What can I do with home automation?

Part 2 of a two part series on how to get started with home automation

Once reserved primarily for the wealthy due to its complexity and whole-home-or-nothing model, today home automation is more accessible, no matter what your budget. Instead of buying into a $50,000 whole-home system, you can build a smart home yourself piece-by-piece.

In this article, we will run through the major areas of home automation and explore what different devices and systems can do, helping you decide what works best for your needs.  (Click here for Part 1 of this series.)

The opportunity to keep your home safe and secure with accessible gadgets and no high monthly fees has been a driving factor in the rapid growth of the smart home. Smart home security systems are simple and inexpensive, making this a great entry point into the smart home ecosystem. Here are some of the key elements:

Smart Locks:A smart lock uses Bluetooth-enabled smartphones to sense when a recognized user is approaching and unlock itself. For a household with members who don't have smartphones, compatible key fobs also work. Special digital keys can be given to people who need to gain entry at certain times or for certain periods, and these can be revoked at any time, eliminating the need to change locks.

Smart locks can also be controlled remotely via apps on a smartphone, meaning you can get in bed at night and lock all your doors with just the touch of a button. This Gizmodo article offers excellent insight into the five major brands of smart locks currently available. This is a fast emerging market however, and we can expect to see many variations of this concept hit stores in the coming year.

If putting the security of your home in the hands of a relatively new technology scares you somewhat (and you are not alone), it doesn't mean you have to stick with the inconvenience of regular keys. Touchpad locks offer an added layer of convenience without the connected concerns of smart technology. You can also opt for a touchpad with some smarts built in, like the Schlage Connect Century Touchscreen Deadbolt, giving you remote management capabilities and integration with home security systems, but via a more standard method of entry.

Smart Surveillance: Whether you want to keep an eye on the inside or outside of your home, wireless cameras make the process simple. Plug it into a power outlet, turn it on and view a live feed via a smartphone, tablet or web browser. Some services will store recorded footage for a monthly fee, usually around $9.99 (significantly less than traditional home surveillance companies). Smart cameras also incorporate geo-fencing and scheduling, so they can turn on when you leave and off when you come home, or at pre-set times.

Another feature to look for in home video monitoring is "activity zones." These are areas you can set so that when something moves in them, you receive an alert and can begin watching in real time on your smartphone or computer. Instead of zones, some brands include facial recognition, which helps cut down on alerts if you want to know when your children get home but not that your dog is back in the living room.

Dropcam is the leader in the smart home camera field, largely due to its simplicity, but it's not the only option, as this roundup illustrates.

Another good option if you have a lot of different scenarios for home video surveillance is D-link. D-link is one system that offers a large ecosystem of camera models with specific capabilities and convenient interoperability. This buying guide provides a complete overview of all D-link's options.

Smart Doorbells: This is an emerging field and consumer options are limited, but the Ring Wi-Fi Video Doorbell ($199) should be available soon. Its concept of viewing a live feed of your front door from anywhere in the world when the bell rings will likely be a standard part of the smart home within the next few years.

More robust in this space are wireless doorbell options without video capabilities. This article rounds up both options and gives a good comparison of the pros and cons of currently available models.

Smart Sensors: Sensors are at the heart of a smart home and are built into most connected devices. However, they can also work as independent parts of a whole system by alerting a smart home to a change so other devices can then act. For example, a window sensor could trigger a camera to start recording or a light to come on, or a moisture sensor can send a signal to shut off the water when it senses liquid in an unauthorized space.

The Quirky+GE Tripper window/door sensor is a great example of an inexpensive alternative to a costly home security system. A set of two sensors that send you real-time alerts when the status of any door, window or cabinet in your home changes, it will also tell you when your spouse has stuck their hand in the cookie jar or your toddler has gotten into the medicine cabinet.

Motion sensors such as Belkin's WeMo motion sensor can even act as the hub for a small smart home setup (WeMo works over Wi-Fi, so doesn't require another hub) and turn multiple devices on or off when it senses motion. You could set one up at your front door to activate your stereo, lights and air conditioning unit when you walk in.

Smart Smoke Detectors: The simplest of safety gadgets, the smoke alarm, has been given smarts courtesy of smart home darling Nest and industry veteran Kidde. These are the only two DIY connected alarms currently on the market, and both operate similarly, using a home's Wi-Fi to set off all alarms when a single one senses "danger" in the form of smoke or carbon monoxide. Both will then alert you via your smartphone and tablet if you aren't in the house.

The Nest Protect goes a little further (for twice the price of the Kidde), as its sensors also interact with Nest's thermostat, telling it to shut off fuel-burning heating units when it senses smoke. It also incorporates a path light that acts as a nightlight. Additionally, the Nest Protect expands the Nest Thermostat's sensors, helping it monitor your movements more accurately throughout a home.

The combination of smart lighting, smart outlets and smart HVAC components can create a seamlessly automated home--one with the ability to learn and adapt to your routines. This could lead to a scenario where your home will be able to sense your imminent arrival and unlock the door, turn up the heat (or the A/C), start pre-heating the oven and switch the TV to your team's game. To get to this point, however, you need a few different smart home components in place:

Smart Lighting: Smart lights give you complete control over your environment, allowing you to create special lighting for entertaining, security lighting to deter thieves, and automatic shutoffs to lower power bills. In 2014, the smart lighting market expanded significantly, bringing the price point down and making it one of the least expensive but highest impact steps toward a smart home. There are three ways to make your lighting smart:

* Install Smart Switches--If you have dimmable LED bulbs installed, the simplest method is to replace your existing light switch with one that can be operated remotely over Wi-Fi, such as a Belkin WeMo Switch or a Caseta Wireless Dimmer. This replaces your regular switch and lets you control your lights in your home or from afar using an app on your smartphone or tablet. You can also program a lighting schedule, check whether you left the lights on, and have alerts sent indicating whether the lights are on or off. Most switches need a hub to control them remotely, increasing the initial expense. Smart switches work well if you are considering installing whole home automation systems like Insteon or D-Link, where you are committing your smart home to a proprietary ecosystem.

Here is a thorough test of dimmable light bulbs and dimmer switches to help you choose the right combination for your setup. Not all the models tested are Wi-Fi enabled, but most brands mentioned offer wirelessly controllable models.

* Install Smart Bulbs--Having Wi-Fi connectivity built into the bulbs rather than through the switch allows you to control individual lights (so you can have the lights over the TV off while the lights over the coffee table are dimmed). Some smart bulbs also come with color features, letting you set scenes or choose from pre-programmed scenes such as "sunset," "concentrate," "reading" and "relax." The power of good lighting is easy to underestimate until you've tried it.

Most smart bulbs require a hub--either proprietary or a universal controller such as Wink. The bulbs cost between $15 and $69, depending on the capabilities you want, and the major brand names are Philips Hue, GE Link, TCP Connect, Belkin's WeMo Lights and Insteon. This article highlights the pros and cons of each bulb.

For an idea of how easy it is to install some of these smart lighting options, check out this blog post from iPhoneMom.

* Pick Smart Plugs--For table lamps, floor lamps and other socket-dependent lighting options, you can use a Wi-Fi enabled plug-in switch such as the WeMo Switch or the Caseta Wireless Plug-in Lamp dimmer. Simply plug your light into the switch, put the switch into the outlet and control it remotely over your home's Wi-Fi network--no hub required. The WeMo Switch is a great entry point, because if you decide you don't want to control your lights remotely any more, you can use the switch to control another electrical device, such as a TV or space heater.

A slightly more advanced option is to replace your entire outlet with a smart outlet. This provides smart connectivity to any plugged in device, from lamps to televisions. Additionally, or perhaps, more significantly, some models, such as the Quirky+GE Outlink, will monitor electricity use, helping you track which appliances are consuming too much energy and let you turn them on and off remotely.

Once you're able to control your home lighting remotely the possibilities are almost endless. Nearly all these devices can be configured to act independently (this is where the "smart" part kicks in); scheduled to come on at a certain time or when your motion detector senses you've arrived home. But you can also harness the power of the Internet. A service called IFTTT, short for "If This happens Then make That happen," works with most of the smart lighting brands and allows you to customize your experience. For example, you can set your WeMo Switch to automatically turn on when the sun sets, and you can program your Hue lightsto turn blue when it starts to rain or to blink when you get an email from your boss.

Smart Doors: We've all experienced that sinking feeling when you're walking into work and can't remember if you pushed the button to close the garage door. With a smart garage door opener such as the Chamberline MyQ Garage, you can open and close your garage door from anywhere. MyQ promises geofencing in the near future, which will enable your door to sense your approach and open automatically. This article has a comprehensive list of similar devices that will remotely control your garage door.

If you had only heard of one smart home device before reading this guide, it was probably the Nest Learning Thermostat. This glamorous little gadget promises to take the pain out of having to program your programmable thermostat. The Nest works by using sensors to determine user patterns and control the climate accordingly. The sensors also collect information about how long your home takes to heat up or cool down to prevent systems from running longer than necessary. Nest promises savings of up to 30% on a home's annual energy use.

The Honeywell Lyric, the first serious competitor to the Nest, uses geofencing to determine where you are. The instant you travel outside a pre-determined perimeter, the system will go into away mode, saving energy. The Lyric also comes with a humidity sensor that can trigger the ventilation system to move air when humidity gets too high. Both of these smart thermostats can be easily installed by a homeowner--these guides show you how straightforward the processes are: How to install a Nest; How to install a Lyric.

For apartments and setups where whole-home HVACs aren't a factor, the Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner works under the same concept, learning from your budget, location, schedule and usage to automatically maintain your ideal temperature while maximizing savings for your home.

All of these smart heating and cooling systems also can be controlled remotely using apps on a smartphone or tablet.

Smart Shades: An excellent complement to smart lighting and smart thermostats are smart shades. The combination can offer significant energy savings on heating and cooling. When your shades, lights and HVAC communicate with each other, you can create programs to automatically shut the blinds when the lights go on, open when the thermostat senses the room is cool but the sun is shining, or lower when sunlight warms up your home and tell your thermostat to shut down.

Both Bali and Lutron offer connected shades that work with various smart home hubs,

allowing you to program your blinds to open and close at specific times, or in some cases, be controlled by other smart products, such as your thermostats.

Water Heating: While HVAC systems account for almost half of the average American home's energy use, coming in a close second is hot water heating. Rheem, one of the leading manufacturers of water heaters in the U.S., recently launched a Wi-Fi module for electric and gas water heaters that lets you monitor the performance of the device, control energy usage and alert you to leaks or other potentially costly malfunctions.

A vacation mode and the ability to change the temperature with your smartphone help prevent wasted energy on heating and reheating water that won't be used. The Rheem device only works with select Rheem water heaters, but the concept is likely to roll out to other manufacturers in the near future. GE has a hybrid water heater in the works, launching early 2015 and Kickstarter-funded Sunovations is close to launching its version, the Aquanta, which promises to install on your existing water heater.

Smart Sprinklers: Standard programmable sprinkler systems help conserve water by eliminating the need for us to remember to turn them off. Smart sprinklers such as the Rachio help create an automated schedule by learning from our patterns, but also go a step further and automatically adjust for changes in weather and seasonality, helping you use as little water as possible. For more tips on being smart in your garden, read this article from Kitchen Gardens International.

Tablets and smartphones have quickly become useful in the kitchen, so much so that some fridges now come with them built in. But tech has yet to take over the kitchen entirely. One day soon the smart kitchen will have a fridge that can track what's in it and how long it's been there without the user having to do anything. We're not quite there yet (five years, say industry experts), but both Samsung and LG now offer connected fridges that communicate with other smart appliances in their line-up. This video from LG gives a great glimpse into the future of the connected kitchen.

While we wait for the kitchen that can cook and clean itself, however, a variety of smart appliances are already available to help prep your cuisine. Bluetooth-enabled Sous Vide cookers such as Anova's Precision One and LG's Smart ThinQ can be controlled remotely, so you can check on a meal's status while relaxing in another room or make sure you turned the oven off after you've arrived at a pot luck party. LG even has a chat function that lets you communicate back and forth with the oven.

On a smaller scale, you can get a Wi-Fi connected crock-pot, a smart coffee machine, smart scales and even an egg tray that will tell you when you're running low.

While the individual aspects of a remote-controlled kitchen and laundry room are all convenient --there are connected washing machines and dryers that allow you to start cycles, monitor progress and get alerts if the dryer duct is clogged--an excellent advantage of connected appliances is service. Smart kitchen devices can diagnose problems remotely, saving on the cost of sending a technician. Combined with the ability to turn appliances off remotely, these features take the smart home from slightly frivolous to almost essential.

Conclusion

Building a smart home is no longer the daunting journey it was even a year ago. Today, the technologies are user-friendly, vastly more affordable and increasingly accessible. You can buy many of these products in brick-and-mortar stores, meaning you can go in and get your hands on them before you buy them and, crucially, there is somewhere to go if things go wrong.

One of the early barriers to entry to the smart home was the concern over protocols and interoperability between products. However, the advent of the smart hub, which acts as a bridge between all these devices, means you no longer need to worry about whether you are purchasing Zigbee or Z-Wave, Bluetooth LE or Wi-Fi enabled products.

"We're working across the different technologies and bringing all the leading brands together in one app," says Matt McGovren, head of marketing for Wink, one of the universal smart home controllers on the market. "We'll continue to expand Wink so you have the choice and flexibility to pick the products that are right for your home and life. People can be comfortable purchasing connected products from leading brands that use those technologies. They will be around for a long time."

While a standard protocol is a possibility, it doesn't mean support for the other tech will go away. Electric cars may one day be the standard automobile, but that doesn't mean gas stations will disappear overnight.

"The Smart Home is not just for the rich or the geeky anymore," says McGovren. "It's for everyone. There are a lot of parallels between cellphone adoption and what we're seeing now. The idea that you would want this phone--which at first was for the super rich or business travelers--it was hard to get your brains around how this would change your life, until you started to use it. It's the same thing with the smart home. It's a lot easier to realize the potential of a smart home than it is to explain its potential."

Go ahead--take that first step toward building a smart home and see how it changes your life. See what problems it can solve for you. It really is as easy as screwing in a light bulb.

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