Confused about Home Automation? Here is a step-by-step guide to building your Smart Home.
It’s not often I just write without reviewing some product or doing a video of an unboxing of a new gadget.
Today I just wanted to write what I hope are helpful thoughts and a list for those of you who are thinking of starting a smart home or moving in to the home automation space. It can be very confusing so I’ll lay it out nice and easy into easy steps. I’ve recommended a bunch of great hardware to choose to get you started.
I’ve put it in these 4 main steps. You can take it a step at a time or you can start with devices in 4 and move to 1 if you so desire.
- First purchase
- Beginning Level – Easy to use & connect smart devices
- Intermediate Level – Building out a smart home
- Advanced smart home – connecting it all together
I want you to know you can consider a phased approach to starting a smart home – mostly so you don’t get overwhelmed by all the decisions you might be considering with your home automation.
As always, ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to help out. There are so many home automation devices on the market it can be impossible to know what is what.
What is a Smart Home?
The challenge these days is understanding what a Smart Home even means.
Does it mean I have a smart light bulb or an Alexa echo in my home? Does it mean I have a garage door that opens and closes as I enter my driveway? Does it mean I have lights that turn on as I move from room to room in the evening while playing Radiohead tracks on random?
If you ask me a Smart Home is all and any of those things and you can choose to have a thing or a lot of things in your house that add any ‘smart’ elements.
In a previous post, I covered the decisions you should make before committing to devices to ensure that once you have to spend a considerable amount of your income that you end up in a place that works.
In brief, those decisions were really around how you control the devices. Are they:
- Wifi Controlled?
- Controlled with a Home Hub? Like a Z-Wave Hub?
- Controlled with Bluetooth )almost not worth mentioning this one)
For most people, they will choose WiFi devices or devices that include a hub to control them but that hub is a local system e.g Philips Hue or Blink Security Cameras.
I’m going to speak directly to the 90% of you who will start buying devices based on their ability to be controlled from an iPhone/Android App or via Alexa or Google Home.
This usually means they are WiFi controlled.
Here are a few devices that will work with an app or via a smart speaker like Alexa or Google Home. I’ll limit the first phase to one example in each category e.g. one smart bulb, one smart lock etc.
These, in my opinion, are some of the leading devices around that have been tested over time by scores of customers so I consider them close to ‘industry standard’ devices but there are a few in each category worth considering so these brands are not the be-all and end-all.
I must also note this is a great list of devices you can start with to set up your smart home. These devices will ALL connect to Alexa, for example, and you can then create Alexa Routines or Google Routines with them to do all sorts of amazing things.
1. First Purchase – Smart Speaker
At this level, you can immediately buy one thing to make your home smart, a smart speaker / smart assistant.
In my opinion, a smart speaker is 80% of a smart home. It answers questions, sets timers, tells you the weather, plays music and more. Start with one of these before moving to Step 2.
- Amazon echo Dot – prevalent in homes all across the country.
- Google Home Mini – smartest of the bunch but less ubiquitous
- Sonos speaker with Alexa built-in – Has the smarts of Alexa, just sounds better.
1.1 Amazon echo Dot
With Alexa (as a controller. The echo Plus has Zigbee built-in and can control things locally without the internet)
Once you have Alexa set up you can also use the Alexa app to set up routines and control smart devices directly through the app which brings them all together. Otherwise, you have to control them all via their separate apps. Google Home does this also but not quite as well as Alexa Routines – not saying it can’t but just not as well developed yet.
The google home is proven to be smarter than Alexa but less ubiquitous and not always as accessible as Alexa.
1.3 Sonos Speaker with Alexa
If sound is important to you then the echo Studio or a Sonos speaker with Alexa built-in is a great choice. Good music and brains to match.
2. Beginning Level – Easy to Use & Connect
These are the first devices where you start to dip your toe in the water. No major expense or commitment. A bulb, a switch to control a lamp or similar. These are a great place to start when setting up your smart home. This might be where you stop, and that’s totally fine. Many people are happy just being able to say ‘Alexa, turn on the lounge light’.
- Philips Hue Smart Bulbs – the perfect first piece of hardware to make your home smart
- Kasa Smart Wifi Plug Mini – plug this into any outlet and control what you plug into it e.g. Lamp Light
- Ring Doorbell 3 – See who is at the door and have a chat with two way audio
2.1 Philips Hue Smart Bulbs
You can start with one or you can start with 10. It doesn’t really matter. At this step starting with one usually ends up with more being bought so if you can get a few with a discount then go for it. The choice is yours.
These smart bulbs pioneered the smart bulb space and have been performing in smart homes solidly for many years. You will most likely need the hub as well as the bulbs but there are some home hubs (see section 4 below) that can control them without the hub. If you’re a beginner get the hub and bulbs together – it’ll make your life much easier!
You’ll be able to say ‘Alexa, turn on the kitchen light’ and other such cool things. You can also just go to bed at night and say ‘Alexa, turn off the lights’ and all your smart bulbs will turn off. Smart, right?
2.2 Kasa Smart Wifi Plug Mini by TP-Link
Plug anything you want into this and you can turn it on and off from your phone using the Kasa app or simply tell your smart speaker (the first device you should have purchased) to turn it on and off for you.
We have many uses for this in our house. We have a schedule set up on the fish tank light to turn on and off at a set time. We have it connected to a dehumidifier which is controlled to turn on and off. One of the most common uses is having it turn a lamp light on and off. Plug the lamp into the smart plug and you’re good to go!
2.3 Ring Doorbell 3
A smart front doorbell that is battery powered so you don’t need to do any permanent wiring. The app alerts you when someone walks past or into the camera view. You can talk to them through the camera. You can see them, they can’t see you but they can hear you if you decide to let them.
This is great for deliveries, keep a secure watch on your house or for freaking out the postie when he comes to deliver.
3. Intermediate Level – Building out your smart house
Now you’re really stepping a bit and getting more serious about devices that can smarten up your home. These are products that allow you to control your TV, Home Theatre and HiFi system or have a smart lock on a door. You’ve spent time with the first list of smart home devices and now you’re ready to move up.
- Harmony Hub – allows you to say ‘Alexa, turn on my TV’, ‘Alexa, turn the TV Volume Up’.
- Arlo Pro 3 Security Camera – keep an eye on your property remotely and intelligently
- August Smart Lock – lock and unlock doors without a key. I hate keys anyway
- Nest Smart Thermostat – Control your home automatically or say things like ‘Alexa, turn the Thermostat up’
3.1 Harmony Hub
The Harmony Hub is essentially an intelligent remote control unit that can blast IR (Infrared) signals to all your devices to control them. It’s like cramming all your remotes in to one device that you can control with Alexa or Google Home. You can also control it with your phone using the Harmony app.
It gets a bad rap in the reviews but I’ve used this unit for years and think it’s a user issue, not a device issue. For a smart home this is an example of how I use it:
“Alexa, turn on the Apple TV” – I have this programmed to then turn on my TV, my Apple TV and also my Denon stereo. I can also say ‘Alexa, turn off the Apple TV” and it all turns off. You can program it to do any of those combinations e.g. “Alexa, turn on the TV” will turn on the TV and select a terrestrial channel.
You can also control your devices with the Harmony hub and Alexa or Google Home. e.g. once your devices are on you’re watching Netflix you can say “Alexa, pause (or Pause the TV”) and it will pause. Or “Alexa, turn the volume up” and it will up the volume. All this is possible with just your voice.
The only thing you need the remote for is to select the show you want to watch. Once it’s started you can do the rest with your voice. Believe it or not, it’s enjoyable to use once you’ve tried it and you’ll enjoy not looking for the remote.
3.2 Arlo Pro 3 Security Camera
Outdoor DIY wireless security cameras have really taken off and a couple of brands are bubbling to the top. Arlo is one of those. The new Pro 3 camera range has some impressive features.
How does this make your home smart? Well – if you have an Amazon Show or Google Home Hub you can say to it ‘Show me the backyard’ or ‘Show me the front door’ and it will bring up your camera view.
You can also get notifications on your mobile phone app if the cameras detect motion. You can have a two-way conversation through the camera and if you need too, and I hope you don’t, you can trigger an alarm audio sound to scare people off.
3.3 August Smart Lock
I don’t know why we still have to take keys when we go anywhere but I guess some people just prefer to have that feeling of security on them. The August lock is one of many new digital locks that allow you to control your locks via a smartphone app or a smart speaker.
This is great when you can ask Alexa ‘Is the front door locked?’ or if you are out and someone needs access to your home you can unlock it from where ever you are. An example is a family member dropped off some paint at my house recently and I simply unlocked the door for them and locked it when they left (I could also see what they were doing through the Ring Doorbell 2 mentioned in 2.3 above, which was handy).
3.4 Google Nest Smart Thermostat
The Nest was one of the first really smart thermostats. It can learn when you come home and when you leave for work so it automatically adjusts the temperature as needed. This means your not wasting time and money heating the house when no-one is around.
It doesn’t have to be automated though. You can still program it and you can also control it from. your smartphone so if you’re coming home on a Saturday afternoon you can get the house warmed up before you arrive.
4. Advanced Level – Connecting it all together
This is where you start to totally automate your home from the time you arrive home, to the time you say goodnight. These devices let you do crazy things like as you pull in to your street or driveway all these things can happen automatically
- the garage door opens
- the internal garage door to your house unlocks
- the thermostat turns up to warm the house
- the outside entryway light turns on (but only if it’s dark)
- the alarm system turns itself off
- and finally, your home speaker system starts playing relaxing music.
The future is here, and it’s affordable.
- Samsung Smart Things Hub – levelling up and connecting all your devices to a single hub to control it all – still using Alexa/Google Home of course.
- Abode Security System – DIY Smart Alarm system that is as smart as all get out – Full review here. This also allows you to use motion detectors in your smart home to do things like ‘If I walk in to the Lounge and it’s night time – turn on the lounge lamp to 50% and make it a warm white colour’.
- Tailwind Smart Garage Door opener – detects when you pull in to your driveway and even opens your door, if you have 2. Review here.
- MySmartBlinds – open and close your window blinds on a schedule, via an app or by asking Google or Alexa to do it for you. That’s smart!
I want to just highlight again that the SmartThings Hub and Abode Security Hub can both offer smart automation using motion, light and humidity sensors. I’ve included some in the Abode Security Hub review I did that included my dehumidifier and other cool things. The opportunities with this stuff are endless:
If it’s hot, turn on the air conditioner. If it’s the middle of the day but quite dark, turn on the kitchen light but only if I am in the kitchen doing something. If it’s too humid in the Piano room then turn on the Dehumidifier. If it’s night time and I’m walking down the hallway turn on the nightlight on the wall. etc etc.
This is where your home really get’s smart. And the best thing of all, it’s affordable, all DIY and easy to set up!
4.1 Samsung SmartThings Hub
The Samsung SmartThings Hub is probably the most popular and best smart home hub on the market. Its super affordable and has connections to everything.
It also has one of the biggest selections of hardware you can connect to it. Anything you connect to your SmartThings home automation hub you can also control with Alexa or Google Home and others. You can also control it from the SmartThings app.
It has Zigbee and Z-Wave built-in too so not only can you control WiFi enable smart home devices, you can also control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices.
Whether you are starting out or levelling up your home automation the SmartThings Hub is the best smart home hub to start with, in my opinion.
4.2 Abode DIY Security System & Smart Home Hub – iota
Abode are a DIY security hub first, and a home automation hub second. They happen to do both very well. I’ve included the iota here as it’s an all-in-one system but you might also want to look at the abode security hub which is the unit I personally own. It’s much the same hardware but without the built-in camera.
It has Z-Wave and Zigbee built-in and you can control many other devices in the home. Their automation engine is called Cue and it’s very smart. You can not only say ‘When I come home to disable the alarm and turn on the porch light’ it can also add a third condition e.g. ‘When I come home, disable the alarm and turn on the porch light but only if it’s dark outside’. Cool right? That’s pretty smart.
They have a new native App for iOS and Android Which also looks great and works better than most hubs.
The iota comes with a built-in HD Camera Which makes it handy for keeping an eye on things depending where you put it in the house.
4.3 Tailwind Smart Garage Door opener
The Tailwind smart garage door unit is smart and not so smart. We’ve reviewed it in more detail here. It’s almost counterintuitive as it is a wired unit but it just works so well we’ve included it in step 4 of your smart home set up.
Unlike Chamberlain it doesn’t have a monthly fee tied to it which is a good thing.
It’s a WiFi device but you can set up your Android or iPhone (with additional bluetooth puck) so that as you arrive at your driveway your garage door starts to open or close if you’re leaving your driveway.
It can also be used with IFTTT for additional functionality.
4.4 MySmartBlinds Automated Blinds Kit
Imagine your window blinds automatically closing at sunset. Or going away on holiday and having your automated blinds open during the day and close at night to make it look like you’re at home (and having your Philips Hue bulbs turning on at night).
MySmartBlinds make the advanced level smart home list as there is some tinkering involved to fit them. There are videos to help so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
For DIY automated blinds they offer all the good things you need like solar powered options and integration with a local switch to control them. You can also control them with Alexa or Google. This means when you’re cooking dinner and it’s getting dark and your hands are deep in cutting vegetables up you can say ‘Alexa, close my blinds.’
You can also have them close or open based on temperature in the room.
Now that’s a smart home.
Things to note:
If you lose internet, you will not be able to control some these devices as they require connectivity to the ‘cloud’ to take actions and pass the information to and from each other. This is different from a Z-Wave Hub like the Abode Security System which has some limited offline capabilities – but Z-Wave or Zigbee hubs might be a little geeky here for some.
Having a smartphone is pretty much a necessity as you’ll need to do setups on these devices via an App most often. Especially for things like the Lifx Smart Bulb.
That’s pretty much, in a nutshell, the progressive buying options you have to set up a smart home and get your home automation really happening. I didn’t even touch on smart coffee makers, fridges or echo enabled showers as in my opinion these are not ready for primetime.
As always, please ask questions below and I’ll be happy to help you out as you start this exciting journey towards a Smart Home.
This post was last updated on 2021-04-22 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.