Why I love my smart light setup and how you can have one too

I didn’t understand the enthusiasm for home automation initially. Who could be so lazy that they can’t get up and turn off the lights like a normal person? The answer, it turns out, is me.

A friend eventually sold me on one feature -- with smart lightbulbs that change color, you can set your lights to be more reddish at night, avoiding the blue light that will keep your brain wakeful and making it easier to fall asleep. (It also doubles as mood lighting -- everyone looks good in dim red light.)

This was the hook that pulled me in, but I’ve come to love it for other reasons. Imagine that it’s winter and you’re cozily parked under a lot of blankets, watching TV in bed. When your eyes start closing, what if instead of having to venture out into the cold and cross the room, you could just announce to your digital servant Alexa that you want the lights turned off? Or imagine you wake up in the middle of the night and desperately need to pee -- do you stumble across the room, switch on the light, shield your eyes from the blinding beams, and try to pee as fast as possible so you can get back to bed? What if instead you could simply mumble, “Alexa, turn on nightlight,” and behold, the barest possible amount of light illuminates your path to the porcelain throne?

This is the reality I live in. The future is here, and it is pretty sweet.

In this guide, I will lay out step by step how you can set up your own smart light system, requiring no technical knowledge.

Assumptions

I live in a studio. My guide assumes that you are setting this system up for a studio apartment or two to three small, connected rooms. Bigger apartments or houses will require additional work, but that’s outside of the scope of this guide.

Because I know the products that I myself own, those are the ones I’ve written about. There are alternatives for each. Instead of an Amazon Echo, you can use a Google Home. There are other smart bulbs; even other color-changing smart bulbs, such as the LIFX Gen 3 mentioned by this Wirecutter article. If you’re interested, you can research the alternatives, but my assumption is that you’re reading this post because you just want straightforward instructions on setting things up. So you’re stuck with my choices!

I also assume that you want to use the color-changing feature of the bulbs. If you just want dimmable white lights, those bulbs will be a little cheaper and you can skip the “scene creation” steps of this guide. But then you won’t be able to turn your home into a disco.

What you’ll need to buy

  • An Amazon Echo -- any size will work. I have an Echo Dot, the smallest one. There’s no real reason to buy a bigger one, but you can if you want to. $49.99 at Best Buy

  • A Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit. At time of writing, this comes with the hub and 4 bulbs. It only came with 3 bulbs when I bought it! You’re so lucky! $199.99 at Best Buy

  • (Optional) Additional Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 bulbs, depending on how many lights you have, how many rooms you want to rig up, and how much you’re willing to spend. They’re $50 each. I’ve read that you can buy used bulbs on eBay, so that is an option if you’re feeling thrifty. $49.99 each at Best Buy

Other things you’ll need

  • Wifi

  • A smart phone

  • (Optional) A Google account. It makes signing into the various services easier if you connect your Google account rather than making new logins for each

Procedure

Part 1: Decide where you’re going to put stuff

The Philips Hue hub must be close enough to your wireless router to connect to it with an ethernet cable. Both the hub and the Echo must be plugged into a wall outlet. Plan this out beforehand and decide where you’re going to place both devices.

Part 2: Install the bulbs and the hub

  1. Open your Philips Hue starter kit! Admire the stuff.

  2. Turn off your lights at the wall switch.

  3. Unscrew the old, boring, non-smart light bulbs from your lamps.

  4. Screw in the Hue bulbs.

  5. Turn your lights back on.

  6. Plug the Hue hub into the wall.

  7. Plug one end of the included ethernet cable into the Hue hub and the other end into your wireless router. Wait for the three blue dots on the top of the hub to light up.

Part 3: Connect your phone

  1. Download the Philips Hue smart phone app from either the App Store (iPhone users) or the Play Store (Android users).

  2. Launch the app on your phone and sign in with your Google account.

  3. Tap Set up. It should prompt you to press the big button on the top of your hub to pair them.

Part 4: Find and name your lights

  1. Once your hub is paired, tap the + button in the app to add a light, then tap Search. It will scan for any smart bulbs in the area.

  2. Tap one of the lights in the list. The actual, physical light should blink.

  3. Tap the i icon next to that light to go to the info about that light. On the info screen, rename the light so you can remember which light it is. (For example, I have “entryway,” “overhead,” “bathroom,” and “bedside.”)

  4. Continue to name all your lights.

    Tip: To add more lights in the future (for example, if you buy some new bulbs later on because you can’t get enough), go to Settings > Light setup in the app and tap the +.

Part 4: Create a room

  1. Once you’ve added all your lights, the app should prompt you to create a room. Tap the + button.

  2. Name your room.

    Note: I only use a single room. Again, I live in a studio, and this makes it easier to control all the lights in my apartment with a single command. You can create multiple rooms if your space is bigger, but keep in mind that you’ll have to use multiple voice commands to control multiple rooms.
     

  3. Choose a room type. (This step doesn’t matter much. It mostly determines the icon that will be displayed next to your room name.)

  4. Next, uncheck any lights that you don’t want to be in this room.

  5. Add more rooms by tapping the + again, or tap Next if you don't want to create any more.

Part 5: Create a scene

Now the fun part. You can create a specialized scene, like my orange-ish, dimmed “sunset lights,” or you can simply set the color and brightness that you want your normal lights. This is nice if you don’t want glaring, fluorescent lighting as your default.

  1. In the Hue app, tap the room you want to create a scene for, then tap New scene.

  2. Tap the name field to rename your scene.

  3. Choose from one of the three bubbles at the bottom:

    * The picture option lets you select a color from within an image (either one of Hue’s presets or a picture from your camera). I have never used this option.

    * The white option lets you pick from the white light spectrum.

    * The color option lets you pick any color of the rainbow!

  4. Move the slider under the scene name to set the brightness.

  5. Save your scene.

    Tip: You can control each light in your scene individually. For my nightlight one, for example, I have only the bedside and bathroom lights illuminated.

Part 6: Set up IFTTT

IFTTT (“if’t”) is a utility for creating applets. You can think of an applet like a very simple program -- “if this happens, do this other thing.” (The name itself is an acronym for If This, Then That.) Congratulations! You’re now a programmer.

You’re going to use it to trigger your Hue hub to change the lights when you tell Alexa a command.

  1. Download the IFTTT app from either the App Store (iPhone users) or the Play Store (Android users).

  2. Launch the app and sign in with your Google account.

  3. Tap the My applets tab in the bottom left.

  4. Tap the + to create a new applet.

  5. It should present you, as promised, with a form that says if this then that. Tap the this, then tap or search for Amazon Alexa.

  6. Tap Say a specific phrase, then enter the name you gave your scene. (It doesn’t technically have to match, but I find it easier to remember and debug if I use the same name in both places.) Tap Create trigger to save.

  7. Tap the that, then search for Philips Hue.

  8. Tap Set a scene in a room.

  9. Select the scene you just created from the dropdown list, then tap Create action.

  10. Try it out! Say “Alexa, trigger <scene name>.” She should respond "Sending that to IFTTT," and the lights should change.

  11. Try saying "Alexa, turn on <scene name>" instead. I can't find the article where I originally read this, but at some point in the last year or so there was an update (I think on the Alexa side) that simplified how you invoke IFTTT applets. Instead of saying "Alexa, trigger," you should be able to just say "Alexa, turn on," which sounds more natural. If you try this and it doesn't work for you, please let me know in a comment! It's possible I added some extra piece somewhere to enable this and have forgotten about it.

Note: If you want to customize the whiteness/brightness of your default lights, as I mentioned earlier, create a scene for that, then make an IFTTT applet whose trigger is just “lights.” Then you can say “Alexa, turn on lights” to get the default lighting you want. Note that if you say “Alexa, turn on all lights” (a built-in command), it will illuminate the lights at the last scene you had going before you turned them off. (“All lights” is just an on/off toggle, not a scene.)

Part 7: Repeat

Now you know the process: create a scene, set up an IFTTT applet, then order Alexa to do your bidding! Make as many scenes as you like.

Bonus ideas

If you add a smart home hub (like Harmony Hub, $79.99) to the mix, you can get really fancy. It can control any device with a remote control or wifi access. I use it to tell Alexa to turn on my air conditioning and my TV; with a Roku or Chromecast or similar, you can get even more specific: “Turn on Hulu,” “Turn on Netflix.” You can even use it to voice-control play/pause while you’re watching something on a streaming service, but I find the delay inconvenient (it takes several seconds to actually pause it).