How To Make a Smart Home

While smart home networking has been around since 1975, it’s only in the last decade or so that the industry has taken off.

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Jun 29, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Jun 29, 2021

When we talk about making a smart home, we’re referring to adding automated devices into our home and connecting them to the internet. These devices are part of the “internet of things,” or IoT for short. Home automation can bring energy savings, improved home security, and major convenience.

To take advantage of everything home automation offers, we’ve put together this guide. Let’s make a smart home!

How To Make a Smart Home

Making a smart home can seem like a daunting task, because every home is different and there are so many variables to consider. Buying the cheapest or most popular smart devices in each category is unlikely to satisfy what you’re looking for, so it’s up to us to figure out what will suit you best. We’ve broken the process down into some simple steps that let you ease into making your home smart rather than jumping in the deep end.

Understand the Limitations.

It’s important to understand the limitations of smart home implementation before you start spending a lot of money. Devices that are built smart will let you control many of their features remotely. Devices that you’re making smart with something like a smart plug won’t have new features that weren’t there before, just remote control.

For example, if you have a lamp with a dimmable bulb, a standard smart plug will let you turn the lamp on and off remotely, but it won’t let you adjust the dimmer remotely because the bulb isn’t smart. However, if the bulb is smart, then you can adjust the brightness remotely. In other words, you can’t teach an old lamp new tricks.

Consider the Privacy Concerns.

When agreeing to the terms and conditions for many smart devices, you agree to let them collect your data. We offer an excellent privacy guide on some popular smart home devices and tell you which ones won’t respect your privacy if you choose to use them.

Know the Different Protocols (There’s No Single Solution).

Despite the current popularity of smart home products, the industry still lacks one unified network communication method, or protocol, that all devices can connect through. While you’ll be familiar with some, you may not have heard of others. These are some of the common protocols:

  • Wi-Fi: Most smart home devices have Wi-Fi capability, but that may not be the primary protocol they use on your smart home network.
  • Bluetooth: While Bluetooth is standard in many devices, it transfers data more slowly than Wi-Fi.
  • Z-Wave: Z-Wave is a mesh network protocol that works best with a line of sight between devices, because the signal struggles with walls, floors, and ceilings. You’d need a Z-Wave-compatible hub to connect smart home devices with this protocol.
  • Zigbee: Like Z-Wave, Zigbee uses a mesh network with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. However, Zigbee broadcasts on the 2.4 GHz band that most Wi-Fi routers use, making it much easier for manufacturers to build Zigbee into smart devices. Zigbee also requires a hub to connect smart home devices.
  • Thread: Thread is a mesh network like Z-Wave and Zigbee. What makes it stand out is that it doesn’t need a hub to function. Apple, Amazon, and Google all build devices that work with Thread.

The lack of a unified protocol leaves you with two main paths to consider when making a smart home:

  1. Pick a protocol and then only purchase items within the same protocol.
  2. Buy whatever devices best fit your needs and operate your smart home from multiple interfaces.

The first choice allows you greater peace of mind that what you buy will work when needed. However, the potential downside is some devices in your smart home ecosystem might be functional but not ideal for your needs. For example, say you want the top-tier sound quality of an Apple HomePod smart speaker, but you have a Google Home ecosystem. The HomePod won’t fit in, and you’ll have to settle for something less appealing.

The second choice gives you total consumer freedom to buy whichever devices you like best. Still, compatibility difficulties might force you to use multiple apps. If convenience is the main selling point of a smart home for you, using multiple smart home apps might not be the best option. For example, if you use Alexa to control your smart plugs, Google Assistant to control your smart lights, and Siri to manage your smart locks, you’ll use three different apps or voice commands just to leave the house.

Third-party services like If This Then That (IFTTT) get around the compatibility problem but require you to do a bit of light programming yourself. We’d only recommend IFTTT for those with a bit more tech know-how. Even then, your smart home may not always work how you want, as not all products are compatible with IFTTT.

Consider a Smart(er) Router.

We know you’re probably thinking, “Wait, aren’t all routers smart? Their main function in my home is to connect to the internet and broadcast Wi-Fi.” And you’re right! But what if we told you there are even smarter routers out there?

Mesh routers use multiple smaller routers as satellite access points throughout your home to ensure a strong Wi-Fi signal from anywhere. Each device in the network acts as a repeater, rebroadcasting the signal to other devices.1

Pros of smart routers
  • A stronger signal anywhere close to a satellite access point
  • A more resilient network, where if one satellite goes down, the whole network doesn’t fail (just that satellite)
  • Better than range extenders because they don’t create separate network names
  • Less lag than range extenders
  • Better for protocols like Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Thread

While some cameras that don’t require Wi-Fi have these features, again, they’ll require data plans for a price.

Cons of smart routers
  • More expensive with each satellite you have, especially in larger homes
  • More potential interference for connected devices due to more satellites
  • More devices to replace if you upgrade your mesh network in the future

Understand the Interfaces.

How you interface with your smart home will depend on your preferred device or method of use. Here are the options:

  • Apps: Apps are the most common interface method. A few button presses to make a light go out two rooms over is quick and easy.
  • Voice control: Voice control through virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant can be even easier, especially when your hands are full. However, distance from the mic and other sounds around the home can complicate things, making commands difficult.
  • Smart speakers: If you have an Echo Flex, an Echo Dot With Clock, a Nest speaker, or an Apple HomePod with built-in Apple HomeKit (Siri), congratulations! You already have a smart speaker in your smart home. Not only can they play music, podcasts, or other audio, but they’ll listen for your voice commands as well.
  • Smart home display: A smart home display like the Google Nest Hub Max serves as a central control point for your smart home. Think of smart displays like smart speakers with tablets attached. While tablets seem like a necessary addition for every smart speaker, many people prefer to control their smart homes with voice commands and use their phones when they want touchscreen controls. So, smart displays are a nice interface to have, but not mandatory.

Choose a Smart Hub.

The smart hub is the centerpiece of your whole smart home setup.2 You already have a smart hub in your home if you have an Echo Show 8 or a Google Home device like the Nest Mini. When choosing your smart hub, you need to know what protocols it uses to determine its compatibility with the rest of your smart home devices.

Smart hub Wi-Fi Bluetooth Z-Wave Zigbee Thread
Amazon Echo
(on 4th gen)
Google Home
Apple HomePod
Samsung SmartThings
Wink Hub

Remember It’s Not so Future-Proof.

There are a few essential facts for you to consider before upgrading to a smart home at this time:

  • Apple, Amazon, Google, Zigbee, and others in the “Zigbee Alliance” are working on one unified smart home standard protocol called “Project Connected Home over IP” and are planning on certifying their first devices by late 2021.3
  • The Thread Group (whose members also include Apple, Amazon, and Google) looks likely to make Thread a new standard smart home protocol as well.4
  • Smart home tech still isn’t perfect. If the whole point of having a smart home for you is the convenience factor, you can expect future generations of smart home tech to have quicker responses to commands, better voice recognition, and broader compatibility.
  • Smart homes are getting smarter. Faster networks and machine learning will continue to increase what can be automated.
  • In short, if you have serious reservations about smart homes now, just wait a few years until they’re even better.

    Optimize Your Internet.

    If you’re going to get into the smart home game, make sure you have an internet connection that can take on the extra load. A broadband internet connection will likely be fast enough. However, account for bandwidth-hungry devices that upload or download video, like smart cameras, smart TVs, and smart hub displays. For consistent home network coverage, you might want to upgrade to mesh routers too.

    Prioritize Your Needs.

    Your smart home will reflect your needs, so the selection process needs to be personalized too.

  1. Determine your budget and start with the essentials. Putting together a smart home can get expensive and complicated quickly. Start with a hub and router.
  2. Make a hierarchy of smart home devices you need. After you’ve got the essentials, make a list of the smart home devices you want to add, in order of personal importance.
  3. Work your way down the list as time and budget allow. As you get familiar with your smart home network, add new devices one by one to ensure they work well on your network and don’t take massive bites out of your wallet.

Smart Home Ecosystem

These smart devices cover diverse aspects of your home ecosystem, such as power, lighting, climate control, and security.

Smart Plugs

Smart plugs are as basic as home automation gets. You plug them between the wall outlet and the power cord of any device in your home and keep track of what’s what by naming each one in your app after the appliance it’s connected to. Smart plugs let you turn the power running through each plug on and off. That’s it.

Pros
  • They can turn any light, AV system, or appliance up to 1,800 watts on and off from a distance.
  • They save power by turning off lights after you leave.
  • You can set schedules for devices you don’t want on at certain times, such as porch lights or a child’s TV.
  • You can secure your home while away by setting lighting schedules and an “away mode” to look like you’re still there, preventing home invasions.
Cons
  • Adding plugs for all your appliances is pricey. Most smart plugs cost $10 to $25 each.
  • Operating smart features on a device is a separate function. A smart plug will only turn a device on or off.
  • Shutting off the power source and not the device itself can damage gaming consoles and PCs.

Smart Lighting

Smart lighting is more targeted and versatile than smart plugs. A smart plug can control a lamp, but not overhead lighting. With smart lighting, it’s the bulb or light switch that’s smart, which leaves many possibilities for dimming, color changes, and more.

Pros
  • “Scenes” let you group lights into zones to control them based on what you’re doing at the time (reading, watching TV, cooking, etc.).
  • You can dim the dining room lights for a romantic dinner, or shut off every light in and around the living room when it’s movie night.
  • You can set schedules to have the porch lights turn on when you come home, or to turn off a bedside lamp when it’s time to put the book down and go to sleep.
Cons
  • Smart light prices can vary drastically, from $8 for a Wyze bulb to $50 for a Philips Hue ambiance bulb and beyond. While smart lights are affordable in general, if you want a variety of lighting and color features in your smart lights, you’ll probably have to pay premium prices.
  • Glitches are still common in several types of smart bulbs, and sometimes the bulbs even have issues with compatible smart home ecosystems.5

Smart Thermostats

Smart thermostats are easy to turn on and off remotely, and most newer models will learn and adapt to your usage patterns. Some may even adjust to outdoor conditions automatically and keep the climate at home just the way you like it.

Adaptation features can help you save a ton on your power bill6. Google Nest estimates that a Nest thermostat saves the average user 10 to 12 percent on heating and 15 percent on cooling every year.7 Using Energy Star’s estimated combined cost of $900 for the average U.S. household, that’s around $120 saved annually, meaning that smart thermostats can pay for themselves in just a couple years.

Pros
  • Smart thermostats like the Nest Learning Thermostat adapt to your heating/cooling schedule.
  • They save money on energy costs.
  • They can receive commands remotely if you forget to turn them off.
Cons
  • They’re more expensive than regular thermostats.
  • Some HVAC systems may not be compatible with smart thermostats.
  • They may require occasional software updates.

Video Doorbells

A video doorbell is a front-door camera with a speaker and microphone in it so you can talk to anyone who walks up. Lots of apartments have had this capability for decades, but now they’re an option for every home, and app integration lets you speak to your bell-ringer remotely. Smart doorbells don’t need to be hardwired either, and plenty of wireless options are available.

Pros
  • You can monitor who’s at the door when you’re not home.
  • You can prevent stolen packages by remotely asking the delivery personnel to put them in a safe spot.
  • You can record porch pirates (not as cool as the name suggests) taking your stuff.
Cons
  • Wireless smart doorbells require battery replacements.
  • Smart doorbells might drop Wi-Fi signals from time to time.
  • Some smart doorbells have oversensitive motion sensors that send you notifications for movement of any kind. Sensors with person detection are preferable.

Smart Security Systems

Most modern home security systems (and those we’d recommend) have smart features like full network integration with motion detectors, door sensors, glass-break sensors, and window sensors; cloud storage; and compatibility with other third-party smart devices. If home security is a crucial aspect of a smart home for you, consider buying your smart home security system when you buy your smart home hub to make sure they’re compatible.

Pros
  • Remote monitoring
  • Cloud storage of recorded footage
  • Motion- and person-activated alerts
Cons
  • Software updates
  • Dependence on internet connection
  • False alarms

Smart Environmental Sensors

Consider what smart environmental sensors might be suitable for your home. Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide sensors are a must for fire safety. If you live in a flood-prone area or somewhere that gets extremely cold, or if you just don’t trust your old plumbing, flood sensors can give you peace of mind regarding water leaks and frozen pipes.

Smart Locks

Smart locks are a great way to let someone in remotely to housesit, walk the dog, or water the plants without worrying about an extra set of your keys floating around. This convenience has potential downsides, though, which you should consider before you buy a smart lock.

Pros
  • You can let helpers in via temporary passcodes so they can take care of your house, pets, or plants.
  • You can let yourself in without fumbling for keys.
  • You can let the kids in remotely when they get home from school.
Cons
  • You’ll have to update the software.
  • Changing the batteries on wireless models can be difficult.
  • You’ll have to replace obsolete models in the long term.
  • Smart locks have hacking vulnerabilities.9
  • Geofencing can unlock doors by accident if you pass your home but don’t enter.

Smart Home Theater

While maybe not as critical for day-to-day home life as the smart devices listed above, smart home theater devices are great contenders for where to go next if you want to wrangle all your untamed tech into one pen.

Smart Receiver

A smart receiver that your TV, speakers, game consoles, and streaming devices all plug into can be a simple way to integrate an entire home theater setup with your smart home.

Unfortunately, many AV receivers still are not compatible with Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread. However, devices like the Harmony Hub support Alexa and Zigbee and can bring all the home theater devices attached to your receiver into your smart home ecosystem.

Smart TVs

The “smart TV” label applies to any TV with built-in app or web functionality along with Wi-Fi antennas or Ethernet ports. We still label TVs that meet these two criteria “smart,” even if they don’t function within larger device ecosystems. If you want to integrate a new TV into your smart home ecosystem, be sure to check for smart home compatibility in the specs before buying.

Smart TVs also tend to have Bluetooth, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything with Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread outside of specific Samsung TV models that work within SmartThings home networks.

More Smart Speakers

We’ve already talked about the smart speakers that interface with your smart home ecosystem, but if you’re looking for something more fitting for a home theater, audio companies like Sonos, Bose, and Sony have recently started making their speakers and soundbars smart.

While personal Bluetooth speakers are everywhere, most don’t have broader automation capabilities. They’re portable devices, so home automation isn’t a significant concern in their development.

Recap

If you want to get in on smart homes now, plenty of core components — such as hubs, mesh routers, smart displays, and smart speakers — will still be relevant a few years from now. But proceed with caution, and look to buy from manufacturers in the Zigbee Alliance or Thread Group if you want to increase the likelihood of compatibility with the upcoming standards.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are some of your most asked questions about making a smart home.

  • How do I make my house a smart house?

    To make your house a smart house, follow these general steps:

    1. Understand the limitations of home automation.
    2. Be aware of privacy concerns.
    3. Know the protocols that smart devices use.
    4. Consider the benefits of a mesh router network.
    5. Familiarize yourself with the interfaces that control smart home ecosystems.
    6. Pick a smart hub that will work for you.
    7. Know that new standard protocols for home automation will hit the market soon.
    8. Optimize your internet to improve your smart home network.
    9. Prioritize your needs for home automation.
    10. Use smart plugs for devices that you want to power on and off remotely.
    11. Upgrade to smart bulbs and switches to set lighting schedules and scenes, and to save on energy costs.
    12. Install a smart thermostat that will adapt to your habits and reduce energy costs.
    13. Add a smart doorbell to monitor activity at your door while you’re away.
    14. Consider using smart locks for keyless entry, remote locking, and letting in trusted people through temporary passcodes.
    15. Pick out a smart home security package and add on the sensors you need.
    16. Modernize your home entertainment system with smart receivers, TVs, and speakers.
  • How much does it cost to make your home a smart home?

    The cost to make your home a smart home will vary significantly based on how big your home is and how many parts of it you want to automate. You can spend as little as $50 at the low end for just a smart speaker and a smart plug, but if you’re going all in, you could be looking at thousands of dollars to automate a large home.

  • Are smart homes worth it?

    Whether a smart home is worth it depends on the user. Ask yourself what you’re looking to automate in your home, how much you’re willing to spend to do so, and how much the energy savings from a smart home will offset the cost. Then, consider the added value a smart security system can bring and whether your budget will allow you to satisfy your automation desires.

  • What is the best smart home system?

    The best smart home system depends on what you need. If you’re looking for a good starting point with broad compatibility and a good voice assistant, consider an Amazon Echo Show 5 smart display for the suite of entertainment features and the low entry price of $85.

Citations
  1. Linksys. (2021). What Is Whole Home Wifi and Mesh WiFi?
    linksys.com/us/r/resource-center/whole-home-mesh-wifi/

  2. Verizon. (2021). SmartHub FAQs.
    verizon.com/support/smarthub-faqs/

  3. Connectivity Standards Alliance. (2021). Project Connected Home over IP Connectivity Standard Developing Into Reality.
    zigbeealliance.org/news_and_articles/project-development-to-reality/

  4. Thread. (2021). Thread Certified Products.
    threadgroup.org/What-is-Thread/Thread-Benefits

  5. Brinks Home. (2020). The Pros and Cons of Smart Lighting in 2020.
    brinkshome.com/smartcenter/the-pros-and-cons-of-smart-lighting-in-2020

  6. Energy Star. (2021). Smart Thermostats.
    energystar.gov/products/heating_cooling/smart_thermostats

  7. Nest. (2021). Energy Savings from the Nest Learning Thermostat:
    Energy Bill Analysis Results
    .
    storage.googleapis.com/nest-public-downloads/press/documents/energy-savings-white-paper.pdf

  8. USA Today. (2020). Should I get a smart lock? The pros and cons of going digital on your door.
    usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/02/03/smart-lock-for-your-home-has-pros-and-cons/4454848002/

  9. Black Marble. (2019). Breaking & Entering with Zipato SmartHubs.
    blackmarble.sh/zipato-smart-hub/