Hack Holiday Lights to Turn On at Dusk, Off at Dawn

Daniel Wroclawski

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Maybe you love displaying strands of colorful lights, cheerful inflatable snowmen, and twinkling stars this time of year. But programming timers to turn everything on and off each night and morning? Not so much.

A smart plug can help. Plug one into a wall outlet, plug your lights into the device, and program them from your smartphone so they turn on at dusk and switch off at dawn.

Prices range from $15 to about $65, and popular brands include GE, Leviton, Lutron, Philips Hue, TP-Link Kasa, and Wemo.

A smart plug is more convenient than a manual timer because it can automatically adjust to turn things on or off when the sun sets and rises each day. For example, at CR’s headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., the sun sets 40 minutes later at the beginning of October than on Oct. 31. Manual timers with light sensors can also turn on at dusk and off at dawn, but they require an outlet with plenty of sun exposure and no nearby outdoor light fixtures.

Here’s how to set up your smart plug in three simple steps. Keep the plug handy for your other outdoor holiday decorations. You can also use it anytime for controlling household items like fans, lamps, and heaters.

Step 1: Pick a Plug

If you’re using an indoor outlet in, say, a garage, any smart plug will do. Outdoor outlets require an outdoor smart plug. These tend to cost a bit more than indoor models and aren’t usually sold in stores, though they're easy to find online. And if you need an extension cord, make sure it's rated for outdoor use.

Whichever smart plug you get, make sure it has sunrise and sunset automation and uses WiFi. Models from Feit Electric, Leviton, Meross, TP-Link Kasa, and Wemo have both. Otherwise, you may have to buy an additional hub to connect a smart plug to WiFi. For example, Lutron smart plugs require an $80 bridge.

Step 2: Set Up the Smart Plug

Insert the smart plug into the outlet you want to use, download its smartphone app, and set up your account. Add the plug to your account and enter your WiFi credentials so that the plug can join your WiFi network.

Keep in mind that the app might ask for your address or access to your smartphone’s location, which you’ll need to provide in order for the plug to look up your local sunrise and sunset times. If your plug offers two-factor authentication, be sure to enable it for added security against hackers.

Step 3: Program the Plug

Look for the Rules or Scheduling feature in the app. (It may also be called Routines, Automations, etc.) To set your holiday decorations to go on at sunset, choose sunset as the time for the plug to turn on. Then set the plug to turn off at sunrise or a set time of your choosing.

Here's to some low-maintenance holiday cheer!