Have you ever considered automating your house to make life just that little bit easier? Join the smart home revolution!
Bruce Lee famously said, “If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of”. Streamlining our busy lives to grant us more time with family and friends is a perennial quest. Throughout the 20th century, electricity made affordable domestic automation ubiquitous, making arduous manual chores around the house infinitely easier. In the 21st century, we’ve taken another step forward with smart home connectivity that won’t break the bank. Once the preserve of the wealthy, installing an automated home was also a complicated business of networking and wiring. Today, the task is so easy that even your grandmother could do it. But what is a smart home and why do you need one?
Chances are you’ve probably heard the words ‘smart home’ or ‘connected home’ bandied around a lot lately. Having a house that connects devices via an online network is becoming increasingly more popular. These devices can include lighting, smart speakers, televisions, window sensors, security systems and even garden irrigation! The advantages of having a smart home ecosystem are many. For starters, it’s convenient – with a simple command on your smartphone you can kill all the lights in a house, or dim them for a movie; raise all the blinds and even switch on the kettle from the comfort of your bed. It just makes day-to-day living that little bit easier and it’s only going to get better – and smarter.
“What is a smart home and why do you need one?”
The positives for those looking to begin the transition to a smart home are price and installation. Firstly, you won’t need a loan to begin investing in smart devices and it’s always worth remembering the old adage: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Begin by adding some smart plugs, door sensors or a few lights and like any collection, slowly scale it up. Decide what part of the home you want automated first and work towards a goal. It might be your entertainment space or a security system.
Secondly, the days of having to call out an expensive IT specialist to help with set up are long gone. We can’t stress how easy it is to install and link smart lights or door sensors. All you need is the Internet, a smartphone and an app, and then literally just follow the prompts. Tech has been made so accessible in 2020 that even the most ardent Luddite in the household could set up a smart home.
So, you’ve decided to take the plunge. The first thing you’ll need to decide is which ecosystem you want to use to control your smart home. What does this mean, we hear you ask? It’s a hub that manages all of your devices, and the four we’re going discuss here are Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Home Kit and Samsung SmartThings. It’s important to remember that these centralised management systems are competing businesses, so not all devices will work on them; always check compatibility before you put your money on the counter. While most third party smart home devices will work with Google Assistant and Alexa, if you have a house predominately dominated by Apple products, then you’ll need to look at Apple Home Kit for your hub of choice. Samsung SmartThings is another player that allows connection to its proprietary devices through Wi-Fi, but it also supports ZigBee and Z-Wave, two widely deployed wireless home automation systems that enable a broad range of non-proprietary devices to be connected and they operate on different wireless frequencies similar to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
For this feature a heap of review product arrived at the office, which we actively set up in our chaotic work environment with great success, some of which we’ll be covering in this feature. So to make life easier, we’ve put a symbol following to the review so you can tell at a glance what hub it’s compatible with.
– Apple Home Kit
– Amazon Alexa
– Google Assistant
– Samsung SmartThings
Setting the scene
You’ll often hear the word ‘scene’ used in conjunction with the smart home. Basically, a scene is a set of digital instructions to manage the smart devices in the home that the user programs through a smartphone. For example, you can set your garage door to open, switch external and internal lights on, and have your favourite music track or TV show start up – all as you approach the house. And when you climb into bed at night, with one simple voice command to the hub in your bedroom, you can activate night mode and close everything down until you reactivate it again with a simple command when you wake in the morning. It sounds daunting, but setting up a scene is virtually dummy proof.
Lock it up
How many times have you pulled the door closed and instantly realised that your keys are still inside, or struggled to the door with shopping in both hands and your key is at the bottom of your bag? Well, enter (pun intended) the Yale Assure SL smart lock. Aesthetically, the Assure SL is a sleek unit combining a sharp, minimalist design with a heap of functionality. Installation is a relatively straightforward proposition as long as you can use a screwdriver; the unit retro fits directly into a standard 54mm bore hole. Once the batteries are inserted, set your PIN code. Users can log 25 different PIN codes, which can be distributed to visiting family members or to let the cleaners in, and the door can be locked with a simple touch of the pad. The codes can easily be changed, making the lock an invaluable tool in the rental and Airbnb markets. When the battery life reaches 25 per cent the lock will display a continuous warning, so there’s no excuse not to change them. The name Yale comes with a benchmark of quality, so if the idea of a key-free lock is appealing, look no further.
Lighting the way
We covered smart lighting extensively back in the October issue, but options are abundant. The two big players here are Philips Hue and LIFX, that not only offer a broad range of lighting for entertainment and practicality around the house, but also for the garden (more on that below). These quality lighting solutions are simple to install and even easier to connect, delivering 16 million different colour variations to suit any task or mood. If your house is fitted with downlights, consider the LIFX 100mm downlight. And recently released Philips Hue 90mm plug in and play downlight is the perfect solution, bringing smart lighting to the most popular downlight size in Australia.
The beauty of introducing smart lighting to the house is that it can be done progressively – all you need to do is choose the first room and you’re off.
Smart plugs; what do they do? Once linked via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, these handy little units allow the user to control any device plugged into them. So if you connect a TV, lamp or even your coffee machine, you can either set up a scene to activate when you come through the door, or switch on the devices remotely from a smartphone. Built to the same standards as a normal Australian plug, a smart plug is an essential addition for eradicating electricity loss through vampire energy (i.e. devices that drain when in standby mode) or controlling lights when you’re away on holiday. For the environmentally or financially conscious, some smart plugs will monitor energy usage so you can determine which devices are consuming the most power.
Eve Energy Smart Plug
The beauty of Eve products is the ease of setting them up – download the Eve or Home app and scan the QR code that comes in the box to connect – and that’s certainly the case with the Eve Energy Smart Plug. This differs to many smart plugs as it connects via Bluetooth as opposed to Wi-Fi. Setting scenes is a breeze through the app and the energy monitoring is highly detailed: set your electricity rate and then you have the option of keeping tabs on current consumption and projected cost, and total consumption and total cost. These can be monitored hourly, daily, weekly or monthly.
Philips Hue Smart Plug
The king of smart lighting, Philips Hue has extended its range to encompass smart plugs. Featuring a small cube design, this smart plug uses Bluetooth and ZigBee to connect. Easy to install via the Philips Hue app, utilising the Hue Routines, scenes can be scheduled or the Hue Motion Sensor employed so lights can be activated through movement in a room. Energy monitoring is unsupported.
As the name suggests, motion sensors do just that: sense motion. Useful applications for a motion sensor include security protection on doors and windows, or to trigger a scene when you step through the door at night. Most premium models also feature a pet-friendly mode to ensure that your cat or dog is not triggering the sensors all day long.
The battery operated Eve Motion can either be wall mounted or sat on the floor/table. Again, connected through the home app, the uses are innumerable: maybe you want to be notified on your smartphone about movement in the house while you’re at work, or in order to save money, a scene can be set to activate lighting when you enter a room. A day/night option on the app means you can set the lighting at 100 per cent brightness during the day, but when you get up during the night, lights can be set to just 20 per cent if you need to use the toilet and don’t want bright lights.
Eve also produces a door and window sensor that is easy to install and can trigger a scene when opened or closed. Different heights on doors and windows are compensated by a series of blocks in the pack that allow the sensors to be raised to fit any architrave or door trim.
Samsung has a SmartThings range of sensors available, too. Its motion sensor comes with a magnetic stand for wall mounting affixed with double-sided tape, allowing multi-directional positioning to capture every angle. Easy connectivity through the SmartThings app opens up a plethora of scene options. It can detect motion for up to 4.5 metres and features a 120-degree view range.
Finding the Leaks
It’s a perennial issue when you go away: what if the dishwasher or washing machine hoses leak? You don’t want to turn off the water and risk the seals drying out and cracking. Samsung SmartThings and Eve have the solution: smart water leak sensors. Yep, they’ve thought of everything.
The SmartThings Water Leak Sensor is a relatively small battery-operated unit that sits next to the dishwasher/washing machine/shower/bath, etc, and once connected to your hub (it also works with ZigBee), you link to the app. If the temperature changes suddenly or water begins to pool under it, immediate notifications will be sent to your smartphone.
Eve Water Guard connects directly to the mains and the sensor here is a two-metre length of cord that’s laid in and around where you want to monitor for potential leaks. The sensor cord can be extended up to an impressive 150 metres. Once linked to the Home app, you’re set to go. If water is detected, the main unit will emit a siren, a notification will appear on your smartphone, and it’s even possible to set a scene so that your smart lighting flashes if you’re out of earshot of the alarm. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll need a HomePod or Apple TV hub in the house if you want to receive notifications when you’re away.
If you think your smart home options end inside the four walls of your house, think again. If you entertain outside then there are options to support that with smart lighting. Philips Hue are the big players in smart lighting and in the outdoors space the company has an extensive range of lighting possibilities. Philips sent across three products to trial in this range. First up is the Outdoor Pedestal Calla base unit, a 25cm aluminium tall bollard-style light. The Hue outdoor range is low voltage wired for better lighting performance and the cord can be run overground – or for the adventurous, it can be buried for a more permanent fixture. It’s worth noting that you need the Philips Hue Bridge hub to link all the outdoor lights to the Wi-Fi; connecting the lights to the Hue app – both for IOS and Android – is ridiculously easy. Performance-wise, the Calla throws out excellent mood light both up and down and looks exceptionally good against a wall, a plant, or highlighting a pathway; adding three or four of these would create a great effect. Colour-wise, like all Philips Hue lights, you have 16 million different options to choose from (good luck with that!).
Next up is the Outdoor Spot Lily, a spotlight constructed of the same matte black aluminium; it feels like what it is – a premium product. Again, the Lily is wired and comes with options to mount it both on a wall or the ground. In operation, the Lily throws elegant, mood lighting at a tree, across a wall or even along a pathway, reminiscent of the coloured spotlights used to highlight castles and stately homes at night in Europe. It’s an effective way to bring your garden to vibrant life after dark.
Finally, the brilliant five-metre-long weatherproof Lightstrip opens up a myriad of installation options to illuminate a deck, wall, external kitchen, or even the ceiling. Although the individual LEDs cannot be replaced, the Lightstrip will give you 25,000 hours of illumination. There really is no excuse to maximise the lighting options in the back garden, bringing a totally customisable symphony of colour in the palm of your hand.
Yes, now it’s possible to control the condition of your garden if you’re at work or even on the other side of the world. Eve has a nifty little product in this area called the Eve Aqua, although the company only caters for Apple Home Kit users. The Bluetooth device connects directly to your garden tap and allows users to schedule sprinklers to switch on and water the garden in your absence. Or if you’re at home and too busy with the kids, the Aqua can be activated with a voice command such as, “Siri, put on the sprinklers for 20 minutes”. It’s that easy. If you have a large property, you’ll need to include the Eve Bluetooth Extend to ensure coverage. And like all Home Kit products, if you leave home, you’ll need Apple TV or a HomePod to use your smart home devices remotely.
SMART HOME GLOSSARY
It’s all in the name. Automation is where all the smart devices in your home operate with little to no input from you.
Bluetooth is a term used to describe a wireless radio frequency that connects devices over a short distance.
Imagine there is an invisible fence around your house. Utilising Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS, connected devices such as the TV or lighting trigger to come on or off as you enter or leave the home.
If all of your smart devices are an orchestra, then the hub in the home is the conductor that ensures that everything is working together.
IoT (Internet of Things)
Simply put, IoT is a broad name given to any device that connects to the Internet.
The easiest way to understand what protocols are is to think of them as languages that smart devices use to communicate.
A term most people would be familiar with, Wi-Fi is a wireless protocol that communicates through your standard home network router without the need for a hub, and thus can connect over further distances than other wireless protocols.
Similar to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, ZigBee is an increasingly popular wireless protocol with smart devices. It uses low energy and is relatively fast, too.
Another wireless protocol becoming more and more popular in the smart home field, Z-Wave uses a mesh network where boosters work as a net to cover a wider field.