How to Make a Smart Home From a Dumb One
It’s summer, 85 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and you’re about to leave home. As you leave your bedroom, the lights dim slowly and eventually turn off. You walk down the hall, step out the door, and lock it. Inside, you can hear the air condition sputter to a stop. As you saunter down the street, you wonder if you left the coffee pot on, but don’t think twice about it, as the appliance is running an automated check right now to ensure it’s off. Later that night, around 11:15, your mattress cover will cool down your side of the bed so it’s just the way you like it by 11:30, when you hit the hay.
This kind of smart home system is already possible. All kinds of small appliances, light bulbs, door sensors, and other home products can automatically turn on and off when triggered by certain actions. Smart homes make life more comfortable, and they’re typically designed to be power-efficient, which could save you money.
If you’re interested in taking your home from dumb to smart, how do you start? And how can you build on it to make it incrementally more intelligent all the time? One very important note about smart home components is that you must change the default user name and password when you set them up. If you don’t, you’re leaving your home exposed to hackers and other threats.
My First Smart Home
Alex Colon, my colleague at PCMag, analyzes and reviews smart home products. I asked his recommendation for a good first buy for someone making his or her home smart for the first time.
Some of the most affordable products are smart light bulbs. But don’t get suckered into buying them right away. On their own, they can’t do much at all.
Colon says the best place to get started is to start with a hub. One that he recommends for beginners is the $50 Wink Connected Home Hub. “It isn’t perfect, but it’s cheap, and it supports most of the digital home connectivity protocols out there,” he said.
Once you have a hub, then you can add a few light bulbs.
Some smart lightbulb sets can cost upward of $200. Part of the reason Colon recommends the Wink hub is because it works with GE Link Connected LEDs, another great product for first-timers. “At $15 each, they’re some of the least expensive connected bulbs on the market,” he said.
If 15 bucks sounds stiff for one bulb, you should know that their life expectancy is 22 years, and they use 80 percent less power than traditional bulbs. So the savings could add up fast.
“You can controls individual bulbs or groups of them from your smartphone,” Colon said, “and you can schedule bulbs so that they turn on when you wake up, or turn off when you leave for work.”
Let’s say you like your current bulbs and lighting exactly the way they are. Another route into the same baby-step is to add dimmer modules to your existing lamps. The $99 Insteon Starter Kit includes one hub and two lamp dimmers, which are like plug adapters. You plug your existing lamp into the module and plug the module into the wall. Insteon CEO Joe Dada told me that a new user can be up and running with this kit in just a few minutes.
One more simple product that Colon recommends for beginners is the Quirky Pivot Power Genius. Similar to lamp dimmer adapters, the Quirky Pivot is a power strip that lets you plug in things you already own. It has two outlets that can be controlled remotely using a mobile app (plus two “dumb” outlets). Anything you plug in can be scheduled to turn on and off according to a schedule or times you set.
Step Up Your Smart Home
Light bulbs might keep you busy for a while, but at some point, you’ll want to connect more things.
“Very few products around the home can’t be connected to the Internet,” according to Ryan Fant and Nayeem Hussain, co-founders at Keen Home, another smart home device company that makes smart air vents. “Everything from speakers to slow cookers are smart these days,” they told me by email.
Soup pots and coffee makers are limited in their utility, though, and if you’re really ready to step up your smart home, you’ll want a device that’s simply, well, smarter. The new Luna smart mattress cover is a perfect example.
The Luna cover (available to pre-order for $199 in a queen size, $219 for king, and $229 for California king) fits over your existing mattress and connects with other devices that are related to sleeping, like alarm clocks, lights, and thermostat. I saw the new mattress cover in action recently, when Luna co-founders Matteo Franceschetti and Massimo Andreasi Bassi set up an entire fake bedroom to demonstrate how it works.
Luna is full of sensors that learn what time you go to bed, how quickly you fall asleep, and what temperature you like your side of the mattress. It tracks your heart rate and respiratory rate while you sleep, and that helps it figure out when you’re in light and deep sleep. With that information, it can work with a smart alarm clock to wake you up during a window that you set, say between 6:15 a.m. and 6:35 a.m., but it won’t wake you if you’re in deep sleep.
Franceschetti and Bassi mentioned one other key component to making a smart home a little smarter: IFTTT . IFTTT stands for “if this, then that.” It’s a website and mobile app that you use to write little commands, but without any programming. You create an account on IFTTT and authenticate it to connect to other online services that you use, everything from email to Facebook to the account that controls your smart mattress cover. Then, by selecting options on the screen, you make what IFTTT calls recipes, such as, “If the mattress senses I got out bed, then turn on the smart coffeemaker.”
Going Whole Hog
Once you have the basics down, you might want to go whole hog with your smart home. So what’s next?
“To deck a house out, switches and keypads are crucial,” said Insteon CEO Joe Dada. “They give you control of all your lighting and appliances whether they’re in the same room or not. They also give you the status of devices you can’t directly see, for example knowing whether my kid’s lights are still on.”
Dada said if you’re interested in really ramping up your home, think about adding a smart thermostat for climate control, like the Nest Thermostat, and door sensors to see movement in and out of the home. People’s coming and going can inform the actions of your smart appliances, creating those if-then commands.
Fant and Hussain of Keen Home suggested three areas in which someone might specialize while kitting out their home. “If the customer is focused primarily on security, then perhaps they should invest in ADT Pulse,” they explained. “It is important to note that the Pulse platform charges a premium monthly price compared to other options on the market. If the customer is focused primarily on entertainment, then perhaps they should look into Comcast’s XFINITY Home platform, which ties in enriched video (cable and streaming) with smart lighting and thermostat controls. If the customer is focused primarily on comfort, then perhaps they should build their smart home around the Nest Learning Thermostat—which also acts as connected home hub to communicate and coordinate other devices.”
Part of the beauty of the Nest system family of products is it includes a smart smoke detector called Protect as well as a simple security camera, the Dropcam Pro. Nest supports a huge number of devices made by other companies, too, so it’s flexible to your needs.
Dada recommended the pros look into his company’s Insteon Connected Kit (about $349), which includes an Insteon Hub, two dimmer modules, a thermostat, an open/close door sensor, a motion sensor, a leak water sensor, and a Wi-Fi camera.
The Upkeep Question
Deciding on products to buy, getting them, installing them, and setting up commands for their use takes a little time, but by and large, it’s a one-shot investment per product on the order of about 30 minutes. Keeping up those appliances and home systems, however, will cost you, but not very much, according to Fant and Hussain at Keen Home.
“Outside of a product occasionally losing network connectivity and replacing batteries, there shouldn’t be too much ongoing maintenance for someone’s smart home,” they told me. “Most of the products that receive great customer reviews and that I would recommend to friends are quite robust and reliable.” Upkeep time over time, they add, should be about the same as maintain an average smoke detector. “Any connected home product that adds complexity to a consumer’s life is at best a poorly designed product and at worst a solution chasing a problem.”