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Smart Home Automation Guide.

Learn what devices and abilities define a smart home, study the most common smart home automation devices, and investigate the wireless technologies that power home automation.

Contents

What Is a Smart Home?

How to Build a Smart Home

What Devices Make a Smart Home Smart? CES 2016 Survey

How Does a Smart Home Work?

man locking window with smart home products

What Is a Smart Home?

A smart home is one that uses wireless, internet-connected devices to automate everyday tasks, making home life more convenient and giving you control away from home too.

Convenience at Home

For years, TV boxes and video game consoles have replaced the need to rent or buy physical media. Today the smart house has moved beyond entertainment and now leverages the internet to help people automate home tasks they usually do themselves—or couldn’t do at all before smart home systems existed.

Today the smart home has moved beyond entertainment and now leverages the internet to help people automate home tasks they usually do themselves.

For example, smart lighting and smart locks fold the nighttime routine of locking up and turning off lights into one task—a tap on your phone.

“Smart” has a second connotation when it comes to home automation systems: the ability of a device to learn new skills on its own, without active input from you. Most smart thermostats, for example, take the guesswork out of energy efficiency by fine-tuning their own schedule based on your habits.

The more self-learning your devices can do, the smarter your home. But learning or not, every smart device can be a valuable part of your home automation setup.

Control Away from Home

Almost all smart home devices come with a companion app, or sync to your smart hub’s companion app, so you can control your smart devices from a waiting room, an airport, another country, or just the other side of the room.

When you’re at home, home automation cuts down on little chores and makes moving through your home feel simpler and more free. When you’re away from home, home automation is a priceless ability that helps you protect your family.

When you’re away from home, home automation is a priceless ability that helps you protect your family.

If you leave for errands and realize you left the front door unlocked, you can lock it from the cereal aisle. If you leave town and get a notification that your fire alarm has gone off, you and your monitoring provider can take steps to save your home before a neighbor finally notices the smell of smoke.

Smart home automation can make life simpler and safer, at home and away. In the next section, you’ll learn about the individual smart home devices that work together to make that happen.

How to Build a Smart Home.

You can build your smart home in a few short weeks or you can add more and more devices to your collection over time. Below are eleven of the most common smart home devices and the major points you should know about each one.

Pro Tip: Customize your smart home with these common smart devices: TVs and streaming equipment, lights, cameras, doorbells, locks, outlets and switches, thermostats, smoke detectors, garage door controllers, hubs, and apps.

1. Smart Entertainment

Smart TVs, streaming devices, and Bluetooth speakers are so standard now that you may think they’re not worth mentioning.

But that just goes to show how deep into smart homes the country is already. Streaming on your computer, rather than going to a store to rent games and movies, was once a novelty. Then streaming boxes and smart TVs made cord-cutting even more enjoyable by putting content back on the TV, not on your computer.

Now, for the most part, streaming is the way TV and gaming works. Even in homes with a traditional TV subscription, streaming is still a common activity—so it may be that you already have one building block in your smart home after all.

2. Smart Lighting

Smart lights are a popular starter item in a smart home. They’re usually controllable from an app or a wall switch that uses wireless signals, not direct electricity, to control on-off, dimmer, and sometimes even color settings.

Some folks add smart home lighting so they can turn off several lamps and ceiling lights at once instead of doing the rounds before bedtime. With some smart home systems, homeowners or renters can even preset smart home lighting to repeating schedules. And most smart home lights can even pair with a smart home assistant like the Amazon Echo or Google Home1 to give you voice control.

Another use of home automation lighting is security. Homeowners have long used lights as security—outdoor lights improve visibility at night, making it riskier for burglars to approach the house, and indoor lights throw off a burglar’s sense for whether the house is full or empty.

Add smart home technology to these tactics, and you can fine-tune these settings anytime, anywhere, from your app. For example, with some smart home systems, you can randomize your indoor lights when you travel instead of putting manual timers on every light. With others, you can sync your outdoor lights with cameras and sensors so the lights turn on when motion is detected around your property.

If home lighting automation is important or valuable to you, really dig in to the specific skills and abilities of the smart light bulbs or lamps you choose, plus the features of the larger smart home or smart home security system that will give you mobile control of those lights. Make sure your chosen provider can help you achieve what you want your smart home lighting to do.

3. Smart Cameras

frontpoint premium indoor camera

Premium Indoor Camera.

  • One-touch calls
  • Night vision
  • Bluetooth
View Details

Smart cameras used to just be freestanding webcams or the ones built into phones, tablets, and computers. But now, as part of the smart home world, smart cameras have all but replaced traditional cameras used for security and video surveillance.

Security cameras used to use closed-circuit exclusively, but that was expensive and hard to monitor for the average homeowner. Then Ethernet cameras came on the scene. Today, Ethernet is still used, but wireless cameras dominate the smart home security landscape.

And there’s a reason. Wireless cameras are easier to install, remove, and reinstall as needed. They’re also easier to monitor, since camera live feeds and recorded clips are usually wirelessly uploaded to the cameras’ companion app immediately.

One non-security use for smart cameras now is making digital calls with the increasingly common two-way voice feature. Indoor cameras with two-way talk can improve family safety and togetherness, even from far away, with one touch to the button on top of the camera. This feature is especially valuable for kids or older adults, who may not have their own smartphones to call and ask for what they need.

Smart cameras today have a huge array of sophisticated sensors and features. They’re also getting smarter in another way—in how well they filter out irrelevant data, identify movement or intruders specifically, and hinder those folks from approaching.

Smart cameras have a slightly higher price tag than other security and smart home devices because of their advanced technologies and heavier bandwidth lift. But thanks to tech advancements, smart cameras are more affordable than ever.

4. Video Doorbells

Another type of smart home security camera, the video doorbell, is specifically designed to stand guard at your front entrance, where 34 percent of burglars enter your house.

Video doorbells have a huge security component. They let you see who’s ringing the bell without needing to approach the door, which is especially helpful for those living alone. They also let you converse, if you decide to, with a shifty person on your doorstep if you’re running errands or out of town and want to give the impression that you’re home.

On the lighter side of things, smart video doorbells can be a convenient way to talk to visitors you are actually sad to miss, such as a neighbor lending you their leaf blower or the delivery person with a package you’d have to pick up in a store otherwise.

Plus, when paired with a smart lock, video doorbells can help you let in a family member who forgot their keys (and their code!) or a guest who arrived earlier than you expected.

5. Smart Door Locks

yale smart door lock

Smart Door Lock.

  • Customizable codes
  • Fingerprint resistant to prevent code cracking
  • Easy install and battery operated
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Traditional deadbolts and door locks operate mechanically. Smart locks operate digitally and wirelessly.

Before smart homes, electronic door locks existed, and smart home door locks share some of those qualities—a keypad that allows for keyless entry, and sometimes multiple codes.

But smart home locks go further. They can often accommodate up to 20 codes for different users, the codes can be time-limited, every lock action can be tracked on your companion app, and you can personally lock or unlock the door from your app anytime.

As an extra security measure, many smart locks for homes use only the latest tamper-proof construction, which makes lockpicking, kicking the door in, or bumping the door knob harder. Many providers even make the keypad fingerprint-resistant so burglars can’t use special tools to detect oils, prints, or wear on frequently used numbers.

6. Smart Outlets and Switches

Smart outlets and switches pack a huge punch in your smart home strategy, because they turn any device that plugs into an AC outlet into a smart home product.

The most basic feature of a smart power outlet is the ability to turn off lights, TV equipment, hair styling tools, and any other plugged-in appliance in one touch. The most convenient smart wall outlets let you set automatic schedules, so the devices control themselves and you don’t even have to reach for your phone.

A smart switch does roughly the same thing as a smart plug, but it controls multiple smart devices at once and feels as natural as using a regular light switch. Switches do require a bit more installation savvy, so if you’re looking for an alternative, try a smart power strip with multiple outlets.

Beyond the basic on-off feature, smart wall outlets and switches can have additional abilities, like motion activation, dimming, energy reporting, and USB charging, depending on the manufacturer and what hub the plug or switch is linked to.

7. Smart Thermostats

Smart thermostats are one of the smarter home products out there. They’re not only wirelessly and remote controlled, but also quick to learn your temperature preferences and your schedule.

Besides an automated and self-set schedule, the core benefits of a smart thermostat include the flexibility to change settings on your smartphone anytime and better energy efficiency in your home.

8. Smart Smoke Detectors

frontpoint smoke and heat sensor

Smoke and Heat Sensor.

  • Dual detection for multiple types of fire
  • Built-in alarm and monitoring center alert
  • 10-year battery life
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Smart smoke detectors share the same function and features as regular smoke detectors: photoelectric or ionization sensors that detect smoke and a high-decibel alarm that tells you to evacuate now.

A key difference with a smart smoke detector is that it can alert you of a fire when you’re not home to hear the alarm, letting you call 911 before it’s too late. Plus, if your smoke alarm is linked to a smart home security system, the alarm can send a digital emergency signal to your provider, who will call 911 for you and let you focus on getting home safely.

No matter who gets the notification, though, that smart alert is invaluable. It can reduce the time it takes to get fire fighters on the scene, the damage done to your belongings, and most importantly, the danger posed to your kids, older parents, or pets who might be home alone.

9. Smart Garage Door Controllers

Smart garage door controllers serve the same purpose as regular garage door openers—to open and close the door at the push of a button.

As you might expect at this point, though, smart garage door controllers can be controlled remotely, from your phone. Plus, the controllers’ companion apps usually send you notifications if you forget to close the garage door after setting your smart security system to “Away.”

Another benefit of smart garage door controllers is that they’re monitored by your provider as part of your security system. If you add a tilt sensor to your garage door too, the burglar alarm will go off and professional monitors can pounce on any fishy behavior.

10. Smart Home Hub

The hub is a crucial piece of the smart home anatomy—it’s the brain.

Before Z-Wave, the Wi-Fi router was the hub that smart home devices connected to. It still serves that function for some devices in your smart home.

But now that new smart home devices are being built with Z-Wave technology, they require their own hub to access a wired internet signal and send out the wireless, Z-Wave frequencies that your Wi-Fi router cannot.

Individual devices don’t usually come with a smart home hub—you usually choose a hub based on the smart devices you have or the smart devices you want.

The smart home hub links your smart home devices together so they can communicate with each other and even do tasks in tandem with a single command from your app (or voice, if you pair with a compatible voice assistant).

For homes with a smart security system, the control panel and the hub are usually the same piece of equipment. The panel almost always emits two wireless signals—cellular wireless to connect to monitoring centers and Z-Wave to sync newer smart home devices.

The hub is a crucial piece of the smart home anatomy—it’s the brain. It links your smart home devices together so they can communicate with each other and even do tasks in tandem with a single command.

11. Smart Home App

The second-most crucial piece of smart home systems may be the mobile app.

In a modern smart home, a mobile app provides a central interface to change device settings, program schedules, and get relevant notifications about all your connected devices.

For example, if your outdoor camera senses movement, your app may invite you to view the recorded clip or live feed.

Many one-off smart home devices have their own apps. However, you can dramatically simplify your smartphone fiddling if you get a smart home hub and use its companion app to control all connected devices.

Every smart home app is different, and it’s not easy to determine how usable and flexible the app is before you choose a provider. The best way to understand the app experience beforehand is to look at reviews and ratings in your OS’s app store.

In a modern smart house, a mobile app provides a central interface to change device settings, program schedules, and get relevant notifications about all your connected devices.

What Devices Make a Smart Home Smart?
CES 2016 Survey.

Just before the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show® (CES), Coldwell Banker interviewed 4,000 people about smart home technology, including the question, What devices make a smart home smart? (Multiple answers accepted.) Here are the devices they chose:

smart locks icon

63%

Locks and Alarms

thermostat icon

63%

Thermostats and Fans

smart light bulb icon

58%

Lighting

carbon monoxide detector icon

56%

Carbon Monoxide Detector

Source: Coldwell Banker® Smart Home Marketplace Survey

Follow-up fact: participants also said the term “smart home” should be reserved for homes with at least two categories of smart home devices. For many, just a Roku won’t cut it!

How Does a Smart Home Work?

A smart home depends on wireless technology to connect devices. There’s an acronym for this type of internet use—IoT, or internet of things, which refers to technology that wirelessly connects devices to the internet, to each other, or both.

There are four wireless technologies that put your smart home on the IoT map: cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the newer Z-Wave and Zigbee. Some smart home devices connect using combinations of the five, while others connect to each other using just one.

Cellular Wireless

Cellular isn’t often thought of as a smart home technology, but it can play a small or significant role in your smart home setup depending on what other products you have.

For example, cell phones and tablets are often used to control your smart home devices. If for some reason your Wi-Fi is down, you can still control Z-Wave or Bluetooth products with your cellular connection.

But that’s a rare case. More commonly, cellular internet data is key to a smart home that has a home alarm system.

Control panels and panic buttons use cellular technology to alert monitoring centers, but they also connect via Z-Wave and Wi-Fi home automation to get emergency information from entry sensors and hazard sensors.

Cellular internet data is key to a smart home that has a home alarm system.

Wi-Fi

Today, Wi-Fi is a staple in many homes, whether or not the family has smart home products beyond smartphones and a streaming box.

But Wi-Fi is especially useful for smart houses because it’s an existing technology that can do the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting more data-intensive smart home products.

For example, in a smart home security system, the Wi-Fi network usually supports cameras, which need a lot of bandwidth to capture sounds and visuals in HD. In a more general smart house setting, Wi-Fi home automation supports devices from printers to point-and-shoot cameras to sewing machines.

The other benefit of smart home Wi-Fi is that it connects you to devices that aren’t part of your smart home system or even in close proximity. Provided you have the right app or web portal to connect remotely with that device (say, your printer at the office), you can use Wi-Fi to interact with devices outside your network, meaning you don’t have to leave your house to get things done.

In a smart home security system, the Wi-Fi network usually supports cameras, which need a lot of bandwidth to capture sounds and visuals in HD.

Bluetooth

While Bluetooth has somewhat limited reach in a smart home setting, it’s still useful for creating “piconets,” or a small circle of linked devices in relatively close proximity.

The most common use of Bluetooth may be connecting a smartphone to a Bluetooth speaker or headphones. Another common use that connects more than two devices is a Bluetooth-enabled computer that pairs with a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard, and speakers at the same time.

Bluetooth technology requires at least one device to be connected to the internet by any method—Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or cellular data. The other just needs to emit the Bluetooth frequency so it’s detectable by your main pairing device.

There are different versions of Bluetooth technology, the main difference being how far apart the paired devices can be without affecting connection quality. These distances range from 3.3 feet to 330 feet, though some outliers claim a distance of 800 feet.

Keep in mind, though, these measurements only apply to devices paired in an open space. The actual distance may be shortened by physical obstacles, like walls in your home; by the quality and sensitivity of the transmitting and receiving devices; or even by Wi-Fi interference, since Wi-Fi often operates on the same frequency as Bluetooth (2.4 GHz).

While Bluetooth has somewhat limited reach in a smart house setting, it’s still useful for creating “piconets,” or a small circle of linked devices in relatively close proximity.

Z-Wave and Zigbee

Z-Wave and Zigbee, the newest wireless technologies developed especially for smart home systems, are more bandwidth-efficient than Wi-Fi and more flexible than Bluetooth, meaning they can accommodate more smart devices without eating up a ton of power.

These newer technologies do need a hub and an internet source to function; the hub plugs into your router and draws data from the same internet access point as your Wi-Fi network.

However, Z-Wave and Zigbee operate completely independent of your Wi-Fi network. Rather than sending and receiving data from the larger web, they send most data to and from the smart devices within your house. They also tend to be built with stronger encryption than Wi-Fi.

There’s one key difference: Z-Wave usually runs more efficiently than Zigbee. Zigbee frequencies are the same as Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz), so Wi-Fi can interfere with Zigbee signal unless you experiment with a pretty technical workaround. For folks who want a smart home for the convenience and ease, a workaround may be more fuss than it’s worth.

But if you mix Zigbee with Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth technologies, Zigbee devices can still make helpful additions to your smart home setup.

Summed up, here are the benefits of using Z-Wave and Zigbee devices now and as you add to your smart home system:

  • Create a “mesh network” in which each non–battery powered device acts as a signal extender, passing data much more quickly than Wi-Fi connections
  • Reduce cord clutter by powering many devices with highly efficient batteries
  • May operate on a much higher frequency (Z-Wave at 908.42 GHz) than Wi-Fi connections (2.4GHz–5 GHz), so there’s no signal interference
  • Securely encrypt your data, often using AES128, the same level of privacy that big banks use to protect themselves from hacking
Z-Wave and Zigbee are more bandwidth-efficient than Wi-Fi and more flexible than Bluetooth, meaning they can accommodate more smart devices without eating up a ton of power.

Automate better with Frontpoint.

  • “Routines” teach your house to run itself on your schedule.
  • Hub pairs with smart Z-Wave devices of all kinds.
  • Devices sync before shipping so they’re usable right out of the box.

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