $3,600.
LEDs — The Energy-Sipping Superstar of Home Lighting
LED lights (which stands for light-emitting diode) point the way for the future of home lighting. Why? LEDs:
- Use 80% less electricity than traditional incandescent lighting and 20% less than compact fluorescents, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy.
- Last up to 25 years.
- Provide superior light quality that's pleasing to the eye.
- Work great with new digital lighting control technologies.
And prices are dropping. During the early days of the Great Bulb Evolution -- with halogens and compact fluorescent lights fighting for the right to supplant incandescents in our homes -- prices for LED bulbs reached $30 per bulb for a 60-watt incandescent equivalent. Yikes! But prices are now dipping to around $10, with a payback period from energy savings of about three years.
They're getting more efficient, too. Right now, a screw-in LED bulb with a 60-watt incandescent equivalent consumes about 13 watts, but 5-watt LEDs are on the horizon that'll slash payback periods to little more than one year.
LEDs can be made small -- really small. In fact, some lights are no bigger than the point of a pencil. That's going to change how we illuminate our homes. For example, hundreds of tiny LEDs can be embedded in sheets of drywall to create walls and ceilings that glow.
Philips and carpet manufacturer Desso have already teamed up to create light-transmissive carpets. Add some motion sensors, and we'll have hallways that light up as we approach and fade away behind us -- putting light where we need it and turning it off where we don't, saving energy.
"The next few years of home lighting are going to be very exciting," says Control4's Nagel. "Fixtures will change and have more freedom. They're not going to be bound by metal bases and screw-in bulbs."
Mixing Light and Home Automation
Lighting solutions can be stand-alone projects, but they're often paired with other home automation features to create a holistic home environment that's controlled by a single wall panel and app. For example, press that "Relax" button on your scheme choices, and as the lights dim the soothing sounds of jazz surround you.
Lights are essential components of home security systems, too, teaming up with video cameras, alarms, and motion sensors to keep your house safe, whether or not you're there.
Another advantage of automated energy management systems is that they combine smart thermostats, Energy Star appliances, and lighting schemes to trim energy costs across the board, and that's a future we can all live with.
Related: How Light Affects Paint Color