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Once only the someday dreams science fiction, a smart home has become an achievable reality in 2019. Thanks to the widespread integration of wireless internet technology, virtually every utility function and appliance in your home can be connected and controlled via a voice-activated assistant device or smartphone.
Electrical outlets, smoke detectors, refrigerators, robotic vacuum cleaners, and even whole house lighting can be easily controlled via voice command or a quick tap or two on your smartphone. You can even check security cameras remotely while you are away from home, or check to see if you left lights or appliances running that can be safely shut down for the day. The benefits of a smart home are many, and converting your home to a smart home requires less investment than you might think. Let’s take a look at how to build the perfect smart home in 2019.
Getting Started: What Works Best For You?
While great strides have been made in the functionality and utility of smart appliances and smart home devices, many remain skeptical about the benefits of a smart home. Beyond the “ain’t it cool?” factor and push-button/voice command automation of daily life for the lazy, what is it going to do for you? This is why many homeowners take one of three approaches to converting or building their smart home: integration, piecemeal installation, and total conversion. Let’s see which of these three is best for your home.
For those looking to build a new home or extensively renovate an existing home, this is the approach to take. As your home is being built or renovated, you install electrical outlets, appliances, door locks, security cameras, exterior lighting and HVAC controls that are capable of being wireless connected and controlled via smartphone apps or your voice-activated assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or even Apple’s Siri.
This is by far the most expensive and complex method to turn your home into a smart home, but the energy savings, convenience, and superior safety and security provided by directly integrating smart home functions from the start are well worth the investment for many.
Piecemeal Installation Approach
Rather than starting from the ground up by building a smart home, this is a more measured approach that breaks up the expense and work of converting to a smart home over an extended time period.
Some homeowners start by adding smart electrical outlets and configuring home automation to power down devices the first year, then the next year they install a smart thermostat to control their HVAC system and heat and cool their home more efficiently. The year after that they may add a wireless smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector support, and then a wireless home security system or remotely controlled locks and alarms.
Piecemeal installation is generally the most popular approach since it allows homeowners to take advantage of the benefits of a smart home without a massive upfront investment.
Total Conversion Approach
In terms of labor intensity and cost, this can be the most expensive method for building a smart home, but for many, it is well worth the investment to take care of everything in one go. As far as how a homeowner goes about converting their home, this means replacing all electrical outlets, appliances, HVAC controls, fan controls, lighting, and security controls in one go in an existing home. Unless you are willing to shell out the cash for a professional installation, expect to spend significant amounts of time poring over manuals and installation guides for wiring outlets, light switches, fan controls, thermostats and smoke detectors with wireless internet capable modules.
If this doesn’t phase you in the slightest, go for it. Many times you can purchase entire kits or complete home setups at a discounted price for the quantity and quality of the items you purchase. You also stand to benefit from significant energy savings your first year after the installation as well since you will have complete control over what draws electricity in your home even when you are away and forget to turn off lighting or HVAC systems.
Next Steps: Building Your Smart Home System
Once you have decided on how you want to go about creating your smart home, the next step is to choose what system you are looking to install. Here’s the process step by step.
Step 1: Choose a Virtual Assistant
Your virtual voice-controlled assistant will largely determine what hardware you buy and the convenience of operating and programming your smart home. If you can’t find many appliances and devices that function with your virtual assistant of choice, you will find the conversion process to be much more difficult.
No one wants to juggle multiple apps on their smartphone or tablet just to control the smart functions of their home. A virtual assistant centralizes control of your smart home and allows you to simplify your system without complicated commands.
Currently, there are three virtual assistants that are attracting smart home device manufacturer attention: Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Home Assistant, and Apple’s Siri. Here are some pros and cons for each to help you make an informed decision:
- A great device for beginners who are looking to centralize control of their smart home
- The Amazon Echo Dot is the most economical option for a virtual voice-activated assistant
- Offers the broadest support for third party products and devices
- Programming app for additional functions is poorly designed and awkward to use
- Alexa doesn’t always respond effectively to commands for third-party devices and apps
- You can’t activate Alexa from your mobile device: it only works if you speak directly to the speaker
- Amazon makes you sign a waiver that they are not responsible for what third-party apps and developers do with the private user data that your devices collect and store. Recently, this has led to widespread concern regarding the privacy issue this creates for both developers and end users.
Google’s Home Assistant
- Voice commands work from your Home speaker device or your smartphone
- Costs approximately $50 less at suggested retail price than a standard Amazon Echo
- AI functions of Assistant are smarter than both Alexa and Siri, and you can ask more questions and give more commands than other virtual command assistant devices.
- The only activation command to summon assistant is “Okay, Google,” and it gets old fast
- More third-party apps and devices support Alexa than Google
- Google has a disclaimer that they are not responsible for what third-party apps and devices do with your private user data they collect, so it is definitely a caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) deal.
- All voice recognition data and searches are kept private via wireless encryption between all Apple devices, keeping your private user data safe from hackers, identity thieves, and tech-savvy burglars.
- If you are already using multiple Apple devices, it is much easier to install and use out of the box.
- Due to the encrypted nature of Apple’s network traffic between Apple devices and third-party devices and appliances, there are fewer smart home devices and appliances that are compatible with Siri
- Siri’s voice command interpretation is not much better than either Google or Alexa
- Siri only functions on Apple products.
After you pick a voice-controlled digital assistant that suits your budget and your prospective smart home devices, you are ready to move on with the next step.
Step 2: Decide How Smart You Want Your Smart Home To Be
What specific aspects of a smart home appeal to you the most? You need to come up with a concrete plan for how far you intend to go with your smart home devices before you start buying gear and installing it in your home. Otherwise, it’s easy to install home automation products and smart appliances and devices that simply never get used. To simplify this process, we’ve drawn up a few plans to help you decide on a specific focus for your smart home integration.
Ecologically conscious homeowners trying to reduce their carbon footprint and go green will love this focus. Adding smart home devices that let you schedule and automate energy usage in your home are first on your shopping list. The Nest Thermostat, Samsung SmartThings energy controls, and light switches and dimmers, and exterior and interior WiFi enabled light bulbs like the Flux are all going to be ideal for your needs if you are trying to cut down on energy usage.
Safety and Security
A smart home enabled security system is ideal for homeowners who have to travel frequently or want their household to be secure day or night. Wifi enabled cameras like the durable and versatile Nest Cam, a Wink front door security panel with the camera, and security lights with LifX bulbs linked into your smart home system all provide you with 24/hour real-time access and control of the secure entry points of your home.
There are also security monitoring and alarm systems that are smart home friendly. Using one of these services means your security system can coexist with your smart home security devices, and they can even work together as a comprehensive home security solution.
Every function of your home from lighting to the pool pump out back can be remotely controlled via your smartphone or your voice-activated virtual assistant device. This is definitely the most expensive proposition, but there is a distinct advantage to adopting this focus over the other two.
With a single system focus, you can purchase devices that are all fully compatible with your selected assistant device. When focusing only on one or two aspects of your smart home system, you can end up with a bunch of different apps for controlling and programming devices individually.
As you expand your smart home devices over time, this makes your home automation processes needlessly complex, and it takes away many of the convenience benefits of a smart home. Installing a complete system of devices from one or two manufacturers is far more convenient, and it is easier to install and configure as well.
Upon establishing a focus for your smart home, you are now ready to start installing and configuring your smart home system.
Step 3: Putting It All Together
The actual installation process is going to vary significantly depending on the floor plan and dimensions of your home, but there are several ideal smart home devices for those looking either to integrate smart home functions piecemeal or all at once. Check these out:
Lighting Control Options
The most common start for people when converting their home to a smart home is to set up a lighting control system. This is easy enough (and inexpensive enough) to accomplish without any specialized skills or tools, and it can save you a bundle on energy costs.
Smart light bulbs like the LifX or the Philips Hue smart bulb systems are two of the most popular lighting options currently available. Both are Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri compatible, and both have well-designed control apps.
The defining difference between these options is LifX bulbs connect directly to your WiFi router, while the Hue system from Philips uses a separate control hub that operates independently of your router. The Hue system can control up to 50 bulbs versus the LifX being limited to how many connected devices your router can handle at one time.
Basically, the Hue is the best smart home lighting control system in terms of reliability, but LifX bulbs don’t require special hardware and cost significantly less per bulb than the Hue bulbs. Hue bulbs also don’t need an internet connection to work around the house, while LifX bulbs can only be accessed configured via the cloud. Assess which option is best for your needs and purchase accordingly.
Appliance and Outlet Control
Even when turned off, many power-hungry devices continue to draw power throughout the day. It is the aspect of energy usage typically called ‘phantom load’ – and it costs you money. One of the reasons many people adopt a smart home system in the first place is to kill “phantom load” remotely or program power availability using their daily schedule.
Two solutions to this problem are the TP-Link smart plug and the iHome SmartPlug. The TP-Link option is Alex and Google Home compatible, and the iHome SmartPlug is ready to go for Siri and Apple devices. All you have to do is plug your device into the smart plug, then plug the smart plug into the wall. A few quick taps later, and they can be connected to your virtual assistant for easy on-off operation.
Smart plugs are a great solution for people who don’t want to mess with requiring their electrical outlets and want to control outlet draw via WiFi. Fans, lamps, window mount air conditioners, game consoles, laptop power cords, and similar devices are all ideal for control via a smart plug to cut down on “phantom load” when they aren’t in use.
Heating and Cooling Controls
The 800-lb gorilla of the smart home thermostat world is the Nest Learning Thermostat. Currently, in its 3rd generation, the Nest has the most elegant design and best features available compared to any other smart thermostat on the market. What sets smart thermostats apart from regular thermostats isn’t just WiFi connectivity either: these devices are designed to read your home’s energy profile, current weather conditions and many other data points to keep your interior temperature comfortable with minimal energy usage. The chief objection to the Nest Learning Thermostat is the hefty price tag, which makes it less desirable for anyone looking to set up their smart home on the cheap.
The good news is there are several more economical options that can be integrated with your other smart home energy saving devices and your virtual assistant device. For example, Honeywell makes a line of smart WiFi-enabled thermostats featuring 7-day on-device programming and support for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. It also costs roughly $75 dollars less than the Nest according to a comparison of suggested retail costs.
Ecobee is another smart home thermostat maker that offers WiFi connectivity and supports the “Big Three” of voice-activated virtual assistants. Like the Nest, it is also a learning thermostat and features an independent exterior sensor for real-time temperature and weather data. They boast the average homeowner that upgrades to their products save an average of 23% on their energy bill each year compared to using non-learning thermostats.
Unlike the Honeywell offerings, Ecobee 3rd and 4th generation products cost about as much as the Nest Learning Thermostat. However, they do have the distinct advantage of a highly accurate and internet independent exterior sensor. Conversely, Ecobee thermostats are definitely not as attractive or customization-friendly as the Nest is either.
No matter what you decide, you should be prepared to spend between $150-250 USD on a good quality smart thermostat with learning capabilities. On the upside, you will more than likely save enough on your heating and cooling costs your first year to more than pay for the thermostat upgrade.
Security and Safety Controls
A smart door lock and deadbolt system is everything people love about smart home security. It provides a two-way intercom, wide-angle camera, and remote entry control even when you aren’t home. Do kids forget their house key? They can use an individual keypad code to unlock the door and get into the house. It will even take a photo of the person entering the code and send it to you. Technicians coming to install or repair an appliance or service? Get a ring on your phone and verify their ID and credentials from anywhere right on your smartphone. Upstairs in the master bedroom or “indisposed” in your bathrooms? See who is ringing your doorbell and talk to them directly with a few taps of your touchscreen.
If you get a Wink smart home systems compatible model, you can even add additional sensors for your windows and other doors to alert you on your smartphone 24 hours a day. Best of all, Wink compatible devices also work with Amazon Alexa for voice control. Adding a smart lock you can control from your mobile device or virtual assistant goes a long way to adding protection to your home.
For safety concerns, you can install any number of sensors that integrate with your smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and even your hot and cold water. Roost makes a 9-volt battery with integrated WiFi that connects directly to Alexa or an app on your smartphone. It will alert you to activation of your smoke alarm if you are away from home, and can even remind you when it needs to be replaced.
They are a little on the pricey side, but they also last much longer than a traditional 9-volt. Better still, they let you shut the smoke alarm off temporarily should you accidentally burn something in the kitchen or keep your toast down for too long. Having a smart carbon monoxide detector is especially useful if your house uses coal, oil, or natural gas fuel source. When a leak is detected, you are immediately alerted so you can contact emergency services.
Speaking of leaks, Wink makes a water pressure sensor that helps detect if your plumbing has developed a leak anywhere and alerts you via your smart device or virtual assistant. Since water damage only gets worse the longer it goes unchecked, a water system sensor can be a huge cost saver, especially if you have a second property or vacation property requiring remote monitoring.
Consider these options for lighting, appliance/outlet, HVAC, and safety/security systems when converting your home into a smart home. You may find that everything you want is much easier to install yourself than you imagined and costs a lot less than you were expecting.
Final Thoughts on Making the Perfect Smart Home
Overall, it is crucial to start your conversion to a smart home with a clear plan laid out to your most desirable end result: simple to operate a smart home system that works together to save energy, keep your home secure, and provide convenient comfort and safety. Use this guide to create that perfect smart home plan: choose an assistant, pick the focus for your hardware, and then integrate your devices accordingly. In no time at all, you too can enjoy the savings, comfort, and convenience of a well planned and integrated smart home.