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How to Set Up a Smart Home

6 min. read

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Smart homes are managing energy, providing security, and getting smarter by the day. According to the 2019 Tech Trends Report, some of the trends include video doorbells that use features like facial recognition to unlock the door, and microwaves that can be controlled by Alexa and other assistants. Our July survey found that on Prime Day 2019, millions opted to invite smart tech into their homes in the form of robot vacuums and smart plugs, and twice as many home security devices like Ring and Blink were purchased than in 2018.

Advances in home automation continue to make our homes more useful and convenient, and we can expect technology to get even better as more are released. But what can you get today to start setting up your smart home? The latest smart home gear includes some really neat features that you don’t need to be an expert to unlock.

Building Blocks

These are some of the must-have items for your smart home:

Voice assistants/ hubs. Every smart home needs a voice assistant, which is a 24/7 source of information and one of the primary ways you can communicate with your other smart devices. If you’re just starting out, you can select your assistant based off of its interconnectivity and strengths. Your choice in assistant will inform your choice of smart speakers like the Google Nest Hub Max, or the Echo Dot

Security cameras. Ever wonder what your kids or pets are doing at home? Or where that package went? An indoor camera or nanny cam allows you to remotely view your home’s interior, and for added protection you’ll want to opt for one of the  best outdoor security cameras on your home’s exterior.

Profile view of the Google Nest IQ Outdoor security camera.

You can build your smart home ecosystem with nearly anything under the sun, but these are the basics. As long as your desired gadgets work with a protocol that is compatible with your hub (Zigbee, Z-Wave, IFTTT, Bluetooth, Thread, WeMo) you’re free to add a smart smoke detector, robot lawnmower, or a smart shower.

Where to start: Beginners

Your smartphone and your hub are the basis of your smart home ecosystem. Once you have your desired security camera mounted and activated, install its corresponding app on your phone, as well as the app for your voice assistant. You’ll now be able to access feeds manually or via voice assistant command with a phrase like “Alexa, show me my front door” – providing you picked a security camera compatible with your voice assistant. Most home automation products will mention prominently which voice assistant they work with, but you can also check Alexa’s compatibility page and Google Assistant’s partner page.

If you’re just cutting your teeth on home automation, some other easy additions to your ecosystem are smart lights and robot vacuums, both of which can be controlled from your phone or by voice command. You can program your smart lights to turn on when you come home or create the facade of occupancy while you’re on vacation. “Imagine the convenience of your lights turning on as you pull up your driveway, or the magic of transforming your living room with color and creating an immersive movie night experience,” says Mike Deschamps, US Product Marketing Director, Philips Hue at Signify. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t. “The lights have a setup that is just as quick and easy as changing a light bulb, and an impact that can be seen and felt immediately,” Deschamps explains.

Where to start: Advanced

Advanced home automation starts with the same basic building blocks, but the more seasoned DIY-er can incorporate gadgets like:

Smart smoke detectors: A smart smoke detector can detect smoke and carbon monoxide. The difference between a smart smoke detector and a normal smoke detector is the notification abilities: When you’re not at home, you’ll receive both an alarm and a color-coded LED visual indicator. The smoke alarm also tests itself, and lets you know when the batteries are running low. Check out our guidelines on the best smoke detector placement.

Video doorbells: Doorbell cameras are sleek, sometimes-subtle ways to check in on Amazon deliveries and visitors alike. Smart doorbells often hook up via WiFi, and integrate with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, featuring specs like night vision and two-way audio, with 720p photo and video resolution. You can opt for hardwired or WiFi-enabled battery-powered models.

Smart thermostats: Who wants to get up from the sofa to adjust the temperature? Smart thermostats enable you to control your home’s climate remotely and work in tandem with your voice assistant to set the temperature to your preference when you come through the door. Google Nest, a leader in the smart thermostat space, can even show you your daily and monthly energy use. You can control 3 different Google Nest thermostats using a single account.

Finalists-for-Smart-Thermostat
Contenders in the smart thermostat space.

Smart locks. If your out-of-town relatives arrive earlier than expected and you’re not at home, a smart door lock allows you to remotely unlock (and lock) your home’s door. Also handy for when you forgot your keys, are trying to one-trip absolutely all of the groceries,  or if you’re in the home-sharing business.

Beyond the above staples of an advanced smart home, your imagination really is the limit. With some smart kitchen appliances, like GE Appliances WiFi Connect, your smart refrigerator can schedule hot water for your cup of coffee, and you can use voice activation with the Geneva app to preheat the oven. And – more importantly – if you leave the oven on, you can turn it off with the kitchen app. Just be warned that there are still some kinks to work out.

You can also use voice control to turn your washing machine on and off, see how much time is remaining, and get an alert when the cycle has finished. Smart showers, like the U by Moen, can be controlled by voice, phone, or by using the controller. Using voice activation, you can issue voice commands to start, stop, and pause the shower. You can even use the app on your phone to create presets.

Smart home safety concerns

Smart homes provide convenience, but what about safety? The network that connects your smart home can be vulnerable windows into your personal data. So how do you batten down the digital hatches? “The main piece of equipment every smart home will need is an upgraded firewall with diagnostic tools and sophisticated logging,” advises cybersecurity expert Greg Scott, author of “Bullseye Breach: The Anatomy of an Electronic Break-In.” While this isn’t as flashy or fun as the home automation items mentioned above, he says it could save you from a disaster.

Every device that allows homeowners to regulate it from their cellphones is really a little website exposed to the public internet.”

Greg Scott, author of “Bullseye Breach: The Anatomy of an Electronic Break-In.”

“Every device that allows homeowners to regulate it from their cellphones is really a little website exposed to the public internet,” Scott explains. “It’s a great idea, but how does that internet-connected door lock know its instructions are from your cell phone instead of somebody impersonating your cell phone? The same thing goes for security cameras, kitchen appliances, thermostats, or any gadget for door locks – how do they know it’s you when you send instructions?”

Scott says these devices face the same risks as commercially hosted websites. “But they’re in people’s homes, so, start with a good firewall and build out from there,” he says.

If the word “firewall” causes you to break out in panic sweat, you can start with these easier-to-tackle home security system safeguards, like multi-factor authentication and a separate WiFi network. And while you’re at it, brush up on how you can keep your voice assistant from storing your data and how you can prevent Alexa from tracking you (or, if you’re a Google smart household, how to keep your Google Home from storing what it overheard).

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