Building a Smart Home: Everything You Need to Know

Ever gone shopping for groceries when, with a jolt, you can’t remember whether you were supposed to get more milk? Wouldn’t it be great to just ask your refrigerator, right from your phone?

Building a smart home doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive—you don’t have to be Bill or Melinda Gates to afford setting up a smart home. In fact, you don’t even have to pay a contractor to install an expensive, complicated system that’s controlled through a mobile device or smart speaker.

An installed smart home doesn’t have to include fancy gadgets or crazy robots—though it could if you want. More times than not, it only involves replacing certain appliances, gadgets, and accessories with their automated counterparts.    

If you don’t know much about this technology, then you probably have a thousand questions like, What do smart homes have? How much does smart technology cost? What pieces of equipment do I need to create a smart home?

Keep reading the guide below, and you’ll find the answers you’ve been looking for.

Getting Started

The manner in which you approach the task of creating your perfect smart home depends on three things: your budget, time, and enthusiasm. You can just buy one connected home gadget, get started with the individual brand, and then figure out any additions later—at least that’s how people have been doing it for the last couple of years.

On the other hand, you can always start out building a smart home by buying all kinds of components—sensors, security cameras, smart bulbs, speakers—and connecting them all to a central hub that allows them to communicate with each other and with you via your smartphone. But keep in mind that this way, you’ll be spending a lot of money and dedicating a lot of time, which most people don’t have.

If your needs and wants are simpler, you can start off with more affordable products and upgrade them when you have the funds for it. A basic build will do the trick and deliver most of the conveniences of a smart house while saving you a few bucks.

How Does a Smart Home System Work?

It’s all about product compatibility. While you’re picking and choosing the features that will suit your needs, you have to make sure that your smart home products work with each other. By doing so, you’ll create a solid foundation that you can expand on over time.

It’s essential to know which home products don’t require a smart home hub to operate. Although hubs offer certain advantages, they aren’t essential. The one thing you do need, however, is a solid wireless router—preferably one that can spread the connection to all corners of your home.

Without further ado, here’s a simple review to help you get started creating a smart home that perfectly suits your needs.

Choose a Virtual Assistant That Will Control Your Home

Virtual voice-controlled assistants are AI-based applications that understand voice commands and perform tasks for a user. Most virtual assistants are compatible with smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, and even standalone devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo.

These applications are composed of computer chips, microphones, and software that assist the user by understanding natural language in either spoken or written form. Needless to say, each of these automated software platforms has its own set of pros and cons, so choose the one that will likely to suit your needs.

The Basics of Virtual Assistants

The first step in setting up a smart home is choosing a virtual assistant that helps you control your smart home products. There are three primary virtual assistants on the market (others exist, but they aren’t as widespread):

  • Google’s Assistant
  • Apple’s Siri
  • Amazon’s Alexa

Virtual assistants like these can do everything from telling jokes, answering questions, and playing music to controlling the objects and appliances in your home, such as the thermostat, lights, door locks, and other smart home devices. They can respond to various voice commands, make phone calls, send text messages—basically, any function available on your phone can be performed by your virtual assistant.

Virtual assistants are an essential ingredient in your smart home design. They learn your habits and preferences over time, and they’re always getting smarter. These AI-based applications can recognize faces, understand natural language, and communicate with other smart devices and software.

How to Use a Virtual Assistant  

In most cases, you’ll need to “summon” your virtual assistants by speaking simple commands like, “Hey Google,” “OK Siri,” or “Hello Alexa.” Most virtual assistants are capable of understanding natural language, but in some cases, you have to be specific. For instance, you can connect some of your smart home items, like Amazon Echo, with the Uber app and tell Alexa to request a ride, but you have to phrase the command correctly. You would have to say, “Alexa, ask Uber to call for a ride.”

Generally, your virtual assistants are programmed to listen to your voice command, so you’ll need to speak to them. Some assistants, however, can reply to typed commands in written form. For example, you can send commands and questions to Siri (rather than speaking) via iPhone devices that are run on iOS 11. Furthermore, Siri can answer by text rather than speech if you prefer. Correspondingly, Google Assistant can respond to commands by either voice or text.

Now that we’ve established what role virtual assistants have and how they work, let’s see what the best smart home devices out there are.

Smart Speakers

One of the biggest challenges in creating a smart home has been finding an easy way to control the system. Until recently, this was achieved through numerous apps, constantly switching between them to get the job done. This is no longer an issue thanks to the development of smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo devices. You can now say, “Dim the lights,” and the smart speaker connected to your smart lighting will do that for you.

Smart speakers play an integral role in a smart home setup, and they are worth every penny. The market leaders in this area are undoubtedly Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod.

Apple HomePod is a good solution for homes that have installed the app kit because you’ll be able to control a wide array of (compatible) devices via the iOS Home App. On the other hand, the other two speakers don’t support as many devices.

Of all the smart home accessories on the market, Amazon Echo offers the widest level of smart home support—and some handy features. For example, through Amazon Alexa’s Routines, you can control multiple devices with one voice command, such as locking the front door and turning down the lights when you go out.

We must give credit where credit’s due, though, as the Google Home support has vastly improved over the years, covering most major smart home devices. Additionally, the Google Assistant is the smartest and the most affable device of its kind.

Smart Lighting

Investing in smart lighting can make your life much more comfortable, which is why it’s so high up on our list of the best home automation devices. Admittedly, when you think about it, there’s nothing special about smart lighting. Sure, being able to dim the lights via your smartphone or your voice might be cool, but that’s about it.

However, smart lighting technology has many benefits. For example, with the appropriate equipment installed, you can have your lights turn on every time your security camera detects motion. In addition, you can customize your smart lighting so that the lights turn on and off periodically while you’re away, fooling potential burglars into thinking you’re at home.

If you want to make your home smart, installing smart lighting is a no-brainer. Not only can it add an additional layer to your home security, but it also provides a great number of options for how your home looks and feels. You can even buy a system with temperature- or color-changing bulbs to help set the mood in your house.

Smart lighting can be controlled by smart light switches—they let you control the existing light bulbs, but don’t provide fancy color-changing options. For those purposes, you’ll need dimmable bulbs because these switches are all dimmers.

When you connect your home via smart lighting technology, you can save both time and energy, far beyond what any normal lighting accomplishes. Installing the right type and number of smart bulbs is crucial to maximizing your energy efficiency.  

If you already use your smartphone to control everything else, why not use it to control the lights, too? A set of smart speakers alongside a smart lighting system is a match made in heaven. Being able to say, “OK, Alexa, turn the lights off” as you head to bed or, “Google, turn on movie mode” before you start watching your favorite HBO series are only a few great examples of the little things that you come to appreciate.

Smart Plugs

Making a smart home doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and smart plugs are proof of that. They’re super easy to adjust, and they represent an affordable way to upgrade commonly used devices—lighting, heating, you name it. Essentially, they turn any electronic device into a smart home device, which you can then control via your smartphone.

Although installing and adjusting these plugs is relatively straightforward, choosing the appropriate one is no easy task. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best smart plugs available on the market, along with some tips to consider when upgrading your smart home technology.

What Is a Smart Plug?

Whether they’re labeled as smart outlets, smart switches, or any variation thereof, a smart plug is ultimately a simple-to-use device that plugs directly into a wall outlet (or traditional power strip) transforming it into a smart one. It usually comes with a corresponding app, allowing you to control any device plugged into the smart plug. For example, you’ll be able to make coffee without leaving the comfort of your bed or check whether the slow-cooker is on while you’re at work.

If you’re building a smart home from the ground up, you should definitely consider installing smart plugs. Not only will you be able to control the smart devices plugged into them, but they will also lower your electricity bill. Note that you’re not losing or gaining any outlets by setting up the smart plug; you’re simply upgrading the existing outlet by making it smart and connecting it to your home Wi-Fi network.  

Keeping that in mind, one of the first things you should take into account in regards to creating the best smart home setup is where to place each smart plug. While most are thin enough to fit next to one another in your regular wall outlet, some of them aren’t, and power strips are another issue entirely.

If your power strip is crowded, it’s important to keep where the plug’s outlet is positioned in mind. Some smart plugs, like an iDevices Switch, have outlets on the side. Outlets with this type of layout can either be more difficult or easier to access, depending on the type of power strip and its position in the wall.  

What Does a Smart Plug Do?

Once you’ve made sure that you’ve properly installed the smart plug, you’re one step closer to getting your smart home ready. However, it’s important to consider what a smart plug’s features are and what it can do.

First, note that most smart plugs offer some kind of schedule. So if you simply want to program your connected coffee-maker to start brewing coffee at the same time every morning, you can do that. Most smart plugs also feature an Away mode, which can be used to make the lights plugged into it turn on and off at random intervals, warding off potential intruders and improving your home security.

If you were wondering how to build a smart home that will save you energy and money long-term, then you should consider adding a smart plug to your checklist when you buy the essentials for your dream smart home. With a smart plug up and running, you can track information about energy use and cost for each device plugged in, in real time. Also, you can set smart plugs to prevent and restrict latent energy consumption by devices while they’re turned off.

Smart Thermostats

Wondering how to make a smart home where you can control the temperature remotely from your phone, tablet, or PC? A smart thermostat is way more than just another cool smart device—it provides convenience, savings, and comfort. After all, who wouldn’t love a device that’s designed solely to make you comfortable and help you save money on energy costs?

What Is a Smart Thermostat, and How Does It Work?

Since heating and cooling make up most of your household energy and electrical bills, those looking to save money on their utilities often opt for smart tech. In fact, this device is so useful that we can safely say one of our primary smart home tips must be to purchase a smart thermostat—yes, it’s that beneficial.

What makes this tiny device so beneficial? Well, let’s start by saying that it’s no different than any other smart device in terms of how it operates. It allows you to control your home’s temperature remotely via smartphone or another compatible, Internet-connected device. This capability offers simplified control of your home’s cooling and heating, while also helping you to save energy and money.

With a wall-mounted thermostat, you can regulate the temperature in your home by pressing a button on your smartphone. On the other hand, a programmable thermostat is more sophisticated. You can set it to change the temperature at a certain time of day. No matter what, a smart thermostat is definitely one of the must-have smart home devices, and it’s definitely one that will save you money.

Smart thermostats consist of three basic components. The first part goes directly into your HVAC system, like a traditional analog thermostat, through a wired connection. This part communicates directly with the thermostat, the second component. The third and last component is the app (i.e. what makes it a “smart” thermostat), which you can download onto your mobile device, smartphone, or computer.

This state-of-the-art smart home technology allows you to regulate home temperatures from anywhere in the world, or at least any place with an internet connection. Went on vacation with your family and forgot to turn the heat off? No problem. By being able to control the thermostat remotely from your phone, you’ll have more control and convenience than ever.  

Smart Security

Smart security is the most important part of our smart home guide because nothing is more important than making sure your loved ones are protected and safe. Technological advancements over the last couple of years have made traditional security systems outdated and less effective at protecting your property and assets. So the question begs to be asked: What is smart security, and how does it help secure our belongings?

Streamlining Security and Home Automation

Every smart home new build should include smart security systems—they allow you to monitor your home from pretty much anywhere.

Advances in the “internet of things” have allowed us to set up smart home security systems, which can be monitored and controlled via our smartphones. Smart cameras, window and door sensors, and a central hub that will communicate with these devices via wireless protocols like Wi-Fi, Zigbee, or Z-Wave—that’s the basic security system.

Maybe you’re thinking, OK, that all sounds nice, but I want to know how to create a smart home that’s 100% secure. Well, as we mentioned above, this is only a basic security system. If you want to build an impeccable comprehensive system, you should consider buying extra door, motion, and window sensors, surveillance cameras, sirens, lights, water sensors, and smoke/CO detectors. Yes, all of this maybe sounds like overkill. But this way, you’ll have coverage for the entire house, and this system will completely secure your home from intruders.

One of the things to think about when building a house with a top-notch smart security system is wireless protocols. In a perfect world, all home security elements would communicate with the main hub via the same wireless standard. However, factors such as signal range, power requirements, size, and price make it almost impossible to operate on just one.

For example, smaller components like window/door sensors usually use Zigbee or Z-Wave technology to communicate with one another because they don’t require a lot of power, which means they can run on smaller batteries. These home automation devices can also help extend the range of connected devices. However, neither protocol gets you the bandwidth you get with Wi-Fi. Therefore, they’re usually integrated with security cameras to provide smooth video streaming. Also, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices are connected via a hub, while Wi-Fi devices don’t require a hub and can be controlled via an app and connected directly to your home network.

Any smart home tech designed for security that gets the job done has components implemented in a seamless network that can be controlled using rules. For example, you can program the system to automatically unlock the doors in your house when a smoke alarm is triggered or have the lights turn on when motion is detected.

If you’re on a tight budget, locally stored video is a good choice. It will bring down your smart house cost, but you have to be extremely careful to save the video on a separate storage drive. Some systems offer cloud storage, but it can cost you hundreds of dollars every year, depending on the subscription. Some systems provide both local and cloud storage, while others provide a dedicated storage drive with time-lapse recording capabilities to simplify finding a video that took place at a specific point in time.

All the smart homes technology systems that we’ve come across feature an app that allows you to use your smartphone as the center of operations. Through this command center, you can activate or deactivate the system, add or delete components, create your customized preferences, and receive notifications when alarms are activated. You can use these apps to lock and unlock doors, view live and recorded videos, silence alarms, or regulate the temperature on your smart thermostat.

State-of-the-art security systems usually come with more expensive smart-build supplies, like a touch-screen display or a wall-mounted panel that can be installed to act as a communication hub. When the alarm triggers, you can communicate with a professional monitoring service and watch the video from any of the security cameras. Some of the apps that come along with these systems will even allow you to do things like automatically activate or deactivate the system according to your physical location.

Smart Home DIY Security Systems

You can create a smart home according to your preferences and needs without the direct aid of experts and professionals. This way saves a lot of money on subscription fees and installation charges. DIY systems are easy to install and operate, and they come as a package with kits you can configure to suit your specific needs. If needed, you can order additional equipment and add it to your existing system in a matter of minutes.

If you wish to learn how to start a smart home with a basic DIY security system, you should be aware that these systems usually support one or two wireless protocols. Also, basic, entry-level DIY systems usually offer a limited selection of add-on components. On the other hand, more sophisticated DIY systems support multiple Wi-Fi protocols, and you can pair the system with dozens of add-on components. When the devices are triggered, you’ll receive a notification, and it’s up to you whether or not you’ll contact the local authorities.

Professional Home Security Systems

Since you’re learning how to set up a smart home with a top-notch security system, you should know that some high-class systems operate on components that require professional installation. These top-of-the-line systems are considerably more expensive than their DIY counterparts, but they provide 24/7 professional monitoring services.

If you’re having second thoughts about purchasing a security system this expensive, we recommend you wait it out until you’re 100% certain since you may have to sign a multi-year contract with the security company. If you decide to break it, you’ll most likely have to pay a hefty fee for it.

However, when you install this type of smart home technology, you’ll have an impregnable security system monitored by professionals at all times. With this kind of equipment, it would be like building your own private Fort Knox: door locks, window sensors, indoor and outdoor cameras, glass break detectors, video doorbells, smoke/CO alarms, thermostats, you name it.

When a smoke or intrusion alarm is activated in a professionally monitored system, an agent will immediately try to contact you by calling the phone number you provided when you applied for the system. If you fail to respond, the agent will have the authorities dispatch an emergency responder to your home.

Still, if you want to know how to build a smart home system where your family is perfectly safe, we recommend a professionally monitored system. Sure, you’ll spend a few extra bucks, but in return, you don’t even have to lift a finger—after you place your order, the technician will come by your house, set everything up for you, and explain how the system works. Note that in certain areas, you may have to file for a permit to have a security system installed in your home.

Almost all of the latest home security systems offer support for voice control via Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and in some cases, Apple’s Siri. Installing these virtual assistants will allow you to lock or unlock doors, activate or deactivate the system, and open the garage with a spoken command to a connected hub like Google Home or Amazon Echo. Many security systems also support IFTTT (If This, Then That) widgets, which use IFTTT-compatible web services to perform a command.

How Much Does It Cost to Build a Smart Home?

The idea of creating a smart home undeniably sounds cool, but are smart homes really worth the money? That depends on what features you decide to add and why you’re getting a smart home in the first place. A “one size fits all” solution doesn’t exist, which is why we’re going to look at each different element of a smart home and come up with a broad estimate. Here is what you need to buy if want to make your entire home smarter.

Lighting

Before we take a look at the estimated prices of each smart home component, you should know that making a smart home is an expensive project, no matter how you slice it. As far as smart lighting goes, you can find a single light bulb that’s controlled with your smartphone or voice assistant for just $25 bucks. Assuming that the average household has around 50 light bulbs, this works out to around $1,250.

Smart Home Hub

Building a smart home in 2019 is impossible without a central hub that will control all of your smart home devices. Surprisingly, hubs aren’t expensive. You can purchase the $80 Samsung SmartThings hub or similarly priced smart speakers, like Google Home or the Amazon Echo. You’ll want to install several of these throughout the home: we recommend one in each bedroom, plus one in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. If you opt for the cheaper options, you’ll need to fork over around $350 for the whole house.

Door Locks

If you came here to find out how to build a smart home system with a limited budget, we recommend you don’t buy more than two door locks. Realistically, you only need one for the front door and one for the back to secure your property. Naturally, you can add some smarts to other doors as well, but your costs will significantly increase.

If you want a lock that can be controlled from anywhere, with handy features like voice commands or push and email notifications, expect to pay somewhere between $200 and $300. Once installed, a smart lock can be customized to unlock automatically when you approach the door. Purchasing two of these costs around $500 altogether.

Video Doorbell

This isn’t really one of those must-have smart home devices, but it’s great in combination with a smart lock. These devices look like a regular bell or buzzer, but they have a camera, microphone, and speaker, meaning you can see and talk to a visitor whether you’re lying in your bed or you’re on a holiday with your family. A smart video doorbell costs around $200—obviously, you need just one.

Smart Plugs

This piece of smart house technology can make your dumb devices smart. For example, if you plug a regular heating device into one, you can have it automatically turn off when the temperature rises above a certain level. The same principle applies to air conditioning units, fans, and pretty much any device that starts working the moment it’s plugged into an outlet. Smart plugs cost around $18 each. Assuming you’ll purchase two for each room, that would make around 15 pieces at a total cost of $270.

Motorized Window Blinds

Along with smart bulbs, motorized blinds are among the most expensive smart equipment to install in your home. Getting smart blinds for your windows might seem a bit flashy, and it most certainly doesn’t fall into the smart home basics category, but it sure does look cool.

The price for smart blinds starts at around $300 but can increase depending on the size of the windows and the material you choose to install. The blinds can be programmed to raise or lower at certain times of day, or you can just ask Google or Alexa to move them via voice command. Let’s say the average house contains 20 windows. We’re looking at $6,000 to cover them all with motorized blinds.  

Thermostat

This is probably the most affordable yet useful item on our list of smart home ideas. A smart thermostat is designed to save you both money and energy by cooling and heating your home only when necessary. Over time, it learns your temperature habits and gets to know which rooms are a priority to heat or cool. Compared to the blinds, or the lights for that matter, this is a much more affordable device—the basic Next E costs around $230, while Honeywell products cost around $170.  

Cleaning Robots

Ask yourself, “Is my smart house really smart if it doesn’t have robots that will help me keep the house clean?” If the answer is no, then you might consider investing in a robotic vacuum cleaner.

iRobot is the market leader in this field of electronics, and their Roomba starts at around $250 and heads all the way up to $900. Models from other brands have prices ranging from around $100 to $1,000. For our imaginary smart home, we’ll purchase one, and set aside $400 for the product.

Security Cameras

What’s the point in learning how to build a smart home if you aren’t going to secure it from potential intruders. Security camera prices can vary significantly. If you want a single indoor camera that monitors the front door, you can purchase one for $20. However, if you want a state-of-the-art surveillance system with infrared lighting, night vision, and facial recognition, you’ll have to cash out around $500, depending on the camera model.  

Alarm System

If you want a fully equipped surveillance system, your smart home should also include sensors that monitor the windows and doors, as well as smoke detectors. Here, you have two options: either install a smart home DIY system or hire a professional surveillance team to monitor the house 24/7.

For a solution that falls between the professional and DIY category, you can purchase a starter kit for $300. In this package, you’ll get door and window sensors, a motion sensor with a camera, and a smartphone app for both iOS and Android. On the other hand, you can buy a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm for $120.

Total Sum

Here it is. When it comes to the costs behind the question of how to make my home a smart home, we did the math. We came up with a grand total of approximately $10,000. For this money, we’ve equipped your three-bedroom home with smart light bulbs in every room, a smart thermostat, a couple of smart speakers and plugs, motorized blinds for every window, a decent security system with cameras and alarms, a smart doorbell and smart locks, and a robotic vacuum cleaner.

Of course, we can always throw in a $200 irrigation system for your garden, a $3,100 robotic lawnmower, and a $3,300 smart fridge, plus additional items like media streaming sticks for the TV, a smart bathroom scale, or an even more fancy lighting system, but we didn’t want to overreach. We hope that we’ve helped give an idea of what costs are involved in making an entire house smarter.

Which Smart Home Device Is Best?

If you’re looking to create a smart home, you’re going to need the best smart home devices on the market. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the list of some of the best products that you can buy today.

  • Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Gen, $50) – This is the smallest of the Echo speakers. It saves space but makes a quieter sound (still louder than your phone).
  • Amazon Cloud Cam ($120) – For this price, you can purchase a top-notch smart camera that provides 1080p HD live feed, free 24-hour clip, and prompt motion notifications.
  • Lifx Smart Bulb (one light is $30) – Plenty of light, plus cool features, colors, and integrations.
  • Ecobee Smart Thermostat ($200) – With a price like this, there’s no reason not to get a smart thermostat when building a smart home. This one includes a responsive display with tons of features, including a built-in Alexa speaker.
  • August Smart Lock (3rd Gen, $150) – Secure, keyless entry for your smart home. The product is compatible with the Alexa hub and other devices.
  • Nest Protect (2nd Gen, $100) – A great connected smoke and CO detector.
  • Neato Botvac Connected Robot Vacuum (around $650) – It’s not cheap, but it comes with an intuitive app for remote control.
  • Lutron Serena Remote Controlled Shades ($350) – Great motorized shades with plenty of features and flexibility.

Wondering what’s the best smart home system? There are countless combinations you can use to create the smart home of your dreams. Because it’s based on your preferences, we can’t say which one is the best with absolute certainty. However, the products from our list are all tested and validated by satisfied customers, so it wouldn’t be a mistake to combine the smart home items from our list to create yourself a smart haven.

As you can see, choosing the items you need in your smart home is not nearly as overwhelming and intimidating as it initially seemed. Now that it’s clear how connected homes can come together, the only challenge arises from choosing the appropriate kit and making it work together effectively.

In 2019, the smart home systems and devices available are more impressive than ever. Not only do these devices provide a sense of convenience, but they can also tackle more serious tasks, like monitoring your house when you’re out of town. In other words, they aren’t just for fun. For most, the driving force behind building a smart home is the potential to save energy and money while knowing that your family is protected by some of the best security systems on the market.

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