Home Automation Systems for Beginners

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Long regarded as a technology straight out of science fiction, home automation today is very much a reality. More than half adult Americans own at least one smart device. 45 percent say that these devices save them money, and 80 percent would prefer to buy an automated home over a conventional one. If there was ever a time to dive into home automation, it is now!

But what exactly is home automation? Can anyone automate their home? Where to even start? We answer these and more frequently asked questions in this home automation beginner’s guide. You’ll learn how an automated home works, what smart and time-saving devices you can get, and how to keep your system safe.

What is home automation?

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Home automation, aka the smart home, is a prominent area of the Internet of Things which focuses on streamlining and automating different household systems. You can automate your home’s lights, security system, outlets, or kitchen appliances, to name a few possibilities. Automation brings together devices which ordinarily have nothing in common and allows them to work together to make our lives more convenient. Home automation saves time and energy while giving you a detailed overview of connected devices & their performance. Since home automation controllers establish a connection to the internet through Wi-Fi, you’re also able to monitor and control every aspect of the system remotely.

A home automation system operates on three levels, the first of which is monitoring. It uses connected sensors to gather and display information on the temperature, humidity, status of your locks & lights, and more. The second level is centralized control of individual devices through the system’s app or voice commands. The third and most complex is automation. It combines monitoring, control, and minimal human input to create chains of triggers and consequences that play out on their own. Simple examples include turning your AC on whenever a room temperature sensor shows 75 degrees or setting a smart pet feeder to dispense food every day at noon.

How to start automating your home?

Many people take their first step in home automation when there’s a problem or annoyance to be solved. Maybe they have a light at the end of a long hallway that they want to control remotely or need a way to see who’s at the door from another room. They then buy a specific product like a Phillips Hue bulb or Ring’s Video doorbell and find out that the device they purchased also works with others. This might cause a situation where you want to add a new smart device but can’t since it doesn’t communicate with your other gadgets.

A better approach would be to do your research first. Your starting point can be the same – identify the problems in your home that you can address with automation and then search for the products that solve them. Before you buy anything, though, consider the bigger picture. Most home automation gadgets are designed to be intuitive and can be used without being tech-savvy. However, some may require technical or programming knowledge to reach their full potential. You’ll want to avoid these for the time being if that’s not your strong suit.

More importantly, you need to realize that cooperation is a vital part of automation. That means you’ll need to pick a product that not only fulfills your needs but will be able to work together with others when you upgrade. The easiest way to ensure compatibility is to settle on a smart home ecosystem and build up your automated home from here.

Which home automation system to choose?

The first thing you ought to ask yourself when deciding on a home automation system is how you plan to manage it. Some systems support nuanced manipulation through programming and web interfaces, but we’ll focus on the two most straightforward means of control – smartphone apps and your voice.

Apps are the more involved of the two. Using an app lets you set schedules, set up interactions between devices, view historical data, and much more depending on the product. Controlling your smart home verbally is intuitive and feels cooler but is more limited in scope since AI assistants can understand only so many commands. Smart hubs are your go-to solution for app control while using voice assistants requires a smart speaker

Smart Hubs

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Smart hubs serve as the bridge between you and your smart devices. On the one hand, they support dozens of different gadgets and allow you to control them from the hub’s central app. That means you don’t need to install their apps at all or can remove them after initial pairing. On the other, they connect gadgets that communicate through short-range protocols like ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth to the internet so you can use them from anywhere.

Smart hub apps organize your devices into groups. They do so by type or location. That way you’re able to automate all smart lights in your home or manage all devices in your bedroom. Scenes are another popular control method which lets you group devices based on the mood you wish to set. They let you create complex automations and execute them with a single command. For instance, a “Welcome Home” scene could unlock your front door, disarm the security system, light up the living room, and set the thermostat to a comfortable temperature.

Samsung SmartThings and the Wink Hub are the most popular smart hubs on the market right now. Both support Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-wave, meaning that you can use them to incorporate hundreds of devices into your home automation system.

Wink is the more beginner-friendly option since it has a clean & intuitive interface and makes conditional programming of devices easier through Robots. It also supports Lutron’s Clear Connect protocol, allowing you to integrate their high-quality dimmer switches & fan controllers.

SmartThings is more complicated to master, but it is the most comprehensive and most versatile hub out there. It supports the most gadgets out of the box, and there’s an active community of enthusiasts that keep coming up with improvements or workarounds for devices without official support. SmartThings also offers automation through IFTTT, a service that uses conditions and responses to expand and refine your home automation possibilities.

Smart Speakers

While smart hubs are dedicated to in-depth smart home management, automation is just one of a smart speaker’s features. Smart speakers are also wellsprings of information, virtual assistants, and entertainment centers in their own right. They come with apps that function similarly to a hub’s, but their charm lies in speaking a command and watching as your home comes alive to do your bidding.

Amazon’s line of Echo smart speakers is the most popular home automation solution on the planet thanks to their AI assistant, Alexa. Using her requires that you install the Alexa app and download extensions called Skills for each supported gadget. Skills let you use your voice to adjust the thermostat, lock the door, or get a sensor reading. Alexa can also give you a breakdown of current news, help you with shopping lists, and even order products online from Amazon. Owning multiple Alexa speakers lets you stream content to all of them simultaneously or use them as in intercom system.

Google Home is Amazon’s main rival and supports almost as many devices. The sound quality of both the standard Home speaker and the Mini are better than the Echos that compete with them. The Google assistant is more reliable than Alexa when it comes to retrieving information since she has the entirety of Google’s knowledge at its disposal. The Assistant is also smarter in the sense that she can answer contextual questions or guide you through recipes.

Lastly, there’s Apple’s HomePod. It’s the most expensive of the three but also has the best sound quality and the ability to adapt playback based on where in the room it is. The speaker lets you control Apple HomeKit devices through Siri but also acts as a hub. Without a HomePod, Apple TV, or iPad, HomeKit devices can only be controlled via Bluetooth. Getting the HomePod opens up automation options as well as remote control through Wi-Fi. HomeKit supports the fewest smart devices, but each must undergo a thorough selection which ensures that adding it to your HomeKit home is effortless and secure.

Which Aspects of home life can be automated?

Lighting

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Smart lights are a beginner-friendly automation option that’s easy to implement and offers immediate benefits. You can smarten up your lighting by either using smart light bulbs instead of old ones. Or you can replace your switches with smart alternatives if the first method is too costly.

Light automation can be done in countless ways. The simplest is to design a schedule around your day or sync them up with the sun so that energy isn’t needlessly wasted. More advanced automations involve setting a white bulb’s color temperature to change throughout the day or for you colored bulbs to put on a light show when you start playing music. The most potent light automations happen when you connect a light’s behavior to the actions of another device. For example, you can set the bulb to flash orange if your CO detector goes off or have it turn on every now and then while your alarm system is armed for added security.

Climate control

Smart thermostats excel at maintaining comfortable temperatures year-round while also cutting down on associated costs. The most advanced models come with additional temperature sensors you can position throughout the house to get a better sense of temperature distribution. That way the HVAC can direct temperate air to parts of the house where it is actually needed.

Models like the Nest Learning Thermostat observe your behavior and come up with optimal schedules on their own. Geofencing is another appealing automation since it adjusts the temperature based on occupancy without further input. Other climate control automations include syncing the thermostat with your alarm system so that it uses less energy when the security system is armed or having the HVAC disable ventilation if a smoke detector is activated.

Cleanliness

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It might be next to godliness, but that doesn’t mean cleanliness can’t be automated. Smart vacuum cleaners and mops are at the forefront of making your home cleaner and healthier. They use sophisticated sensors to map out rooms and deftly avoid obstacles while removing dirt, pet hair, and debris. The only thing you need to do is set up a schedule, and they’ll take care of cleaning and recharging by themselves.

Robot vacuums might make your floors sparkle, but they can’t do anything about the germs and harmful particles infesting the air you breathe. Smart air purifiers analyze the quality of air in your home and run it through multiple filtration layers until the air that comes out is germ-free and safe to breathe. You can automate them to turn on based on how polluted the air is or schedule regular purification so that unclean air stops being a problem altogether.

No one likes to do the dishes or the laundry, which is why smart dishwashers & washing machines exist. While you’ll still need to load both manually, you can now program them from your smartphone, check in on a wash cycle without getting up, and receive notifications when they’re done.

Security

An automated home is one worth protecting, which is why security is the largest and most diverse home automation niche. Smart security systems are the most comprehensive as they can be made up of different kinds of sensors, locks, cameras, and sirens. They’re also less expensive than traditional security systems since you install them yourself and have only a reasonable monthly fee to pay for professional support.

If you don’t need a complete alarm system, smart door locks, and doorbell cameras are excellent security upgrades in their own right. A smart lock restricts access to include only people you trust. It can be opened remotely and has a detailed use history showing who accessed the door and at what time. Smart doorbell cameras accompany the locks perfectly as they allow you to see and communicate with visitors whether you’re apprehensive, bedridden, or not at home at all. A doorbell’s facial recognition can be set as the trigger for the smart lock, which might then turn on the lights or activate the thermostat in turn.

Security cameras are an essential tool for keeping an eye on your property, and there are smart models for indoor as well as outdoor use. They feature wide angles for excellent coverage, powerful night vision, and crisp video that makes it easy to identify suspect. Cameras can be automated in various ways. You could heighten their motion sensor sensitivity as part of a good night scene and through geofencing. Or have the motion sensors trigger your lights and receive notifications about suspicious activities complete with snapshots.

Lawn care

Never overwater or parch your lawn again with smart sprinklers. Not only do they automate lawn irrigation, but they also do it in a way that conserves water and protects the grass from freezing. Some even take advantage of sophisticated local weather readings as well as information on the slope & soil type to come up with seasonal irrigation schedules.

Power management

If it isn’t smart on its own and you can plug it in, it can be controlled with a smart plug. These simple devices supply power when you wish it, be that on a fixed schedule or whenever you’re home. Many smart plugs have integrated power meters and are capable of displaying historical data as well as power consumption projections for a year in advance.

Are home automation systems safe?

Like any technology, home automation has its security risks and growing pains. Fortunately, there’s a lot you as the end-user can do to mitigate these risks and use home automation without fear.

The most important step to ensuring your security is to research home automation systems beforehand. Read up on how other users are satisfied with their system’s security and whether any severe breaches were detected in the past. If there were, how did the companies in charge handle them and the safety of their users? Collecting this data will save you a lot of headaches once you’re invested.

You can prepare for the arrival of a home automation system by beefing up your network security. That involves coming up with a stronger password as well as setting up a guest network for the system. That way, your main network won’t be affected if the system is ever compromised.

Lastly, be aware of how you use the systems. Smart speakers are particularly suspect since it’s been proven that they listen in on users’ conversations and collect data on their consumer habits without consent. If you have smart speakers, make sure to turn their microphone off whenever they aren’t in use.