A primer on how smart home devices work, and some of the mainstay products
In 1969, Graham Nash wrote the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Our House” that inadvertently foreshadowed the joys of the smart home age. The 1970 hit was written within an hour after Nash and Joni Mitchell returned from an antique store, where Mitchell bought a vase.
Recalling that routine day at home in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon decades later, Nash said the song “was born out of an incredibly ordinary moment.” The simplistic tune reflects the joys of home comfort and warmth—“Everything is good/ Such a cozy room”—which for many of us has morphed into using smart devices to control the climate and environment inside our homes with smart thermostats and lighting.
A later passage in the song goes: “Life used to be so hard/ Now everything is easy ’cause of you/And our la la la la la la la la la la”—with the word “la” ultimately being sung 54 straight times to emphasize the lazy, carefree life to which so many of us aspire. In the 21st century, such serenity and peace of mind are further associated with smart security systems watching over our homes and the gadgets that keep our lawns and gardens watered properly while we are away.
A group of spirited entrepreneurs, visionary engineers and designers are expanding on Nash’s idyllic theme to bring smart connected devices to our modern day homes. In just one decade, smart home devices have gone from the realm of science fiction to the aisles of big-box retailers. Here is an overview of the basic elements of the smart home and the primary categories and products that form its backbone.
Smart home product basics
Smart home products perform a few basic functions but at a very high level. They either monitor a condition in your home or make a change to its environment or elements. Some do both. The key element that makes these products “smart” is web or network connectivity to control the devices remotely. Most smart home devices are controlled by smartphones synced with the devices. This is typically done with pairing via Bluetooth, or over the web with Wi-Fi or cellular connections.
Monitors or sensors are the essential building block of the smart home suite. For example, a temperature sensor can monitor the conditions inside a room and give you clues as to how the heating and air conditioning system is working. Adding sensors to your home can yield key insights and provide guidance for how to make adjustments, so that your home is more comfortable and/or efficient.
However, sensors can only give insight, not make adjustments. In order to make a change you need some kind of actuator or control. This can come in the form of a light bulb, motorized door lock, thermostat control or any other device that can create a state change. Plenty of smart home products just function as an output, such as smart lighting or Bluetooth speakers that can be controlled via the web.
Smart home products become really powerful when sensors are paired with actuators to make changes to the home environment in real time. However, the smart home environment you choose to create may include a mixture of monitors and actuators to yield the desired result.
If you are going to go through the effort of taking an analog device and get it connected to a network for monitoring or control, make sure there is a significant upside or “why” for doing it. The biggest reasons for smart home products are efficiency (energy and cost savings), security and comfort. Here are some mainstream products that form the backbone of the smart home.
Smart home hub
The “gateway drug” of the smart home is a smart home hub. These voice-controlled devices have a microphone and speaker and are connected to a home’s WiFi. The connectivity allows the devices to be queried to give us weather reports, sports scores and recipes; play songs, or control other connected devices. The two biggest players are the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. Amazon products are controlled by the Alexa platform; Google has its own equivalent personality.
The first smart home product that had significant market penetration and widespread adoption was the Nest Thermostat. This elegantly designed smart thermostat installs in place of existing thermostats to control your HVAC system. It learns how you adjust the temperature and over time creates the perfect temperature profile for your tastes. It also uses motion sensors and your phone’s location so it knows if you are home or not, and can adjust temperature settings to save on energy costs.
Smart lighting allows the homeowner to control his or her lights remotely to save energy and create the perfect ambiance. The market leader is the Philips Hue, but most connected lights work in a similar fashion.
The Hue comes in three different flavors of starter kits in increasing prices from single-color white, multi-temperature white and full color. The lights require the Hue Bridge, which gives the user control via a smartphone or the variety of physical switches that can be installed. The lights can be programmed to have different colors or intensities at different parts of the day and, like the Nest, can learn your daily routines to become more efficient.
Smart plugs help monitor and control the energy usage at each outlet. Although there are numerous brands of smart outlets, the Wemo is one of the most popular. The outlets connect to WiFi and monitor the electricity usage at each outlet, then report statistics to a smart phone app that include the real-time cost of energy at each outlet.
This also allows you to turn off outlets remotely, which can help cut down on the electricity bill if you happen to leave the lights on. You also have the option to use this setup for a dimmer switch.
Smart home products can also help keep our homes secure. Window/door sensors and motion detectors monitor the key entry points of our home and provide feedback when there is a breach. Web-connected cameras and alarm systems are usually also part of the suite of products that make up a smart home security system.
There are a number of different products in the security category, but the Wink Lookout Smart Security Essentials is a great place to start. It provides a selection of sensors and a hub to get your home secured quickly, with an app to provide alerts. The August Smart Lock is another great option for home security. The August replaces the existing door lock with a motor-driven unit that can be locked and unlocked remotely via its app.
Smart home devices aren’t limited to that which is associated with the home’s structure. The lawns and gardens surrounding our homes are ripe for these solutions. Smart water control for the garden is a great way to reduce water usage so we only water our plants when they need it.
Smart irrigation controls such as the Orbit B-hyve and Melnor RainCloud systems allow our garden hoses and lawn sprinklers to be controlled remotely. The B-hyve even monitors your local weather station and will suspend watering during a rainstorm to prevent unnecessary watering.
Watering can also be controlled via an app so that you can water your garden while on vacation.
More to Come
Stay tuned next month for part 2 of this series where we go beyond the basics and look at the next generation of smart home products.