Setting Up Your First Smart Home

Getting started in the world of home automation may seem daunting, but it’s actually fairly simple. Depending on your goals, it can also be quite affordable, and even save you money over time. A smart home isn’t just some automatic lights either - there are loads of options to make day to day life that little bit easier.

In Australia, we have a range of home automation hardware available. Some is aimed at total beginners, and can be set up in an afternoon. Other upgrades need careful planning, and the services of an electrician.

Making a smart home is not just about adding new products - there are tweaks and upgrades to get the most out of your existing gear using the internet.

The first step is to understand what is available, then consider what sort of products might be useful.

To help out, we have put together a list of some of the home automation options available in Australia, as well as what they can be used for.


Smart Home Standards

Home automation products all use an underlying standard to communicate with each others, but there are a few options. Each has it’s own good and bad points, as well as support from specific manufacturers. Many also use your home Wi-Fi.

ZigBee

An open source standard supported by big names such as Samsung, LG, Philips, and Logitech. ZigBee uses a low powered network well suited to battery operated devices, with a 10m range limit. It uses a mesh network, but does need a hub in the mix. Be aware that not all ZigBee based products can actually interact - it depends on the manufacturer's implementation.

Z-Wave

Used by a range of brands, Z-Wave isn’t open source and has fairly strict controls over interoperability. The upside is that many Z-Wave products can communicate with each other. The standard uses a hub, has a 30m range and can handle low power draw battery devices.

Insteon

This standard is designed to be backwards compatible with the older X10 home automation devices, and used in permanent installations. The products are all from the one company, but there is some limited compatibility with remote controls, such as the Logitech range.


Belkin WeMo

One of the simplest options to experiment with home automation is the excellent WeMo lineup. Belkin has produced a range of smart home products that mostly don’t need any permanent installation, making them ideal for renters.

Options include a remote switch, motion sensors, lights, energy monitors and cameras. WeMo also has a special device called the Maker, which has inputs and outputs for monitoring and triggering custom home automation projects.

One great aspect of WeMo is that it uses your existing Wi-Fi and does not need a dedicated hub. It also has a solid smartphone app, which gives total control over your devices. It also makes use of cloud smarts, such as turning lights on and off at certain times.

For those wanting to experiment with home automation, WeMo is a good starting point, as it has a strong community and loads of online support.

The downsides to WeMo is that all the products need mains power, and aside from the lights, it offers relatively little cross compatibility with other devices.


Smart Lights

Philips has long dominated the smart light market with the Hue, and has just released the 2.0 version.

The updated lights can be remotely controlled, or set to turn on and off based on timing or external triggers. For example, they could be set to monitor your location based on GPS tracking in your smartphone, and turn on the lights when you approach home.

Philips Hue 2.0 now also supports voice commands via Siri.

Of course, there are also other smart light options, including bulbs from WeMo, LIFX, Elgato Avea and Osram.


Samsung SmartThings

Not yet released in Australia, Samsung’s SmartThings platform promises loads of great home automation.

It’s designed to be super easy to set up and use for beginners, but still have plenty of in depth features for those who want to experiment.

The platform includes remote switches, sensors, cameras, locks, alarms, and more, all controllable via a smartphone app.

SmartThings will also integrate with a range of Samsung products, such as TVs, speakers and air conditioners.


Cameras and Security

Smart homes are not just about turning lights or appliances on or off, and security is a big focus.

Smart locks such as the Kwikset Kevo use Bluetooth to unlock and lock your front door. The digital nature makes it easy to monitor access, or remotely provide temporary keys. Many smart home platforms include video cameras, which can be used to remotely monitor a house.

They also have inbuilt motion sensing, which can then be used to send an alert, or activate lights.

A good option to start is the Netgear Arlo platform, which includes everything needed to set up a camera based security system.


Energy Tracking

Home automation is about saving money, not just time, and can help track exactly how much energy you use.

This is done through a range of different smart switches, which can monitor power usage, as well as turn appliances on or off.

The WeMo platform includes the WeMo Insight Switch ($99), which can perform actions such as turning the power off once a usage threshold has been exceeded.

Another option in Australia is Efergy - a platform focused on helping save money through efficient power use and monitoring. Efergy also has some great displays, which can show exactly how much power is being used at any point in time.


Controllers

Most smart home products simply use a smartphone or tablet and app as a controller. But it’s also possible to interact with your smart home using other remotes.

One of the best is the Logitech Harmony range, which uses a hub to interface with other devices. The great thing about the Harmony platform is that it can directly add and control existing home automation products, such as lights.

It can also handle activities, which allows you to trigger multiple actions at once. For example, when turning on the TV, it could also automatically dim the lights, close the blinds and turn on the surround system.

The Harmony setup also has a smartphone app, which gives all the same control options, even when away from home.


Online Smarts

Home automation products are fairly ‘dumb’ by themselves, and a lot of the smarts come from the apps and controllers.

For example, lights can use the internet monitor the sunset and sunrise times based on your location, to ensure they always turn on and off at the optimal times.

Thanks to third party platforms such as IFTTT (if that then this), it’s fairly easy to add even more automation to your life.

IFTTT connects triggers with actions to create automated tasks, known as recipes. It already has support for major smart home brands and controllers such as the Logitech Harmony.

One of the more interesting aspects of IFTTT is that it can be used to make your home smarter, without needing anything but a smartphone.

For example, IFTTT could be used to monitor the weather, and send a morning reminder to take an umbrella if rain is forecast. IFTTT can also trigger from GPS location, such as automatically sending a text message to a partner when leaving work.

IFTTT can also integrate with your online and social media life. For example, a recipe could be created that will automatically save any Facebook picture you are tagged in, and upload it to your Dropbox account.


Do you use any home automation products? Tell us in the comments.

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Comments

    A smart home isn't about turning the kettle on at 7am when I wake up. It should be about managing power, heating and ventilation. Openning and closing windows, curtains, heaters and air conditioners is what would be the first steps to a smart home. Being able to detect the number of people in a house and control the environment around them without input is the first steps.
    Moving forward from that would be to have devices able to provide feedback e.g. washing machine/dryer has finished etc. Not sure I would want my washing machine to turn on automaticaly without anything in it.

    To move to a fully smart home you need to start redesigning the items in the house. A kettle that can refill itself, these types of items are needed.

    I have a bunch of wemo stuff I grabbed cheap from the Dick Smith sale. Now figuring out how to best use it. So far, I put controllable bulbs in two floor-standing lamps. Nice to be able to control these remotely. But I anticipate maybe more hassle than they are worth. Other people might unplug the lamps to turn off. I myself unplugged the network plug as I needed a socket to charge my phone. Also, the wemo software is temperamental. I have downloaded an alternative from playstore.
    A problem with setting up more complex automation, e.g., iftt, is that my needs change and the automation I setup last week is not the one I want this week. I don't always want the lights to dim when I turn on the tv. The rest of the family have different views too about what they might like. That could easily end up in an argument and suggestions about what I should do with my wemo!
    I would really like to automate front door lock and ditch one or two keys but again I anticipate calls from family saying they can't get in because their phone battery is flat. Etc.
    Smart home: more trouble than it is worth?

    I'm going to wait until there is a clear single standard.

    I don't want to be stuck with a BetaMax or HDDVD

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