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What Can A Smart Home Do? Complete Guide With Pictures!


smart home technology

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When I built my current house, I decided to splurge on some smart home devices. I have continously added to my arsenal and am extremely pleased with it’s capabilities. If you are wondering what a smart home can do, then you have come to the right place. I’m going to walk you through the entire home and all of the devices. I’ll show you just how convenient and energy saving it is!

What can a smart home do? A smart home can perform and automate a wide variety of functions. These include:

  • Turn on, dim, or turn off lights
  • Lock or unlock doors
  • Open or close garage doors
  • Adjust thermostat settings
  • Alert you of smoke or carbon monoxide detection in your home
  • Activate security cameras and motion sensors and notify you by text or email if a motion is detected

All of this depends on which smart devices you choose to have in your home. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and, yes, your budget.

The following is a real scenario that happens at my home multiple times a week.

My home has sat empty for a little less than 5 minutes. I am headed to work.

My home is monitoring my GPS location on my phone. Realizing that I have left, the doors lock, the garage doors close, and the lights throughout the house turn off.

My thermostat automatically adjusts to my “away” settings, knowing that I’ll be returning from work around 4. Not to worry, it’ll make adjustments for that and ensure the house is nice and comfy when I get home.

Oops, I forgot to turn off the coffee. And did my wife remember to turn off her curling iron? No worries. The system knows I’m headed to work and automatically shuts those devices off for me.

The house switches into “Armed” mode. The security cameras and motion detectors will now activate if any movement is detected. If that happens, I’ll receive a text alert on my phone. I can then view a video clip of what is going on when the motion occurred.

The system will also notify me of any smoke or carbon monoxide detected in the house. That’s a level of assurance that is downright addictive.

This is just a fraction of a smart home’s capabilities. Let’s look at each piece of this system and how they all work together.

Smart Door Lock

Having smart locks on your external doors which can be locked or unlocked with your mobile phone is incredibly convenient. You can even unlock the door remotely when someone stops by to drop something off for you.

There are a wide variety of options available when it comes to smart locks. I made my decision based on brand reputation, the features incorporated into the lock, and adecor suitable for my home.

Let’s walk through each of these and consider your options.

Brand Reputation

The smart door lock industry is growing fast. Manufacturers are rushing to get a product to market to get their share of the pie. But all brands are not created equal. I chose to go with a Schlage smart door lock because of history and reputation. The company has been in the door lock business for years. There are many reputable smart door lock companies. Choose a brand you trust.

Features

Smart door locks offer a variety of features but the essential one is the ability to remotely lock and unlock the door. All smart locks pretty much have this covered but each offers other unique features that may interest you.

For example, the Schlage smart door lock that I chose includes the ability to set custom codes for different people. So my wife and kids all have their own code as does the housekeeper. You can set up temporary codes so that someone has access for a week or so while you are away.

Best of all, each person has their own code. You can set up notifications to alert you when the door is opened with a certain code. I always know the moment my son gets home from school, for example. I don’t have to depend on him texting me to let me know (something he would often forget to do).

The family can also lock or unlock the doors with our voices using our Amazon Alexa. This is really handy when we are upstairs in the game room and someone stops by. To keep things safe, Alexa asks us to confirm a special 4 digit security pin that we set up. Once we do that, Alexa will unlock the door for us.

There’s one more handy feature of the Schlage that helped me decide on this smart door lock. It has an option for auto-locking after 30 seconds. I never want to worry about the front door being left unlocked. I have it set up to lock itself automatically 30 seconds after it has been unlocked. That just provides a little piece of mind.

Decor

Smart lock decorative style is a personal preference.

Choosing a smart door lock that matches the style you are looking for is a personal preference. By choosing the Schlage brand, I was able to select a doorknob from the same company. I was even able to match it to the “camelot” product line. This ensured a seamless match between the smart lock and the door knob.

Again, though, it’s personal preference. Many people are fine with a deadbolt smart lock that doesn’t match their door knob. Decor is not the end-all-be-all of choosing a smart door lock by any means. It is but one factor and it may or may not weigh heavy on your purchasing decision.

The Schlage lock has the ability to connect to my smart home but it doesn’t have to. Even if I didn’t have a smart home system, I could still use it. I could set it up with unique codes for each user and have it auto-lock after 30 seconds.

A smart home system expands its capabilities but the smart door lock is not dependant on having a whole house system to work.

Not all smart door locks include a touch panel to type in your passcode. I’m really glad we chose one that included this. Even without my phone it’s easy to get in without a key.

I have two of these smart door locks, one on my front door and one on the back door. I purchased them in November of 2016. They have spoiled us. We don’t have to carry a house key or ever having to worry that we left the doors unlocked. In fact, to this day, none of us even have a house key on our keychain!

If you are interested in the Schlage Smart Door Lock or would like to explore other smart door lock options, click here to get the latest pricing from Amazon.

Smart Light Switches and Dimmers

Controlling your lights with your phone or voice is downright spoiling. I used to walk through the house multiple times a day turning off lights. The kids were the worst! They would walk into a room, turn on all the lights, then leave. I knew it was a waste of electricity but it was exhausting trying to stay on top of this.

When we built our new home, I decided to install smart light switches and smart dimmers. I can tell Alexa to dim the kitchen lights to 40% or do it from my phone. When it’s bedtime, the lights turn off throughout the house. I no longer have to chase these energy savings. It happens automatically!

I chose the GE brand of smart switches and dimmers. Again, brand reputation matters to me. I don’t have to worry that a company will go out of business and no longer support their products.

Replacing existing switches with these is a simple process.

  • Shut off power from the circuit breaker
  • Unscrew the connection wires from the old switch
  • Install the new switch with the same wiring.

Note: If you are not comfortable working with electricity, consult a professional. An experienced person could do quite a few of these installs for you in an afternoon.

GE offers both the traditional style and the more modern rockers style switch which is what I opted for.

There is a small blue LED light under each switch. It can be set to light up when the switch is turned on, turned off, or not at all. I have all of mine set to shine when turned off. I did this because it helps me to find the switch in the dark but it’s completely customizable. You don’t even have to have the blue indicator lights ever turn off if you prefer.

The dimmers and switches look identical when installed. You can install the GE smart switch next to a traditional one and it will look just fine. It takes careful inspection to notice a difference. Look at this picture. The left and middle switch are GE smart switches. The one on the right is a standard non-smart switch.

One thing I really like about the dimmer switches is when you turn the lights off. They don’t just shut off quickly, they slowly fade to off. It just takes a second but it feels very modern. I like it!

The dimmers are slightly more expensive but I used them where they made sense. The kitchen, living room, and gaming room. I may switch out the master bedroom lights at some point in the future with a dimmer switch too.

After over two full years of use, what I can tell you is that the switches work perfectly and I have never had a single one fail or have one “dead on arrival”.

Click here to get current pricing on the GE Smart Switch.

Click here for the latest pricing on the GE Smart Dimmer.

There’s one other point worth mentioning here. Each of these switches use Z-wave technology which is the way they wirelessly communicate with your smart home. I like the fact that GE smart switches are also Z-wave repeaters, meaning they help your smart home “bounce” the wireless signal to other switches and devices. This helps to keep you from having dead spots in the house where the smart switch can’t communicate with your home’s hub system (more on that later).

Smart Electric Outlets

There are a couple of ways to approach this and I’ve use both. The first option requires wiring and installation while the second is more plug and play.

In Wall Smart Outlets

The first way is to replace the existing outlet with a smart outlet. I use the GE brand for this one too since I trust the company and I’ve been very pleased with their flawless performance.

There are so many opportunities to save money with these. My wife has a bad habit of leaving her curling iron on, for example. I have the plug set up to automatically turn off at 8:30am because I know she’ll be gone to work by then. If not, she can just push a small button on the outlet and it’ll restore power.

I also have my smart home set up to make sure power to the curling iron is turned off if it notices that she has left the house (by monitoring her phone’s GPS location). Little conveniences like this are not only energy savers but potential home safety measures. A curling iron left on and unattended could start a fire.

I also use these smart outlets to control our coffee maker (we use a perculator which doesn’t have an auto-on and auto-off feature), as well as our pool pump. These devices turn on and off automatically at set times each day without us ever having to think about it.

smart outlet

Notice the blue LED indicator light. This tells you that the switch is active. What’s really cool about these switches is that only one outlet is a smart outlet. The top outlet is always on, so you can connect something to it that you do not ever want disconnected from power. This provides more versatility and doesn’t lock you into only using devices that you want to control.

There is also a button next to the blue light that you can press to manually turn the outlet on or off.

To get the latest pricing from Amazon on GE Smart Outlets, click here.

Smart Outlet Plugs

The other way you can approach this is with smart plugs. These plug into the existing outlet (no wiring required) and create a smart “bridge” between the outlet and your device. I have a few of these and use them for lamps and an air-purifier that we primarily use for white noise at night in our bedroom.

Once they are connected to your smart home hub, you can control these just like the built-in smart outlets. As a bonus, if you buy a “Works with Alexa” certified model, you can control these with your Amazon Alexa right out of the box, no smart home hub required!

There’s not much more to say about these except that they are perfect for adding smart home capabilities anywhere you don’t want to go through the hassle of replacing a traditional electrical outlet with a smart outlet.

Amazon actually markets their own model of smart plug now that works with Alexa, no hub required. It’s also one of the less expensive models available. Click here for the latest pricing.

Smart Thermostat

If there is one smart item in my home that pays for itself in energy savings, it is my smart thermostat. Actually, I have two. One for the main part of the house and one for the game room upstairs which has its own central air and heating system.

There are two leading brands demanding consumer attention in this market. One is Nest and the other is Ecobee. Each offers its advantages. I chose Ecobee for both of my thermostats but you will be well served by either system.

The great thing about a smart thermostat is that it is one of the few home efficiency upgrades that can truly pay for itself in energy savings. The ability to easily adjust your thermostat and set up schedules with your mobile phone makes it more likely that you will actually do it. Old programmable thermostats were cumbersome to work with. That’s why many people who owned one never actually set up a schedule.

Additionally, the ability to detect when you are home or away and adjust the temperature of the house automatically increases the energy saving potential of these devices.

Key features Compared:

Nest

Nest offers an enticing “set it and forget it” approach to energy savings. It’s designed to learn your household patterns and essentially create it’s own schedule. It does this through motion detection from the device as well as tracking of your mobile phone’s location.

When it senses that you are away, it will adjust the thermostat to “eco mode”, conserving energy until you return. If it notices that you tend to adjust the thermostat to a certain temperature each day, it will assume that responsibility for you and begin adjusting it at that time.

In learning your patterns, it’ll also take note of when you leave and return each day (such as going to work) and try to adjust the temperatures in anticipation of your return.

Ecobee

Ecobee takes a different approach to energy savings. It doesn’t try to anticipate your patterns. Instead, you set up Comfort Settings according to your routines. There are settings for Home, Away, and Sleep. Once you have your comfort settings established, you simply assign times to each. You can set the same schedule for every day or different schedules for certain days such as weekends. You can do this from the display panel or from your phone.

Here’s a screenshot of our downstairs comfort schedule:

The way I have our comfort settings set up is to make sure that the cooling kicks on if it hits a certain threshold and the heater to kick on if it gets too cold. At the time that I am writing this we are having temperature swings where it gets really warm during the day and pretty cold at night.

With the comfort settings established, all I have to do is assign times for Home, Away, and Sleep. Here’s an example of my weekday thermostat settings.

Ecobee Schedule

Notice at the bottom of the screen where it says “Copy schedule to another day”. I can select this and set up this same schedule for Monday through Friday or whatever I want. Super intuitive and easy!

The display on the wall shows the current temperature and settings. You can tap the weather icon (looks like a cloud) to get the current outdoor temperature and forecast. Pretty handy.

Ecobee smart programmable thermostat

Probably the final purchasing decision for me that caused me to lean toward the Ecobee was that you can purchase room sensors that it will use to determine the thermostat in different rooms throughout the house.

Then, if it notices that you are spending time in a certain room, it will focus on making sure the temperature in that room is the one where the target temperature should be reached. A great example of this is bedrooms. Often the bedroom will be warmer or cooler than the rest of the house and it can take some fiddling to get the thermostat just right.

With the Ecobee, however, you can place a sensor in the bedroom so that it can focus on making sure that room is the temperature at which you set your thermostat. I love this feature!

The bottom line is this. Both the Nest and the Ecobee are excellent smart thermostats that can save you money in energy costs. It really comes down to this. Do you want the thermostat to figure out your patterns on its own or do you want precision control over temperature settings and schedules. I’m more of a precision person so I went with Ecobee. Whatever choice you make, a smart thermostat is a worthwhile investment in energy savings and convienence.

You can check the latest pricing on the Nest Thermostat on Amazon by clicking here.

For current pricing on the Ecobee Thermostat, click here.

Voice Integration Device

There’s Google Home, Apple Homekit, and Amazon Alexa. The one to choose for your voice integration can be a little overwhelming but I’ll tell you why I went with the Amazon Alexa.

First, there is a huge selection of “Works with Alexa” certified products on Amazon. I mean, huge! Smart plugs, lights, security cameras, door locks, thermostats, and countless other smart home devices. iRobot even makes Roomba vacuum robots that integrate with Alexa!

Sure, playing music or asking Alexa a silly question is fun but where it really finds its place in a smart home is with its tight integration and an endless list of certified compatible products.

The Easy Way To Enter The Smart Home Era

Normally, you need a smart hub, which we’ll discuss later, to get all of your devices to work together. With the Amazon Alexa, however, there is a large and continuously growing number of smart devices that you can purchase that do not require a hub in order for them to work with the Alexa.

Amazon Echo in my kitchen

This makes the barrier-to-entry for a smart home much less in cost and technology know-how. You can literally buy an Amazon Alexa device, a couple of smart plugs and smart lights and start automating your home with no technical experience or know-how. I will provide a specific recommendation on how to get started with smart home technology for around $100 later in this article.

This is the way 90% of people interested in smart homes should get started. Once you have a couple of devices automating your home, you can add to it as your needs (and budget) grow.

Additional Benefits

Additional benefits of Alexa include a multitude of voice commands that incorporate with apps on my phone. For example:

Alexa, “add bread to my shopping list” will automatically add the item to a shared shopping list app called Anylist that my family uses.

And of course, all of the built-in Alexa features including playing music, get news briefings, shopping, get quick answers to questions, and communicating with other people between devices.

We use this feature a lot. We have our main Amazon Echo device in the kitchen and also have a couple of small Echo Dots. One of those is upstairs in the game room. My wife can call my son upstairs and tell him it’s time for dinner. Or she can say, “Alexa, announce that it’s dinner time” and all of the Echo devices in the house will announce that notification.

It doesn’t take long before you really begin to appreciate the depth of integration of the Amazon Alexa system into your smart home. I am constantly telling Alexa to dim the lights in the kitchen to 20% or turn off the pool pump. There seems to be no limit to its capabilities and the creative ways that you can incorporate it into your life.

Internet-Required

The one caveat, of course, is that you need the internet in order for it to function. Fortunately, it doesn’t require a lot. Until recently we had a very slow 3 megabit per second internet service that could barely handle playing YouTube videos but Alexa was able to communicate through it and automate our home just fine.

Click here to check the latest pricing on Amazon Echo devices.

Smart Smoke And Carbon Monoxide Detector

This is one that you may not have thought of before. Having a smoke detector that is connected to your smart home adds a level of peace and assurance. It’s one thing to have smoke detectors in the house that will beep if smoke or carbon monoxide is detected. Its another thing entirely to be able to get those alerts on your phone when you aren’t even at home!

I purchased several First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarms for my home in early 2017. They connect to my smart home and show up in my list of devices on my phone. You can even check the battery levels on them from your phone. I even get a notification on my phone if the battery level gets low.

You can check the battery level from your phone!

I have my smart home set up to react to a smoke or carbon monoxide alert. All of the lights turn on and alerts on our phones go off. I’ve tested it and it works amazingly well. Fortunately, I’ve never had a real-life situation that we needed this yet. If we do, though, I like knowing that I don’t have to worry that I may not hear the alarm going off in another room.

They look and act like regular smoke alarms and in fact you can use these without even connecting them to a smart home if you wanted. But the peace of mind that they provide when integrated with a smart home is priceless.

Check Amazon for the latest pricing on the First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm.

Smarthome Hub

When you are ready to take your smart home to the next level, consider a smart home hub. A hub allows you to connect more devices and have more control than the Amazon Alexa does by itself.

But you don’t have to abandon Alexa to use a hub. They will actually work together and make your system even smarter!

Where a smart hub really shines is its ability to use all of your smart home devices together. I purchased the Smartthings Smart Home Hub by Samsung. Here is a picture of the mobile app’s dashboard.

The dashboard is fully customizable. I have shortcuts to a few frequently used “routines” on it such as bedtime. When I click this button, all of the lights in the house turn off, the thermostat makes sure its set to the right temperature, the doors lock, and the motion sensors throughout my house activate. The “noisemaker” (a Honeywell air purifier) turns on in the bedroom.

Each of these devices can be controlled individually but having routines set up that perform multiple actions with a single finger click is so satisfying!

You can switch to the Devices view and see a scrolling list of your smart devices and their current state. Turn anything on or off with a click of your finger.

Automating routines is a simple matter. You just select which devices you want to turn on or off at a certain time. You can also have these activate when the system detects that you are home or have left. It tracks your mobile phone’s presence based on your connection to the home’s Wifi. Everyone in the house can have the app installed so that it knows if the house is empty or occupied.

Of course, that’s just one option and you don’t have to use the mobile phone detection to activate routines. You have total control. Just set up a routine that works for you and your family.

The Samsung Smartthings Hub is available on Amazon.


Don’t Be Overwhelmed By Technology

I know all of this can seem overwhelming but its actually not as long as you start simple. I recommend beginning your smart home with an Amazon Echo and a few smart plugs. As your comfort level grows, you can add more devices and purchase a hub to expand your smart home’s capabilities.

Now, I’m going to provide you with an inexpensive recommendation for getting your smart home started without breaking the bank!

Smart Home Starter Set: $100 Budget For The Technology-Averse.

Begin with an Amazon Echo Dot and a couple of smart plugs. These smart plugs do not require a hub to work with the Amazon Alexa system. You will be able to control a couple of devices with your voice or your phone. That’s all it will take for you to realize how easy it is to begin using smart home technology in your house.

You will be surprised how much you can do with the Alexa app. Without even having a smart hub in your home, you’ll be able to set up routines and group your smart devices together so that they can turn on and off with a single voice command. Granted, this may not feel very powerful with only two smart plugs but as you add more smart home devices you will really begin to see the benefit.

Setting up a routine is a simple matter of deciding when I say this, I want this to happen. The image above is how I set up Alexa to lock the front and back door when I say, “Alexa, lock doors”. I also have a routine set up for when I say, “Alexa, it’s bedtime”, This runs a series of actions including locking the doors, turning off lights, adjusting the thermostat, turning on the white noise machine in the bedroom, activating the motion sensors and security cameras in the house, and closing the garage doors. That’s the power behind this technology!

Non-Smart Devices That Can Help To Automate Your Home

In a previous post, I outlined a few ways that you can better manage energy use in your home with automated systems. Two of those, in particular, are worthy of your consideration: Occupancy Sensors and a Humidity Sensor for Bath Exhaust Fans.

Smart Switches are a little pricey. If you tried replacing every switch in your home it would add up quick.

But here’s the thing. Not every room needs a smart switch. The key is to pick the right tool for the job!

Lighting in some areas of the house just needs to be left off when no one is in there. Closets, pantry, hallways, and stairways are briefly occupied but vacant the majority of the time.

You can prevent energy waste by installing occupancy sensors that automatically shut off the lighting when the area is vacant. Best of all, these are less expensive than internet-connected smart switches.

If you have a bathroom exhaust fan, seriously consider installing a humidity sensor switch. This will automate your bath exhaust fan so that it comes on when the humidity level is high (when taking a shower) and automatically shut off once the humidity level returns to normal. Read this post for more details.

Conclusion

Incorporating smart home technology into your home is an excellent way to improve the energy efficiency of your home, increase its resale value, and add a level of convenience to your life. You can ease into smart home technology with an Amazon Echo and a couple of smart plugs. Then, add to the system as your comfort level increases. You’ll be surprised just how easy it can be to start saving money and automating your home.

Paul

As a homeowner, I am constantly experimenting with making the structure of my house more energy-efficient, eliminating pests, and taking on DIY home improvement projects. Over the past two decades, my family has rehabbed houses and contracted new home builds and I've learned a lot along the way. I share my hard-learned lessons so that you can save time and money by not repeating my mistakes.

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