How to Make Your House "Smart"

How do you make a "dumb" house "smart"? As consumers, we have more choices today than ever to stuff our houses, apartments and condos with "smart home" gadgets. But are our houses any smarter? Or just more connected?

How do you make a "dumb" house "smart"?

As consumers, we have more choices today than ever to stuff our houses, apartments and condos with "smart home" gadgets. From light bulbs to thermostats to cameras to door locks, there are few parts of a house left today that can't be "made smart" with a little effort. Of course, most of this has been possible for years with expensive, hard-wired smart home systems installed during new home construction, but the maturing wireless standards, like ZWave, ZigBee and Bluetooth Mesh, have finally put the smart house in reach for the millions of homes without pre-installed wiring.

So that's what I've been doing.

Over the course of the last few years and two or three houses, I've been picking my way through the wild west of "retrofit" smart home gadgets, looking for that combination that is easy to manage and truly "feels smart."

Everyone starts with Hue bulbs, right?

Like most people, I started my smart home journey with some Hue lightbulbs, that addictive "first hit" that opens your eyes to the possibilities a connected house creates. If you can change a lightbulb, you can install Hue lights, and a few minutes later begin marveling at lights that can be controlled from your phone.

That was fun. Time to install a Nest thermostat.

It takes a little more installation work, but now you can also control your thermostat from your phone, and (theoretically) more easily program heating and cooling cycles. Your wall looks cooler now, too.

What next? Maybe a Dropcam? Maybe a plug-and-play Belkin motion sensor?

Pretty soon you realize that you've got a growing collection of smart home gadgets, and you start to think about how they could work together:

  • Maybe your lights could turn-on when a motion sensor is triggered
  • Maybe your thermostat could auto-adjust based on a weather station
  • Maybe you could create "scenes" that would make lights and outlets and things work together

Now what? You've got a bunch of easy to install, one-off smart home gadgets, but how do you tie them altogether?

Sure, you can "hack" together some linked behaviors using IFTTT (If This Then That), but it's a band-aid that is sure to frustrate...unless you like waiting unpredictable amounts of time for a trigger to update your smart home devices. No, what you now need is a smart home "brain."

Graduating to Smart Home "Hubs"

Unless you enjoy jumping between fifteen separate apps to manage your smart house, you need a "brain" that bring everyting together. Enter: the smart home "hub."

Smart home "hubs" (or sometimes "controllers") are responsible for talking to all of the connected devices in your house and making them work together.

Except in very large homes, you only need one smart home hub, to which all devices will wirelessly connect. Most hubs come with a number of different radios built-in (ZWave, ZigBee, Wifi, and Bluetooth are the most popular) so they can communicate with a wide variety of devices. Most hubs also enable "cloud" integrations, so you can control devices that won't connect locally (like Nest, Ecobee, Netatmo or Sonos) via their available APIs.

There are MANY different hub options available today, including:

  • Vera
  • SmartThings (by Samsung)
  • HomeSeer
  • Iris (by Lowes)
  • Zipato

Each has its pros and cons (discussion for another time), but if you have one, you're ready to begin making your house smart. In my house, I'm currently using a Vera Plus.

Now you just need to connect some devices to your hub.

Connect All the Things!

No, really. Connect all the things.

With smart homes, the more connected your house is to your hub, the more powerful and interesting things it will be able to do for you. There's an endless list of devices you can add to a smart home, but some common types are:

  • Light switches
  • Motion sensors
  • Open/Close sensors
  • Thermostats
  • Door locks
  • Security cameras

Just buy a compatible smart home device, install it, pair it with the hub and your house becomes a little bit "smarter"...well, not really "smarter" yet, but a bit more "connected" so that it can become smarter later.

And you don't have to do everything at once. Smart homes can expand over time as your budget allows and as you think of new ways to enjoy the power of a connected home.

Finally, once you have a hub and a few devices connected, you can use one app control your entire house, and you can begin to create "scenes" and "triggers" to devices work together.

Putting the "Smart" in Smart Home

So far, all you have is a "connected" home. A bunch of devices that can wirelessly communicate with a central hub. At best, you have a "remote control" home. To make a "smart home" smart, it needs to be taught how to do things for you.

For this we need triggers, scenes and modes. Different smart home hubs use different names, but the concepts are the same.

Triggers

Triggers, as the name implies, let you define events that should drive actions in your smart home. They are the basic building block of making a connected home appear "smart."

A common trigger example is using a motion detector to turn-on a light when motion is detected. Or dimming lights a specific time. Or adjusting the thermostat based on outside temperature. There are many different ways to define triggers, but they are how a smart home knows when to do something automatically. Without a trigger, all smart home actions have to be manually triggered, which is still powerful, but more "remote control" than "smart."

Scenes

Scenes (or "programs" on some hubs) allow you to orchestrate the settings of multiple devices at one time. Rather than turning-off all lights one-by-one at night, a "Good Night" scene could automatically turn-off all lights, lock the doors and turn a nightlight on in the hallway (for example). When a scene runs, it will send commands to one or more of your connected devices and change the device's settings based on the scene configuration.

Scenes can be used with triggers or run manually, like super powerful switches.

Modes

Most smart home hubs also have the concept of "modes" to make a smart home behave differently in common scenarios. Modes are usually "Day/Home," "Night," "Away" and "Vacation." A hub can use changes between modes to change the settings on connected devices (maybe you want to turn-off the AC and enable water leak sensors on vacations) and enable or disable scenes or triggers.

The general goal is to make the smart home operate more efficiently depending on how (and when) it's being used.

This is probably the hardest part of making a smart home truly delightful and "smart." It takes time to program the various scenes and triggers that work with your devices, and it can even be difficult to think of the kinds of settings that are possible now with a connected home. If there's one area where smart home hubs still need to evolve, its doing more to make a house feel smart without less manual effort.

With a little time, patience and trial-and-error, you'll finally be on your way to living in a smart home of the future. Good luck!

Todd Anglin

Todd Anglin

Todd writes about smart home living and technology, with a particular focus on wireless "DIY" smart homes. He has worked as a graphic designer, software developer and held various executive roles at professional software development companies. Todd speaks frequently at software developer conferences, and is the creator of Invisible: Controller.

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