Smart Homes 101: Everything You Need to Know

December 5, 2018 • Shannon Flynn


Maybe you’ve heard the buzz about smart homes but aren’t sure how they differ from the abodes you know well. That’s understandable, especially if you’re already satisfied with your house and think you might not need or want to upgrade it.

However, it’s best to be thoroughly informed so you can make a decision based on the new knowledge.

Have a specific question about smart homes? Jump to a section!

What Do Smart Homes Do?

Although smart homes have gone through a recent popularity boost, the concept of them is new. In 1975, a Scottish company developed a system called X10. It allowed people to connect compatible devices over a home’s electrical wires so those items could communicate with each other. People used transmitter devices like keypads and remote controls to send commands to the devices.

Today’s smart homes work on the same principle, but typically use radio waves — such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi — for that communication aspect. These gadgets are taking off. Recent research shows more than one-quarter of Americans have at least three smart home devices.

Smart Devices Usually Have Complementing Apps

A primary aspect that sets a smart home apart from a nonsmart one is that the intelligent devices typically include apps that allow people to control the gadgets from afar.

It’s not surprising that many security brands developed items that work with smart homes, such as locks and doorbells. Then, people can see who arrived on the porch or lock different doors in their house without being on-site.

A recent report showing trends noticed by professional security installers found that nearly 40 percent of systems integrate with at least one smart home item. That means brands realize they need to cater to customers by making their systems suit the smart home trend.

Some smart home apps show statistics that allow people to adjust their usage to get benefits like energy savings. For example, smart thermostat apps display day-by-day or month-by-month data so users can choose temperature settings that lower their utility bills.

Many apps allow guest usage, too. If you have a housesitter during vacation, it’s possible to give that person temporary access to the app that controls a smart home device.

Many Smart Devices Have Voice-Recognition Features or Offer Two-Way Communication

Often, smart devices — such as Amazon and Google’s smart speakers — listen for voice commands and respond to them. Those speakers link with hundreds of other gadgets in smart homes. After setting them up, you could speak cues to the smart speaker and watch as the corresponding appliances or devices react to your request. That factor also sets smart homes apart from nonsmart homes.

The ability to operate smart home devices by voice is one reason many people think they could be so beneficial for older individuals who want to age in place. The most recent Census data indicated 15.9 percent of the population was at least 65. When people can utter commands as they sit on the couch, they don’t risk tripping on a rug when they go across the room to turn on a light, for example.

Plus, many voice-activated smart features can talk back to their users. In one recent hackathon participated in by freshmen students at Arizona State University, people engineered a skill for the Amazon Echo Dot speaker to calm anxious kids with disabilities like Down syndrome or autism who are temporarily separated from their caregivers. Known as the Honey Caregiver, the skill offers soothing feedback until human caregivers return.

There are also smart home gadgets that allow people to use their smartphones and apps to communicate back and forth with delivery drivers or service personnel visiting a home. Although many nonsmart homes have intercom systems, the apps and portable gadgets allow people to engage in those communications even when they aren’t home.

There are also many pet cameras that allow people to watch their furry companions from work. They can also speak to them if those animals get frightened by loud noises.

Because most of these gadgets can send push notifications, users can get instant alerts if something is amiss at home. After receiving the alerts, they can then take action by speaking into their phones.

A Smart Home Could Give You Better Cleaning Assistance

The rise of smart home technologies has also made it easier than before for people to keep their homes tidy without exerting so much energy. For example, you can program some autonomous vacuum cleaners to start working when you leave the office. You can then come home to a debris-free carpet.

Similarly, there are robotic window cleaners you can control with apps. They recognize the size and shape of the windows and stay securely attached to them during the process. Indeed, some nonsmart homes have remote-controlled gadgets to assist with cleaning. However, those require users to be within a reasonable distance of the products to operate them.

Although when a person connects a cleaning gadget and an app to the same Wi-Fi network, it’s possible to operate the device from anywhere in the house that receives a signal.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows about the amount of time spent doing household activities. It found men give an average of an hour and 25 minutes per day to them, and women devote two hours and 15 minutes daily.

Smart homes don’t eliminate all that time required. However, some devices allow people to shorten their household chore time by setting up the gadgets to work while they do other tasks.

Smart Homes Showcase Connectivity

The top takeaway here is that smart homes offer connectivity that allows compatible gadgets to talk to each other and permit users to operate them with apps, voice commands or both.

If what you know now makes you curious about the possibilities, keep in mind that it’s easy to invest in only one or two smart gadgets at first. You can then scale up if desired.

What Technology Is in a Smart Home?

If you already know what smart homes do that separate them from conventional ones and have a general sense of how smart homes work, the next question probably on your mind is, “What technology is in a smart home?”

Many people find answering the question is both fun and rewarding because they learn things that allow them to decide what high-tech features they want most.

Knowing what technology is in a smart home means understanding some of the broad categories of options that are available. Here are several of them.

1. Voice-Activated Smart Speakers

Speakers that respond to voice commands are often people’s first introduction to what technology is in a smart home.

That’s because the leading kinds of smart speakers connect to other parts of a smart home setup. This allows people to do things like turn on their lights or activate compatible coffeemakers with voice commands.

These speakers also answer questions, give directions and let people buy things online. All you have to do is speak aloud and respond to the prompts that follow. Moreover, user experiences indicate these speakers are valuable for individuals with disabilities.

For example, they might help a person with autism develop language skills or assist an individual who cannot use their hands to type gadget commands.

2. Security and Safety-Related Technologies

The need to feel safe is a desire that persists throughout generations. So, when progress allowed, it isn’t surprising manufacturers began developing smart home technologies associated with security.

Some smart locks facilitate opening a door with an app, instead of fumbling for house keys. Those also give temporary access to people you choose, such as babysitters who arrive before you get home from work or neighbors who are watering your plants while you’re away on vacation.

Additionally, smart security systems let people check on areas of their homes whether or not they’re on the premises. Some even offer two-way communication through smartphone apps. Then, a user could warn someone who’s snooping to leave the property immediately before calling the police, for example.

Technologies exist that monitor the safety of people who are at an increased risk of falling due to age, balance issues or a broken limb, as well. They use low-power radio waves to detect movement and potential falls, then send for help when necessary.

These options keep homes and people safer, but it’s still a good idea to follow security-related precautions that keep your smart home locked down.

3. Technologies Associated With the Home’s Environment

Many people make behavioral changes or move forward with home upgrades to cut their energy expenses. That’s understandable, since statistics indicate the average American household spends more than $2,000 annually on energy bills, and heating accounts for 29 percent of the costs.

While many utility bills indicate how usage changed since the last billing cycle, that information isn’t enough for people to make meaningful changes to save money.

But, most smart home gadgets related to climate control systems track usage by the month, week or even day, facilitating quick and noticeable adjustments.

The same goes for smart lights, which come with apps that keep tabs on usage and may even allow changing the color of the lights to impress visitors.

You might also want to invest in smart blinds for your windows. Although some choices are expensive — especially custom-made ones — there are budget-friendly options, too.

Generally, those blinds either go up and down in response to your voice or an app. But, some companies sell horizontal blinds that change their slat angles upon request.

There are smart-home-ready smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, too. Many give audible prompts about required battery changes or warn there’s a small amount of sudden smoke in the kitchen, which could mean a briefly unattended pot on the stove boiled over.

4. Smart Home Products for Pet Owners

People who own pets often consider those animals to be family members. Smart home gadget makers stay aware of that when they create technologies that let concerned pet lovers watch their pets via smart cameras while they’re at work.

Smart “treat tossers” are products people can activate with their smartphones to give their pets goodies even if they’re not home to reward them.

Plus, smart feeders are excellent for monitoring overall food intake, especially if a pet is on a diet and you’re not home to oversee eating habits all the time.

Some of these feeding gadgets are so advanced that they can detect multiple pets and distribute the right amount of food to each one.

Hate scooping your cat’s litter box? That’s no problem, since there are smart litter boxes that scoop out the waste and send smartphone notifications about changes in the feline’s habits that could indicate a health issue.

5. Primarily Entertaining Smart Gadgets

No discussion of what technology is in a smart home is complete without the gadgets that offer purposeful entertainment. Smart TVs help users navigate through various connected media libraries, such as those associated with Hulu and Netflix.

Although the smart speakers mentioned earlier can play music and podcasts, there are also dedicated sound systems made for smart homes. People using them can change tracks or stations by speaking or using apps that let their smartphones function as remotes.

Of course, there are also high-tech toys that fit right into the playroom of a smart home. Some respond when kids talk to them, while others, such as science-themed toys, connect to apps to further the learning process.

When opting to purchase any smart toys, it’s crucial to follow good parenting practices for ensuring kids use the technology safely.

More Smart Gadgets Arrive on the Market Often

Hopefully, this list has given sufficient inspiration, so you ask, “What technology is in a smart home?” followed by, “What should I purchase first?”

Keep in mind brands release innovations frequently, too. Although this is a thorough overview, it doesn’t encompass all types of smart gadgets on the market.

What Are the Best Smart Home Devices?

In the age of information technology, people want to automate as many things in their lives as possible.

Automation in the home is a newer trend catching on in many modern neighborhoods — from telling your house to turn on the lights to individually regulating the temperature in every room.

The future is here, and a lot of consumers are getting in on the excitement.

A smart home involves getting new gadgets to create a technological and automatic atmosphere. With some devices, you can make any home smart, no matter the age of the building or its inhabitants.

These devices are easy to get used to, simple to set up and perfect for making an ordinary house into a smart home.

Here are five devices a smart home can’t do without.

1. Smart Speakers — Amazon Echo

Investing in a smart home speaker is likely the first step in any homeowner’s journey toward the technological future. The Google Home is a good choice, but the Amazon Echo is better.

The second-generation version is more aesthetically pleasing, while also controlling other smart devices, playing music, buying whatever you like online, checking the weather and anything else you ask the Echo to do.

Most homeowners already have some version of a smart speaker, but now you can get the best one on the market.

2. Smart Security Cameras — Netgear Arlo

A security camera is always a good idea, no matter what sort of neighborhood you happen to live in.

While they are a tad expensive, the best ones to buy are the Netgear Arlo Q and Netgear Arlo Pro, depending on your budget. They work indoors and outdoors, day and night, capturing 1080p video quality. These cameras have motion detection and scheduling features, too.

A week’s worth of video storage is free, but you’ll have to pay to keep more on hand.

3. Smart Thermostat — Ecobee4

You may be wondering what could make a thermostat smart. Sure, this device has a touchscreen and a sleek design, but the smart part comes in with the voice recognition software.

The Ecobee4 has an Alexa built into the device, making it unnecessary to buy a smart speaker separately.

Plus, a unique feature of this thermostat is its ability to adjust the temperature in every room of your home individually.

4. Smart Plug — TP-Link HS105

Perhaps you’d like to go a step further and make every device in your home a smart one. It may come as a shock, but you can do so with a smart plug. Just plug in any of your electronics, and the plug regulates whether or not the device gets power and how much.

Not only are you cutting down on energy costs, but you can control when particular lights come on with just a few words.

You can also connect them to a smart speaker, so you’ll never have to worry about how to make everything work.

5. Smart Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector — Nest Protect

Convenience might have been one of your reasons for diving into smart devices, but safety is also a pretty high motivator on the list. With the Nest Protect, you’ll be able to feel as safe as possible.

This device connects to your smart speaker and other devices to turn on the lights in case of an emergency. The built-in speaker tells you where a fire is, and can detect slow or fast-burning fires.

Smoke detectors are coming into a whole new generation of their own, and this is one new gadget you don’t want to leave you behind.

6. Smart Home Hub — Samsung SmartThings

Many of these smart home devices come integrated with a smart speaker.

If you get a gadget with a built-in Alexa or Echo, why would you need the original home speaker? You don’t need the extra items, but having a hub is fantastic. This is where the Samsung SmartThings hub comes into play.

This device can wrangle all your other smart gadgets and make them work in sync without having to plug into a router. A smart hub is easy and effective.

Turning a House Into a Smart Home

One of the first things you have to do is set out to make a change for the better. It doesn’t require any significant alterations to your existing home.

Instead of doing things yourself, you’re speaking commands aloud to let the new voice recognition software listen to your bidding or letting the devices carry out tasks themselves.

People are busier than ever, and having one less thing to worry about — or at least a new gadget to play with — is always a bonus.

If you’re hesitant about this new trend, start with an Amazon Echo and see where things go from there. You might be surprised.

What Is a Home Automation System?

You’ve learned how smart homes work and how they often have various gadgets inside to help residents live better.

So what’s a home automation system? Put simply, it’s a setup where all of your connected products work together, even if they’re from different brands.

Home automation is not a new concept, but it has improved over the years. Bill Gates showed off his automated mansion in 1995, impressing people with the technologies within, including a touchpad in each room for controlling various settings.

As you begin to research what a home automation system is, you’ll realize that smart devices are components of it but don’t comprise entire home automation systems by themselves. Often, the thing that links your smart devices together and helps you make a home automation system is a hub.

What Is a Smart Home Hub?

A smart home hub is a single device that ensures all of your smart home gadgets communicate with each other. Many facilitate devices with different wireless standards.

There are others, known as hybrid setups, that have compatibility for more than one wireless standard.

Zigbee and Z-Wave are the two most prominent wireless standards for smart home gadgets, and most smart hubs accommodate them.

However, many smart home products may connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth too. In that case, you could use a smart speaker instead of a hub.

The smart speakers Google and Amazon offer allow you to set up trigger words that make numerous things happen at once. For example, you could turn the lights off, then immediately adjust the thermostat just before going to bed, all by using your voice.

Keep in mind that Google and Amazon sell devices that work as smart hubs too — the Amazon Echo Plus and the Google Home Hub, respectively.

One differentiator of the Google Home Hub is that it has a screen, and people can interact with it instead of using voice commands to control the parts of their automated homes.

There are all compelling reasons to invest in a smart hub, including enjoying a more streamlined setup process when you’re connecting and operating all your gadgets. However, hubs are not essential in the early stages of automating your home.

It is Possible Automate Without Using Brand-Specific Apps

In a genuinely automated home, it’s possible to control all the relevant devices without using the apps from each brand.

For example, when you’re adding a device to a hub or smart speaker that works with the Alexa assistant, you can download skills for each smart home device, enabling the Alexa gadget to recognize your commands.

Alexa also offers a “guided discovery” feature that detects devices in your home and gives on-screen prompts to connect them.

After linking a gadget to a smart speaker, you don’t have to solely depend on a brand-specific app to operate the device — you can use the Alexa app instead. Similarly, Google’s app lets you control all compatible and connected devices while on the go.

One of the mistakes people make when setting up smart homes is not choosing devices that complement each other. Since brands like the ones mentioned here and more are making their items compatible with dozens of other brands, however, it’s easier than ever to find products that work together.

Enjoy Smart Home Tech More Conveniently

When you’re answering “What is a home automation system?” remember that it’s more than a collection of smart gadgets.

It’s an interconnected setup that permits you to control devices quickly, much like the touchpads mentioned in Bill Gates’ high-tech house. As such, an automation system brings convenience to the connected tech you buy.

How Much Does a Home Automation System Cost?

Now that you’ve learned about various aspects of a home automation system, such as the kinds of products you could buy and how a home automation system works, you’re probably wondering: “How much does it cost to install a home automation system?” Here are some details to help you answer that.

Start With Pricing Smart Plugs

Smart plugs are like Wi-Fi hubs that plug into standard wall outlets. After connecting a smart plug to an accompanying app, you can control the device that’s plugged into the outlet.

You can find them for about $20 and up. When researching a smart plug, be sure to check whether it needs a hub to work.

It’s also a good idea to buy a smart plug that’s compatible with a smart speaker you already own, such as an Amazon Echo or Apple HomePod.

Then, you could control the plugged-in items without using the app and speak voice commands instead.

Look for Hubs and Controllers

As you continue asking “How much does it cost to install a home automation system?” you’ll need to make decisions about hubs and controllers.

As you’ll recall from an earlier part of this post, the hub is what makes smart home devices communicate with each other. You connect devices to a hub or controller, then use that single gadget to operate them all.

Smart hubs and controllers start at about $80. If you instead decide to use a smart speaker as a hub, you’ll probably want one for the main rooms of the home, so the smart speaker’s assistant can hear you wherever you are.

However, buying multiple smart speakers could cost several hundred dollars depending on the ones you choose.

Learn About Lighting

Smart home light bulbs are typically $25 to $50 each depending on the brand and whether the bulb changes colors. Sengled is one brand that’s more cost-effective and offers bulbs for about $10 each.

It’s easy to see how the cost could be substantial if you replace every conventional bulb in your home with a smart one. Some smart bulbs require hubs, too.

Consider getting a smart bulb starter kit to reduce costs. They usually include a couple of bulbs and a hub — if needed. You can buy starter kits for about $30 and up.

Professional Installer or DIY Project?

After learning about component costs, you need to think about if you’ll install them yourself or hire an expert. Your budget and the level of confidence you have about independent home improvement projects could determine your decision about this aspect.

The average cost to have your home automation system installed is $1340 for both labor and materials. Plus, some smart home components, such as smart light switches and smart thermostats need hard wiring. You might feel equipped enough to do that on your own.

Remember, though, you’ll be working around electricity and may conclude it’s safer to leave the work to an expert.

What’s the Overall Cost?

It should be clear that the total cost of your home automation system varies based on the extensiveness of the setup.

You can install a basic one for less than $1000, but an all-encompassing system could be more than $10,000.

Factors Within and Outside of Your Control

As you ponder how much it costs to install a home automation system, realize that the cost depends on some things you can’t control, such as the size of the home.

However, you can manage the overall cost with deals or starter kits.

Taking a careful approach should help you stay on top of the costs.