How to Build an Effective and Affordable Smart Home From the Ground Up
The smart home industry is booming, and everyone is hopping aboard the bandwagon. This trend that was once derided as a gimmick is being vindicated as more and more users realize how useful smart devices can be.
If you don’t know the first thing about “smart homes” or “smart devices,” then you’ve come to the right place. By the end of this article, you’ll know everything you need to know about smart technology, including what it is, how it works, and which devices to purchase or avoid.
What Is a Smart Home?
There’s a good chance you already own a smart device: the smartphone. What makes a smartphone smart? It can connect to the internet. That’s literally all it means. Any normal device can become a smart device by giving it internet capabilities.
A smartwatch is an internet-capable watch. A smart TV is an internet-capable TV. A smart bulb is an internet-capable light bulb. And a smart home is any home that contains and is improved by smart devices.
Not all smart homes are equal, of course. Some people go to the extreme and replace everything with “smartened” versions, like smart coffee makers and smart sprinklers and smart refrigerators. Others are more reserved, choosing to install only a few highly-practical smart devices.
But why do all of these devices need internet connectivity at all? Do you really need to browse the web on your refrigerator? Not likely. The main purpose of a smart home isn’t so you can reach the internet through your devices — it’s so that your devices can communicate with each other using their interconnectivity.
The “Internet of Things”
This interesting phenomenon where various devices are all networked together and communicate with each other is called the Internet of Things (IoT). Not the most catchy name, but it gets the point across.
When devices are connected wirelessly they can pass data back and forth, and also send and receive commands. That last part is the key to why the smart home trend has exploded in popularity.
Imagine if you could set your thermostat using a smartphone app. Or if you could turn off certain lights in your house just by tapping your smartwatch. Or if you could check if your front door is locked, even when you’re miles away from home. A smart home makes it all possible.
What Are the Benefits and Risks?
Smart homes and the Internet of Things can both improve your life and your home in drastic ways. Several notable reasons for diving into the trend include:
- Convenience — Smart devices just make life easier. Of course there are weird and gimmicky gadgets to avoid, but on the whole, the convenience factor is priceless.
- Efficiency — In one sense, many smart devices can do tasks faster than their dumb counterparts. In another sense, the convenience of smart devices can free up time to focus more on things that matter, like work, hobbies, and family.
- Entertainment — Some smart devices, like streaming media players , open up forms of entertainment that you didn’t have before. Other smart devices, like smart light bulbs , are downright fun to play with and customize.
- Security — When used properly, some smart devices can actually improve home safety and protect against property damage.
That being said, there are two main risks for having a smart home:
- Obsolescence — Because the smart home industry is still relatively young, standards are still evolving. The technology being used today may not be the same technology used in five years. Plus, if a company goes under, your devices may lose certain features.
- Security — Any device that connects to the internet inherits the risks of being on the internet. Data can be snooped and intercepted. Hackers can gain control of specific devices or even entire networks. And yes, devices can be infected with malware.
Should these risks deter you? It depends on your level of risk tolerance.
The Risk of Smart Home Obsolescence
Obsolescence isn’t just a problem with smart homes. Standards change, new devices are released, and if you want to take advantage of new features, you need to upgrade. We already do this with wireless routers, smartphones, TVs, computers, tablets, and more.
If you’re really worried, you can wait a few more years to see where the smart home industry settles. The best way to avoid being burned by obsolescence is to avoid being an early adopter , and the Internet of Things is still in that phase.
The Risk of Smart Home Security
To create a safe and secure smart home, you need to maintain a safe and secure network — and the best way to do that is to configure your router properly : use WPA2 instead of WPS, enable the router’s firewall (if it has one), disable UPnP, and keep the firmware updated.
Passwords are also a big deal. The first thing you should do with any new smart device is change its default password, assuming it has one. Avoid these common password mistakes , and make sure each device’s password is unique!
Take the proper precautions and you should be fine. If you’re still worried, assume that any smart device you purchase will be hacked. If you can live with that, then go ahead and buy it.
For example, a hacked security camera lets someone peek in your home, so maybe you should forego it. But a hacked coffee maker isn’t going to cause much harm, so maybe you feel comfortable enough to get one. Learn more about potential smart home vulnerabilities .
How Much Does a Smart Home Cost?
By this point, a lot of people have one burning question in the back of their minds: “Aren’t smart homes expensive?” Yes and no. They can be, but they don’t have to be.
The beauty of a smart home is that you can pick and choose what to include, what to ignore, and how much to spend on each device. Asking “How much does a smart home cost?” is like asking “How much does a living room cost?” There’s a wide range between IKEA and antiques.
So let’s turn the question around a bit. Is it possible to smarten up your home for less than $500? Or $250? Or even $100? You bet!
Smart home starter kits are available from all the big brands for between $100 and $300. However, to get the most bang for your buck, it may be better to buy pieces separately as you need them. For low-cost piecemeal options, see our starter recommendations on a budget .
On the other hand, a full makeover for a suburban house could cost up to $5,000. This would include heating and cooling solutions, security and surveillance systems, entertainment systems, and much more. That sounds like a lot, but when you compare it to other common home improvements, the value-per-dollar is incredible:
- Cost to remodel a bathroom: $9,400
- Cost to remodel a kitchen: $21,600
- Cost to remodel a basement: $18,900
So how much will a smart home cost you? It depends on what you buy. As we explore the various types of smart devices, each section will have an “Anticipated Cost” summary that you can use to estimate how much you may end up spending.
Notable Smart Devices for Newbies
There are a lot of smart devices and gadgets on the market right now, with more coming out every month. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so don’t feel too bad if that’s you right now. We’ll walk you through the most common and most useful options currently available.
The key is to start slow and small. Pick one device that looks interesting, then master it before adding another device to your home. It’s a process, and there’s no need to rush. You can even think of it as a hobby, if that helps. Stretch your smart home acquisitions out over many years and upgrade as needed.
Smart Hubs and Assistants (Easy Difficulty)
If every smart device is like an organ in the human body, then a smart hub is like the brain. It doesn’t do anything special on its own, but acts as a central operator that controls what everything else does.
A smart assistant is like a smart hub on steroids. It can do all kinds of stuff on its own, like recording notes or shopping online, in addition to controlling other devices in the network. If you know about Amazon Echo or one of its variants , then you know what a smart assistant can do.
In order for a hub or assistant to control another device, the controller and receiver need to support the same protocol. You can think of a protocol as a kind of language that smart devices use to communicate. Some devices only support one protocol, some support several, but none support all protocols.
Notable modern protocols include:
- Clear Connect
As of this writing, no protocol is the industry standard. However, Z-Wave and ZigBee are the two most common, so stick with those two if you want as much versatility as possible. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support are good to have as well.
Since a smart hub connects to many devices, it should support as many protocols as possible, especially Z-Wave and ZigBee. Therefore we recommend the following hubs:
- SmartThings V2 Hub (UK) — Supports Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee.
- Wink Hub 2 (UK)— Supports Bluetooth, Clear Connect, Kidde, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee.
- VeraPlus Controller (/UK/a>) — Supports Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee.
But with the growing popularity of smart assistants, smart hubs may become obsolete over the next few years. As such, a safer bet would be to opt for either the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Both devices are currently quite popular with bright futures ahead of them.
To be clear, you don’t need a smart hub or assistant for a smart home. Only a handful of devices require one — many smart devices operate just fine on their own. A hub or assistant simply grants more control, flexibility, and automation, especially if you plan on using multiple devices in tandem.
Anticipated cost: Between $80 and $125 for a smart hub, between $100 and $180 for a smart assistant. You’ll only need one, and it isn’t mandatory at all.
Smart Lighting (Easy Difficulty)
Smart lighting allows you to control the lights in your home using your smartphone. When choosing smart lighting devices, there are three main types to consider:
- Smart plugs, which are like outlet middlemen: the smart plug connects to an outlet, and another device plugs into the smart plug. You can control the on/off state of the smart plug from your smartphone, thus controlling its connected device.
- Pros: Can be used with other devices, not just lamps.
- Cons: Few devices are simple enough to work with just an on/off state.
- Smart bulbs, which are like regular light bulbs that can be controlled individually by smartphone, and these bulbs are designed to be one-to-one replacements for incandescent, CFL, and LED bulbs.
- Pros: Easy to install. Can be creative with color-changing bulbs.
- Cons: Extremely expensive on a per-bulb basis. Limited bulb varieties.
- Smart switches, which are like regular light switches that can be controlled individually by smartphone. They are directly wired into your home’s electrical lines, which requires a bit more skill and caution than plugs and bulbs.
- Pros: Works with any bulb type. Dimmer switches are available.
- Cons: Hands-on installation is a pain. Not very cost-effective.
If you go the smart switch route, we recommend the WeMo Light Switch (or WeMo Dimmer Light Switch) because it’s one of the easiest to install and communicates with Alexa. The TP-Link Light Switch is also solid, requires no hub, and communicates with Alexa.
If you prefer the ease of bulbs, we recommend sticking with either Philips Hue or LIFX smart lights . Yes, there are cheaper alternatives out there, but few are as widely supported as these two.
As for smart plugs, we recommend staying away. Spend your money on an actual smart device instead. Smart plugs were interesting when they first came out, but have since lost their novelty and don’t offer any unique benefits.
Anticipated cost: Between $15 and $35 for a smart plug, between $10 to $60 per smart bulb, and between $40 and $80 for a smart switch.
Smart Entertainment (Easy Difficulty)
Smart entertainment comes in many forms, but the most common is media streaming. With the right smart entertainment setup, you won’t need cable TV anymore — just stream your favorite shows and movies off the internet on demand.
The three most popular options are Chromecast, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.
Google currently offers the original Chromecast ($25) and the newer Chromecast Ultra ($69). Either way, it’s simple enough to use: just plug the device into an HDMI-compatible TV, then plug in the power adapter. Both allow streaming from sites like Netflix and YouTube, but the Ultra supports 4K resolution and loads faster.
Like the Chromecast, Roku is a line of plug-and-play devices that can stream thousands of shows and movies. Unlike Chromecast, Roku devices come with remote controls for a more convenient viewing experience. The lineup consists of six models:
- Roku Express — The basic stick model. Up to 1080p streaming.
- Roku Express+ — The same as the Roku Express but supports older TVs that use A/V cables instead of the newer HDMI cable.
- Roku Streaming Stick — A faster and more powerful version of the Roku Express. Remote can “point anywhere,” not just at the device.
- Roku Premiere — The basic box model. Up to 4K streaming.
- Roku Premiere+ — The same as the Roku Premiere but comes with an Ethernet port, plus a headphone port in the remote control.
- Roku Ultra — The same as the Roku Premiere+ but comes with HDR capabilities, a USB port for external drives, and voice search in the remote control.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s foray into streaming devices, which complements Prime Video, involves two device models: the plug-and-play Fire TV Stick and the set-top box Fire TV. Both can stream hundreds of other channels that aren’t Prime Video, and both come with a remote control with Alexa-based voice control.
A Note on Smart TVs
Separate from the above, there’s also something called a smart TV. While smart TVs aren’t exactly worth buying , it’s getting harder and harder these days to find TVs that aren’t smart. If you need a new TV but can’t find a non-smart variety, see these tips for buying modern TVs .
Anticipated cost: Between $25 to $50 for a stick device, between $70 to $110 for a more powerful set-top box device.
Smart Thermostats (Moderate Difficulty)
Smart thermostats are one of the few smart devices that can actually save you money. You’ll pay somewhere between $100 and $300 up front, but potentially shave hundreds of dollars off your energy bill every year. A smart thermostat will easily pay for itself.
Most people don’t know the most energy-efficient way to use the thermostat — and many who do know are too busy or lazy to keep it up all year long. A smart thermostat controls heating, cooling, and fan units to optimize comfort while minimizing energy waste.
Some features you’ll find in smart thermostats:
- Control remotely using a smartphone app.
- Control by voice using a smart hub or assistant like Alexa.
- Automatically turns down when nobody is home.
- Automatically adjust based on weather and personal preferences.
- Automatically adjust based on IFTTT events and triggers.
- Energy monitor shows how much you’re saving.
The Nest Thermostat is the most popular smart thermostat by a long shot. You should get it if you aren’t a tinkerer because you’ll find lots of help and resources for it online. See how the Nest can cut your energy bills in half and do much more than just control temperature . (Another option would be the Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat, which is arguably better than Nest .)
A Note on Installing Smart Thermostats
You will need a bit of basic electrical knowledge to install the device. There is risk of injury if you aren’t careful! Not comfortable dealing with wires? Ask a friend or pay for expert installation. If you choose to go with Nest, we have a guide to setting up the Nest Smart Thermostat .
Anticipated cost: Between $125 and $250, ignoring energy savings.
Smart Sensors (Easy Difficulty)
A smart sensor is a device that detects changes in the environment, then alerts you with a notification (by email, text message, or push notification). Common sensor types include motion sensors, smoke/gas sensors, open/closed sensors, moisture sensors, and even air quality sensors.
While these may sound mundane, they could end up being one of the best smart devices you ever buy , especially if you own a home. Are they worth the cost? Absolutely.
Motion sensors in particular are extremely versatile: if you’re clever about it, motion sensors can greatly improve your life . Open/closed sensors can track when windows are opened (e.g. when your teenager sneaks out at night) or when doors aren’t properly closed.
Moisture sensors can spot leaks long before they cause water damage to property, while air quality sensors can help with allergies, asthma, and other health issues. And most importantly, smart detectors can save your life .
Anticipated cost: Between $25 to $50 per sensor.
Smart Surveillance (Moderate Difficulty)
A smart surveillance system is just a fancy way to say “hidden cameras that you can view and control using your smartphone.” Whether you’re at a friend’s house, a restaurant, or taking a road trip, you can pop in on your home at any time from anywhere.
Other useful features that may come with a smart surveillance device include footage recording, cloud storage, facial recognition, motion-based alerts, and night vision.
Of the many cameras out there, we specifically recommend three (listed in order from lowest to highest price). They’re all easy to set up, simple to use, and feature complete:
One more crucial note: Do not use internet-connected baby monitors ! You’d be surprised how easy it is for someone to hack into one of these and spy on your newborn. It’s also a reason to avoid smart assistants around your children. However, other baby-related smart gadgets can be useful, as can digital video monitors that use a dedicated signal instead of Wi-Fi.
Anticipated cost: Between $60 to $180 per camera. Some brands offer bundle packs with reduced per-camera costs.
Smart Doorbells (Moderate Difficulty)
A smart doorbell replaces your regular doorbell and alerts you on your smartphone whenever somebody comes ringing. In addition, most smart doorbells allow two-way audio communication, HD video streaming, motion detection, night vision, and footage recording.
To install one, you’ll need a drill and a bit of elbow grease. While unscrewing your existing doorbell isn’t difficult per se, it can be daunting if you’ve never done it before. (The drill is needed to make additional holes for screws.) The process itself is quite simple.
Options range from the very inexpensive Zmodo Greet (it’s good but you get what you pay for) to the mid-range VueBell Video Doorbell (also good but relatively new) to the acclaimed but expensive Ring Video Doorbell (as good as it gets).
Anticipated cost: Between $80 to $180 for one doorbell. To learn more, check out our guide to smart doorbells .
Smart Locks (Moderate Difficulty)
A smart lock replaces the normal locking mechanism of any door. The smart lock itself can be controlled from afar, either locking or unlocking at the tap of a smartphone button. They can also unlock as you arrive home or lock as you leave.
But that’s not all they can do.
Some smart locks, like the August Smart Lock, can give out “guest keys” to other people. These digital keys can be permanent or set to expire at a certain time: useful for visiting family members, babysitters, petsitters, cleaners, contractors, etc.
Anticipated cost: Between $180 to $285 for one lock. To learn more, check out our guide to smart locks .
Smart Appliances (Moderate Difficulty)
Smart appliances give a bad name to smart technology — they represent the epitome of luxury, excess, and waste. We’re talking internet-connected washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and more. There’s no good reason for these devices to be internet capable, yet here we are.
And it’s not just that most smart appliances offer few practical benefits beyond what a normal “dumb” appliance can do. It’s that you open yourself up to so much extra risk when you connect an appliance to the internet.
In 2015, a Samsung smart fridge was hacked . If you (for some reason) used said fridge to access email, view calendars, or store notes on Evernote, then your private data could have been hacked and stolen — through your refrigerator, for goodness sake!
It’s absolute nonsense. The risk versus reward isn’t worth it. Most smart appliances are stupid and you should avoid them unless you have money to burn. (Smart kitchen gadgets , on the other hand, can be useful under the right conditions.)
Anticipated cost: Between $1,500 to $6,000 per appliance.
Smart Vacuums (Easy Difficulty)
Smart vacuums, also called robotic vacuums, can be hit or miss. In theory, the vacuum wakes up, turns on, roams your house and sucks up dust and debris, then returns to its pad and goes to sleep to recharge. It does this on a schedule, freeing you from the responsibility of keeping your floors clean.
The ILIFE A4s Robot Vacuum offers excellent value for its price. It’s on the cheaper end, but it’s not cheap — it’s robust, has great longevity, and is more effective than most of its competitors at maneuvering and cleaning tough spots.
If you can get a reliable model for a reasonable price, there’s no reason why a smart vacuum can’t make your life easier. They’re especially useful for pet owners. But if you want to hear the other side of the story, read up on why smart vacuums can be a waste of money .
Anticipated cost: Between $150 to $900 per vacuum.
Smart Gimmicks (Moderate Difficulty)
A smart gimmick is tough to define, but here’s how we view them: any device that only serves one or two niche features, thus lacking in widespread appeal. It could be practical or it might not be. Most may roll their eyes at it, but a handful will come to love it.
Examples include smart gadgets that help you sleep better , smart tools for tending your garden , and smart devices for surviving the summer . You probably don’t care about any of these, but maybe one catches your eye.
On the more popular side, you have things like smart fitness trackers and smart automatic pet feeders . While these offer practical benefits, they’re completely unnecessary and verge on luxury territory.
Truth is, you’ll find all kinds of weird smart home gadgets out there. It’s up to you to decide which ones are worthwhile and which ones aren’t. That’s the nature of niche gadgetry — it all depends on which niches you belong to.
Anticipated cost: Between $50 to $200 per gimmick.
What Will Be in Your Smart Home?
Let’s say you have an average dumb home: nothing but a smartphone and a computer. What would it look like to smarten it up based on all of the above advice?
- Decide if you want a hub, assistant, or neither. To really reap the benefits of a smart home, you’ll probably want one. And if you get one, Amazon Echo is probably the safest choice right now.
- Decide if you can use a smart thermostat. If you don’t live in a house you own, you probably can’t. If you own your house, you’ll also need central heating and/or cooling.
- Decide if you need security devices and/or sensors. This means surveillance cameras, a doorbell, and/or a lock. Let’s say you get three entry-level cameras and a doorbell but hold off on the lock and sensors for the time being.
- Skip the smart plugs, light bulbs, appliances, vacuum, and gimmicks unless you absolutely need them. You likely don’t.
To get an Amazon Echo, Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat, three Lynx Indoor Security Cameras, and a Ring Video Doorbell, the cost is $725.
That’s perhaps a little pricey for some, but remember: you can start slow and incorporate items over many months or years. Even if you dish out the cash and buy them all at once, that’s less than the price of a next-gen smartphone — and for it, your home gains a lot of extra utility!
One last thing: using a third-party service called IFTTT, you can push your smart home to the next level without paying an extra cent.
How do you feel about the smart home trend? Are you ready to dive in? Which devices have caught your eye? Got any other tips to add? Share with us in the comments down below!
Image Credit: Jirsak via Shutterstock.com
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