How I Made My Home Lighting Smart and Sustainable for Less Than $500

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Tuohy
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My Wink hub now controls all my lighting, as well as other smart devices in my home.

Since I started making strides toward a sustainable lifestyle way back in 2007, I’ve known that the first and simplest step toward “greening” your home is to replace outdated incandescent bulbs with cool, clean LEDs. So, when my husband and I recently renovated a 1960s house in Charleston, I decided to take over the light bulb buying duties and finally complete my quest for LED livability. However, my first trip to the light bulb aisle in search of a swath of these eco-friendly illuminators left me wondering:

1. If I’ll need to remortgage my new home in order to afford them, and
2. If I would need a second college degree just to understand which ones I was supposed to buy.

LED Learning Curve

Slowly but surely, LEDs are shedding their reputation for being too bright and ugly to fit into a home’s décor. This is thanks, in large part, to manufacturers’ enthusiastic (albeit government prompted) adoption of the technology. Today, there is rarely a case where you can’t get an LED alternative to an incandescent. However, there are now so many on the market that when the average consumer is confronted by floor to ceiling bulb options, it’s understandably easier to just grab that trusty (and cheaper) incandescent and run.

To address consumer confusion, manufacturers are attempting to educate the public on how to choose the right bulb through thorough package labeling. The problem is that there are so many numbers on each bulb, it’s even more confusing. When I sent my mom a picture of this bulb I was considering, she replied, “$209 for a light bulb!?”

I quickly discovered that you can ignore most of those numbers. All you really need to focus on is the “wattage equivalent” and the “bulb type,” (which is ironically often the hardest thing to find). The wattage equivalent helps you choose the same light level as your previous incandescent, and the bulb type will tell you whether it will fit where you want it to go.

The big number most people focus on, however, is the price. I know every argument for LED bulbs (75 to 80 percent less energy use, lasts up to 25 times longer, emits less heat) and I’m sold. But my husband’s response to the sticker shock is understandable. $25 for a bulb you could pay $5 for requires a lot of explaining. I’ve tried the math: “This LED only costs $1.51 a year to run, versus $7.83 a year for that incandescent. Factor in the longevity of the LED bulb, estimated to last 20-30 years, versus one year for the incandescent, and the incandescent actually costs $128.3 to run over 10 years, compared to $40 for the LED.”

But what he (and many people) need is to see some real, tangible benefit from this significant initial outlay. In order to justify a whole household switch to LED, I decided to investigate the benefits of turning my quest for LED livability into a “Smart Quest.” After all, by controlling how much the lighting is on via smart technology (wirelessly connected light bulbs), I’ll be enhancing the benefit both for the planet and our pockets. So I went room by room, researching the perfect light bulb set up for each scenario and seeing how I could incorporate home automation technology into the system.

The Bedroom

The first stop on my quest was the bedroom. We are midway through remodeling an old garage into a master bedroom, and for such a large room we needed eight recessed ceiling lights. My initial plan was to install the industry leading Philips Hue LED bulbs. Offering every color “hue” you could possibly want inside just one bulb, the Hue can do such magical things as turn on automatically to the color of the sunrise every morning. However I couldn’t quite stretch my budget to the $480 it would cost to outfit my bedroom with eight $60 light bulbs. Thankfully, manufacturers are now following in Philips footsteps, producing connected bulbs which, while they don’t offer quite the functionality of the Hue, offer the convenience of being Wi-Fi enabled at just a few dollars more than a regular LED. It’s a lot easier to justify the upfront expense of LEDs when you are getting more from your bulbs than just light. Most of these smart bulbs require their own hub, which adds between $40 and $80 to the upfront cost, but also adds a host of functionality.

However, acquiring the right hub for each bulb and device is a challenge the smart-home industry is still conquering. Many devices come with their own hub, so if you bought them all you’d quickly be drowning in a clutter of hubs.

After going back to the drawing board I came up with a hybrid solution. I purchased eight “dumb,” dimmable LED floods ($200) and one “smart” wirelessly controllable dimmer switch ($60). I then picked up the new Wink smart hub for only $1 (regularly $49, but I found a deal at The Home Depot where you could purchase the hub for $1 if you bought two other smart devices). The Wink hub promises to control all of my smart devices: both those I already have and those I’m considering purchasing, hopefully saving me from smart home hub overload. Now I can control the dimmer switch from my smartphone through the Wink hub and voila, smart lights without the $500 price tag. The dimmer switch also comes with a remote control, and courtesy of the Wink Home Automation system can connect to other smart devices so I can control my lighting with automated rules and shortcuts.

The Living Room

Our living room presented a conundrum. It has two recessed lights and a ceiling fan that are on the same circuit, meaning we can’t have the fan running without the lights on (very irritating when you’re trying to watch a movie on a hot steamy night). Here’s where I was hoping these smart LEDs would really prove their worth to my husband. The ability to remotely dim or turn off individual bulbs means we will be able to turn off the lights without turning off the fan, and without paying an electrician $500 to re-wire the living room.

I excitedly purchased numerous smart bulbs, only to discover that they each required their own hub, and while the bulbs were individually between $25 and $30, the hubs were upwards of $100. I already have a hub and I didn’t want another one. Luckily, those weeks of dead ends paid off, because this month GE launched the GE Link bulb that works with my Wink hub, and starts at $15 — yes a $15 smart LED light bulb! Truly, when it comes to technology, just wait a while and what you need will appear. 

I ordered two GE Link 65W Equivalent BR30 Connected Home LED Light Bulbs at $19.97 each for my living room and three GE Link 90W Equivalent PAR38 LEDs for the hallway between the living room and bedroom. I am anxiously awaiting their delivery and the ability to control my home entertainment lighting from my smartphone. No more fighting over who has to get up to turn the lights off, and at least enough savings to spring for HBO.

Quest Completed

The benefits of “smartening” my LED bulbs are many: convenience, yes, but also energy and time savings. No more running around the house making sure my family of four has switched off every light before I leave. I can simply set up a geo-fence program to switch everything off when I walk out the door.

The total cost of my quest is currently about $370, and the benefit is that I can add and replace bulbs to the system for between $15 and $25. The beauty of LEDs means I probably won’t need to replace any until my kids are buying their own homes, but I will be adding to the array; to my kid’s rooms and the bathrooms, when the CFLs in there eventually flicker out. I estimate the total cost of the remaining bulbs to be bought at $200, bringing my total expenditure on a whole house, Wi-Fi enabled “Smart” LED lighting system to just over $500.

As this infographic comparing the two main types of LEDs I’ve chosen with their incandescent equivalents shows, over 10 years I will save between $80 and $125 per bulb. With an estimated total of 26 bulbs in my home, that’s a total of $2,000 to $3,300 over the next decade. Not bad, considering all of those savings are in electricity and manufacturing, meaning I’ll be leaving a lighter footprint on the planet.

Jennifer Tuohyshares her chronicles of trying to mesh her love for technology and being green into the integration of her home renovation. In Jennifer’s latest adventure, she explores using home automation and Smart LED light bulbs to save energy and money. Are you considering Smart LED light bulbs for your home?Check out the LED bulb optionsat The Home Depot.

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