My Favourite smart thing

Controlling the lights with a swipe of your phone

Close up of new homes in suburban Vancouver, B.C.
Smart lighting options including Control4, which allows you to use an app on your smartphone to turn on or off, or dim lights, remotely. That's a convenient feature that can also boost safety and security.

My first experience with a 'smart home' wasn’t something I planned

By Chelsea Watt

I didn't plan to be spending two months in a smart home, controlling the living room lights with my smartphone. But when my apartment was flooded this summer and I had to vacate, bunking at my parents' home in Coquitlam sounded more appealing than living out of a suitcase at a hotel.

The house that became home from July to late September wasn't the one I grew up in; my parents tore down that mid-60s house down two years ago and built a new home. Two years later, the yard is still a work in progress, but their connected home technology is working at full speed.

When they built the new house, they opted to include home automation for their security system, thermostat, music and surround sound – and for their lighting. Thanks to a central control system, you can turn up the heat or turn off the music with a swipe on your smartphone. Very handy when my parents have left smooth jazz playing all over the house.

It's a lot fancier than my modest apartment, especially when it comes to lighting.

While I'm still slowly switching out incandescents and CFLs to halogens and LEDs, my parents' house is beautifully lit. Potlights, pendants, puck lights and track lighting are all at the flip of a switch.

That is, many switches.

Complex lighting means many switches

Walk into the living room or the kitchen and you won't see standard light switches, those two large switches that go up or down. All the lighting is programmed separately; you can turn on all the lights, or just a few. Light up just the kitchen island or just the art on the living room walls. Dim all of the LED potlights as much or as little as you want. The resulting line of switches (thankfully with labels) on the wall can resemble a spreadsheet.

Luckily, there's an easier way. I just do it all through the app.

My parents selected Control4 for their home automation technology, including their lighting. But most smart lighting will offer a similar app experience, taking advantage of touchscreen technology so you can program lighting schemes or easily dim to your desired lighting levels.

App allows a room-by-room look at lighting, and control over all those lights

I wasn't involved when my parents selected their home automation options (they used a system called Control4), so I'm sure there was some complicated decision-making on how to program each individual circuit. Luckily for me, it's finished, and now almost every light in the house can be controlled from the comfort of the couch.

Control4 seems to get great reviews including this one on, but requires a sizable investment so isn't for everyone. Those wanting to take baby steps into smart lighting can get started for as little as $99.

Aside from the occasional table lamp, the Control4 app on my phone offers a room-by-room look at the connected lighting. Each one can be dimmed, and there are programmed "scenes" and lighting sets that I can turn off or on as needed.

And the best part? I don't have to be anywhere near the house to turn the lights on or off.

Convenience and security – and a little laziness

For years, experts have been recommending putting indoor and outdoor lighting on a timer when you're away from home or on vacation. It's about making your home look occupied. Photocells and solar lighting are another way we've managed to keep the lights on even when we're not there to turn them on.

Well, after two months of smart home tech at my fingertips, I can tell you the timers and those Home Alone-style setups are on their way out.

Since I've been living at my parents, I've used their connected lighting tech to:

  • Turn on the upstairs lighting on my way home from the Skytrain, so I didn't come home to a dark house.
  • Switch on lights in the basement hallway from the kitchen upstairs, to avoid stumbling in the dark and fumbling on the walls.
  • Program the porch light to come on each day at a particular time – and turn it up on particularly dark and foggy days.
  • Turn on the exterior lighting before I step outside, very helpful when faced with taking out the garbage or a trip to the detached garage in the dark.

And don't underestimate this plus: I used my phone to turn off all the lights that I forgot were left on upstairs, once I was comfy in the basement guest bedroom.

I think that might be my mom's favourite feature of all. One tap of the "goodnight" button in the app, and all those years of yelling at my sister and me that we left every light in the house on can be erased.

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Chelsea Watt is a writer-editor with BC Hydro.