Guide to Building a Smart Home
Adding the latest technology to your home to make it smarter is the latest craze. Walk into any home improvement store right now and you are sure to see a variety of smart accessories begging for you to come and play with them. Make no mistake though, building a smart home will take time and cost as much as you are willing to let it. That’s why we like to think of smart technology as an expensive hobby. We enjoy building it and trying the latest gizmos – but we realize we don’t need it. We wouldn’t take out a mortgage or loan to finance smart home purchases. That would be silly. Set a budget, and stick to it.
To keep you on track, and show you some of the more affordable options out there in smart home technology, we have put together the following guide to smart home products. This isn’t an all-inclusive list, it’s a list of things the writers of BDSC have in their own home and can vouch for. Think of our list as smart home 101 – a list of products that are cool, affordable, and give you plenty of function for the price. Use our guide to plan out your own smart home upgrades. We have plenty of Amazon links for each item we talk about in the article. Click a link to see Amazon reviews and get the best price currently available.
The Brain of the Smart Home : Amazon Alexa or Google Home
If you plan to add smart devices to your home, you need to start with a control device. This is basically the brains of your system, and there are two predominant choices on the market. The Amazon Alexa and Google Home. We chose Alexa as the base of our system since as prime members it was offered to us a couple years ago, before it's official release, at a reduced price. So we have been using the device for several years and have plenty of experience with it. Since then Amazon has continued to update the device and offer additional sizes and colorways so that it can fit seamlessly anywhere in the house. We own the full sized Alexa as well as a smaller Echo Dot for rooms like our walk in closet and children's rooms. Other options include the Echo Spot and Echo Show which work great as a visual alarm clocks and provide the option to view your security cameras from somewhere like your bed. Lets say the front door bell rings - you don't even have to get out of bed, simply turn over and view the screen to know who is at the door.
It's easy to be impressed by the Amazon and it is a fantastic device. As you add smart home technology and integrate them into the device, you will only be more impressed. By simply calling out the command "Alexa" you can gain control of a multitude of devices in your home, play music, turn the TV on or off, change the temperature in the house, or turn a light off before going to bed. The options are endless. That doesn't mean that Alexa is perfect and without flaws or quirks but Amazon does seem to be addressing issues : voice recognition is updated with software upgrades, and new Alexa skills are constantly added to meet new technology demands. One issue we had was a weird glowing light on our device which we thought was a glitch. Turns out that it's a notification: Alexa will let you know when your Amazon orders have been delivered. It's a great feature that makes sure you didn't miss a package outside. When we get home late we don't always see a package in the dark. Alexa makes sure we know that the mailman left something and that makes sure that it doesn't get left in the rain or left for a nosy neighbor to find. That means Alexa is a technology that is here to stay - new upgraded models may come out but your current device doesn't become obsolete. In the fast paced world of technology, no one likes the idea of spending a large sum of hard earned money on something that will be useless in six months. We still use our original Alexa today, and it has worked perfectly as we have added new smart technology to our homes and office. Now to be honest, Alexa does have it's share of glitches that we covered here, but these inconveniences shouldn't deter you from investing in the device.
Google Home is a competitor smart home control device that we don’t have much experience with, but when seeing it in action didn't come away impressed with the sound quality. Upgraded models that offer audiophile quality sound are available at higher costs. To us, it's a solid device without any stand out features, and since were looking for the best bang for our buck Amazon Alexa wins. CNET is another site that has done a great write up on the pros and cons of Google Home and seems to agree with our opinion.
A Smart Phone or Tablet
It’s a good idea to have a smart phone for controlling all of your smart home devices. That’s not a problem for most of us since we already have one. Most smart home devices will require that you download an app which will connect over Wi-Fi and act as a remote control. The only thing we can say about smart phones for smart homes is that a faster processor helps with the multitasking, and a strong signal is a must. Adding all those extra apps to your phone means you will use some memory so hopefully your phone has an SD card. We picked up an LG G6+ recently on a prime deal and love it. The speed and power of the phone is comparable to popular I-Phone and Samsung products at half the cost. The G6+ also features 128 gb of on-board storage which is why we bought it as our new smart home center. All that memory will help us store the apps we need and the lightning quick processor means it won't bog down running multiple apps. It also comes unlocked, which means we can run it on our prepaid carrier with no issues. If your in the market for a new phone check out the LG G6+ by clicking here.
Another option for controlling those smart home devices is a tablet. We actually prefer this method. That way we can keep the apps on our phone to a minimum, and can create a centralized area with all of our smart device controls on a wall. That also includes viewing our security cameras on this tablet. This past Christmas Amazon offered 8 inch Kindle tablets on sale with 8 gb of storage which we picked up. Kindle isn’t known for being the fastest or most glamorous tablet on the market but it does the job at a reasonable price. We wouldn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on an I-Pad that just sees occasional use and sits in a dock on the wall. If you like a bigger screen, Kindle is available in an High Definition 10 inch option that will feel huge as a smart home center.
IFTTT: If This Then That
IFTTT is a special app that can help eliminate some of your smart home apps and give you more control of your devices. This is what we call an intermediate level project, but we mention it in case you really take a liking to your new Smart Home hobby and want a maximum level of control. We don’t want to get to deep into the capabilities that customized smart home commands can offer, but when the time comes here is the website that gives you the run down on IFTTT.
TP Link Smart Plug
If you’re looking for a low budget way to give smart home technology a try, the TP Link Smart Plug is a great device that’s low priced, easy to set up, and functions well. We were able to get our device set up in just about 5 minutes. The hardest part was waiting for our WIFI to respond. The TP Link is a simple on/off switch that can be controlled over WIFI. It goes between the actual wall receptacle and the device you want to control. It’s great for things like a lamp, maybe even an indoor fountain … the type of home devices where you're not going to lose settings by simply shutting it off. So this isn’t something to use on say an alarm clock because you would always have to reset the time. You can often find the TP-Link on sale and no hub is required. Once connected to Alexa, you simply say “Alexa, turn on the front lamp” and voila - the light comes on. A couple of Smart Plugs and an Alexa device is a great low priced smart home starter set up that is easy to get up and running.
Hands Free Smart Home
Motion Sensors are an easy way to give your home a luxury feel. Placing small motion sensors near entryways means there’s no need to turn on the light switch. It’s a small convenience that might not sound exciting at first, but you also can control the lights and turn them off remotely as well. If you have kids that leave light on and run up the electric bill, the investment in motion sensors and lighting control can save you money.
Smart Lights also offer another benefit: you can create the impression that someone is home even you are away. That’s a great deterrent for burglars and nosy neighbors. If your curious about what houses burglars tend to target, read our article on the subject by clicking here.
Nest Thermostat vs Ecobee Thermostat
One of the first smart devices that most homeowners purchase is a smart thermostat. The idea of saving money on one of your biggest hidden and unpredictable home costs - heating and cooling - is what leads homeowners to quickly grab a smart thermostat for their home. We got caught up in the buzz as well, buying a Nest thermostat back in November 2017 shortly after moving into our new office. Our office is approximately 1200 square feet and though the energy bills are reasonable, we still wanted to see if we could save money. If we were able to cut our bill by just ten percent, the Nest would pay for itself very quickly - maybe in as little as six months. We managed to snag our Nest on a sale and we were also eligible to receive a rebate from our local energy supplier.
We like the Nest thermostat because it functions well, connects to our Amazon Alexa easily, and makes it simple to change the temperature in the office from any room. As long as Alexa can hear our voice, we can raise and lower the temperature until we find the perfect comfort level. That means you could lie in bed at night and, like a sleeping bear, if you need to bump the temp up or down you can without leaving the warmth of your blanket.
The main competitor to Nest Is the Ecobee, and to be honest we were just about to hit the order button on an Ecobee when we backed off and did some more research. The sale is what ultimately made or decision. We really like the face of Ecobee while others hate it. One bonus to Ecobee is that it includes a room sensor which can be placed in another area of the house. It’s a cool feature where the sensor will pick up what room you are occupying and adjust the temperature in that room to your setting. So for example, if you had a baby room you could make that room the “most important” one and guarantee that the baby always had the perfect temperature (at the expense of the other rooms). That was the main difference between Nest and Ecobee, and Nest recently responded by making their own add on sensor available which levels the playing field. So now it’s down to aesthetics. Which smart thermostat do you think looks best?
We know someone who had a Nest and didn't like it, so he purchased an Ecobee. We asked why and he said it seemed like his fan was always running. We agree. Whichever smart thermostat you choose, we would recommend trying to wait a year to establish a bill history to compare to. That way you will see if your smart thermostats actually saves you any money. Also, check for rebates. A good place to see what energy efficient appliance rebates you qualify for is on the Energy Star website, check whats available in your area by clicking here.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Smoke detectors are not going to earn you any cool points, unless you have the Nest Smoke Detector. It’s pretty fancy, linking to your Wi-Fi and alerting you should smoke be detected in a room. It also works as a low powered light, so it can function as a night light in a hallway. The Nest smoke detector isn’t cheap so maybe it should have been included in our luxury section, but is a must have if you want to add as many smart home accessories to your house as possible. It does include a carbon monoxide alarm, so if you don't have one in your house you can maybe justify the upgrade. The First Alert Onelink is a more expensive smoke detector that is the big competitor to the Nest detector. It is a hardwired detector if you prefer the safety factor, and adds a build in Alexa device so this could work as a multipurpose device in bedrooms or kids rooms.
Smart Vacuum Cleaner
Some people might think it’s lazy, but we think that smart robotic vacuum cleaners are pretty neat. What you can do is let the little guy roam around the house, and after a while it creates a map of your home in its memory through geo-fencing technology. This is similar to what birds do, creating mental maps of every point of interest in their world. The robotic vacuum cleans for you saving time, and it's pretty nice to come home to a clean house. We actually did use an earlier model of the iRobot Roomba and thought it did a good but not great job. The cleaning skills made the house presentable but wouldn't pass the white glove test. We here that newer models do a better job cleaning. Lower priced models like the ECOVACS DEEBOT have good reviews at a quarter the price. At around the price of a regular vacuum cleaner, it might be worth investing in a smart vacuum cleaner if your really pressed for time.
Smart Home Security Camera Options: Amazon, Nest, Arlo
When it comes to home surveillance you have two areas to focus on, interior and exterior monitoring. Ideally you would want to cover every nook and cranny inside and outside your home with a camera. But for most of us who live on a budget, purchasing that many cameras isn’t easy. So we started researching the options in search of the best bang for our buck. Since we already had a Nest, we were intrigued at the idea of adding Nest security cameras to our system, but the cost was prohibitive. With the retail price, and with a goal of ten security cameras for our office we just couldn't afford it. Additionally, most homeowners would need professional help and installation, easily bringing the cost to monitor a whole home into the thousands. That just wasn’t in the realm of possibility for us.
Amazon offers it's own line of cameras called Cloud Cam which were expensive as well, but we have noticed the price has come down to be more competitive with other options. What we didn't like was that Amazon does not include cloud storage for free, something many Prime members have complained about, but rather sells it's cloud storage as an add on feature for a monthly cost. We didn't like the shape of Amazon cloud cams either - they resemble a webcam, and don't like that they are wired. We do know a single mom who has the Amazon camera and loves it. She has a single camera facing the front door and receives alerts when ever her daughter comes in from school, or tries to leave the house without texting to say where she is going. That's a great selling point for parents, but all the security options can do that for you.
Arlo has developed a system of wireless cameras that run on batteries and include night vision and 7 day cloud storage for a reasonable price. But we are picky and didn't like the shape. We wanted something that didn't stick out and look so much like a security camera on the wall. A camera that could blend in to its surroundings and mount close to a wall. That's why we settled on the Blink Camera system. Blink cameras are small squares that can mount nearly flush to a wall. The shape is unique to anything on the market and we fell in love with it when we saw it. The cameras run on a batteries, like Arlo, and claim a 2 year life. Most report that the batteries do not last nearly that long, but we are ok with replacing batteries every season as part of our seasonal house maintenance chores since batteries are cheaper than monthly cloud storage fees. The Blink Indoor cameras come in 3 and 5 camera sets for a reasonable cost (making them one of the lowest priced options on the market) with a hub. The hub can support up to five cameras meaning you can build a large surveillance system before needing any additional equipment. The best thing is no wires. We were able to set up our five camera system in less than five minutes per camera - including the time to connect to wifi. All mounting hardware is included, and you get a window sticker that we placed on the front door. We did find that the mounts don't offer a whole lot of flexibility, but add on swivel mounts are cheap and gave us the field of view we wanted. Blink is not perfect, but it's our personal recommendation. We have indoor use cameras, though outdoor weather resistant ones are available at a higher cost. Probably the best review of the Blink XT Security cameras comes from CGS Computers, a tech review company. Check out their review here.
Smart Home Accessories for the Garage
Right now, smart garage accessories seem to be an untapped market because there isn’t a whole lot available, but we are pretty sure companies are thinking up some ideas and will have many more items on the market soon. One thing that a staffer here has picked up is the Ryobi Smart Garage Door Opener. It’s available exclusively at Home Depot since Ryobi is one of their house brands. Not only does the opener given you an impressive set of features, it’s also one of the more powerful and quiet garage door openers on the market.
Smart Home Speaker Speakers - Sonos
For audiophiles, having speakers everywhere in the room and house is a dream come true. But audio upgrades are expensive, and then there are the dreaded wires to run which are difficult to hide. Yes, it is possible to run wires behind walls for a better visual appearance, but that adds even more to the cost. Luckily, Sonos has developed a series of smart home speakers which all link together and are capable of delivering multi room sound throughout your home – without the wires. Even being wireless, users rave about their sound quality and performance, which isn’t cheap. The speakers expensive for a pair, but if movies and music are your main focus then Sonos speakers are a must have. The all new Sonos One even has Alexa built in, so you could combine devices and save money. We don't have them yet, but they will find their way into our home soon enough.
Lynx Smart Robot
This might be the coolest smart home accessory available to purchase, the Lnyx Smart Robot is like a personal butler. The little guy is controlled by Alexa commands and can give you news and weather updates. In Avatar Mode, you can see, hear, and speak all through your Lynx robot, so you can be present, even from far away. In Surveillance mode, Lynx can monitor your home or office or simply take a fun, panoramic photo of friends. Lynx isn't cheap, but if you must have everything in your smart home this robot is definitely impressive. Maybe it could be the family Christmas gift?