Smart home automation sounds awesome in theory, but a lot of folks are hesitant to try it out for themselves because the learning curve seems too hard. If that describes you, then here’s good news: It’s easier than you think!
Others don’t even bother because they think smart home products are too expensive or don’t offer enough value. The truth is that smart home devices are cheaper than you think and are more cost-effective than other home upgrades.
The Smart Home Industry Is a Mess
Before we talk about which products you should think about buying, let’s quickly explore why the smart home industry is so intimidating. In short, there are way too many protocols, and this is causing confusion.
Here are some of the more well-known ones:
And there are dozens of others with less traction. Combine that with the hundreds of different products on the market and it’s easy to see how someone could be overwhelmed. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed right now.
But don’t worry about any of that. Here’s our recommendation: stick with products that support Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Thread.
Wi-Fi is ubiquitous but tends to require more power and battery life, so it’s great as a last resort for connectivity. Z-Wave is supported by most major smart home brands and Thread recently came out with an open source implementation. Z-Wave is the now, Thread is the future.
As we recommend products, we’re only going to focus on ones that support at least two of those three protocols. This way, the hard work is done for you.
1. The Amazon Echo
The Amazon Echo is an incredible device. It started off as a voice-operated Bluetooth speaker, but has evolved into something much greater. It can now interface with various smart home products, allowing you to control them using only your voice.
Or in other words, not only is the Echo a useful device on its own, but you can use it as a kind of simplified hub for supported smart home devices.
What can the Echo do? A lot, actually. Ask questions and it will return answers. Order items off of Amazon with a single sentence (it’s tied to your Amazon account and details). It can also stream music, play audiobooks, report news and weather, and find information on nearby businesses and restaurants.
And there’s very little setup involved. It’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box, which also makes it one of the best techy gifts you can give to friends and family.
But again, in the context of a smart home, the Echo’s most valuable asset is its expanding ability to connect directly to other devices and provide voice control throughout your home. We’re about to explore some of those devices below.
2. Smart Thermostat
A smart thermostat is perhaps the second most useful smart product you can buy. Not only does it make your life more comfortable and convenient, but it can also save you money in the long run.
For example, the Nest Learning Thermostat costs about $250 but can end up cutting your heating bill in half during the cold winters, all without sacrificing much of your comfort. You’ll recoup the initial cost in one or two years.
And even though the Nest involves a little bit of setup, the process is easy enough that you’ll be able to do it even if you have no experience dealing with thermostats. Consult our guide to installing the Nest thermostat to see just how easy it is.
The best part is that the Nest thermostat can now interface directly with the Echo by enabling the Nest skill in the Alexa app. Use voice commands to change the temperature or provide Nest with comfort level feedback.
These are two alternatives to the Nest thermostat that are actually quite formidable and worth checking out. Despite Nest being the most popular choice, a lot of people are starting to see the value in both Ecobee3 and Sensi.
3. Smart Light Switches
Many users recommend smart home newbies to start with smart lighting and bulbs because they’re easy, but I personally don’t think that smart bulbs provide much value because they are so limited in what they can do.
Instead, opt to purchase smart light switches or smart outlets! They can be used to toggle all kinds of devices on and off, including the bulbs you’re already using throughout your home.
Where should you start? We recommend the WeMo Wi-Fi Light Switch which is basically a regular light switch that can be turned on and off from anywhere.
One thing that might scare you away is the price tag, but I promise you it’s worth it. Three smart light switches might cost $150, but it won’t take long for you to fall in love.
The best thing about the WeMo Light Switch is that it’s directly compatible with the Echo. You can label each one (e.g. “coffee pot”) and then use voice commands to toggle them (“Alexa, turn on the coffee pot”).
The setup for the light switch is basic and only takes a few minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable doing electrical work, you can always ask a friend who has some experience, or just hire a professional.
4. A Smart Hub + A Few Sensors
If you want to take your smart home from the basics to the next level, you’ll want to start using a smart home automation hub, of which there are several to choose from. However, for us, nothing beats the newbie-friendliness of the Samsung SmartThings Hub.
The hub doesn’t do anything on its own, but acts as a central “brain” for dozens of other SmartThings devices. Connect them to the hub, the hub controls the devices, you control the hub from afar — and the setup is easy plug-and-play.
Yet again, the best part is that this smart hub is also directly compatible with the Echo. You can now control most aspects of the SmartThings Hub just by using voice commands with Alexa.
What can you connect to the SmartThings Hub? Sensors, mostly. That might sound boring, but trust me, these sensors are very useful, flexible, and can even prevent thousands of dollars in potential damages.
- The SmartThings Motion Sensor can detect motion and trigger actions accordingly, such as turning off lights, turning on the thermostat, or toggling outlets.
- The SmartThings Water Leak Sensor immediately sends you an alert (or triggers an action, like turning on a light) whenever it detects excess water. Very useful for emergencies and preventing water damage.
- The SmartThings Arrival Sensor is a portable device that relays its position to the hub. You can use it to know when people or pets leave or arrive at home, be notified when someone is out late, trigger actions, etc.
- The SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor can detect vibrations, orientation changes, and temperature changes. It can adjust the thermostat or even alert you if a window or drawer is unexpectedly opened.
I wouldn’t consider these to be essential purchases, but they definitely have a lot of potential to do good around the house. If you’re on a tight budget, feel free to skip these, as the sensors can really add up over time.
5. A Smart Home Door Lock
The last “practical and easy” item I want to highlight is the smart home door lock. There are many models to choose from, but the one we recommend is the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt.
The Schlage Connect is a replacement for any door lock. There’s a bit of setup involved but the instructions are simple enough that anyone can follow them. Or if you aren’t comfortable, you can always ask a friend to help.
The Schlage Connect has up to 30 unique PIN pad entry codes, a built-in alarm that alerts you when it detects suspicious activity, and ANSI Grade 1 security durability.
The Schlage Connect doesn’t work with the Echo, but it does work with the SmartThings Hub. This allows you to lock or unlock remotely via the web, with your smartphone, or with one of the SmartThings sensors.
There are other smart home door locks if you don’t like this one, but many of them have unreliable ratings and reviews. The Schlage Connect is effective, convenient, and built to last.
Now You Have a Functional Smart Home
With these five pieces, you should have a smart home setup that didn’t take much effort to put together, yet offers a lot of practical benefits in your day-to-day life. The bonus is that all five of those pieces can seamlessly interact with each other!
What’s your biggest reason for not having a smart home? Or if you do have a smart home, which devices have you found to be most valuable and useful? We’d love to hear about your smart home experiences in the comments!
Image Credit: kid playing with a smartphone by wk1003mike via Shutterstock