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Demystifying Smart Homes

We all hear a lot about smart home technologies these days, but not everyone feels comfortable about integrating it into their home yet. Stepping foot inside any home improvement or electronic store can make things even more confusing, with hundreds of products and systems all promising to make our lives easier and more efficient. And good luck finding someone to help and explain these systems- folks in these stores really aren’t trained on these (or, let’s be honest, really any) products. Is there an easy way to make sense of all of this, and is it possible to ease into the smart home world?

The short answer is: Absolutely. That’s what we’re here for.

The slightly longer answer is: Buying a few smart products (smart bulbs, plugs, or switches tend to be easiest) along with a smart hub (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple’s Homekit) is an easy way to get a small system up and running while learning along the way. Setup is usually pretty simple and step-by-step.

The long answer is below.

 

First, it’s helpful to get a good understanding of how these systems work and get set up.

Nearly all smart home devices make use of the internet in some way, whether it be communicating among each other, coordinating the timing of routines (which require the correct time of day, sunrise/sunset), or downloading critical software updates and upgrades. This means that internet connectivity and WiFi are needed for most if not all systems.

While smart home devices generally create their own network to communicate with each other (you’ll hear about things like Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave), they can’t usually communicate directly with the smart homes and tablets that you’ll use to control them on their own. To do that, a “bridge” is required that either plugs into your router, or plugs into the wall and communicates wirelessly with your WiFi network.

This bridge is essentially a translator, allowing your smart devices, phones, and tablets to communicate with each other over the internet. Keep in mind that most smart home device brands require their own bridges, so if you have five different smart home brands in your space, you’d likely need five different bridges connected and active as well.

Just as each brand usually requires its own hub, each brand usually requires the use of its own app, at least to set up. These apps will be able to recognize new devices on the network, allow you to add them to the system, name them appropriately, and in many cases, take advantage of special functionality like grouping devices together by room. All are readily available in official app stores, and all are free.

 

Next, we’ll want to understand how to integrate.

This is the single biggest hurdle for most folks, and rightfully so. The idea of having to take out a phone, open up multiple apps, and individually operate different devices one by one is painful. That’s where smart hubs come in- they can integrate all smart devices together in one spot, as well as offer voice command capabilities that put control in the hands (or voice) of everyone at home.

There are three big players in the market: Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple Homekit. Note that these are actually software programs integrated into devices, and these days those devices can include speakers, televisions, clocks, and lighting fixtures. Getting any one of these is fine as a start, and most people choose one based upon their existing devices or subscriptions and expand from there. And all three work pretty well too, although, at this time, it seems that Amazon is doing a better job of aggressively partnering with manufacturers and services to create a broad ecosystem.

Make sure your hub app (Google Home, Amazon Alexa, or Apple Homekit) is installed on your phone or tablet, and that you’ve gone through the full device setup process.

Adding your new smart devices to your hub app is pretty easy. Just go to your app’s “Device” section and find “add.” You’ll usually need to identify which type of device you’re adding, but after that, your app will search for and locate any new smart devices on your WiFi network. Once located, just add it, name it properly (think about what you’d naturally call it when speaking commands), and you’re ready to go.

These hub apps allow some pretty cool things, including “routines” which include some sort of trigger (time of day, phone arriving at home, voice command, etc.) and action (turning lights on/off, unlocking doors, playing music). You’ll want to start small, say, with a simple voice command to turn lights on in one room. Once you’re comfortable with that, expand into additional routines based on your day or regular activities. Turning lights on in the morning or off at bedtime are easy next steps.

 

Then grow your system over time.

You’ll find that over time you’ll get comfortable adding more things to each routine, or adding multiple routines based upon more devices being added to the system. I’ve personally grown my home system in bits and pieces to include speakers, multiple hubs, all of my lighting, and during the holidays, even my Christmas lights.

I’m not going to lie, I may have, on more than one occasion, impressed my friends by using a voice command to completely re-balance the lighting throughout my house. Be warned though, if you have friends like mine, they’ll then continuously mess with your lighting by shouting at your hub. It’s a price I’m willing to pay. Also, I might need to get more polite friends.

You’ll also discover that new products are released all the time, as are new abilities for your smart hubs. Over the summer, Amazon released a “skill” for Alexa that allowed her to use her far-field microphones to listen for break-ins, while randomly turning your lights on and off to mimic your presence while you’re away. While it’s not a full security system, it was a free upgrade that allowed the use of existing technology in a new and useful way.

 

Ready to take the plunge? We’re always happy to help by answering questions, demonstrating smart devices, and providing advice. Just drop by our showrooms or give us a call.

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