Teach me about tunable white lights
August 31, 2016 5:58 PM   Subscribe

We're upgrading a room in our house, and I'd like to install "tunable white" LED lighting, where you can not only dim it but change it between warm white and bright, sunlight-type white over the course of the day. But we don't want to hook our lights up to the wifi or use our phones to control them! This is more challenging than I'd expected.

The main problem is that we do NOT want to use any sort of wifi-connected, "smart home," or mobile-app-controlled product. The easy choices for in-home tunable whites (such as Sylvania Lightify at Home Depo) all work only this way. I don't mind wifi being an option, but it has to also work with a wired-in-the-wall control system too since that's all we'll use.

On the other end of the spectrum there are beautiful control boxes like this one,
but according to its spec sheet it is designed to work with 12v or 24v DC lighting strips. We don't want or need LED strips, we'd like our lighting to look as plain as possible - ideally in standard recessed "cans" in the ceiling. I am not an electrician or a lighting expert so I cannot tell if it is possible to somehow rig this thing up with standard fixtures like that, as long as we fill them with compatible bulbs. I see that it uses the "DMX 512" control protocol, but searching for that gets me all sorts of stage lighting which is really not what we're looking for.

Is there any way to bridge this gap and get regular-looking tunable white LED lights with easy, wired-in-the-wall controllers? Even some good, focused search terms would help if no one can recommend a specific product or system.

posted by Joey Buttafoucault to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I will be interested to hear if I am wrong, but I suspect what you are looking for, while technically feasible, does not exist commercially in a way that would be a good fit for you as a regular homeowner. My feeling is that "tunable white" lighting is new enough as a consumer product that it has always existed in a time when writing the software and running it on a general-purpose embedded processor was much more cost-effective, from a business standpoint, than designing hardwired control hardware and that therefore this has basically only ever existed as an app.

That said, I would start by looking into Lutron's offerings. They're one of the older companies in this market, and make a lot of residential lights with things like programmable touchscreen remotes and permanent-mount wireless switches. They appear to offer products with the tunable white feature, and though they may be directed mostly at the commercial market, they may still be possible to get residentially as a premium option from the right electrician. I haven't looked too deeply into that site, but it might be a beginning for you.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:36 PM on August 31, 2016

Alternatively, this may be a job for a home automation services professional. That's the job title you should use when searching for this service in your area. This kind of thing is right in a home automation services professional's wheelhouse.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:38 PM on August 31, 2016

This might depend on a few more details of what you want to avoid. Is it just using an app that you want to avoid? Is using wifi but controlling things via switches okay?

If you don't want to use an app to control the lights, but are okay using an app to set them up, then you can get close with Lightify. You can get wall switches to turn lights on/off and dim them. It still requires the app and internet access to setup, though, and the switch can't control the color temperature, as far as I can see. If you don't want your lightbulbs accessing the internet, you could set up a wifi network just for them that is only connected to the internet when you need to configure them (I think that is still required then) but otherwise disconnected. It's starting to get complicated, for sure, but this is the closest solution I can see. I think AOANLA,T is right about what you want not existing commercially.
posted by whatnotever at 9:48 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi! I'm almost-but-not-quite you. I don't have an exact solution for your use case, but I'm also setting up controllable color-temperature lighting. My requirement is "control local to the home, not in the cloud," not "no wireless at all." My plan involves using a Raspberry Pi 3 running OpenHab driving a rooted Wink Hub that runs a zigbee network including wall switches and those Lightify lights. Had I had my shit somewhat more together on the research front rather than the "oh, buy some stuff I've read about on the internet and then sort it out," front, I'd likely be running a Vera hub (which is open and configurable, as opposed to the Wink hub, which I had to open and futz with to get root control on).

Upside: I have control from my console (and theoretically via zigbee wallswitches, but I haven't really wrung that part out yet) of the lightify lights without all my control input being mediated by the cloud.

Downside: Rooting the Wink hub is not for the technically faint of heart, nor is all the Openhab tomfoolery. I'm basically building myself an ongoing maintenance nightmare. I suspect the Vera would've been a vastly better choice, and I may yet buy one considering it's only another $90 or so. Also, I'm still wireless for control, which means I could be impacted by security silliness with zigbee, etc.

DMX ("DMX512") is a theatrical lighting control standard (think "MIDI for lights") so yup, almost everything you see will be stage lighting. I've done some work with it for various commercial design projects, but yeah, most every fitting you can find will look like it belongs at a club, not in your house (as an aside, if you find any DMX controlled cans, let me know!) Good news: It's dead simple, and wired.

How much money and time do you have to throw at this? It sounds like you might be better off paying someone else to make you a solution that's easy to maintain, as Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival, The says up-thread.
posted by Alterscape at 10:28 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Table lights that meet your requirements - like this one - are readily available and could form part of your solution.

LED light strips like this are commonly available and inexpensive. The one I have linked to comes with a remote that lets you choose colour and brightness as you like (and could be set up to be controlled by anything else that does IR). You can readily link these together and it might be a better solution for general lighting than recessed fittings. You can mount the strips in a number of ways - using covers like this perhaps or by having a shelf near ceiling height the bounces the light upwards - as shown here.
posted by rongorongo at 12:05 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My friend has a dumb version of this in her art studio: two sets of recessed lights, one warm and one cool; two dimmer switches. Any electrician could install this. Cheap and genius!
posted by doornoise at 12:20 AM on September 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Huh! I just came across the Philips "Scene Switch" bulb. It cycles between three color temperatures — 5,000k (daylight)-2,700k (soft white)-2,200k (warm glow) — just by toggling its power (i.e., using a plain old light switch). No control panel or special wiring needed.

It is not dimmable, exactly. The press release shows that the color temperatures each have a set brightness as well: 60W-equivalent for the daylight setting, 40W-equivalent for the soft white, and 80 lumens (so... ~8-10W equivalent?) for the "warm glow." If those are close enough to your desired lighting options (and Philips market researchers think they are!), then this might be a good choice. Cheaper than most wifi-enabled bulbs, too.
posted by whatnotever at 9:32 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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