Make your home and life easier. Control and use less energy. Allow cyber criminals easier access to your personal life.
Wait, what!?! Security is a huge concern with smart homes, but the benefit of a smart home, when set up correctly, is amazing.
What is a Smart Home?
In most basic terms, a Smart Home contains an automation system that controls lighting, climate, entertainment systems, and appliances. In addition, many of these Smart Home setups include security functions such as an alarm system.
What technical components are required for a Smart Home?
The answer to this question can vary a lot based on what you want and who makes the system. There are numerous manufacturers of these systems for example the Samsung “Smart Things” and the Lowes “Iris”. In most cases a Smart Home system has a control computer called a hub. This device is the central core or “brain” of your home system.
Each system has advantages and disadvantages. It is important to look at the features and decide what functions you need. These are good questions to ask before purchasing a Smart Home system.
In addition to the hub every device you wish to control must be able to communicate with the hub. For things like lamps and lighting this can be as simple as an additional remote-control switch that is compatible with your system. In the case of appliances and other devices this can be much more complicated. In most situations the device itself is compatible with specific hubs when you buy it. It’s important to make sure yours is listed on the device specifications. Look for the right Smart Home compatibility before making a device purchase.
What Kind of Devices can a Smart Home control?
A key feature of Smart Homes is the ability to manage lighting. In our modern world lighting is as much a design component as paint colors and the furniture in a room. An example is my own system that is connected to a group of display cases in my living room that light up. I also have the standard overhead lighting and a light on the front porch. In addition the display cases need to turn on and off at night and set to a specific light level. We want to be able to control the overhead lighting from my phone and with my voice. I also want the front porch light to come on when it detects motion but only when it’s dark.
All of this is possible. By upgrading the light switches and adding a few plug in units everything can be controlled by the hub. ( Please note: If you are unsure about how to modify electrical wiring please get a professional to help with changing build in components). The system will also need to know when the sun sets – so it automatically modifies the on and off times based on the time of year. The device that is required for this function costs about the same as a digital timer and does a lot more. For the porch light I did something a little more complicated. I have a security camera with a motion detector. I was able to program the hub to monitor the camera and turn the light on when it detected motion, but only when it was dark. Additionally, it is set to turn the light back off five minutes after the motion has stopped.
The third part, voice command, will be addressed in detail a little later in this article. This is a nice feature for me but can be a quality of life function for anyone who is disabled or has limited mobility. Something to consider when planning for a Smart Home setup. Who are the people that will be using it?
In most homes the biggest machine and greatest user of energy is the home’s heating and air condition system. The amount of money home automation saves here is worth the entire cost of the upgrade in about eighteen months.
The first device that is required is a Smart Thermostat. With this I was able to program when I was home and when I was not, and the hub automatically changes the temperature based on that schedule. You can take this a step further with motion sensors so your hub will know when the home is unoccupied.
The second feature this offers is control of your thermostat from your smartphone. You can turn the heat or air on prior to arrival for comfort and off should you forget when you leave. This alone has saved me a lot of money on wasted energy usage.
There are many other options you can add to the heating and cooling feature. Through the use of “Smart Vents” your home automation system can open and close air vents based on which rooms are occupied. This can redirect air when needed and save heating/cooling in unused rooms. With the addition of smart blinds you can automatically close a window covering when the sun is on that side of the home and then open it back up later.
There are numerous appliances on the market that will work with a Smart Home system. These include everything from the vacuum to the kitchen range, and yes, even the kitchen sink!
For between $500 and $1000 you can get a robot vacuum that will work with your Smart Home system. Two models, which are both available on Amazon and through most electronic stores, are the Neato Botvac and the iRobot Roomba. In addition to providing rides for your cats (if you haven’t seen this check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk4XB2wZqF4) a robotic vacuum can help with the chore of cleaning the floors. My experience with these robotic vacuums has been that they don’t completely replace the need to vacuum yourself, but do help to keep down the everyday dust and dirt especially if you have pets. The unit will learn your floor plan and clean up. The advantage of a connected vacuum is that your system can control when it works, possibly times you aren’t at home, so you don’t have to trip over it. You can also get alerts when the vacuum needs to be emptied or maintenance.
Smart Appliances are available from many different manufacturers. You will want to make sure your system and appliances can talk as these can be more restricted to specific brands. The Samsung Flex Duo is a highly rated product in which you can control and set the burners and oven from your phone or Smart Home hub. This will set you back a little over $2000. If you want to find a product that is a little less but has many of the same features check out the Whirlpool Smart 5-Burner Range.
The list of devices is extensive and can include things like BBQs (get an alert when it’s time to turn over the steaks) or Laundry/Dishwashers (Start your wash when you don’t have to listen to it or get an alert to move things to the dryer). Picking out Smart Home appliances really depends upon your lifestyle choices and what you would like help with.
There are many security cameras on the market that will work with Smart Home systems. A few examples of these products are Nest and NetGear (Arlo). These cameras can be installed to monitor your home when you are away. Or perhaps while you are at home.
In addition to conventional security cameras products that use video others like the Ring Doorbell will allow you communicate remotely with people when they arrive at your home. The added benefit is that you can catch porch pirates and don’t have to answer the door in your bathrobe. These systems will allow two way video communication from your Smart Home system as well as most Alexa and Google Home Devices with video capability.
Home monitoring goes well beyond video. In addition to conventional security, you can have a number of special sensors. These devices can improve safety in your home. An example is the First Alert Onelink. This along with a number of other similar products can save lives by detecting invisible gas. They can alert you by alarm or on your remote devices. Why remote? First, if there is a leak you don’t want to go into your home until it can be cleared out. Second, if you have children or pets, they can’t react to the alarm and will need your help.
With water leak detectors you can save a lot of money and time in damage repairs. Placing these devices under sinks and next to the water heater will allow you to know when you have a leak. If you couple these with smart valves you can shut the water off remotely until you can correct the problem. These features are great for vacation homes or any location that may be unoccupied for a time.
Conventional security systems can be expensive and usually require contracts and monitoring. With most Smart Home hubs you can add these features at minimal cost. And while most offer professional monitoring you can opt to do that yourself and save the monthly costs.
Samsung SmartThings uses a sensor that has all the functions of a magnetic door switch. In addition it can detect vibration, orientation, angle (tilt – for a roll up door), and temperature. This device is completely wireless and can be installed easily. The downside is that they are wireless. I have found that I need to change the battery or it will give a false alarm when the battery drops under about 90%. You will also need to make sure that all of your doors and windows are in range of the hub or a repeater device.
In addition to door devices you can get glass break detectors, motion sensors, and wireless key fobs to control the system. Each of these sensors varies in price with the door units being about $22/each (Available from Amazon, Best Buy, and many other retailers). You can decide which areas are covered from your main entrance to all doors and windows. The system can always be expanded so you can upgrade over time if you prefer.
With the addition of a smart lock for your door, you can have complete control over your home’s security.
With a nod to classic science fiction it is now possible to talk to your home. These devices, known as personal assistants, can interface with a Smart Home system. The primary systems on the market are Alexa (from Amazon), Siri (from Apple) and Google Home. All three of these devices can respond to questions in regular speech. For many this makes a Smart Home easier to manage and more fun. For those with disabilities these devices can improve quality of life.
There are other devices you can get for your Smart Home. This list expands almost daily. Here are some examples of good and some not so good devices that range up to the absurd.
|Home Energy Monitor||Good||These devices can monitor your home energy use and keep budgets in line. The device will set you back a few hundred (Neurio W1 for $219 or CURB for $389 – both at Amazon are two examples). Also some of these devices should be installed by an electrician. Others can be self installed.|
|Ara Smart Toothbrush||Absurd||Ok, there may be a use for this. Getting children to brush their teeth may be an example. I have gotten through my life to this point (with all my teeth) without the need for a connected toothbrush. Dentists recommend an electric toothbrush and if it’s time for a new one this might be worth checking out. Available for $129 from Kolibree.com. Make sure you have a waterproof phone if you want results while you are brushing your teeth.|
|Smart Bed||Good – Not So Good||A smart bed can track your sleep and habits. These can be nice as they can adjust heat and other things based on how you are sleeping. There is an enormous difference in quality based on manufactures. If you are ready to drop the $1000 or more for one of these beds check the ratings. A good rated one is the Sleep Number 360 Smart Bed (sleepnumber.com).|
|Smart Toilet||Absurd||What can I say about this? It heats the seat, closes the lid automatically and some even have bluetooth speakers and microphones (???). And at a price tag of $7,800 for the Kohler Numi. I’ll close the seat myself, thank you.|
|Smart Garage Door||Good||This is a device I have used and like. You can tell if you forgot to close your garage door from your phone. Chamberlain makes a model that is built into their openers or available as an add-on. It will also send a notification if the door is left open for an extended period of time. This device will cost you about $60 to add on – or maybe it’s time for a new door opener with this built in?|
|Smart Egg Tray||Not Good||In concept this could be a useful device. The problem is the current examples don’t work well. It will tell you how many eggs you have and if they are good. At least that’s what it’s supposed to do. If you want to monitor your eggs give this one awhile to get the bugs worked out. At least it’s not going to cost you too much – under $15 at WalMart.|
|Smart Hairbrush||Absurd||Right along with the smart toothbrush is the smart hair brush. The Keratashe Hair Coach uses a microphone and other sensors to determine the health of your hair. I always use the mirror. And at $199 I can get a nice mirror or chat with a stylist about my hair.|
|Smart Pet Feeder||Good||This device is useful – especially if you have food motivated pets like I do. You can open and close the food tray from your phone or a smart home timer. You can even sync it to the chip in your pet so that the right pet get’s the right food. This one is worth the $150 or so to buy.|
Smart Home Security Concerns
Like with any computer system security of your device is a must. It is very important that a home automation system is set up correctly.
The first step is the same that you would do for any computer device. After you install and set up your equipment change the default passwords. With a Smart Home system this isn’t limited to just the hub. Each device, (camera, thermostat, appliance) can have it’s own account and with it a password. It is possible that if a hacker gains access to one part of the system this will “open the door” for the rest.
It is important that you use a strong password that will be difficult to guess. Something that is at least eight characters and includes both a capital and lowercase letter, a number, and a symbol is recommended. Many manufactures will tell you if your password is strong or weak when you set it up.
The next step is to make sure your system is running in secure mode. While the specific instructions for this varies from device to device it will be included in the instructions. Smart Things, as an example, has a specific “secure mode” setting in it’s app.
Making sure your home network is secure will also be important. Make sure you are using a password protected WiFi and that your router is locked down. Since a Smart Home system will use both WiFi and it’s own communication protocol for different devices it’s important to make sure that both the hub and the WiFi router are setup correctly.
One other thing is to make sure the devices you attach to your Smart Home are secure. Sometimes off brand devices can be cheaper to buy but don’t always offer the same level of protection you get from brand name devices. Take the time to review the ratings and read feedback from other customers to help you purchase the right components.
As with any computer system it can be possible to do everything correctly and still get hacked. If you take the time to make sure things are correct it will make your home less desirable for the bad guys.
William (Bill) Sikkens has been a technology expert for KXL on the Morning Show with Steve and Rebecca since 2014. With an expertise in I.T., cyber security and software design he has had more than 20 years’ experience with advanced technology. Sikkens conceptualizes and designs custom applications for many professional industries from health care to banking and has the ability to explain the details in a way all can understand. Article edited by Gretchen Winkler.
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