Smart home - where to start

Published on 19 Apr, 2019 by Michael Bishop

Categories: Smart home


For many of us, transforming our home into a "smart home" seems overwhelming and expensive. And it isn't clear whether this plunge into the "internet of things" will make our lives simpler or more complicated.

Smart home and phone

Beware smart-home complexity

One recent evening, we found ourselves in our friend's dark living room. Her boyfriend, who was away that evening, screwed in a Philips Hue smart light a few days before. Awkwardly, our friend had no easy way to turn the light on. Her boyfriend's offered solution: "Just get the Philips Hue phone app." But, understandably, our friend didn't want more phone apps to juggle. And she wanted to keep her phone time to a minimum while at home. So there we were...sitting in a dark room together, under a "smart light" that we couldn't turn on.

Fortunately, Philips also offers a Philips Hue smart light switch. But the point is: "smart home" gadgets aren't smart unless they actually make things better than before — for everyone in your home (even the self-proclaimed luddites among us). Fortunately, there are ample opportunities to undeniably improve wellbeing with smart-home gadgets. It just takes a bit of planning up front, and, we'd suggest, an incremental approach.


Start with one simple thing

We suggest starting with a low-hanging fruit. Try a simple and inexpensive smart-home experiment. If it's a clear winner, move forward with more confidence and family buy-in.


What excites you most about a smart home?

Smart-home gadgets can improve wellbeing in all sorts of ways. Which type of benefit listed below appeals to you most?

• Make your home more comfortable
• Improve your home's ambience
• Cut your electric bill
• Simplify your life
• Keep a cleaner home
• Make your home more secure
• Improve your home's smoke detection
• Understand your home's energy use

 

Smart-home examples

Let's consider a straightforward example for each smart-home benefit listed above.


Make your home more comfortable

Nest thermostat
Nest thermostat (image source: nest.com)

Smart thermostats are a good example here. Before the smart-home era, the fancier thermostats required programming your family's daily schedule and desired temperature on a tiny thermostat display (and tough luck when you veer off schedule). A smart thermostat makes it much simpler — just adjust the temperature to your liking, and the thermostat will learn when you like it warmer (example: when we get home from the winter-evening dog walk) and cooler (while we're asleep). It'll know when everyone is away from home (thanks to motion sensors, etc), and even when someone is on their way home (thanks to the phone app).

Two best-in-class smart-thermostat options are Ecobee and Nest.


Improve your home's ambience

Philips Hue lightbulb
Philips Hue lightbulb (image source: meethue.com)

Good lighting goes a long way towards making a home feel great. And the right lighting depends both on what you're doing and what mood you're in. Nobody wants to dance in bright hospital lighting, and nobody wants to do deep housecleaning in dim nightclub lighting. While the ability to control brightness is helpful, smart lights take it to the next level —with the Philips Hue smart light, you can choose from a whopping 16 million colors.

Different colors affect us in different ways. Some colors energize us (yay, Friday night dance party) and some colors calm us down (ahh, Sunday bath night). Set your own color combos, and switch between them via phone app or Philips Hue light switch.

And because these LED smart lights use only 10 watts each, they can help you cut your electric bill too.


Cut your electric bill

Philips Hue motion sensor
Philips Hue motion sensor (image source: meethue.com)

Continuing from our last example, Philips offers a wireless motion sensor that you can stick anywhere in your home. No surprise here — walking into a room turns on your Philips Hue smart lights. It also detects how much daylight is available, to avoid turning lights on if you don't need them.

This will not only cut your electric bill, but also make your life simpler. After having this setup for a few weeks, it might feel silly or even annoying the next time you have to get up and walk over to a light switch outside your home!


Simplify your life

Amazon Echo speaker
Amazon Echo speaker (image source: amazon.com)

One big question to ask in your smart-home journey is whether you want to put a digital assistant to work in your home. You'd plug in one or more digital-assistant speakers in your home, and tell them to do things like "play the Beatles" or "tell me the weather forecast." Or thanks to connections with Nest, Philips, and a wide variety of other smart-home product providers, you can say things like "set the lights to Chill Out" or "make it warmer downstairs."

This sounds pretty helpful. A downside for some of us is that this requires letting one of the big-four tech companies into our homes. The big four are Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. They respectively offer Alexa, Assistant, Siri, and Cortana. I'm personally a little wary of inviting these companies into my home, given their interest in driving my purchase decisions (especially Amazon and Google). Let alone the risk of my private conversations and home activities being inappropriately shared, as happened to a couple with Amazon Alexa (related NPR article). An open-source alternative worth considering is Mycroft's digital assistant — Mycroft permanently deletes data collected in your home every time you finish interacting with their digital assistant.


Keep a cleaner home

Trifo Ironpie robot vacuum
Trifo Ironpie robot vacuum (image source: trifo.com)

I'm regularly dumbfounded with how dirty our floors get. I suppose it comes with having a cat, a 4-year old, and a shoes-are-fine policy. While I sort of enjoy the zen of sweeping, I wouldn't mind never doing it again.

Enter the cute little robot vacuum. It'll roam around your home sucking up dust and dirt when everyone is away. The smarter ones learn your floor layout and avoid going over the same spots twice in the same day. They also avoid eating socks and other little things you don't want to lose (especially helpful if you have little kids).

These robot vacuums can also serve as your partrolling security guards — they can let you know if there's suspicious activity.


Make your home more secure

Ring doorbell
Video doorbell by Ring (image source: ring.com)

One straightforward option on the security front is a video doorbell. Get an alert when someone approaches your door, and see who it is via camera and phone app. A recording of the visitor will be available later — helpful if you determine that person was up to no good.


Improve your home's smoke detection

Nest smoke detector
Nest smoke detector (image source: nest.com)

We didn't realize how dumb the conventional smoke detectors are until we looked into smart smoke detectors. Instead of an ear-piercing alarm, how about a phone alert and a smart-detector speaker telling you specifically what's wrong (example: "Heads-Up. There's carbon monoxide in the kitchen. The alarm may sound.").

This also falls under: simplify your life. Instead of that obnoxious low-battery chirp that starts up at 3am, how about a phone alert courteously informing you that it's about time to replace the smoke-detector battery? And instead of having to rush over and pry out the battery when you've burnt the toast, how about hitting snooze on your smoke-detector's phone alert?


Understand your home's energy use

Sense energy monitor
Sense energy monitor (image source: sense.com)

Understanding your energy use is a good first step to reducing it. A home energy monitor will, over time, identify and separately track the devices and lightbulbs in your home. All thanks to a simple connection in your breaker box. You might find, for example, that your fridge is using way more energy than the manufacturer claims — time to replace that door seal!


Conclusion

We hope this article helped you pick a good jumping-off point for your smart-home adventure. One small step at a time, and you'll have a smart home before you know it — a more comfortable, ambient, secure, safe, clean, easy, and environmentally-friendly home. With a lower energy bill to boot!



Author: Michael Bishop

Michael's core purpose is to improve the customer experience around going solar. He primarily pursues this by writing articles and software at CutMyBill.