Lutron makes some of our favorite smart switches and plugs, so we’ve long been curious about its Serena motorized window shades. Serena shades are more expensive than much of the competition, but Lutron delivers some great features in return for the extra coin.
Those features are apparent in both the shade’s industrial design and its ease of use. For starters, if you choose the battery-powered option, the battery compartment is integrated into the shade’s head rail (the component that mounts to the top of your window frame and houses the motor for raising and lowering the shade).
The model reviewed here requires six D cells; smaller shades or shades with lighter fabrics get by with varying numbers of AA cells. When you need to replace the batteries, simply flip two levers and the battery compartment drops down. This is a significant improvement over the Graber Virtual Cord Motorized Shade we evaluated in October. The battery compartment on those hangs on the back of the head rail, so you need to dismount the entire shade to access it.
If you don’t like the environmental impact of batteries, you can order the shades with a wall wart ($40) and a 15-foot power cord that’s coiled inside the head rail—just pull out as much as you need to reach an outlet. And if you can’t stand wall warts, a licensed electrician can install a Lutron Power Panel in your wall. One panel can power up to 10 honeycomb-style shades, but the panel costs $800—plus the cost of the electrician to install it. Personally, I’ll deal with the batteries.
Lutron also offers an optional back cover that not only reduces the amount of light leaking around the top of the shade when mounted inside the window frame, it also hides the mounting brackets when the shade is viewed from outside the window. Either benefit would justify the $10 to $20 (depending on shade width) in additional cost. Put together, they’re a no-brainer. Alternatively, you can mount the shade outside the window frame or above it. Lutron provides 1/2-inch spacers for the latter scenario, so the shade will clear the frame. You’ll need additional spacers if your window trim is thicker than a 1/2 inch.
The Lutron app
Serena shades are controlled by Lutron’s proprietary Clear Connect radio technology, so part of the added cost is the requirement to buy a Lutron Smart Bridge, which costs about $80. But if you’ve previously purchased any Lutron Caséta lighting or ceiling fan controller, you already have the bridge and the app that goes with it. The same app integrates all of Lutron’s smart home devices, including its lighting controls, smart plugs, ceiling fan controllers, programmable remote controls, and Serena shades.
The Lutron ecosystem offers hooks into third-party products, including Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers; smart thermostats from Carrier, Ecobee, Honeywell, and Nest; and even Sonos speakers. It is also compatible with Apple’s HomeKit technology. That renders the Lutron app and bridge combo a pretty good smart home system all on its own.
The bridge is capable of controlling compatible devices based on scenes that set the behavior of selected devices, and schedules (defined times on days of the week, or at sunrise and sunset). Scenes can also operate on geofence triggers: closing your shades and turning down your thermostat when you leave and take your cell phone with you; opening your shades, turning on your lights, and playing your favorite playlist when you return home with it.
But the attraction of the app’s programmability depends on your sticking with Lutron’s lighting, window covering, and ceiling fan controls, plus the limited number of third-party products that Lutron has decided to support. Trust me, you’ll eventually want to expand beyond that universe.
Remote control options for Serena shades
Voice commands spoken to a smart speaker are the easiest way to manually control Serena shades, but if you don’t have an Echo or Google Home and you don’t want to pull out your smartphone, Lutron offers two great remote controls for the job. The $25 Pico remote is relatively tiny at 1.25 inches wide by 2.5 inches high, and it’s wafer thin. It has five stacked buttons: fully open at the top, fully closed at the bottom, manual up, manual down, and “favorite” position in the center.
The Pico Remote’s size makes it easy to misplace, but you can mount a plastic block to the wall and slide the remote onto it, so the shades can be controlled from the wall just like a light switch. If you want a more formal look, Lutron also sells a wallplate bracket that gives the Pico remote a built-in look, but it depends on the presence of a junction box in the wall. Both mounting options give you the opportunity to remove the Pico remote from the wall and carry it with you.
If you’re installing more than one Serena shade in a room, Lutron’s $89 4-Group RF Remote Control can control up to four shades, either individually or all at the same time. Both remotes depend on the presence of that bridge, however, so neither of them will let you escape that cost.
Serena shades as part of a smart home system
If you’ve set up a smart home hub, that reliance on Lutron’s own communications protocol will likely determine if you can incorporate the shades directly into your broader smart home system. Samsung SmartThings supports Serena shades directly, but the Vivint Smart Home system that I use does not. In fact, Vivint doesn’t officially support motorized window shades at all, but the company won’t prevent you from adding shades to your system and treating them like dimmer switches—provided they use Z-Wave technology.
But I haven’t found the advantage of incorporating all my smart home devices into a single smart home app to be all that important. Would it be easier? For sure. I’d much rather use the Vivint app to create rules to control when my lights turn off, my shades close, and my thermostat adjusts the heat. But needing to set up two sets of rules using two apps instead of one just isn’t that big of a deal, especially since creating rules tends to be a one-time thing that only needs to be performed when you add a new component to your system.
Cost and quality of Serena shades
The window I installed the Serena shade on has the same southern exposure that the larger window in my home theater does, so I chose a room-darkening honeycomb fabric similar to what Graber offers. The fabric is lined with aluminum to improve its insulation value, but Lutron offers only a 9/16-inch single-celled material in its room-darkening shades, where Graber lets you choose either single- or double-celled metalized fabric.
The fabric itself feels very high end, though, and the entire shade is quite attractive both when closed or partially open. In terms of quality of material and build quality, this round would be a tie between Serena and Graber. But I found the motor in the Serena shade to be very slightly quieter than the Somfy motor Graber uses. I registered a 8.3dB increase in noise level while the shade was opening from fully closed to fully open. Compare that to a 9.6dB increase for the Graber shade. A difference of 1.3dB isn’t likely to impact your satisfaction level with either product, especially once you’ve grown accustomed to the sound of the shades opening and closing, but it’s a difference worth reporting.
As I said earlier, Serena shades cost more than Graber’s product, although the price differential is less stark if you already own a Lutron bridge. The 34 x 58-inch Serena shade reviewed here is priced at $474, plus $25 for the Pico remote and $80 for the bridge for a total cost of $579. The smaller (33.5 x 58-inch) Graber shade I reviewed in October had a list price of $483, including a simple two-button remote. But the dealer who supplied the shade routinely offers discount coupons. At the time of that review, an available 15-percent discount dropped the final cost to $411. Even assuming you don’t need the Lutron bridge, the same-size Serena shade would still cost $88 more. And if you’re buying multiple shades, the difference will add up quickly.
In the final analysis, however, the Serena shade’s better-designed battery compartment, the back cover hiding its ugly side, and its superior remote control endow it with enough concrete benefits to justify its higher cost. And while Lutron’s proprietary radio technology means the Serena shade is not as widely supported by third-party smart home systems, it is fully compatible with Samsung SmartThings, Apple HomeKit, and both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. And Lutron’s own bridge and the purpose-built app that goes with it make it much easier to use whether this will be the only smart device in your home or you have a complete smart home system from some other manufacturer.