Home Automation: How To Make Your Home A Smart Home

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I had heard of the term smart home, but before I bought some smart home kit, I didn’t have a full appreciation of what all the fuss was about. Newspapers and magazines talked about the joys of the smart home, but it all seemed somewhat distant to me. That all changed once I finally understood the benefits. 

What is smart home technology? Smarthome technology is any formerly non-digital device that now connects to your smartphone or home assistant via wireless technology. It sounds complicated, but it’s really not. What’s more, it’s incredibly valuable. Smart home technology allowed me to solve a whole host of problems that I never thought I could tackle, including who was at my front door in the day. Frankly, it’s been a revolution. 

You don’t have to be an expert to use this new technology. With a little know-how, you can implement practically all of the solutions yourself, without necessarily having to employ the services of a professional. Let’s take a look at some of the smart home gadgets that are out there on the market today. 

Assistants, Controllers, and Home Hubs

Before you even consider investing in things like home security and smart thermostats, you need to understand assistants, controllers, and home hubs. These are, in effect, the brains of the operation – the things that you use to control the other devices in your home. 

Home Hubs And Controllers

The good news is that you probably have a working definition of home hubs and controllers already thanks to products like Amazon Echo. Echo and other voice-activated home assistants, allow you to speak commands and carry out actions for you. What’s more, with tools like If This Then That (which we discuss below) and Amazon Alexa skills, you can create custom voice commands for doing practically whatever you like. The range of potential operations is truly enormous. 

Let’s take an example. Suppose you want to control the blinds in your child’s bedroom remotely. Instead of walking upstairs and manually operating them, you can program a command: “Alexa, close the blinds in Sarah’s room.” So long as you’ve got all the hardware in place and have trained Alexa, she’ll carry out your command. Then, you just carry on doing whatever it was that you were doing, without taking time out of your day. 

Market-Leading Home Hubs

While there is a range of voice assistant smart home hubs on the market, there are three clear leaders: Google, Apple, and Amazon. These companies dominate because of the sheer volume of data available to them. They have an unparalleled ability to imbue their devices with machine intelligence, providing better speech recognition and a broader array of possible commands. 

Is there a difference between them? Sure there is. Amazon’s Alexa (the voice assistant in Echo and Echo Dot), is easy to set up and use. The problem? Echo speakers are pretty mediocre, and you can’t trigger Alexa by speaking to your smartphone. 

Google’s Assistant in Google Home (the company’s home hub), comes with the latest version of Android and is compatible with your phone. The downside? You have to keep saying “Okay, Google,” which can get annoying after a while. 

Apple’s Siri has the advantage of using the same high-quality encryptions that the rest of the company’s products use. But it’s home hub suffers from a lack of supporting smart home gadgets for the very same reason. The bottom line? No device is perfect. 

Plugs, Lighting, and Accessories

One of the most obvious targets for smart home technology is plugs, lighting, and all of the accessories associated with them. Many homeowners dream of the day where they can just command some computer in their house to turn on the lights and voila – it happens. Well, with smart lighting solutions, you can. 

Outlets And Plugs

What exactly is a smart plug, you might wonder? A smart plug is essentially the same as a regular plug, but with the added benefit of being connected to your phone (often via your smart hub). While it might seem like a gimmick, I can assure you that it’s not. 

For one, it feels a lot safer. People in the 19th century physically interacted with their outlets because there was no alternative. In the 21st century, we can do better. 

Second, there’s the convenience factor. If you go upstairs to bed and realize that you’ve left the coffee machine churning over, you don’t have to go back down. You just fire up your home assistant app or talk to your assistant and turn it off. 

It’s also great for when you go away on holiday. If you’re not sure whether you turned everything off, you can check via an app, giving you peace of mind. 

Finally, some smart plugs come with the ability to track power consumption in real-time, giving you a sense of your energy usage through a particular outlet. Even if you have a smart meter in your home, a smart outlet can help a lot. It lets you see the precise energy usage of any device. 

Sensors

Smart thermostats were a great innovation when they first hit the market. But there was a problem: they could only adjust the temperature based on the data the on-board sensor received. If the thermostat was by the front door, it heated until the air temperature at that location accorded with the user’s settings. 

There was a problem with this: people didn’t always care about how warm it was next to the thermostat. What they cared about was the temperature where they were at any given moment: the living room, office, or wherever. 

This fact has led to a proliferation of sensors. Sensors tell the thermostat the temperature in every room and, more importantly, where you are at any given time. With those two pieces of information, the thermostat can focus on providing targeted heating. It’s more convenient and energy-efficient. 

Ecobee4 is one of the most popular smart thermostat systems on the market today. Not only does it use sensors, but it also integrates with Amazon Alexa. Homeowners can tell it when they want it to change the temperature in their surroundings, and it’ll get on with it.

Lightbulbs

Despite the obviousness of smart lighting, relatively few companies have so far brought winning products to market. 

The current market leader is Philips, with its Hue range of smart light bulbs. The beautiful thing about these lightbulbs is that you’re able to program them in practically any way you like. You can adjust brightness when they switch on and off and so on. Most interestingly, you can program full RBG color settings, letting you play around with different mood spaces in your home. 

Another popular product is TP-Link’s Kasa Smart bulks. Unlike the Philips, these don’t require any proprietary central hub. You just screw them in as you would a regular bulb and then connect them to your WiFi or home assistant. Again, like the Hue, you’re able to change the color and intensity.

Home Safety and Security

Home safety and security is the most critical applications of the smart home, and one of the most successful. The range of smart home applications in this arena is truly breathtaking. 

Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

While traditional battery-powered smoke and carbon monoxide detectors saved many lives, there’s room for improvement. Conventional sensors, for instance, can’t tell you that you’ve got a smoke or carbon monoxide issue while you’re away from your home. Furthermore, the majority of products on the market tell you nothing about the type of fire that might be burning. 

With products like the Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector, that’s all changed. It connects directly to your smartphone and will alert you if it detects anything untoward, even if you’re out of the house. Plus, it also uses some of the most sophisticated sensor technology in the industry to tell you what type of fire you’ve got on your hands. 

Other benefits include things like linking with your HVAC system and shutting it off if it thinks it’s a threat and providing emergency lighting. It’ll also ignore some of the more common causes of smoke in your home that are not a threat, saving its alarm for the times when you actually need it. 

Locks And Doorbells

Let’s say that you’re away from your house, but you’re expecting a valuable parcel. Without the wonder of smart locks, you’ve got two options. You can either instruct the delivery company to leave your package somewhere “safe,” or you can go and pick it up from the depot later. Neither is ideal. 

Smart locks and doorbells let you get around this problem. All you do is wait for the delivery operative to ring your bell and then let them in remotely. The agent places the parcel safely inside your property and then closes the door behind them. It’s that simple. 

Of course, there are other benefits of smart locks. You no longer have to fret about remembering your keys, you can let anybody into your home remotely, and you use cameras to see who is at your front door. 

August makes one of the most sophisticated products on the market. It’s third-gen August Smart Lock integrates with Z-Wave (a wireless communication protocol), and your home’s regular WiFi hub. You can control it from your smartphone. And, crucially, it’ll work with your existing locks – no need to shell out on new kit. 

Surveillance Cameras

Until the advent of the smart home, it wasn’t particularly feasible for homeowners to monitor their properties around the clock. CCTV solutions existed, but they were cumbersome. New smart home technology, however, changes the game significantly. 

Indoor

Smarthome cameras come in two varieties: indoor and outdoor. While outdoor might seem like the obvious choice, it also makes a lot of sense placing cameras indoors. Not only does it provide another layer of protection against burglars, but it also makes it easy to monitor your kids if you’re out. 

The quality of the current crop of smart home cameras is quite exceptional. Nest, for example, makes a Nest Cam with an 8-megapixel camera and a 4k image sensor. It lets you see precisely what’s going on in your home with high-fidelity, even at a distance. The same is true of the Amazon Cloud Cam. It captures images in full-HD and then automatically stores footage in the Amazon Cloud. 

Of course, if you want to store lots of footage, you’ll need to rent server space. Most companies operate a monthly fixed fee giving you access to so many hours of recording space. Remember, the higher the resolution, the less space available. 

Outdoor

Outdoor security cameras are different from their indoor counterparts, and not just in the obvious ways. Yes, they have better shielding against the weather, but they also have a wider field of view. The purpose of this feature is to help you cover a broader swathe of outdoor space. 

The Nest Outdoor Camera is a strong offering in the space. It’s attractive, discreet and has in-built motion sensors, allowing it to send alerts to your phone if it detects anything unusual. Nest has also been smart to include a speaker and a microphone in the unit itself so that you can scare off potential intruders. 

Another strong offering is the Zmodo Security camera. Not only does it integrate with Alexa, but it also gives you video playback options, letting you determine for yourself if something is a threat or not. Furthermore, if it thinks it’s seen something important, it’ll store it in the app. There’s also night vision mode and the ability to calibrate motion detection zones to areas you care about. 

Heating and Cooling

One of the first and most prominent applications of smart technology was in the realm of heating and cooling. Homeowners wanted systems that would allow them to set temperatures remotely without fiddling with physical consoles. They also wanted the flexibility to be able to pre-heat their houses before they arrived home, especially in the winter months. 

Smart thermostats were, therefore, an answer to prayer. They provide all of the above functionality and more. 

Today’s smart thermostats from companies like Ecobee and Nest connect with voice assistants. Just as with your lighting, you can bark orders at Alexa, and she’ll change the settings on your thermostats for you. Google Assistant is even better. Even if you’re out of vocal range, you can speak to the assistant on your phone, and it will change the settings in your home for you. Failing that, you can fire up the app and do the same. 

The Nest Learning Thermostat is a market leader and has been for some time. It works with Alexa and will automatically shut off the heating if nobody’s home. 

The other leader in the space is Ecobee. The company’s Ecobee4 thermostat comes with room sensors that you can place in rooms that matter the most, as well as features we discussed above. 

Appliances and Home Goods

The smart toaster became something of a poster-child for the smart home revolution, but it wasn’t the most flattering choice. It was also an unfortunate meme, misrepresenting the benefits of connected appliances and home goods.

Kitchen

The kitchen is the epicenter of household appliances, with a higher density than any other room. There are opportunities galore here for companies to imbue devices with intelligence. 

Refrigerator

The benefit of some smart refrigerators features is debatable. However, there are those that I believe that the majority of people will find helpful. 

Take open-door alerts. It’s all too easy to grab a snack from the refrigerator and neglect to close the door. It happens in my family all the time, especially with so many people using it. The open-door alert helps to keep food chilled and prolongs the life of the compressor. 

The Kenmore 75049 refrigerator, for instance, comes with in-built sensors that’ll alert you if something is wrong, helping to cut maintenance costs. It also connects to Alexa and can be set up with Amazon Dash Replenishment if you run low on essential supplies. 

The spooky thing is that it’ll do all this automatically. It knows when you’re low on milk and will call Amazon if it thinks you need a top-up.  

Microwave

Smart microwaves include things like voice control, WiFi connectivity, and even barcode scanners. The idea is to transform your microwave into something with all of the added utility afforded by digital technology. Here are some of the features you might see on a smart microwave:

  • Scan barcodes to pull up cooking instructions on the display
  • Start and stop the microwave using voice commands or through the companion app
  • Get customized settings that reflect your preferences
  • Moisture sensors to prevent food from drying out during cooking

Cleaning

While home cleaning technology is a little way off the robots in the Jetsons, it’s an enormous opportunity for businesses in the space. People want machines that make cleaning easier and let them get on with the fun stuff in life. 

Vacuums

Smart vacuums aren’t what you imagine. Unlike some of the other equipment we’ve covered here, they’re not just standard appliances with digital wizardry built-in. Instead, they’re bonafide robots (and sometimes even friends). 

Smart vacuums, also called robot vacuums, hardly require any human input whatsoever. Robot Vacuum company Ecovacs, for instance, makes a robot vacuum that’ll automatically learn your floor space and do the vacuuming for you. It also connects to Alexa, letting you issue all manner of voice commands, telling it when you’d like it to clean up for you. When it’s finished, it’ll return to its charging station, without you having to do anything. 

Pure Clean goes a step further. It markets its robot vac at those with allergens and comes with a HEPA filter. The most impressive feature, however, is the built-in cliff detection. You can, therefore, use this vacuum upstairs without having to install a baby gate.

Smart Trash Can

The smart trash can is an excellent example of something nobody realizes they want until they actually experience living with one. 

Bruno offers the world first, and practically only, “smartcan.” The functionality of the device is quite extraordinary. Sure, it’ll send alerts to your phone when the can is full. But it also comes with an in-built, patent-pending vacuum that’ll slurp up whatever you put in front of it. It’s great for when you want to get rid of pet hair on the end of your broom. 

Other features include one-click integrated trash bag reorders, and a hands-free lid. 

Blinds and Shades

Smart blinds and shades are an obvious candidate for smart home integration. It’s not just the convenience, but also the fact that regular blinds and shades depend on complicated mechanisms. They break easily when operated by clumsy human hands, so it makes sense for a machine to take over. 

When it comes to smart blinds and shades, you’ve got two options. You can either buy replacement systems and throw out your old window coverings, or you can purchase an upgrade kit. 

MySmartBlinds takes the latter approach. The company offers a kit that allows you to convert your existing blinds into smart blinds. Cleverly, the package includes a solar panel that provides a discreet supply of power. You then attach the motor to your current shade, switch it on, and connect it to your devices, letting you control it from any location. 

It’s easy to see how smart blinds and shades combined with smart lighting are a benefit to security. Suppose you know you’re going to be home late. You can use your smartphone to close all the blinds in your home and turn on the lights remotely, making it look as if you’re in.

Sound and Music

Audiophiles rejoice: the smart home has come to sound systems too. 

Smart Speakers

We’ve already discussed home assistants and hubs which have speakers, so there’s no point going back over them here, so we won’t. It’s worth pointing out, however, that you’re not limited to these if you want a quality smart sound system. You can buy dedicated devices too. 

Ultimate Ears, for instance, offers a range of smart home speakers for use both inside and outside. Their Megablast portable speak comes with Alexa integration and 360-degree sound. 

Multi-Room Audio Systems

Sonos was one of the pioneers of smart multi-room audio systems. In the past, the company used its own mesh system – the integration infrastructure we have today just wasn’t available. 

Today, however, you have many more options. AirPlay 2 from Apple, for instance, lets you stream your music to multiple speaker units over WiFi. 

Naim is less well-known than Sonos in the multi-room speaker market, but it is becoming increasingly popular too. It has Bluetooth and WiFi capability and offers a level of sound quality that exceeds what you’d find on a basic home hub. 

Health and Fitness

People want their homes to promote their health, wellbeing, and fitness. The smart home is making inroads here too. 

On the fitness front, we see a plethora of innovation. Take Peloton, for instance. The firm has long been a champion of integrating fitness with the smart home, but it now wants to take this a step further. The Peloton Bike has all of the usual features you’d expect of a product in its class: the high-fidelity display and app integration. However, it also lets you connect with on-demand spin classes over the internet for a monthly fee. It gives you that gym experience, without the need to leave the house. 

The Peloton Tread is another product from the company. It’s a wall-mounted display with a multi-gym attached, suitable for people who want to do resistance training at home. The 32-inch touch screen tells you your heart rate and how long you’ve been exercising. You can also download new exercise programs from the web.

Outdoors

The smart home is venturing out into outdoor appliances too. 

Garage Doors

Garage doors are notoriously temperamental. Just as with blinds, they rely on complex mechanisms and many moving parts. It makes sense, therefore, to use a machine. 

Smart garage doors take the traditional automatic door a step further. NEXX Garage’s NXG-100 NXG fixes to your garage door system and allows you to operate it remotely. It integrates with Alexa voice commands, letting you open your garage door and before hailing your car.  

Lawn Mowers

Smart lawnmowers take the robot vacuum concept and move it outside. As with vacuums, these devices use sensors to keep them on the grass and collect all the cuttings inside. 

The WORX WG794 mower uses machine learning technology to traverse tight spaces and narrow passage, allowing it to cut irregular lawns. Plus, if it detects that it’s low on battery, it’ll return to the charging station automatically. 

Irrigation/Sprinklers

Watering your plants is surprisingly challenging. Not only do you have to do it at certain times of day, but how much watering you need to do depends on the weather. Intelligent sprinkler systems remove the hassle of watering by letting you create personalized watering schedules, all from your smartphone. 

The Rachio 3 WiFi Sprinkler Controller, for instance, tracks the weather for you. If it’s been raining, it won’t activate the sprinklers, even if they’re on a schedule. That almost sounds like common sense!

IFTTT

If you’re planning a smart home project, you’ll inevitably come across the acronym IFTTT. It stands for “If This Then That” and is an open-source service that lets you create custom commands for your smart home systems.

The concept of IFTTT is simple. Instead of having a physical home hub that you have on your property, you have one in the cloud. Anything you input on the IFTTT system then gets transmitted via your internet connection to your WiFi and then out to the devices in your home. 

IFTTT uses what are called “applets.” These are mini-programs that you can link to smart connected devices in your home, giving them instructions. IFTTT, for instance, has an applet that allows you to trigger your Philips Hue lighting to flash if the battery on your Amazon Echo goes flat. It’s a perfect example of why If This Then That chose its name. IF your Amazon Echo battery goes flat, THEN start flashing your Hue lighting. 

Privacy and Security

While smart home technology promises to improve your life, it also comes with risks. For many, privacy is a significant concern.

Privacy and security risks fall into two categories: companies misusing your data and criminals gaining access to it. 

All smart home hubs rely on continually listening to conversations in your home for activation words like “Alexa” or “okay Google.” This simple fact means that, by default, they’re also listening to everything else you say. 

If big tech is listening to what you’re saying, then their intentions are probably benign. Their primary motivation is probably just to target you with more relevant ads. It’s not totally without risk, though. Employees at these firms could be listening to your private conversations too. 

The other risk is from private criminals. Having a computer terminal in your home is one thing, but a series of internet-connected cameras quite another. If you do use cameras in your home, place them in communal areas, not your kids’ bedrooms. And ensure that you use companies that use the proper encryption. Encryption makes it much harder from hackers to intercept data from these devices. 

Summary

We’re very much at the dawn of the smart home age. While there are already impressive products on the market, there’s still a long way to go. We’re by no means in the mass-adoption phase yet: the smart home is still the preserve of a niche group of early adopters. 

With that said, the possibility of something rivaling the home economics of the Jetsons looks like a real possibility. We already have smart refrigerators, microwaves, and robot vacuums. It’s not hard to imagine a company finding a way to merge all three into a chef-come-cooker that prepares your meals for you. 

The smart home has made an enormous difference in my life. Yes, it’s exciting new technology, but the gadgets have a way of making your home experiences better too. Add it all up, and you really do feel like you’re living in tomorrow’s world. 

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