Dimmer Switches or Dimmable LED Lights?

eric37

New Member
I'm in the early stages of building a house and was hoping to get some input from those of you with more home automation experience than I.
 
If you could redesign your home automation lighting system would you use dimmer switches or dimmable LED lights?  If you would use both, when and where would you use each arrangement?
 
I've had a few light controllers in my home office, but they were incandescent based. With the newer LED lights and the issues I've heard about dimmer switches with LED lights, it would seem the better option would be to go with dimmable LEDs on an addressable switch.
 
Thanks
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
Depends on your budget.  For a 5k sqft house I spent $13k on lighting automation alone.  All those dimmers add up!  But it's a one-time cost.  
 
Automate ALL the lighting.  Don't leave anything out.  You won't get back to it.  That and you'll have regrets on what did or didn't get chosen.  Spend the money upfront and move on.
 
As for wiring, at the very least be sure to wire ALL wall switch boxes with a neutral.  Do not run power to the lights first and then just a switch leg.  Code recommends this but some old-school electricians may try to skimp on this.  Do not let them.
 
Then make sure that any ceiling fixture that could have dual-purpose, like a ceiling fan w/light, has four wires going to it (white, black, red and ground).  Commonly referred to as 14/3 (as opposed to 14/2).  This way the fixture could accommodate being directly powered in the future, like for a canopy unit to control the fan.  
 
Likewise, if there's any lighting fixtures that you could see potentially requiring constant power then pull 14/3 to it.  Even if it's going to be controlled through a wall dimmer.  I mention this because there's dimmers out there that can control 10v lighting power supplies that use a dimmable hot AND a constant power hot.  This is helpful for LED tape situations.   So go with 14/3 anywhere it might be considered.
 
Use DEEP wall boxes.  Not just standard shallow ones.  Use metal boxes, when possible, as plastic tends to get pushed around by drywallers and you end up with a crooked wall plate.  Metal costs more and requires greater attention to detail during installs, thus electricians will try to skimp on this.  
 
HIRE A  LIGHTING CONSULTANT.  Go over your plans WELL BEFORE construction starts.  It helps to have someone that understands residential lighting take a critical look.  We did and it was worthwhile.  We moved a few fixtures, added/removed others and have been entirely happy with the results.
 
Do not go with LED 'just because'.  Go with good lighting.  If that happens to be LED then great!  I chose not to for some recessed cans as LED elements don't put out as much light as equivalent incandescents.  I would have had to install more LED cans to get the same coverage.  LED is improving and when the time is right I'll replace my incandescents.  
 
Good lighting also means good fixtures.  Lightolier makes nice trims for recessed cans.  Keep that in mind if you want to use trims with eyeball, slits, wall-wash and the like.   Choose the right size trims.  Nobody uses 6" anymore, that look went out a decade ago.  5" for 'regular' cans and 4" for specialty lighting like narrow down-lights for hall paths, art and such.
 
Add separate circuits for outside holiday and house uplighting.  It's nice having the house automatically illuminate itself for sunset/sunset.
 
Automated wiring does not have to be any different than traditional.  In fact, going with a traditional wiring layout pretty much guarantees being future-proof as technologies evolve.  
 

Neurorad

Senior Member
Ah! That explains it. I was looking for 6" LED downlights last week, couldn't find much.

Thanks.
 

ano

Senior Member
If you go with UPB switches, which are probably the most common, they can be programmed to be dimmable or not, but ONLY use these for lighting.  Many but not all LED bulbs today are dimmable, but whatever dimmers and bulbs you use, get a few and test them before you buy many.  Not all dimmable lights work with all dimmable bulbs.
 
Also switched outlets and ceiling fans NEVER have a dimmer switch, in fact they have to have a relay switch rated for what the breaker is rated.
 
I think the trick is that you will need several types of switches for a house, so plan that out first before buying anything.
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
If you want to learn more about LED and dimming:
 
http://www.lutron.com/en-US/Education-Training/Pages/LCE/DimmingCFLsandLEDs.aspx
and
http://www.lutron.com/en-US/service-support/Pages/technical/design-selectiontools/leddimmermatrix.aspx
 
Ceiling fan control is getting more complicated as a lot of them no longer use AC motors.  They're using DC motors and won't work with most external controls.  The automation market for these is a mess.  Thus why I mentioned making sure there's a hot and a neutral available in all potential ceiling fan locations.  
 
You certainly need different devices, but more important is the PLAN.  Map out what your lighting needs are FIRST.  Then look into automation.
 

pete_c

Guru
I'm in the early stages of building a house ....
 
Personally I have suggested to friends to take a class at a local college relating to the endeavour of building a home.  You can then know and plan a bit with some basics.
 
As mentioned above and relating to lighting / automation really the more you know prior to the installation of the high voltage wires running in your home; the better and more flexible or adaptable your stuff will be for the future.
 
Separate circuits, conduit, deep boxes, additional high voltage wiring will help provide you with flexibility relating to the types of automated switches and lighting that exist today.
 

cobra

Active Member
Seems like no one commented on your dimmable bulbs question...  I think a few people use them, but haven't seen anyone talk about a large whole house install.  You probably need to think about what you want to do with the lighting first.
 
Some of the dimmable bulbs work best for in room local control only, and some can be hooked in to an automation system. The down side is that dimmable bulbs are expensive to replace and haven't been around long enough to know their lifetime yet.
 
You may be better picking what you want to use based on what you want to do with it and what the parts look like.
 
For example, UPB is a good technology for dimmable switches and outlet control, but you may find that they selection of switches isn't that good.  I have Leviton/HAI and simply automated UPB switches here, but they are basically simple paddle switches.  They automate well and are very reliable, but you don't get any local display of dimmer settings or more aesthetic switch looks.  There are some other brands available, but I've not seen much I like.
 
I recently dropped a few Cooper ZWave dimmers in, as they have a nicer look and can show dim level settings and on/off state in a nicer way.
 

jeditekunum

Active Member
What about color bulbs (like Hue)? I would like to be able to control color temperature in some areas. I have not seen anything that isn't RF controlled.
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
The trouble with the Hue bulbs is they require being constantly powered.  There's no way to use a regular wall dimmer or switch with them. You lose instantaneous wall control (as in, walking into a dark room and getting lights *now*) if you use a wall control.
 
Philips makes a wall-mountable dimmer but, very oddly, it's NOT in a standard wall control size!  That and the remote is entirely dependent on communicating with the RF bridge first and then sending commands to the lights.  It's quick, but it's not "lights on NOW" quick.
 
It's a tough situation.  Made worse by the fact that most light fixtures do not have constant power to them.  You can 'work around' this by eliminating the switch wiring inside the wall box but then you're stuck with the light being constantly powered.  Which is a downside if power goes out.  Because, by code, all bulb replacement lighting must immediately turn itself on when power is applied.  As in, someone put it in a light fixture controlled by a switch and they expect it to, y'know, come on when the switch is operated.  Power going out in the middle of the night means ALL YOUR BULBS will turn themselves on.  Yeah, not fun.
 
Meanwhile, Philips is trying to sell off that division.  This while making some seriously bad judgement calls when it comes to supporting 3rd party lighting through their hubs.  They basically arbitrarily decided to orphan using 3rd party bulbs through their bridge.  They back-pedaled on this, somewhat, but it's still not been fully corrected.  Dick move on Philips part.
 
Tangentially, there's the LED tape market.  This is interesting.  Lutron makes a series of dimmers and power supplies designed to work with low voltage controlled lighting.  This is a common thing in the commercial market, but largely unheard of in residential.  The idea is the power supply accepts two power connections.  One constant hot and one 'dimmable hot'.  This allows using a regular wall dimmer (for appearance and control quality's sake) to dim a DC-powered light.  They make them in 12 and 24vdc variants, across a range of wattages.  This gets interesting when you want high-quality 1% dimming with LED lighting.  There's one catch though, it's single color only.  They have no support for RGBW schemes at this point.  They do support DMX but that's a whole other beast.
 
It's still sort of 'early days' when it comes to truly effective and well-integrated color lighting products.  You wouldn't think it'd be this way, but it's still pretty crude to automate effectively.
 

Desert_AIP

Senior Member
I have about 50 can lights throughout my house.
I replaced them all with Cree CR6 LEDs about 4 years ago. 
I am very happy with the color and dimming performance using my Simply Automated UPB dimmers.
Excellent 2700K warm white. 
Most other LEDs I have seen in "warm white" are 3000K or higher and don't look as good.
I've had no failures.
 
Other fixtures are using the Cree Edison bulbs, I am similarly happy although the very low end dimming is not as good as the CR6s.
They don't get as dim, there seems to be a floor around the 20% mark.
 

eric37

New Member
Thanks for the input.  There's a lot to digest and research.  I am going to try and setup a small system so I can do some hands on research.
 
Ano, I'm not sure I understand this sentence, "Not all dimmable lights work with all dimmable bulbs."  I usually equate a light as being the bulb. Are you referring to a combination of socket and switch?
 
 
If I understand the comments correctly, there are bulbs (I'm specifically concerned LEDs) that are dimmable via a dimmer switch and there are bulbs that can be addressed individually and dimmed (i.e. Hue).  Is that correct?  I mention LEDs because there is pretty much zero chance of using CFLs and lately every incandescent bulbs has been utter garbage.
 
 
Thanks again for the input everyone.
 

ano

Senior Member
eric37 said:
Thanks for the input.  There's a lot to digest and research.  I am going to try and setup a small system so I can do some hands on research.
 
Ano, I'm not sure I understand this sentence, "Not all dimmable lights work with all dimmable bulbs."  I usually equate a light as being the bulb. Are you referring to a combination of socket and switch?
 
 
If I understand the comments correctly, there are bulbs (I'm specifically concerned LEDs) that are dimmable via a dimmer switch and there are bulbs that can be addressed individually and dimmed (i.e. Hue).  Is that correct?  I mention LEDs because there is pretty much zero chance of using CFLs and lately every incandescent bulbs has been utter garbage.
 
 
Thanks again for the input everyone.
Yes, I should have said dimmers and bulbs.
 
There are "smart bulbs" like Philips Hue that are basically remote controlled bulbs, but they need to be always powered, and they can't be easily controlled from a light switch.  Who wants to have to get their smartphone out to turn on their kitchen lights?
 
So most people use "smart" dimmers which can be controlled remotely, and LED bulbs but these don't always work perfectly together.  Back in the olden-days, bulbs were incandescent and dimmers used a device called a triac to chop the sin wave, so a dimmer at 50% would dim a bulb to 50%. Today dimmers are generally unchanged from the past (except they can be remotely controlled) but LED bulbs have power supplies much smarter than people realize.
 
LED bulbs have "smart" power supplies to efficiently provide power to the LEDs.  Dimmable LED bulbs actually have to "read" what the dimmer is telling them, so they know how much to dim their bulb, but most of these dimmer reading circuits are patented, so different bulb manufacturers use different means to "read" the dim levels of a dimmer.
 
Long story short, not all LED dimmable bulbs work equally well with all dimmers. You may need to use some trial and error to get the best results.  Usually all bulbs from a single manufacturer use the same chip, so once you find a good dimmer/bulb match, stick to those two manufacturers and you should be OK.
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
Actually you could have stuck with lights, as I've just gotten some table lamps that have an integrated dimmer instead of the typical 3-way switch.  FML if it doesn't interfere with certain LED bulbs, which worked fine on the Lutron table dimmer that had been controlling them.  
 
I kid you not, go read Lutron's website materials on LED lighting.  They really explain quite a lot.  ELV, Magnetic, forward or reverse phase, constant voltage, etc.  There's a lot more to 'chopping power' for dimming than you might imagine.   There are plenty of low-end dimmers out there that don't have much flexibility.  Which makes for a real adventure trying to figure out why bulb won't dim properly.
 
As for the smart bulbs that require constant power, they come on full brightness if power is interrupted.  This as a way to guarantee someone flipping a wall switch that might be controlling them will get light.  But it also means if power dips in the middle of the night, all those bulbs are going to come on FULL. 
 

cobra

Active Member
wkearney99 said:
As for the smart bulbs that require constant power, they come on full brightness if power is interrupted.  This as a way to guarantee someone flipping a wall switch that might be controlling them will get light.  But it also means if power dips in the middle of the night, all those bulbs are going to come on FULL. 
Is that programmable on any of them?  At least with the dimmers, some of them allow you to program the 'recover from power off' state.
 
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