Home automation and smart technology is becoming more and more prevalent today, as it becomes more widely available and also cheaper to set up an install in your home.
The hassle-free nature of a lot of smart home technology devices has made the barrier to entry very low for the common person, and therefore has improved the lives of millions of people across the United States and the world.
In this article I will give an introduction of what smart technology is, how home automation works and some of the systems that we can buy off the shelf from the store or online and products that are realistic and practical for the average home. Systems that don’t need a lot of installation time and don’t need to be installed all at once.
The market for home automation and smart technology is growing exponentially and it is not slowing down. One of the main reasons is because it improves the quality of life and provides more luxury at a very low price to everybody that uses it!
Practical conveniences such as dimming the lights or setting the thermostat to turn off when you are away, not only save you a lot of money, but also frees up your time so you can focus on more important things.
The nice thing is that smart home technology is not new anymore. It has gone through many years and millions of hours of testing, and the products have been refined to the stage where they just work pretty much flawlessly.
You as a consumer buying a smart home product don’t have to go through many bugs or flaws and you’re getting a working product right out of the box.
What makes technology “smart”?
In the 1980s more and more people started using computers and it became possible to have a personal computer at home because the price was not so prohibitively expensive.
These computers were used for programming or document word processing, or connecting to the internet. But the computers were not connected to other appliances in your house such as a thermostat.
Ever since those early days, the computer world has been growing rapidly and we have been making advances in every area. For example the connectivity to the internet increased productivity and the flow of information.
Then manufacturers were able to create smaller form-factor laptops, which provided portability of this technology.
And then they were able to miniaturize this technology even further, into cell phones and tablets that we could carry around with us wherever we went.
The next step in this journey has been internet connectivity through any digital device, meaning that your lights or your TV or your speakers or your thermostat, are all connected through the internet. And that is the essence of smart technology.
What is a smart home device?
Basically a smart home device is an electronic device that allows control through a mobile app or a computer app, or some other device.
The control may be as simple as an on-off switch, but there are many other features such as voice activated control, or gesture activated control. It’s this relatively relative ease of control through another device such as a cell phone that makes a device a smart home device.
Contrast this with a non-smart home device and you quickly realize that a light switch for example that you can only control by walking over to the wall and flipping the switch on or off, or a speaker that you can only control by going next to the speaker and turning the volume dial. These are non-smart home devices because you cannot control them remotely from a different device.
But of course, with these additional features and convenience usually also comes an increase in price or a price premium. Back in the day smart home devices had a hefty premium, but these days the prices have come down and it is very economical to purchase a smart device.
We are now well past the early adopter phase where manufacturers could charge exorbitant prices and the tech geeks were willing to pay those prices, but the normal consumers were not.
If you recall many years ago Nest was one of the first companies known for their heating thermostat and was often cited as one of his first smart home devices. Back then, you would see only the tech geeks with these smart thermostats installed in their homes, and the prices were not “cheap”. Nest has since been acquired by Google and is now part of a larger ecosystem of home automation and smart devices. The prices are much more affordable now too.
How “smart” can a smart device be?
You can identify smartness based on many different factors but one of the main factors is how the device can respond without a direct command.
For example you can always just turn on or off your heating or air conditioning system when you get home, or you can set a timer so that the air conditioner turns on when it gets above a certain temperature in your home. This is not really smart technology.
What makes the technology smart is for example, when your air conditioning system can actually detect that you have approached near your home via your phone’s GPS signal, and then turn on the air-conditioning before you arrive, so that your house is nice and cool the moment you walk through the front door.
Let’s say you’re making a trip to the grocery store and it’s a hundred degrees outside. When you’re leaving your house, the air conditioner will turn off automatically because the smart home device detected that your phone is not inside the house.
When you’re on your way back, within 2 minutes of arriving, when the GPS location is close enough to your house, your smart thermostat will turn on so your house is nice and cool right before you enter.
Another large factor in the smartness of devices is their ability to respond to natural language commands from the user. For example Amazon’s Alexa was a Pioneer in this area where the user could issue verbal commands and ask the speaker to play certain music or set a reminder.
We are still in an exciting an early stage of smart devices and home automation. The next step in this journey will be to have robot assistance where we might have robots that can move around and interact with us verbally and physically, and also interact with our home devices on our behalf as well as doing certain tasks for us such as taking photos, setting reminders, and even eventually making us coffee and simple food.
Learning the essentials of a smart home
Let’s understand the basics of a smart home and the foundational terminology so that you will have some basic understanding and can be prepared to choose the right smart home kit and products.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to quickly understand how devices are arranged, and the services or software they require so that they can all be connected and work together properly.
One of the foundational functions of a smart home is its ability to control and activate different devices via voice commands or voice assistants that are fitted into speakers and other equipment. Such platforms are also known as ecosystems and you will hear the word “Hub” very often when reading or discussing Smart Home Technology.
What is a smart home hub?
A smart home hub basically provides instructions or commands and is able to control devices in your home that are not traditionally controlled by Wi-Fi.
So in essence let’s say you give a command to your smart speaker: that smart speaker will send a signal through your Wi-Fi router to your hub. Your hub will then translate that signal or command and send the instructions to your smart devices such as your smart light bulbs over a non-Wi-Fi communication channel.
So while you may think that your smart speakers are actually the central hub in your smart home, this is not technically correct in many cases, as everything is actually relayed through your Wi-Fi router. For example, when you ask your Amazon Alexa to turn off the lights, this command is relayed through the router via Wi-Fi which then speaks to the hub that controls the lights.
So this means that even if every all your devices are operating on Wi-Fi and they don’t technically need a hub the voice command will still go from the speakers through the router and then the device that’s connected to the router will get the appropriate signal.
Understanding smart home ecosystems
The next important thing you need to understand are ecosystems, which are generally created by large giants such as Amazon and Google. These brands compete against each other to get more market share and to tie up consumers into ecosystems of their own products.
Once a brand like Amazon has you plugged in within their ecosystem, it becomes very difficult and inconvenient for you to change and switch out of their ecosystem and change over to Google for example.
Amazon Alexa and Echo
Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant has become very popular and is in a large percentage of United States homes.
Alexa not allows you to order products for you without you needing to type anything on your computer screen but it also allows you to do many other tasks. For example it can do basic things such as telling you the weather or temperature outside or playing a certain radio station or podcast. You can also extend its functionality with the addition of Skills which are third-party apps such as apps to control your thermostat or fun games to play.
You can install these functions and skills through your smartphone app that is linked to your Amazon account.
The Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that features powerful sound and also a built-in hub. It has features that allow different users to provide voice commands and it will partition them separately. For example, different users can ask Echo to set their own unique daily schedule or to play their own music preferences and podcasts.
The nice thing is that you don’t need the Amazon Echo to use Alexa you can actually use Alexa from your phone or your computer.
The search giant Google which we all use everyday to search for different things on the internet also has a very good smart home ecosystem. The well-known command “OK Google” can actually be used on every Android phone that’s newer than version 4.4.
Given how popular the Android phone platform is all smart device manufacturers are very incentivized to make sure they are devices are compatible with Google technology.
The Google Home Mini is basically the equivalent of Amazon’s Dot and is very affordable and has sold millions of units across the world.
The Google smart speaker called the Google home is aimed at the same Market segment as Amazon’s Echo and it also has a similar form factor similar functionality and similar pricing. While Amazon Alexa has functions called Skills that are in the thousands, Google offers the similar functionality with their Actions, although they have fewer Actions than Amazon has Skills.
But Google has an edge because they already have the online services ecosystem such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive, which will allow for more deeper integration with all the smart home functionality.
Google has taken a similar approach to Amazon and have adopted the opinion that the Google Assistant technology which actually processes the voice commands can be licensed to anybody who wants to add it to their own devices. Doing this will hopefully repeat the success that they saw with Android.
It’s important to realize that with all these voice commands and technologies that once your voice command has been detected by your device whether it’s your phone your laptop or a smart speaker, the actual processing of those voice commands doesn’t happen locally on your devices. It actually happens remotely on Google’s servers.
This means that all your data is not always stored locally and Google is potentially using your data remotely to not only improve their software, but for other data analytics purposes such as e-commerce analytics and analyzing your behavior patterns to predict your needs.
Understanding how data and information is transmitted through your devices
Part of understanding smart home devices in home automation is to understand the basics of the internet and your home network.
On your home network you will have various devices that you use such as a smart TV or a computer or a laptop or smart speakers or an iPad. These devices are all connected via Wi-Fi signal to your modem or router. The modem / router is connected to the internet via your internet service provider.
Basically the internet works by transmitting bits of information from one place to another. Every device that’s connected through this network called the internet has its own address which is called the IP address.
IP stands for Internet Protocol and that is in the method in which data is moved over the internet network between one computer that’s making a request for data and another location that is providing the information.
This is enabled via something called a transmission control protocol or TCP which basically takes the information from the internet Network and sends it to the correct application on your device.
Now on your home network it will also use similar TCP and IP naming conventions, however your home network is most likely a closed private network so these addresses of your devices are not known to the outside world or the outside internet network.
It is your modem that routes the data between all the devices on your home network and the external internet world.
This is just scratching the surface in terms of how the internet works but it’s a necessary prerequisite to understand the basics because a smart home may require other types of networks that you should know about so you can make an informed decision.
The Wi-Fi Network
One type of network is Wi-Fi which you are very familiar with. Wi-Fi is actually a network that allows devices to communicate with each other or also with the internet but Wi-Fi means that your laptop computer can communicate with your printer when you’re at home.
Other types of networking technology include Zigbee and Z-Wave for example. These are both known as mesh networks. A mesh network means that it basically uses all the devices in your home to build its own miniature internet.
Each device in this mesh Network serves as a node that can pass on relative information so that information can go from any device on the network to any other device.
Mesh networks can be very useful and convenient over Wi-Fi because Wi-Fi has limitations in terms of the range and transmission. If you have a large home and many walls and different levels on your home, you may have noticed that the signal is weaker when you are farther away from your router which means that the data transfer may not be as reliable in certain parts of your home.
A mesh network doesn’t suffer from this because every device acts as a node and so if you have devices sprawled across your home the data transfer becomes much more robust and you don’t have to worry about weak signals or Transmissions.
Another disadvantage of Wi-Fi is that the devices have higher power consumption needs on a Wi-Fi network versus devices on a mesh network, which uses less energy and don’t require as large of a battery. You may have noticed that most of the devices that are connected on a Wi-Fi network actually have to be plugged into the power supply or have a large battery. This is not the case for devices to communicate on a mesh network which will require a smaller power supply.
For example many devices on a Zigbee or Z-Wave Network can use a small queen size battery and last for many many months. Put these devices on a Wi-Fi network and the battery would last only a week or less.
How devices communicate over a Wi-Fi network versus a mesh Network
On a Wi-Fi network all the connected devices communicate via the central hub which is usually your router so all data has to go through the router and from the router the data is transmitted to each device this router is obviously also connected to the internet in most cases.
On a mesh Network all the devices form an interconnected web. Therefore, not every device has to be physically close to the central hub because because the data can hop from one device to another to get to another device that is far away from the Hub.
On mesh networks the mesh hub is also generally connected to the internet via a router, but in this case the router is not the central hub that the devices used to communicate with each other. For example, you can have some smart light bulbs in the basement far away from your mesh hub but in between the distance it can still communicate with the mesh Hub because there is a smart thermostat in a smart speaker in between.