Smart Home 101: What is it? How Does it Work? Why Should I Care?

Illustration of a Smart Home on a Blue Background

In the 21st century, we are starting to see more and more homes being transformed into smart homes. It’s one of the most popular tech trends we’re seeing today.

But what is a smart home? Why are people spending all this money on strange devices? What can a smart home do better than a regular home?

Illustration of a Smart Home

Learn the answers to all of these questions and more below!

What is a Smart Home?

A smart home is a home filled with smart devices. And the smartest homes are ones filled with smart devices that can all talk to each other and give each other commands. In this way, you can more or less let your home manage itself.

With a completely smart home, every light bulb, appliance, and electricity-using object would be smart enough to know what your schedule is and what you need when. Your house would know that you wake up at 7am each morning and you like to have a cup of extra strong coffee waiting for you.

Using Smartphone to Control Home Automation Devices

It would know that you usually leave around 8am and that you like to have your lights and thermostat off while you’re gone. It knows that when you come home in the evening, you like a cozy, relaxing atmosphere so it will dim the lights, put on some relaxing tunes, and set the thermostat to your favorite temperature.

When you get one of those random thoughts in your head like “I wonder who invented rubber bands.” You won’t have to type that into a search engine. You could just ask your question out loud and your smart home hub will give you the answer.

And all this time, you haven’t had to lift a single finger to make it happen. Your home is working for you. That’s the kind of future that is possible with a smart home.

What Kinds of Smart Home Devices Can You Get?

There are thousands of different devices out there that cover just about every possible area of life. There’s even a device whose sole purpose is making tortillas one at a time. And another one which just keeps track of your eggs and sends you texts when you’re almost out. So if there’s a regular everyday activity you can think of, there’s probably a smart device that automates it for you in some way.

Living Room with Illustration of Smart Devices in it

That means smart home automation can be as simple as getting an all-in-one security device that monitors your home; as elaborate as replacing your fridge, microwave, oven, coffee maker, and dish washer with smart versions; or as weird as getting a toothbrush with a camera that sends live video footage of the inside of your mouth to your smartphone.

We’ll take a look at some specific examples later on in this guide.

What Goes Into Smart Home Systems?

The best smart home system is one where each device can communicate with all the other ones. A single smart device by itself can be cool and it can even make life easier. But the most impressive functions start when that device can get commands from other devices.

For example, it’s one thing to be able to control your thermostat from an app on your phone. But imagine if you didn’t even have to do that. Imagine having a smart lock that could command your thermostat to shut off the heating the moment you locked the door. Imagine lights that you never had to turn on or off because your smart motion detectors can automatically send a command to the lights to turn on when they detect you in the room and turn off when they detect that you left.

To create an integrated smart home system like that, you need a central smart home hub that can use whatever system protocol your devices use. Today, we are seeing more and more hubs that can use multiple system protocols which means they can help to integrate different devices even if those devices each use different protocols.

Home Automation Protocols - Bluetooth, INSTEO, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, enocean, Thread Group, X10, KNX, Z Wave

But it’s still better to try and get devices that all use the same protocol. Popular system protocols include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-wave, or ZigBee. But there are many others out there.

Smart Home Hub

Smart home hubs are the smart home controllers that coordinates all the different appliances you have in your home. And in some cases, it has some features of its own. Examples include:

Samsung SmartThings Hub

If you’ve got Z-Wave devices, this is probably the top of the line hub for you. It also works with a bunch of other protocols but it is a favorite among Z-wave users. It’s very powerful and very reliable. It even has a battery backup so that if you have a power outage, it won’t be disturbed.

Amazon Echo

Of the 3 presented here, this is the only one that is actually fun and useful by itself. Even if you have no other smart device, the Amazon Echo can do plenty of cool stuff by itself, including playing music, reading you books, ordering pizzas for you, telling you the weather forecast for the day, suggesting the best driving route to avoid traffic, and more. It works with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Amazon Echo on a Table

Wink 2

Like the Samsung hub, this one works with a lot of different protocols making it great if you have lots of devices that aren’t compatible with each other. It’s also got a huge amount of memory and is easy to set up. But it’s not as easy as others to pair devices with it.

But there are dozens of controllers out there and competition is getting fiercer and fiercer so do your research before you buy.

Smart Home Appliances

As mentioned there are so many different smart home gadgets and appliances out there. Here is a short list of some of the ones that we think will get you the most excited about smart home tech:

WeMo Smart Slow Cooker

What’s a smart home if doesn’t also do the cooking for you? With this slow cooker, you can control all of its functions from your phone. Adjust the temperature, get updates about progress, change the cook time, or check in and see how your dish is coming along! By the time you get home, there will be no surprises and no overcooked mush waiting for you.

WeMo Smart Slow Cooker Crock Pot

Kwikset Smart Home Lock

A door lock might not seem like the most exciting place to start with smart tech. But how many times has a loved one found themselves locked out of the house, forcing you to leave work and let them in or leave them hanging until you get home? With a smart lock, you can let them in using your smartphone.

Sleep Number IT Bed

Why wear a sleep-tracking wearable to bed when you can just get a bed that tracks that for you? This bed with sensors built in will monitor your heart rate, breathing, and movements while you sleep. Then, when you wake up, it will give you suggestions about what mattress firmness might help you sleep better and when you should be going to bed. It can sync up with your thermostat or fitbit as well for a more comprehensive look at your health and habits.

Simple Steps You Can Take Right Now

If you aren’t yet ready to invest the kind of money you would need to for a complete overhaul of your home, that’s totally understandable. And, for the most part, not many homeowners build their smart home all at once like that. Instead, they start with something like a basic smart home kit or a few devices that seem the most useful and interesting.

Swann One Smart Home Control Kit

Then, over time, they add more and more devices to their system until they’ve created the perfect, totally customized smart home system that suits their needs to the T. So if that sounds like a more appealing option to you, the best first step you can take is converting all of the outlets in your home to smart outlets.

Smart Home Plugs

You can get replacement outlets or smart home plugs that turn any outlet in your home into a smart outlet. That means that whatever device you plug into it can be controlled by controlling the outlet. You won’t get quite the same level of cool features and control as you would if the device itself was smart but it is a great start.

With a smart outlet, you can use your phone (or a central smart home hub) to turn the plugged in device on or off, set on a schedule, coordinate it with your door lock or motion detectors, and so on. So you do still have quite a lot of options.

Smart Home Security Issues

One issue that threatens a smart home is security. The more things you have connected to the internet, the more vulnerable you are to hacking. It’s unsettling to imagine a hacker somewhere in the world hacking into your home security cameras and watching your every move—or hacking into your smart home hub and gaining access to the massive amounts of private data that is stored there.

Man in Shadows Sitting infront of Computer

This is definitely a scary thought. But there are important steps you can take make sure you are smart about your smart home:

  • Opt for more secure smart home systems - Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the most vulnerable protocols because they are the least secured networks. Hacking in as easy as cracking your Wi-Fi password. But other system protocols have been designed to be way more secure. Z-Wave and ZigBee are two great examples of more secure systems. So using devices that run these will help increase the security of your smart home.
  • Secure your Wi-Fi the best you can - If you are going to be using Wi-Fi even just for some of your devices, take steps to make your network as secure as possible. Keep your router up to date. Disable guest network access. Use highly secure passwords and change your password on a regular basis. Use these tips for password creation.
  • Keep devices up to date - If your device doesn’t update itself automatically, make sure you are checking for any new updates regularly.
  • Install security software - Firewalls and Malware blockers are going to be essential. Getting a virus on your laptop is destructive enough. Imagine if you got a virus in your home appliances. You could go from being in complete control of your home to living in a home controlled by a hacker. Security software is worth the investment.

While taking these steps will help keep you safe from hacking and viruses, most of the responsibility for making smart homes more secure falls on the companies who make the products. Right now, many manufacturers haven’t integrated security into their devices. In the rush to get a cool new gadget on the market, they overlook the important aspect of security.

However, that is already changing. As people start converting more and more things in their home into smart appliances and devices, they are already realizing the harm that could be done if that device were to be infiltrated by a hacker. Consumers are demanding more security. And certain devices like those using Z-Wave and ZigBee are already answering those demands.

More and more companies will follow suit. But, until then (and even afterward) it is up to you to be extra vigilant and secure your devices the best that you can.

Final Word

In 2015, consumers spent nearly $47 billion on smart home products. The trend is expected to grow rapidly over the coming years. Analysts are expecting that to increase to almost $122 billion by 2022. So there is definitely a strong trend in this market going into the future. And that’s no surprise considering just how much this technology can do to make people’s life not only easier but better.

Illustration of an Apple Smart House

In a smart home, everything runs more efficiently, it’s easier for you to manage, and you save a lot of time and stress in not having to worry about dozens of little things like turning off lights, locking doors, turning off appliances, and so on. Even the smallest smart home modifications can go a long way toward saving you money, time, energy, and your sanity!

And you can look forward to smart home gadgets getting cooler and more efficient in the future. Soon, everything in your home could be completed by simply giving a voice command.

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