Sept. 17, 2020

Feeling dumb about “smart homes”?

You’re not alone!

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Maybe you’re not the early adopter that you secretly wish you were.  Or you’re just plain overwhelmed with all of the options, and don’t know where to start - or whether this is a frivolous expense.   Get in line.  

 

When smart homes came up as a possible topic for this blog, I cringed because I was (am) very intimidated. I have done a good amount of research to write on this subject, and still have much more to learn. So while I am not touting myself as an expert on home automation by any stretch of the imagination, I have distilled sources and found some “smart home for dummies” explainers that are helpful in what has now become my quest:  to make my home a smart one!  

 

This is the first of a series of posts where I will take you through my husband’s and my journey as we automate our home. In this this installment I’ll walk you through the basics that I have learned so far, and in future installments I will share our progress as we figure this out, until we hopefully have the most genius of homes.  

 

WISH US LUCK! 

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Photo: androidpit.com

THE BASICS

 

Oxford dictionary defines a smart home as “a home equipped with lighting, heating [AC], and electronic devices that can be controlled remotely by phone or computer.” 

 

All of these devices are connected with each other and can be accessed through one central point or platform, enabled by either an app that you control from your mobile device, or voice controlled via a smart speaker (or both).

 

Before you set out on the pursuit of home automation, there are 3 key questions you need to ask yourself. I’ll break them down for you.

 

1. WHAT PLATFORM ARE YOU GOING TO USE? 

IF you have the financial resources, you can call an “integrator” to set up a high end smart home system to control most everything in your house, via companies like SavantControl4 or Crestron. They will set you up either wirelessly or “hardwired”. The former has the inherent security issues of being internet based, but is significantly cheaper, while the hardwired versions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Plus, after the initial set up they will charge you a monthly fee to monitor your system (most commonly for security).  

 

The good news is that the tech giants (Google, Amazon and Apple) provide more accessible and (purportedly) easy to install options. By accessible I mean that they can run anywhere from $250 to $1,500 to set up, depending on how many gadgets you want to control, and how many new gadgets you have to buy as a result.  You can either do your own set up or call a professional (a handyman that is tech savvy can do this for you, Honeyman can hook you up).  I’m going to focus on these “mainstream” options, since the higher end systems are most frequently used in new construction single family homes, while most of my readers are condo dwellers.  But, if you live in a house and are interested in a more affordable option, read on!

 

Not all devices work with all platforms, so this choice is critical, and may be driven by the devices you currently own.  As you add new devices, they too must be compatible with your chosen platform.  

  

You can get the basic “hub” for as little as $50.00 for an Amazon Echo Dot or a Google Nest Mini.  Prices can go up from there depending on whether you want to use it as a speaker (you can get better sound quality if you invest more) or if you want a screen.  

 

The screen serves as a control panel, enables video chat and gives you access to limited streaming services, depending on the brand. You can also do all of this with a smartphone or a tablet, and then some.

If you already have speakers at home that can be controlled by these platforms (Bose and Sonos as examples), it may not be worth it for you to fork out more money for the more expensive hub.  But even at the highest price points, the AmazonGoogle and even Apple (Homepod) hubs won’t run you more than $350.  

 

2. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO AUTOMATE?

Once you have decided on your platform / hub you need to decide what you want to automate.  Frankly, anything that has an on off switch can be controlled these days when connected to a compatible smart plug. There’s a long list of devices you can control remotely, or that can actually learn from your normal habits and control themselves. The list gets longer daily. Here are some candidates:

  • Lighting

  • Thermostats

  • Speakers and Home Theater Systems

  • Phone and Internet lines

  • Shades, blinds, shutters and curtains

  • Locks

  • Alarms and security systems 

  • Smoke, CO2, gas leak and moisture detectors

  • Appliances

 

3. WHAT’S YOUR BUDGET?

With a list that long of possible automations, things can get complicated (and expensive) very quickly, so you will need to prioritize. If you are a first-time homeowner / renter, chances are that you have not invested that much money in electronics, and you are starting with a relatively clean slate.  

 

Most people start with a few devices adding more over time as they get more comfortable with it (and also see the value and the convenience).  

 

BEGINNING OUR JOURNEY

My husband and I have accumulated a significant number of electronics, many of which we are not ready to part with.  Obviously, none of them are working together yet.  Therefore, the platform we select must factor in what we have.

 

Full disclosure:  we have likely owned every single gadget that Apple has ever made. My husband still won’t part ways with the Apple IPod HiFi, despite the fact that it was discontinued less that 2 years later. He also proud of his first generation clickwheel IPod, still with us collecting dust…

I bought the first-generation Apple TV box, and then the 4K version (we have one on each TV). Since our primary TV is a Samsung Smart TV and we have Xfinity as our cable / internet provider, with the exception of Apple TV+ we can get all streaming services without using the Apple TV boxes.   

 

I bought the Home Pod when it first was launched. It’s a great speaker but is far behind Echo (Alexa) and Google Nest when it comes to multitasking. Plus, it won’t play with my Bose Speakers, nor with my Nest Thermostat.  So, I use it basically as a voice command speaker. 

 

We LOVE our Nest Thermostat.  Now, instead of arguing with my husband about the temperature at night, I can quietly (and stealthily) adjust it while he sleeps from my phone without even getting up. 

 

Our two Bose Micro Speakers can communicate with each other and play simultaneously (or in stereo) the same music – which we can stream via Bluetooth from the iTunes phone app.  But we live in a condo, so we don’t really use that feature, except when we have a party (remember those?) and want the music in one room to also be heard in another, or outside on the terrace.

 

Finally, two Christmases ago I bought some cheap “smart” plugs, hoping to be able to control my Christmas lights.  But they were not compatible with our home network (I have no idea why!), and so they are in a drawer somewhere.  

 

STAY WITH US!

In the next installment we’ll review what platform our list of existing electronics works best with, to define which brand we will go with.  Then, we’ll define what else we want to automate, and prepare our shopping list.   Stay tuned!  

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With a list that long of possible automations, things can get complicated (and expensive) very quickly, so you will need to prioritize.

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Read Volume 2 - Jumping in

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