Make Your House A Smart Home
Mention the phrase “Smart Home” or “Home Automation” and immediately visions of the Jetsons start to swirl. Although we may not have flying cars and a conveyor belt to get us dressed in the morning, home technology has definitely come a long way. What’s even better is that home automation has grown and evolved to focus more on providing comfort and convenience instead of glitz and glamour. Today, much of the available technology for your home is rooted in making your life easier and adding a level of safety.
The most daunting task of Home Automation many homeowners face is where to begin. Strolling down the aisle of your local home center would lead you to believe that turning your house into a Smart Home is an easy DIY project. However, the little secret many manufacturers try to hide is that it isn’t always that simple. An in-depth explanation of why these so-called “plug n’ play” devices fail to amaze would be quite boring. In a nutshell, the vast majority of smart devices sitting on the shelves of stores have two obstacles for the average homeowner to overcome. First, all of these gadgets require excellent internet connectivity and wifi. Second, many of them use a proprietary program language, making them extremely difficult to work seamlessly with other devices you may own or want to purchase.
Many of us here at Play and Gourmet have an Amazon Echo. I myself have a Dot and my family loves it. However, beyond checking the weather, telling jokes, and listening to music, it doesn’t do much. It’s easy to get swayed by Amazon’s advertisements that if you have an Echo, you can control your lights, raise your shades, or adjust your thermostat. The little secret to all of this is that you need other components and “smart devices” to be connected.
Don’t despair just yet! Having a Smart Home is still within a somewhat easy reach. This month, we are going to look at how to turn your humble abode into a Smart Home in five easy steps. Below is a good foundation you can use to propel you house into the future and enjoy the latest in technology trends geared for today’s families.
Step One- The Network
The first and most important step for home automation is to make sure you have a reliable and robust network. This means both wired and wireless connections and equipment. Remember, the best connection you can have is a hardwired one. The misconception is that everything is going wireless. Lies! All Lies! Any device you add will need both power and internet; being wireless is just a convenience. All of the wifi networks we install begin with wired connections and include wired access points spaced around the home to create a blanket of wifi coverage.
Poor wifi coverage is the weakest link in getting any smart device to work properly. This is why you need to start any home automation project with a great network. The typical router you can purchase at the office supply store or big box location just doesn’t have the capacity most families need to handle all the devices. This is where business-grade and high-end networking equipment comes in. Spending the money now on a good network from a manufacturer like Araknis or Luxual will pay off in a very short time. Begin your system with a good router, network switch, and wired access points. You cannot rely on the equipment the local cable company provides you with.
If you run into budget or construction issues and running wired connections is not feasible, the next best solution is a mesh networking device such an Eero. These hockey puck like devices get placed around your home and create their own mini network. Not as effective as actual access points, but very impressive nonetheless. In fact, I use this in my own home and it’s been a positive experience.
Step Two- HVAC Control
What would a Smart Home be without the ability to control the indoor temperature from your phone? Probably the greatest convenience and time saving device on the list, a remote thermostat allows you not only to adjust the setting from anywhere, it also helps you with energy management. With an enhanced interface on your phone or tablet, you can create a vast amount of custom settings based on the day, month, season, and more.
You might automatically think I am going to recommend a popular, well-known brand of wifi thermostat. Well, not in this case. Many wifi-enabled thermostats have one major drawback; they require the internet to work. When you send a command from your phone to your thermostat, the signal is passed along your data connection, over the internet, back to the thermostat. What happens if your cable company has an internet outage or your phone lost its data connection? Our choice in this case is the Aprilaire 8620, a thermostat that not only works on your local wifi network, but still has a reliable analog interface in the event of an emergency.
Step Three- Lighting Control
Personally, my favorite part of the Smart Home conversion is lighting control! First, let’s quickly highlight (ha!) what exactly we’re talking about. Smart lighting control is an additional layer of technology you can add to your existing lights around the house. This includes remote dimmers, switch consolidation, custom lighting scenes, exterior/outdoor lighting control, fan speed, and, of course, energy management. Our brand of choice, and the most reliable in the industry, Lutron, offers an almost limitless selection of switches and keypads.
When you walk into your home after work, do you flip on the same set of lights all the time? How about when you go to bed, do you walk around the house turning off lights? Imagine the ability to have those lights controlled from your phone or a keypad in your bedroom? With a quick swipe on your phone, you can turn off all the downstairs lights, dim the wall sconces by the garage, and turn on the hallway light to 15%. Instantly you have set you home into bedtime mode. This is just a glimpse of what lighting control can do for you. Do you entertain often? You can program your lights to go into party mode: the family room is dimmed, the kitchen pendants come on, and your landscape lights illuminate the patio and deck…all with the press of one button. If that scenario doesn’t make you feel like a tech guru, I don’t know what will.
We have seen a huge surge in the demand for cameras in a residential home, and not just simple doorbell cameras. As we travel more and have an increasing number of demands, our homes are left unattended more than ever. Wouldn’t it be great if you could Facetime with your house? Well, now you can. Our cameras are easier than ever to install and many do not require extensive wiring. Most of the cameras we install operate totally on basic network cable (hence, having a good network).
One recent trend in cameras is adding a camera that integrates with the garage door opener. Have you ever pulled away from home for a roadtrip and wonder if you shut the door? Now you don’t have to worry; easily raise and lower the door from the house or on the road. Expecting a package? Allow your delivery person to leave your items securely in the garage and then close the door when they exit.
The power of security cameras is at its best for those with a second home or vacation home. Keep an eye on your home from afar, check if you have storm damage, make sure the landscaper is doing their job, or just enjoy the view while you’re at work.
Step Five- Whole House Audio
I don’t think anything is cooler than the ability to listen to your favorite playlist from anywhere in your house all while controlling the track, volume, and source from your phone or tablet. Here again, all the major advertising has led us to believe that you can just grab a wireless speaker and be all set to go. It’s not quite that simple, but we can make it very easy. There are two main choices here: in-wall / in-ceiling speakers or stand alone audio such as bookshelf speakers, etc.
As for getting the actual music, one option is a music server placed somewhere in your home that is connected to the internet. This acts as your “juke box” and accesses your music services such as Pandora, Napster, Satellite Radio, etc. This device then gets connected to your audio system and can be fed throughout the house.
If you don’t opt for built-in speakers, the other option is stand alone wireless speakers that are connected to your local network. There are amazing products from Yamaha MusicCast and Sonos, to name a few. These self powered speakers get plugged into an outlet, but will connect wirelessly to the internet. Depending on the set up, you can use just one or group several to get whole-house coverage.
There is also an in-between solution – a connected amplifier. This device has the ability to connect to the internet, but also has several output options to connect to existing audio equipment using RCA ports, Digital Output, or even old school twist speaker connections.
The big factor here is knowing where you get your music from. Different brands will only access a few music sources. Not every manufacturer has developed the relationship with all the streaming sources out there today. For example, some wireless speakers only work with a paid Pandora account while others can’t play copyrighted music from iTunes. Doing your research in the beginning can save a lot of disappointment later.
Step Six- Integration
I know I said five ways, but consider this step “taking it to the next level.” Once you have all these devices in your home and the ability to control everything remotely with a phone or tablet, you will find one little piece to the puzzle that was overlooked. All of the above items use their own app on your mobile device to control. You will quickly tire of jumping from one app to the next and back again to operate the basic functions in your home. Yes, this is technology, but it’s surely not convenient! That is where an Automaton Platform, such as Elan or Savant, comes into play and why it is so vital to pick the right brands upfront.
Think of an automation platform as the brain or traffic controller that links all of the technology in your home into one central dashboard. From one easy interface, you can control everything we just talked about and more. No more waiting for apps to open on your phone or trying to remember the settings for you dining room lights. Now from one location everything is at your fingertips. In addition, every family member can have the same access and control or custom settings can be set up. You can let the kids change the music but not adjust the thermostats. Another great feature of a master system is that you can place touchscreens in prime locations around you home so you don’t just have to rely on your phone or where you left your tablet.
The underlying theme of above is twofold. One, these are the most requested services and options and really help introduce homeowners to the possibilities in the market today. The second reason we started here is because the mentioned manufacturers all have devices that communicate with one another. They have the built-in functionality to be consolidated into larger automation platforms offering complete control situations.
We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what is available for your home. We haven’t even touched on pool control, remote sprinklers, motorized shades, and, of course, a wifi-enabled oven! One item that didn’t make our top five list was wireless door locks – look for an in-depth how to guide in the near future.