What is a smart home, and how can your house get smarter?

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A smart home is, in many ways, what our parents dreamed the future would look like. Sure, on the surface it’s a more mundane future than laser beams and jetpacks, but in its own way it’s incredibly exciting — with smart home technology you can have a home you can control and monitor from anywhere, as well as customize in ultra-specific ways. If you’ve found yourself asking, “What is a smart home, exactly?” read on for a comprehensive look at how they work.

In a nutshell

John Bodrozic, co-founder of home management software company HomeZada, describes a smart home as “a collection of hardware with software interfaces that allow homeowners to control home security, safety, lighting, climate control, yard maintenance, energy and resource use, in comfort and convenience”.

To put it more plainly, the devices in a smart home are all connected to the internet, allowing you to control and access them remotely. This might be as simple as turning the heating on from your phone while on your way home, or it might be — or at least feel — far more complex, involving several devices interacting with one another, or learning patterns of use to effectively run themselves.

One of the most common goals in a smart home is efficiency, in terms of saving both energy (i.e., only running heating and lighting at certain times) and time (by saving effort on the part of the homeowner). The other common aim is security: A smart security system can not only record anything undesired happening to your house, but alert you (wherever you are) and the authorities as well.

How smart home systems work

Smart home systems work through a combination of devices — physical objects with internet connectivity in addition to their more traditional capabilities — and software used to manage them, most commonly phone apps, but sometimes programs on games consoles or computers. Some are all about allowing you to control devices remotely, while others are more about monitoring and learning (often using AI) how to best look after your home and, in some cases, yourself. Because what is a smart home for if it’s not teaching you something, too?

Examples of smart home automation and technologies

Many people have smart home devices in their homes already, without necessarily thinking of them in that way. Devices like the Google Nest Thermostat, the Ring Smart Doorbell and Amazon Smart Plugs are all very common, easy to use and adopted by a wide spectrum of people.

Google Nest Thermostat – Smart Thermostat for Home – Programmable Wifi Thermostat – Snow

Ring Video Doorbell – 1080p HD video, improved motion detection, easy installation – Satin Nickel

Amazon Smart Plug | Works with Alexa | control lights with voice | easy to set up and use

But these are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are endless smart devices available. Want a fridge that can tell you everything that’s in it and when it’ll expire? Want a security camera system with face recognition? A bed that monitors your sleep? All these and more are available.

Benefits of smart home automation

Security benefits

“As our daily lives become increasingly interconnected, home security has evolved to include a range of smart devices,” says Frank Polidoro, chief revenue officer at smart lock manufacturer Lockly. “From security cameras and video doorbells to sophisticated smart locks, there are products designed to meet diverse needs with various feature sets, aesthetics and adaptability for all types of doors, including options such as video integration, two-way audio, advanced 3D biometric fingerprint technology, virtual keypads and even solar-powered models.”

Efficiency benefits

What is a smart home if not efficient? A smart home allows the homeowner to be more efficient in terms of energy use and not waste utilities unnecessarily. It can also reduce lost time in a myriad of ways. For instance, a smart doorbell that lets you talk to a delivery driver when you’re out means no more missed packages and rearranged deliveries. Preheating your oven remotely 20 minutes before you get home means a quicker dinner. And what’s more valuable than your time?

Personal and wellness benefits

Smart home devices can have health benefits, as Mark S. Aloia, Ph.D., head of sleep and behavioral sciences at smart bed company Sleep Number, explains. “Having smart technology in your bedroom — anything from smart alarms and smart blinds/lights to furniture like smart beds — could provide a range of health, lifestyle and wellness benefits, and ultimately contribute to a healthier or a more comfortable lifestyle.” Smart beds, for instance, use sensors to track and analyze your sleep, heart rate and breathing to build up a clear and detailed picture of your sleep.

Types of smart home devices

Smart home devices available include, but are not limited to:

  • Smart TVs.
  • Smart lighting systems.
  • Smart thermostats.
  • Smart doorbells.
  • Smart beds.
  • Smart speakers.
  • Smart locks.
  • Smart security systems.
  • Smart irrigation systems.
  • Smart ovens.
  • Smart fridges.

How to create a smart home

Figure out what you really want

If you’re pondering how to set up a smart home, start by figuring out your priorities. “Break down what aspect of a smart home is most important to you,” advises Bodrozic. ”Prioritize your home activity into security and safety, energy and resource use, climate control, lighting, lifestyle and financial categories. And really prioritize what’s important to you: Do you want to interact with tangible hardware devices to control temperature, lighting and security? Or do you prefer to manage your home through a laptop or personal device?”

If there are only one or two areas you’re concerned about, a DIY approach should be OK — it might be less a case of transforming your entire home into a smart home and more of a case of cleverly utilizing a few devices.

A more ambitious system might involve hardwiring (as opposed to wirelessly connecting), which is always likely to be a bigger and more expensive undertaking. A hardwired system is put together as part of the house, so while it would stay there if you left, it should add value to your home.

Explore your financial options

Something that can seem off-putting is the idea that turning your home into a smart home item-by-item can result in a disconnected non-system, where your fridge hates your lights, you have to carry an old phone with you to operate your thermostat, and so on. It’s easy enough to conclude that doing anything other than going all-in will lead to a less smart home than you wanted.

But, explains Omer Brookstein, chief executive officer and co-founder of Xyte, a platform for Internet of Things service and subscription plans, this isn’t an either/or thing, and waiting until you can do everything at once perfectly likely means it’ll never happen.

“As time passes, the array of smart home options will expand, which means it will only become harder to do ‘all of it’ at once,” he says. “Instead, prioritize smart home retailers that offer payment models beyond the standard one-time product purchases. With such retailers, instead of paying a lump sum to purchase a smart home device, customers subscribe to the devices the same way they subscribe to their streaming services. This helps avoid the burden of upfront product costs, allowing people to spread their smart home budget across more devices.”

Consider hiring professionals

Without a grand plan, it’s easy to replace or upgrade one item at a time in your home and end up in a situation where you have, as Paul Williams, managing director of the home management business unit at Nice Group, describes it, “a number of smart devices that eventually need to be run on separate apps, don’t talk to each other and overall seem to be counterproductive. This is where do-it-yourself solutions fail.”

There are home management companies that will install entire systems at once, so that everything is integrated in a streamlined, conflict-free way. This obviously costs more than a DIY, ad-hoc approach, but in Williams’ eyes at least, it can be enormously worth it. “A truly smart home rests on an ecosystem of devices that can be economically installed by professionals, with full featured products and solutions that provide the consumer with one app to control the experience,” he says. “This is where the real customer value lies: a reliable system that’s easy to use.”

The pros and cons of having a smart home

Pros:

  • You can run a smart home in a much more energy-efficient manner than a less-than-smart one. Lights and heating can be run only when needed. A smart fridge can help to reduce food wastage. This improved general efficiency everywhere can add up to enormous time savings. And when away from home, you can still keep an eye on things, which can be extremely reassuring.
  • “If we all agree that owning a home is hard, which for most is a fair assumption, owning a smart home can be easier,” says Bodrozic. His company offers an AI-assisted service to give homeowners incredibly in-depth information specific to their home, which can be invaluable both in terms of making sensible financial decisions and the peace of mind of knowing the most expensive thing you’ll ever own, inside-out.

Cons:

  • Everything in your house being connected to the internet places a lot of pressure on that connection being stable and reliable. At one time, the internet “going down” meant you couldn’t surf the web, but these days it can mean you can’t adjust your smart home’s thermostat. (That said, losing the household internet connection is a lot less common than it was in the days of dial-up.) A smart home can create some uniquely 21st-century problems: “I forgot to charge my phone, and that’s why it’s so warm in here,” would once have made no sense at all.
  • There are, for some people, more ideological downsides. It can feel as though you’re paying a monthly fee for something it used to be possible to just own. The ability to monitor every element of your home all the time can also be a double-edged sword in terms of efficiency — if your smart devices save you huge amounts of time, but you spend all those saved hours poring over your thermostat controls making infinitesimal tweaks, it can all be for nothing. The learning curve for managing all of these devices and all this information can also be, for some people, steeper than anticipated.

Smart home security and privacy tips

There are a huge amount of security-based smart devices out there, from security cameras to smart gates to smart locks. However, anyone who’s ever watched an action movie is familiar with the sight of a baddie tapping a keyboard for a few seconds and “overriding the security system.” Is this something we should be worried about?

“As we embrace these advanced technologies, it’s crucial to recognize the new landscape of vulnerabilities that accompany them,” says Polidoro. “While concerns about hacking and power outages are valid, the reality is that these risks are often exaggerated in popular media.” His company, for instance, uses military-grade encryption, secure cloud services and adherence to international information and privacy standards.

The last thing you want to do is invest in a security system that not only fails to protect what it’s meant to protect, but potentially puts the rest of the data and information on your network at risk. “It’s essential for consumers to understand the security protocols of any smart system,” says Polidoro, “ensuring that protecting their physical homes doesn’t compromise their data privacy.”

The AP Buyline roundup

There are a lot of ways in which a smart home can make life easier for a homeowner and allow them to run their home more efficiently, while keeping a detailed eye on how every element of it is going. However, setting up a smart home correctly and efficiently can be tricky, and even if doing it yourself, you may well benefit from a chat with a professional (although hopefully now you know the answer to “What is a smart home?” at least!)

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What does having a smart home mean?

A smart home is one equipped with internet-connected devices that can be accessed and controlled remotely.

What is the difference between a smart home and a normal home?

Increasingly little. A lot of people who might not say they have a smart home (or know what one is!) might in fact have multiple devices — from smart doorbells to smart speakers — that they regularly use.

How much does a smart home cost?

The cost of a smart home is the “How long is a piece of string?” of consumer technology. The most common off-the-shelf smart home products start from as low as around $100, while a full home upgrade to a top-of-the-range, fully automated smart home can easily run into the tens of thousands. It all depends on how ambitious your smart home plans are, the size of your home, and more.

Related article: How to set up a smart home the smart way, with this expert advice

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