When the light bulb was first invented, the issue it was trying to solve was pretty simple to understand: extending daylight hours without the physical risks that gas lamps entailed.
Since the very first commercial models went on sale, the humble light bulb has revolutionised the world as we know it, ushering in round-the-clock multi-shift work, bringing electricity into our properties and providing cheap, safe energy that could illuminate our homes from dusk until dawn.
We also know nowadays that artificial lighting has a detrimental effect on us that its inventors could never have predicted. Modern studies have shown that our bodies’ biological clocks are dependent on a balance between light and dark, and that prolonged use of artificial light at the wrong time of day can disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps individuals to sleep well and maintain a steady circadian rhythm. In the workplace, being exposed to artificial light has been linked to a number of medical complaints, from poor quality of sleep to depressive symptoms.
Being tied to the diurnal cycle means that, as humans, we are constantly in conflict between the convenience of artificial light and our physiological need for darkness. As such, we need our homes to generate enough light to keep us productive and active after dark, yet also ensure that we stay happy and healthy.
What do we need a lighting system to achieve?
“A room is like a stage. If you see it without lighting, it can be the coldest place in the world.”
– Paul Lynde, comedian
While sunlight provides an incredible amount of brightness (up to 11,000 lux on a clear day, falling to around 1,000-2,000 when overcast), artificial lighting does not need to reach these levels in order to be effective. Relaxing activities that require ambient light need between 150-200 lux of illumination, while more focused activities such as cooking or working from home will necessitate slightly stronger lighting of around 300-500 lux.
Brightness is not the only aspect of sunlight that affects us, however; the colour temperature of a particular light will affect the levels of certain hormones in the body. Cold, blue illumination will make a viewer more alert, while a warmer, more orange light will make someone more relaxed. During the early hours, when people tend to be somnolent, a dim red light will ensure that an individual can see to navigate to a bathroom or kitchen without disrupting their hormonal balance and sleeping pattern.
When judging the amount of light a room needs (either generated naturally or by artificial means), it isn’t just down to the amount of lux and colour temperature. Clearly, if the reach of the illumination from a light bulb or window is obstructed by furniture or a barrier or some sort, then this will cause parts of the room to be less well-lit than others. Additionally, having all the lights on when sufficient ambient lighting is already present in certain parts of a room will also see electricity costs spiral with little or no discernable improvement in visibility. Ensuring that our properties remain well lit throughout without wasting energy to achieve this is therefore a careful balancing act.
While most homes require the user to stay on top of which fixtures are on throughout the house throughout the house, this is actually a pretty impractical means of managing a home’s lighting and shading. Upon entering a darkened room with the curtains closed, a homeowner will need to turn on the light switch in order to see, pull back the curtains to let the sun in and then turn the lights off again. If this can be automated – or at least controlled from one device or interface – then this makes maintaining the right lighting environment for the day’s activities a much easier – and less stultifying – task.
What can we do with smart lighting?
“Put every light you have on a dimmer. Because, after a certain age, we can play with the lighting and set it on how you look best. It’s cheaper than plastic surgery.”
– Bryan Batt, actor
The most elementary application of smart lighting is as a convenient means for switching or dimming all lighting elements in a room. This will normally be achieved in one of two ways: either remotely through an app on a tablet or phone or through a customised graphical interface (GUI) or keypad affixed to a wall. Depending on the systems used, these interfaces can be used only for controlling the lights, or for incorporating any number of systems (shades, heating or even door entry systems) into a single touch point for the occupier.
Taking this one step further is multi-room management, whereby the user is able to control lighting in rooms other than the one they are in physically. This could be used to introduce functions such as an ‘all-off’ button by the door to a house, which allows the homeowner to quickly ensure all of the lighting is off when they exit the property. This is also useful for residents who are less able to get around the house, as this can save them the need to constantly reach for a light switch upon entering or exiting different areas of the home.
Perhaps the most time-efficient approach to lighting a home, from a user’s perspective, is to automate as much as possible. Room sensors can be used so that lights only come on when presence is detected, with timers set so that they don’t go out if a user is performing a stationary task such as reading a book. Having motion-activated floodlights can also be an efficient way of deterring burglars – but these need to be set up carefully so as to not trigger every time an urban fox appears in the back garden.
Another option is to introduce sensors that monitor light levels and can turn on the lights automatically when levels become too low, or integrate the lighting with an astronomical clock so that it comes on when the sun goes down and stays illuminated until bedtime. It is also possible to set the lighting in a certain room to come on when the morning alarm goes off.
“While this kind of automation comes with numerous benefits, simplicity for the user is key,” explains Ryan Ovens, Projects Director at Andrew Lucas London. “It is important that manual overrides are put in place within the home’s interfaces so that the owner can adjust or dismiss certain settings at any time.”
A rainbow of lighting options
A number of colour-changing light bulbs have gone on the market over the last few years, including the popular Hue series from Philips. While these are seen by some as little more than a cool gimmick, such units can be used to stunning effect if used judiciously, creating impressive scenes for entertaining guests or providing a comfortable, dimly-lit environment for watching television.
While colour-shifting lights that can be tuned and tweaked by the user already abound in the IoT market, there is an increasing interest in automated biodynamic lighting, which changes throughout the day to suit a user’s requirements. This is particularly the case for office environments, with companies such as Waldmann specialising in lighting systems that can change throughout the day to match the human body clock.
This works in a similar way to the computer program f.lux and Apple’s Night Shift function, which both change the tone of the screen during darker hours to preserve the natural cortisol-melatonin balance of the user. Such systems are aimed primarily at commercial or retail environments, although this type of lighting could be useful to incorporate into a home office or next to a teenager’s desk to make the environment more conducive to working and studying.
Many properties now also include some form of night lighting, whereby deep red lights (frequently low-level LED strips or similar) are placed in rooms and hallways, allowing occupants to navigate around the house at night without the need to fumble around in the dark or disturb others by turning the lights on full. The clear benefit of such a system is that it preserves a user’s incumbent fatigue rather than jolting them awake, helping them to slip back to sleep more easily afterwards.
How should you control your smart lighting?
Like most technological solutions, there is more than one way to skin a smart light. As discussed earlier, mobile apps are a very popular way to control smart lights, particularly in the lower end of the market where an occupant might install intelligent lighting into their home as a stand-alone system.
At the higher end of the market, switches, wall panels and GUIs from the likes of Lutron and Crestron proliferate, largely down to the ability to customise the buttons and functions to incorporate a number of room functions in a single tap, for example, controlling shades and lights from the same unit. Into this area must also come smart remotes, which are usually more suited for home entertainment systems but – like smart keypads – can also be used to set whole-room scenes that include lighting elements.
Voice control is certainly a possibility, and managing smart lighting is one of the more popular uses for smart speakers, according to Experian research into Amazon Echo users. Another option, which works particularly well for doorway or outdoor lights, is to incorporate geofencing so that they activate when a person arrives home.
Whether to go for a more manual or more automatic system will depend on the preferences of the user. Some people will predominantly want the system for ease and convenience, in which case it makes sense elect for a more automated system involving sensors and pre-programmed actions to make life easy for the homeowner. Others will want to track the usage data gathered by a smart lighting system (and other systems) and use this to make manual tweaks that optimise their energy usage in the home. There will also be users that find that a traditional wall dimmer won’t be able to control all of their fixture types (such as a 0-10V driver and LED combination), in which case a smart lighting system is the preferred choice.
Regardless of what combination of the above is used, it is useful for a smart lighting set-up to be hooked up to the rest of the intelligent home systems under a unified control interface. This groups everything conveniently in the same place, rather than the user constantly switching between apps and systems every time they want to change something in the room. After all, unnecessary labour is exactly what smart lighting systems were designed to prevent.