Building My Smart Home: 5 Lessons I've Learned

Cupertino, August 14, 2023

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Dr. Frankenstein would be proud of my smart home. Like the not-so-good Doctor, I built this surprisingly capable, if sometimes clumsy, creature myself from parts I've collected here and there. Our smart home has a ton of lighting hardware and a connector for our smart thermostat and our smart TVs (one Samsung, one Roku). Also: Smart home starter kit: 5 devices that will make your life easier I had no plan when I started this project. Instead, I made everything up along the way. And during that adventure I learned a few lessons.

  1. Lighting is the killer app

With conventional lighting fixtures it is almost impossible to create the right atmosphere. Fixed-wattage, single-bulb lamps provide one level of illumination, take it or leave it. Three-way bulbs and dimmers allow for slightly better control over the lighting in a room, but it's still a challenge to get everything just right. This is where smart lighting, er, shines. Add smart bulbs to any fixture and you have near-infinite control over the intensity of that light, and even (with the right bulbs) over its color and warmth. For luminaires where smart bulbs are not suitable, a smart switch that can connect to the network via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth adds the same capabilities. Our hodgepodge of smart lighting hardware includes a dozen Philips Hue bulbs and two Hue light strips, Wi-Fi smart switches from Kasa and Lutron, a custom illuminated mirror in the master bathroom, and an odd Govee bulb in a corner of my office. It took four separate apps to set up and configure that motley crew, but then the initial setup, by the way, we were able to control everything using the Google Home app or by using voice commands to talk to the Google Assistant. Using Google Home automations, we've even created custom lighting schedules for eating, watching TV, and bedtime. Thanks to presence detection, the lights are smart enough to turn off when everyone has left the house and turn back on automatically when someone comes back.

  1. Physical switches are still a must

It's absolutely lovely to be able to turn off a light or set an accurate dimming level with a simple voice command or tap of a smartphone app. But what happens if your internet connection drops? That's when physical switches that work over local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections are essential. The Google Assistant (or Alexa or Siri) may be out of reach, but as long as there's power, you can still get up and flip the switches, just like before. Also: How I made my home smart on a budget (and how you can too) Our Kasa and Lutron switches will still work even if the only network is local, as will any lamp or lightstrip connected to the Hue hub. Fortunately, internet outages are rare in our neighborhood, but you should still make sure you have a back-up plan for relief if the network goes down.

  1. Smart locks and security systems are expensive luxuries

After we signed the papers for the purchase of our current home, I briefly considered replacing the electronic front door lock with a smart version that could be opened using a smartphone app. And then I asked myself, "Why do you want to do this?" Also: The best smart locks for a safe home I didn't have a good answer to that question, which is why we still have that same Kwikset non-smart lock on the front door. You can open the door by using a key or entering one of the three number codes I've programmed (I can easily change any of those codes if I think it's been compromised). It automatically locks itself after 30 seconds, so I never have to get up in the middle of the night because I'm afraid I left it unlocked. I change the batteries and the "random visitor" code every year, and I honestly see no reason to replace that middlebrow technology with something controlled by an app. A smart security addition that I'll probably be building in soon is a smart doorbell with a camera.

  1. Smart hubs are still an emerging standard

If I were building a custom home from scratch, I would specify it completely so that everything is controlled by a single smart hub with a modern protocol. Our electrician raved about his Lutron-based system, but it would have cost thousands of dollars to replicate that environment in our apartment, and I still had to integrate Hue bulbs into the system for use in table lamps. I also looked at Samsung's SmartThings, but at the time it didn't support the hardware we had already invested in. Also: The 4 best smart hubs: Get smart about home control. This emerging industry standard sounds great and is supported by every smart home heavyweight (including Apple, Google, and Amazon), but devices that work with the standard are just starting to hit the market. to migrate our existing infrastructure to a Matter-compatible system (Samsung's new SmartThings Station, ZDNET's pick for best smart home device overall, looks promising), but for now I'm content to watch and wait.

  1. Choosing a smart assistant is crucial

"Welcome to your smart home. Do you use Apple, Google or Amazon?" That should be in the welcome pack when you move into a new home. If you've already made a significant investment in Apple HomeKit devices or Alexa-enabled hardware from Amazon, your path forward is already set. The choice was easy for us. We have Google Nest hubs in every room, and any smart home app can connect to that infrastructure. Also: The Best Home Automation Systems Smart home technology still requires a fair bit of tinkering and manual setup, but once you get past those steps, it's relative easy to use and expand. Maybe, just maybe, the widespread adoption of new standards like Matter means you don't have to be a mad scientist to make all these things work.

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