Six easy ways to turn your house into a smart home
From heat and light to safety and security, you can now control everything remotely
Tablet with an app controls several features in the home such as door lock, lights, washing machine, surveillance camera, music, water use and more. Woman press the tablet, that shows a icon of a house.
Is your home as smart as it could be? Do you even want it to be? In this age of connected devices, it seems that everything that can be connected is being connected, including a few things that really have no business being hooked up to the internet.
However, there are a few such devices that you could probably benefit from having in your home, helping you to keep track of everything from your light and heat to maintaining a watchful eye on your property while you are away.
The most basic smarthome item is the wifi-enabled plug. This gives you full control over televisions, set-top boxes and kitchen appliances, allowing you to control them from outside the home or just cut down on the dreaded standby. Check out Samsung’s Smartthings plugs, the Wemo Switch or TP-Link’s Wifi plug.
We are spoiled for choice these days when it comes to smart lighting. Controlled by wifi, the LED bulbs may cost a little more than your standard lighting accessories, but they offer far more in terms of convenience.
Think of the lightbulbs as a timer switch with more control. Not only can you set up schedules for each day – on at 7am, off at 8am, back on at 5pm, fade down from 11pm onwards – but you can also control them from outside your home.
Among the best on offer are Belkin’s Wemo and Philips Hue. Belkin offers straightforward white LED bulbs that you can control through the Wemo app on your phone or through your light switch.
Philips Hue takes it a step further with not only plain white lightbulbs, but coloured ones that can create “scenes” in your home. Wake up to daylight or go to bed to a lighting scheme that imitates candlelight; you get the idea.
Wifi bulbs can also integrate with the web-based service IFTTT service, so you can customise your smarthome lighting to alert you when you get a new email or allow you to switch lights on with a text message.
Timers for heating are handy if you have a predictable schedule. Get up at 7am, leave the house an hour later and return home at 6pm every day.
Climote was one of the first smart heating systems available through the utility companies here, with ESB jumping on board. It allows you to remotely control your heating through a smartphone app or by texting a number with various commands.
If your heating is zoned, you can control upstairs and downstairs separately, and the Climote will also allow you to control your hot water if you have it set-up to do so. It requires professional installation, unless you are familiar with the workings of thermostats.
Hive, meanwhile, is a wireless thermostat comprising a hub that plugs into your home internet router, a receiver that allows everything to communicate and an app you can use to control the whole set-up. The wireless thermostat can be placed anywhere around the home, so there is no busting through walls.
Nest is a bit smarter than the rest. It not only takes into account the temperature inside your home, it also measures the outside temperature. That means it can make an educated guess about how long it will take to heat up your house, and schedule your heating accordingly.
It also learns from your schedule, so after a few days, you don’t even have to tell the heating to switch on at a certain time. It will also detect if there is no movement in the house and switch the heating to eco mode, so it isn’t wasting energy.
It will also look after the hot water controls for you, a nod to the Irish obsession with the immersion.
Remember that irritating beep the smoke alarm would intermittently emit when the battery began to run low? The one you would ignore until it started at 3am and wouldn’t stop? The days of decoding alarms are gone, thanks to the new line of smart alarms.
Nest Protect, owned by Google, not only distinguishes between “fire bad” and “dinner ready” but it will also give you a friendly warning before it sets alarms blaring. A woman’s voice will pleasantly inform you that there is smoke in the hallway, and your app will let you know that a problem has been detected. You can then silence the alarm from the app (while standing near the smoke alarm) or investigate.
It also hooks in with your other Nest products, so if you have a Nest Thermostat, it will turn off the heating to avoid making the problem worse, while a Nest security camera will automatically switch on so you can see what is going on.
House alarms are a nuisance. Or at least they used to be. That was mainly because they were largely ignored as they had been set off by a ball hitting the front window, a gust of wind or a power cut, leaving the siren blaring and alerting everyone in a 500m radius that you weren’t at home.
PhoneWatch, once owned by Eircom, now offers a remote monitored alarm that also links in with an app on your smartphone, so you can check whether you remembered to set it, and arm or disarm it even if you are outside the house.
Another contender is Irish company HomeSecure, which also offers monitored alarms with an app to control it all.
You can also take matters into your own hands. Samsung’s Smartthings range will allow you to set up a whole security system, adding everything from window and door sensors to moisture detectors so you can detect leaks in your home. You can add and remove sensors as you see fit.
If you don’t want a full-on alarm system but still would like to keep an eye on things, a connected security camera is a budget-friendly way to go.
There are plenty to choose from here. Nest has DropCam, which when paired with a NestAware monthly subscription will even identify if someone is in your home who shouldn’t be by comparing their faces to those who are regularly in your home.
Canary, a relative newcomer to the market, has also found favour with consumers. It’s easy to use and will not only keep a watchful eye over your children, elderly parents or even your pets, it will also allow you to talk back to them if you need to. This is handy for instructing your kids to wipe down the counter when they’re done or warning the dog to stay off the couch.
Closer to home, SmartFrog is a Dublin-headquartered start-up that not only offers its own security camera, but will also take a few of your old devices – smartphones and tablets – and turn them into security cameras through its app. It’s a better use for them than gathering dust.
The latest smarthome devices can even make you seem at home when you’re not. Connected doorbells such as Ring link to your iOS or Android device and alert you when someone is at the door, providing video so you can see exactly who it is. It doesn’t matter if you are upstairs or halfway across the world, as long as you have an internet connection. You can then choose to “answer” through your smartphone or tablet – or do what most of us would rather do and screen your visitors, even if you really are at home.
Talking to yourself is the first sign of insanity, or so the old saying goes. Personally, I think it’s utterly sensible, since you’re guaranteed a captive audience. But it could also be a way to interact with your home.
Amazon Echo, Google Home and Lenovo Smart Assistant all aim to make your life a little bit easier, allowing you to control everything with a few simple voice commands.
The two major competitors here are Amazon and Google. Amazon’s Alexa technology is the brains behind Lenovo’s Smart Assistant, although the Chinese firm brings a bit of speaker know-how to the table.
But Amazon isn’t stopping there. At CES this year it was clear that the company was planning a full-on invasion of the internet of things. It is providing Alexa for free to companies that want to use it in their products, and the list of those willing to take it up is growing. LG is putting it into smart fridges and home robots. Huawei is adding it to the Mate 9. Ford is putting Alexa into its Fusion cars. Alexa is getting around.
The problem for Irish customers is that getting any of these products is a little more difficult than we would like. Google Home isn’t on sale here yet, and officially you can’t buy the Amazon Echo in Ireland either. However, you can buy the latter through using a virtual UK address, such as that supplied by Parcel Motel, Parcel Wizard or AddressPal.
In the future, we will be able to call up our home assistant and ask it to book flights, place an order online, play music from our cloud collection or control our wifi-enabled lights all over the house. It’s sort of like having a personal assistant without having to actually pay them
One word of caution. The internet of things can be vulnerable to security threats, and in recent months they have been the focus of renewed attention thanks to the part they have played in online attacks. Imagine a whole army of devices that can be controlled to attack a specific target without their owners knowing.
That’s before you get into the threat that the devices can pose to your own security if they aren’t properly protected. Remember the scare over IP cameras getting hacked? It was made all the more disturbing because some people were using them as baby monitors.
Do your research and make sure you keep up to date with security patches and other software upgrades to cut the threat that your home security camera will become implicated in a zombie botnet of epic proportions.