When it comes to makeshift home security strategies, some people go with a yappy terrier, some choose a battery of fake cameras and others rely on a generic alarm-company badge staked in the front yard.
If you prefer the leave-the-lights-on-24/7 technique, or if you rely on old-fashioned timers with fixed schedules, well, we have grim news: You’re doing it wrong. As NPR has reported, that can actually attract attention from burglars.
Smart lighting, however, turns something as simple and boring as a light bulb into a high-tech perimeter warning, and unlike a guard dog, it doesn’t shed. Smart lights outshine non-smart fixes like timers because they’re vastly easier to control, and they allow you to set them to better mimic the way a home’s occupants actually use lights (instead of on a predictable schedule).
Once installed, smart lighting devices sync with your smartphone so that you can control them remotely, put them on a schedule, or randomize them; you can also automate them to work with other smart devices such as cameras and security systems. Coming home to a house that’s considerate enough to turn on a few lights as you walk in is both fun and reassuring.
You can find smart lighting options for both indoor and outdoor use, and for any skill level — you don’t need to be a techie at all. If you’re not comfortable with wiring, smart plugs allow you to control anything you plug into an electrical outlet, such as a table lamp. Smart light bulbs fit in any existing light fixtures, replacing old light bulbs with LED ones that you can control with your smartphone and set to go on and off at certain times of day. Some can add a bit of color and pizazz to a drab room, too. As for outdoor lighting, you can find sconces, floodlights, pathway lights and stand-alone fixtures. (Wirecutter has covered just about every aspect of lighting, so we have guides to help you choose smart bulbs, smart plugs and even smart outdoor lighting for just about every scenario.)
We spoke to law enforcement and security experts, and they recommended installing smart lighting around driveways, doorways, garage areas and backyards, as well as in indoor spaces such as living rooms and bedrooms.
Here’s how to turn this easy-to-use smart tech into a trusty guard dog for your home.
Put lights on a schedule
“Lighting is a deterrent, but leaving lights on all night long can actually suggest no one is home,” said Trooper Dustin G. Fitch of the Massachusetts State Police. Whether you choose bulbs, switches, plugs, or fixtures, you can schedule almost every type of smart lighting device to go on or off at the times of your choosing by using an app on your smartphone.
Depending on your preferences and your neighborhood, you could have an outdoor bulb go on when you arrive home from work but also turn on a few indoor bulbs so you don’t have to walk into a dark house. You could also set the outdoor bulb to go off automatically at sunrise or even group it with other lights in the house and have everything shut off every night at bedtime.
Scheduling also allows you to vary the times when the lights go on and off throughout the week so that no day repeats and becomes predictable to someone casing your house. And devices such as Philips Hue smart bulbs and the LIFX + BR30 outdoor bulb let you schedule them to go on with different brightness levels and in different colors. These devices also allow for grouping, so you can turn several lights on or off simultaneously with one schedule, tap, or voice command.
Get motion-activated lighting
Keeping lights on 24/7 not only alerts criminals that you’re not home but also can make it easier for potential burglars to find a clear path to doors and windows. In some neighborhoods it’s easy to tell who’s on vacation by the porch lights left on during the day. Jordan Frankel, security expert and vice president of Global Security Operations, recommends using motion-triggered lighting, which turns on when it detects motion and turns off after a set period of time. “It will startle an intruder, as they have no idea if it was a homeowner who flipped on a light switch or if it was motion detection,” he said.
Wirecutter recommends the Sengled Smart PAR38 LED Bulb, which is outdoor-rated to resist moisture and has a customizable motion sensor built right into the bulb. When triggered, it produces 1,200 lumens, a little brighter than a typical 75-watt-equivalent LED light bulb. Unlike standard motion-sensor lights, you can adjust the sensitivity in this bulb’s app so that it doesn’t trigger whenever a large moth flits by.
It should work with most outdoor fixtures, though Sergeant Michael Lambert of the Dallas Police Department always recommends pointing the light down for best results. “It gives you the brightest view, because it’s hitting the ground and expanding out, instead of shooting up, going toward the sky,” he said. If you don’t have an existing outdoor fixture, or if you want motion-triggered lights along a pathway, Wirecutter also recommends Ring Pathlights.
You can combine most smart lighting options with separate motion sensors for the same result — and at the same time curb instances of lights staying on when not in use. (We have smart-sensor recommendations that work with Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Samsung SmartThings.)
Mimic daily activities
Choosing a set time for lighting to go on and off can deter criminals, but a burglar who stakes out your house will quickly notice after a day or two if certain lights go off at exactly the same time every day. Unlike a plain timer, many smart lighting devices provide an “away” mode, which turns lights on and off randomly during a set period and makes it seem as if someone is home and moving room to room.
Smart plugs are devices you insert into an outlet to turn any lamp into a smart one. Putting a few around your house and setting the lamps to go on and off randomly when you’re away is a fast, painless and relatively inexpensive solution. Look for plugs like the Wirecutter-recommended Wemo Mini and the TP-Link HS105, which have away modes but can also work on a set schedule.
Make lighting even smarter
When you use smart lighting with a popular smart-home platform like Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, or Samsung SmartThings, you can automate the lighting based on triggers from other smart devices. That way, if someone walks past a motion sensor or a home security camera with motion detection, that device can trigger the lights to go on and shine a light on a criminal as they approach your home — and maybe even capture video of the act, if you have a camera as part of the setup.
Some lighting devices, such as Philips Hue bulbs, work with the automation app IFTTT (If This Then That). This free service lets you create automations called “recipes” with just a few clicks. For instance, you can set up IFTTT so that when your video doorbell senses motion, a light on the side of the house turns on. (Both devices need IFTTT to work.)
These types of smart features also let you set a few lighting surprises for late-night visitors, whether they’re masked intruders or just raccoons. “If you’re away, you can even set a bedroom light to come on for a short period of time in the middle of the night to appear as though someone woke up for something,” Fitch said. “Think about it like the Home Alone burglars looking in, wondering whether someone is home or not.”