When new homes are built, it’s easier to include smart home technology, but that doesn’t mean that millions of us with older homes can’t get started on a smaller or different scale.
“The beauty is, as the status quo changes for people having internet in their home, it gets easier,” said HGTV personality and contractor Chip Wade of incorporating smart home features. “There are fewer hurdles to jump over and manufacturers are getting better at creating products that aren’t so persnickety.”
Indeed, it seems there’s no part of our home that can’t be controlled by a smart device. We can turn on faucets or our showers at a certain temperature, control our ovens, TVs or music. We can adjust window shades, lock our doors and use cameras to see when people are at our doors.
And we can do it all by manipulating smartphones and other devices ourselves or by voice command — asking digital assistants Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple) or Google Assistant to do things for us.
Electronics have become so interconnected that it’s described by the catchphrase “the internet of things” and referred to as a movement advancing at a record pace, especially at home.
“It goes back to voice activation and command — the Alexas, Siris and Googles of the world know what they’ve got. They’re reaching out, and other manufacturers are reaching out to say, ‘We’ve got a speaker system that streams music and we want to put Alexa in it,’” said Luis Cortes of Echo Workshop in Houston. “Now you can by a Sonos speaker already capable of streaming Pandora, Sirius XM and now has Alexa in it so you can say, ‘Alexa, play The Pulse,’ without having to touch anything.”
People more knowledgeable about technology, or at least with the time and patience to figure it out, can do it themselves, or you can hire a firm — like Cortes’ firm — to automate all or part of your home for you.
Both Wade and Cortes agreed that anyone can step into the world of smart home products. Here’s their advice.
We’ll start with a few basics that tech newbies should consider. Anyone already versed in internet speed and connectivity can read on to the next section.
There are two things you’ll need to address to make anything work, whether you’re making WiFi more efficient or adding more e-applications.
First, the bandwidth of your home internet service must be strong enough that your devices can work properly. For example, if downloading or uploading things on your phone, tablet or computer take forever, you likely need to upgrade your internet speed.
Internet speed — the rate at which data, video or other files can be downloaded or uploaded — is measured in megabits, often referred to as Mbps. And while what’s “fast” or “slow” depends on where you are and what you’re trying to do, most of us should have at least 25 Mbps, and some might want speeds of 100 or more Mbps, Wade said. (If your internet function at home is slow, contact your internet provider and inquire about upgrading to a higher internet speed.)
The second issue is connectivity, or how internet service is spread through your home. If you’re watching Netflix or Prime Video on your laptop just fine in your living room, but lose your connection when you move into a bedroom at the back of your home, you likely need to improve your connectivity.
“Think of it this way: bandwidth (internet speed) is a garden hose full of water, and the connectivity is the size of your sprinkler head that distributes water out,” Wade said. “Focus on the sprinkler head, the distribution and coverage of WiFi in your house. That affects your experience as much as internet speed.”
You can improve connectivity by adding a range extender — also called a WiFi booster or WiFi extender, costing $30-$200 — in your home. Wade said a standard internet router is sufficient for internet coverage in a 2,000-square-foot home, larger homes would benefit from an extender.
Another option for broader coverage is to skip the range extender and replace the router you have with a mesh router, which acts as a single network that would be the equivalent of a few separate routers.
Another issue to consider is identifying which platform you’ll use. Since you’ll likely use your phone to do some tasks, you can let that be your guide. Android users are more likely to use Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa; Apple users are more likely to gravitate to its operating system (iOS) and Siri. Sticking with one platform will consolidate function and eliminate the need for multiple apps.
Though voice commands can be tricky if Siri or Alexa don’t understand what you’re saying, Cortes said that part of the equation is getting better and that software makers are working on recognition of regional accents and speech patterns.
“I was installing voice activation systems in 2002 and 2003 that were horrendous. The term ‘I do not understand’ through all the speakers in your home is something you do not want to hear,” Cortes said, noting that front is improving.
Whole-home automation can be costly, but the cost has come down significantly.
Wade said that 10 years ago, he set up a massive system in his home for $200,000. He uses none of that system now, and urged newcomers to start with one small project to test what it can do for your home first, before spending big bucks.
“You have to do research on what is seamless,” Wade said. “The idea is to be more convenient and bulletproof, changing your life in good way, not making it more complicated.”
The advantage of hiring a firm to set it up for you is that you tap into their knowledge — assuming it’s likely knowledge you don’t already have — and let them set everything up on a single platform and let them teach you how to use it.
The next level of work involves your electrical outlets and light switches. Standard outlets and switches won’t communicate with smart devices, so wherever you want home automation, you may need to install a smart version that will connect to your home network via WiFi. That involves a bit of work, but handy homeowners can do this easily, Wade said.
An easier option is to put a smart plug or power strip in your existing outlet and then plug what you want to control into it, letting the plug or strip do the smart work for you.
In other words, insert a smart plug into an ordinary outlet, then plug your lamp, TV or coffee maker into the added plug.
Some smart devices allow you to operate them electronically or from an app without replacing your electrical outlet or using a smart plug.
For example, I tested a pair of Phillips 60-watt Smart WiFi LED light bulbs in table lamps in one room. They cost around $8 each and were easy to install and operate. The only catch was that they had to be set up and synched to the app on my iPhone within 3 feet of my home’s router, which is not in the room I wanted the lamps in. Once I figured that out, all I had to do was take the light bulbs to a small lamp near the router, set them up and then move the bulbs (not the whole lamps) to where I wanted them.
Scenes and skills
The first thing you automate should be something that simplifies your life and is important to you. For some, that’s entertainment (music or TV), and for others, it might be a more practical function, such as your home thermostat or lights.
Wade recommends smart TVs, then lighting control and security cameras, putting smart floodlights or cameras on each corner of your home’s exterior.
“I have deer who come into yard and eat my plants and I get notified, so I start talking to the deer and yell at them to get out of my yard,” Wade quipped. “And floodlights are a slam dunk — everyone should have them for security and safety. Set them so they don’t go off every time a squirrel runs through your yard.”
Cortes urges those new to smart home technology to start with what he called “scenes.” His starting point: lighting your home at night. (There’s also geo-fencing, in which your phone’s GPS “tells” your home network that you’re near and it does the work for you.)
Imagine coming home at night with bags of groceries. You’re walking into a dark home, hoping you don’t step on the cat, trip over a toy left on the floor or run into a piece of furniture.
With automation, you can set up lighting that can be controlled with your phone, so when you arrive home, you turn on an “arrival” or “entry” scene with a sequence of lights. That could include a porch light or light at a back door, plus more that provide a lighted path as you enter the home.
That’s a scene that can provide safety for everyone from parents of young children to others trying to age in place.
Automating window shades is another option that adds convenience to your life, especially if you have large, hard-to-reach windows that need shades for energy efficiency. While the cost of motorized shades has come down, they still can be expensive.
“What happens the first time you figure it out will change the way you feel when you come home,” Wade said of automated entry lighting. “We have a lake house and my wife is there with our two kids. She opens her phone and hits a scene that I set up and it turns on the front porch light, foyer, living and kitchen lights at 50 percent. It’s an amazing sense of security and it’s practical if you’re carrying groceries.”
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