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July 15, 2016

High-tech smarts — Right at home

Improve your home’s function with off-the-shelf technology for automated lighting, security and climate control.

Look out, George Jetson! Creating a smart home requires a smaller investment and less tech know-how than ever before. Although a fully integrated, hardwired smart-home system can easily top $10,000, plenty of off-the-shelf solutions are available to automate many tasks you currently do manually, from flipping a light switch to turning a house key.

Start your journey into home automation with products that offer the most for your money—add-on devices that make your living spaces comfortable, convenient and efficient. “Home automation is one of those things you don’t know what you need until you try a little of it,” says Todd Thibodeaux, CEO of the trade association CompTIA.

Before you dive in, honestly evaluate your tech skills by reviewing a product’s operating manual online. “If you don’t understand what you’re reading, the product is probably too difficult for you to install on your own,” Thibodeaux says. If your tech interests exceed your abilities, meet with an installer who represents multiple product lines and ask for an opinion on which products make the most sense for your needs and what’s involved in installing the products.

Start by Learning About Protocols and Hubs

Every smart-home device is built on a fundamental technology, or protocol, that uses a specific language to communicate wirelessly with the app that controls it. The most common protocols are Bluetooth, Clear Connect, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee and X10, but some manufacturers use proprietary protocols.

Devices built on the same protocol typically play well together, but those speaking different languages may not understand each other without a bridging device, technical skills and patience. The challenges of compatibility mean low-tech homeowners using do-it-yourself smart-home products can quickly feel they’re drowning in a sea of apps.

The solution? A hub can translate several languages and control multiple devices from a master app. Popular hubs include Insteon, Iris, SmartThings, Staples Connect and Wink. No single hub currently exists that speaks every language, so investigate the protocol associated with any device or hub you purchase to ensure compatibility.

Control the Thermostat From Your Phone

The thermostat is a common entry point into smart-home technology. Programmable digital versions, which gained popularity in the 1980s, introduced homeowners to automation, but the complicated products were rarely used to their full potential. Now you can set and adjust a smart thermostat from your phone.

Smart thermostats collect data about your habits and adjust temperatures accordingly. Most devices let you create energy-saving schedules via your smartphone, and some devices can detect motion to change settings. This degree of automation can lower annual utility costs 10 to 20 percent. Installing a smart device is no more complicated than replacing a traditional thermostat, and there are no ongoing maintenance fees.

Come Home to a Well-Lighted House

No one wants to walk into a dark home, but leaving the lights on all day is wasteful. Enter smart lights, which automatically turn on or off when someone enters or leaves the room. More advanced systems also adjust light color or intensity based on “scenes” you select via an app. Not just convenient and fun, smart lights can also save money by reducing energy usage.

Boost Your Safety and Security at Home

Security systems were among the earliest smart-home devices and remain the most popular. Motion-activated video cameras, keyless electronic locks, window and door alarms and the like can deter intruders and provide peace of mind. Even better, you may qualify for a discount on your home insurance premiums after installation.

If your home is large or if you have greater-than-normal security concerns, you may want to invest a few thousand dollars on a professionally installed, hardwired system that is remotely monitored for a monthly fee of $20–$75.

Most people are satisfied with the basic level of protection offered by newer DIY solutions. If bypassing monthly fees is important, choose a self-monitoring system, which, instead of going to a central monitoring station, will alert you via an app on your phone. If you deem the notification to indicate a threat, you make the call to the police.

As with any technology, smart-home products carry some security risks. Potential cyber crimes include hackers taking control of a device and manufacturers losing data collected by their products. Before you purchase, be sure to ask a device manufacturer about its security standards and protocols for collecting and erasing user data.

Used with permission. © Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved.