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A smart home is still a relatively new concept. For homeowners and renters who are not very techy, setting up a smart home can be a considerable challenge.
How do you get started? How expensive is it? Is a smart home worth it?
We answer these and many other questions about smart homes in this FAQ-style smart home guide.
This guide will help you if you are thinking about setting up a smart home, or you want to expand your existing smart home.
The Basics of a Smart Home
What is a smart home?
A smart home is a home consisting of devices and systems connected to the internet and which can be controlled remotely via a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
The devices can also be connected.
If you have a smart speaker like Amazon Echo to which you send a voice command to switch on your smart lights, that’s a smart home right there.
In real estate, there are higher standards as to what can be called a smart home. Typically, a smart home needs to have a smart climate system or a smart security system plus two additional smart devices.
But unless you are planning to sell, your smart home can be as simple as a couple of smart devices connected to Wi-Fi or as complex as a whole-house system that automates most tasks in your home.
What are the benefits of a smart home?
- Automation and convenience– You can set up specific tasks to happen automatically like switching on lights, vacuuming the floor, or starting the coffee maker whether you are at home or not.
- Saves energy– A smart home ensures utilities like water and electricity are used more efficiently. For example, a smart thermostat only heats your home when it senses there are people around. Smart lights can switch on only when they sense motion.
- Better home security– A smart security system offers better home security. For example, a smart wireless camera allows you to monitor your home from anywhere. Motion sensors, automated lights, and smart doorbells also improve home safety.
- Higher resale value– If you are thinking of selling your home sometime in the future, adding smart devices (especially security and climate control) can significantly increase home value.
Is home automation worth it?
In most cases, home automation is worth the cost. But you should weigh the potential benefits vs. costs that apply to your particular situation.
If the smart devices you plan to buy help you save energy, make your home safer, and save you time when they are probably worth it.
How do I get started with a smart home?
Look around your home and consider all the inconveniences and annoyances you’d like to automate as well as your most pressing needs.
If vacuuming the floor takes up a lot of your time, add a smart robot vacuum to your shopping list.
If you keep changing the thermostat, switching to a smart thermostat will make your home more comfortable while saving energy.
If you live in an area with rising cases of burglary, a smart security system should be a priority.
There is no official manual for setting up a smart home. How you go about it depends on your situation.
Which are the best devices to start with?
It depends on your needs. But here are the most common devices in a smart home. They are an excellent place to start.
- Smart lighting: Add a few smart bulbs, and you’ll be able to turn them on and off remotely using your phone. You can also set them to come on at a particular time or when triggered (e.g., when the garage door opens, when you are almost home or when the weather forecast is rain).
- Smart thermostat: A smart thermostat will automate your home climate control. It can set the right temperature automatically depending on the time of day, weather forecast and whether there’s anybody home. (Learn more about smart thermostats in our smart thermostat buying guide)
- Smart security: A smart security system typically includes a collection of smart devices, including a smart camera, smart outdoor lighting, motion sensors, and a smart lock. You can buy these devices separately or look for companies that sell bundled packs.
- Smart entertainment: These include smart TVs, smart music systems, and smart speakers.
- Smart home hub: I highly recommend this one, especially if you plan to add more than a few smart devices to your home. A smart hub makes it easy to control multiple devices. The best smart hubs are voice-controlled smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homepod. Other options include Samsung SmartThings, Wink Hub 2, and Logitech Harmony.
What wiring do I need for a smart home?
Modern smart homes are mostly wire free. Most smart devices are ready to use as long as you have a router and a smartphone.
But some smart devices need wiring either for power or to communicate to non-smart systems such as your air conditioning or sprinkler system.
Smart devices where you’ll need to do some wiring include a smart thermostat, smart light switches, smart smoke alarm, smart doorbells, and smart sprinkler controllers.
The wiring is usually simple and straightforward. If you are uncomfortable doing it, have a pro set it up for you.
If you are replacing a ‘dumb’ device with a smart one, the wiring will be the same. So you often don’t have to do any new wiring for devices like a smoke alarm.
But some smart gadgets such as a smart thermostat require special wiring that you may or may not have. Check the manufacturer’s wiring requirements.
Should I get an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod smart speaker?
Amazon Echo and Google Home are excellent choices for most homeowners. They have full compatibility with many smart devices, and they have a lot of useful functionality.
Apple HomePod has launched recently and doesn’t have as many compatible devices as Google or Amazon smart speakers.
For help choosing the best voice-controlled hub, read my Google Home vs. Amazon Echo vs. Apple HomePod vs. Sonos One comparison.
Do I have to automate my entire home?
No, you don’t.
Most people care about costs, so they opt to do it piece by piece, or rather gadget by gadget.
Identify what your needs are and start there. If it’s security, start with smart security devices. If it’s a convenience, start with devices like smart switches and a smart robot vacuum.
If you’d rather make your whole home smart in one go, look for a reliable home automation service to do it for you.
It’ll require multiple devices, a hub or two and extensive wiring.
Also, get ready to spend more upfront.
Can I upgrade an older home to a smart home?
Yes, you can. That’s what most people are doing.
They either add smart devices individually or entirely renovate their home and add full automation.
If you are on a tight budget, start by replacing older ‘dumb’ devices with smarter ones.
Some replacements you can make include the thermostat, your smoke alarm, your TV and speaker, light switches and light bulbs.
If you prefer whole-home automation, the upgrade will require a lot more work and money since new wiring may be required.
You can spend less money by opting for wireless smart home devices.
Which are the different standards used in home automation?
There are four common operating standards for smart homes.
- Bluetooth Low Energy: Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE creates a mesh network that allows devices to communicate with each other as long as they are within range. Bluetooth has been around for years, but it’s still not very common in home automation. You won’t find many popular smart devices with Bluetooth connectivity.
- Wi-Fi: Most of the smart devices you’ll come across connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network via a 2.5 GHz or 5 GHz frequency. You can then control them via an app wherever you are. You don’t need a central hub to control WiFi smart devices remotely. The main downside of Wi-Fi connected smart devices is that they use more power than other standards.
- Zigbee: This is another mesh network that provides good security and deficient power consumption. Data transfer within the network is fast though the range is limited to 10-20 meters (33-66 feet). In the past, Zigbee was broken up into different protocols that weren’t compatible. But the latest standard brings all these protocols together, ensuring any Zigbee device you buy can ‘talk’ to any other Zigbee device you have.
- Z-Wave: This is a more extended range (around 30m/100 feet) alternative to Z-wave. In an open area, it can have a range of up to 100m/328 feet. Z-Wave products have strict standards for interoperability. You can be sure any Z-wave device will communicate with all other Z-wave devices. Z-Wave is also a low-power mesh network. Its main downside is that it has slightly lower data transfer speeds and only supports 232 devices (Zigbee supports over 65,000 devices).
So which standard should you go for or can you mix them up?
You can undoubtedly mix them up, but you’ll need bridges to get everything working together smoothly. For simplicity and reliability, stick to one standard.
If you plan to get only a few smart devices, WiFi is good enough. You can control each device individually and via a smart speaker like Echo.
For a more complicated smart home, Z-Wave or Zigbee are the best. Note that you’ll need a hub for either standard if you want to control your smart home via the internet.
Most hubs such as Samsung SmartThings and Wink Hub supports both Z-Wave and Zigbee.
Z-Wave is a right choice if you have a larger home since it has a longer range. It’s also best if you want to assure compatibility among devices.
Go for Zigbee if you want slightly faster data speeds and support for more devices.
How do I tell which devices work together?
Check the manufacturer specifications or product label for supported standards.
For instance, if you own an Amazon Echo, look for products that are compatible with Amazon Alexa.
If you own a Google Home speaker, look for products that are compatible with Google Assistant.
If you are building a Z-Wave smart home, stick to products that support that standard.
You can also use a smart home compatibility checker. There are plenty of them online. Try this one by CNET.
How much does a smart home cost?
It depends on how far you want to go.
You can spend a couple of hundred bucks on an Echo Dot and a Philips Hue starter kit or $5,000 for complete home automation.
Most people prefer to take it slow; buying individual smart devices as they see fit. It’s cheaper upfront, and you can choose a pace that fits your budget.
But full home automation is not always costly. Basic home automation starts at $500, and you can get a decent smart home for less than $2,000.
The advantage of this is that you don’t have to bother buying individual devices and compatibility is assured.
But keep in mind that many home automation services have a monthly maintenance fee. Include that in your budget.
Does home automation add value to my home?
Smart homes attract more buyers who are willing to pay more for the smart features.
So yes, home automation increases the value of your home.
Make sure you do the right kind of automation. Smart security and temperature control systems are currently the most appealing to potential buyers.
Adding smart entertainment and a few other smart gadgets can also help increase home value.
Is a smart home expensive to maintain?
A basic smart home doesn’t have any maintenance costs. Most smart devices don’t have subscription fees, and you don’t have to pay a company to maintain them.
However, some smart systems, such as security, may require a monthly fee.
You might have to pay ongoing costs if you opted for professional whole-home automation.
Will a smart home save me money?
Some smart devices, such as smart thermostats and smart lights, can save you money by reducing your energy consumption.
Security and Reliability
Will my smart home function if the internet goes down?
It depends on what kind of smart devices you have.
Some smart gadgets have the offline capability, meaning they can continue working even when they lose internet connection.
For example, some smart cameras can automatically record to an SD card. Your smart robot vacuum will probably still clean on schedule since cleaning instructions are stored locally.
But you won’t be able to monitor or control them remotely from your smartphone.
For devices that don’t use the internet (Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth devices), you can still control them as long as you are at home and within range.
For devices that carry out sensitive functions such as security, smoke detection, and temperature control, make sure they can work offline.
Will my smart home function if there is no power?
As with internet connection, it depends on which devices you’ve bought.
Only devices with battery backup will work if there is no power.
Most sensitive smart devices such as security cameras, smoke detectors, and smart doorbells have backup batteries or run entirely on batteries.
Can my smart home be hacked?
No technology is 100% secure from hacking.
Any smart device can be hacked. What varies is the level of vulnerability.
Some devices are easier to hack into compared to others.
Do your homework when buying a smart device. What kind of security does it have? Does it provide two-factor authentication?
Even devices from reputable companies can be vulnerable.
For instance, there have been many cases of Google-owned Nest cameras getting hacked.
How do I protect my smart home?
- Only buy smart devices with a high level of security. Just one vulnerable device can provide an entry point into your entire home network.
- Make use of all security features provided by the manufacturer, such as two-factor authentication.
- Update related software as soon as updates are available. This protects against any vulnerabilities hackers may have discovered.
- Practice basic security– use a strong password and do not use the same password across multiple services and keep your login details private.
- Make sure your router is also safe; it can be an entry point.
- Remember to change the default username and password for your router and other smart devices before you start using them. A shocking number of people leave their devices secured with the default ‘123456’ or ‘000000’ password and ‘admin’ username.
- Do not share login details with anyone, even close family members. You and your partner should have separate accounts. For other family members and friends, most smart devices have a guest mode. For things like a door lock, you can give them access remotely.
When I use smart devices, is my private data secure?
This depends on the devices you are using and, most importantly, the company who made them.
Even if the device is secure, the company might see it fit to share your data with third parties. Others store your data where it can be easily hacked.
Do your homework when shopping for smart devices.
Check if you can access and delete your stored data?
For instance, Amazon and Google let you delete your past voice commands.
Be careful when dealing with third-party apps and services. They can introduce vulnerabilities into your smart home.