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5 things I wish I'd known before building an advanced smart home
Building a smart home is a great idea. Why? Because home automation makes your life easier…or so they say.
Enticing as it may sound, I’m not sure I’d totally agree with that sentiment. I’ve tried countless automation products over the years, including a few shoddily-made ones that I probably shouldn’t have connected to my home network.
While my home is admittedly a lot smarter now, it was a hard-fought battle. With dozens of standards, brands, and even communication protocols, getting a cohesive experience is hard — even for a tech enthusiast.
While I can’t distill all of my journeys, I can save you from having to go down some particularly treacherous rabbit holes. To that end, here are five lessons I learned from building my own smart home that might help you build your own automated paradise.
Read more: The best smart home devices you can buy
1. Wi-Fi sucks — try Zigbee or Z-Wave instead
Connectivity is at the heart of any smart home, so let’s talk about that first. There are four major smart home protocols in use today: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave.
Zigbee and Z-Wave are wireless protocols like Wi-Fi, but work very differently. They enable mesh networks — devices can exchange information directly with each other, and relay it point-to-point. Wi-Fi devices, on the other hand, must normally connect to your router first.
You still need a hub for Zigbee or Z-Wave, but it can be located several rooms away from an accessory so long as you have enough (compatible) products scattered in between to form a mesh.
But why not Wi-Fi if you have a decent signal throughout your home? Well, Wi-Fi-based devices almost always require a pairing process that connects them to a manufacturer’s server. Privacy and security implications aside, this can lead to fragmentation if you aren’t careful.
Deep dive: Zigbee vs. Z-Wave
Imagine half of your devices controlled within one app, while the rest live in some other walled-off ecosystem. Not very convenient is it? What’s worse is that automations are often tied to individual apps, so you can’t get competing products to sync up.
Wi-Fi devices also don’t respond very quickly, in my experience. Turning something on or off should feel as instantaneous as flicking a switch. Yet the vast majority of Wi-Fi devices insist on (relatively) slow, internet-based control, even if you’re controlling them from the same network.
Zigbee and Z-Wave devices process automations via their local hubs, which speeds things up. The protocols are standardized too, so a single hub can talk to devices from different manufacturers. Fewer apps? You bet.
Zigbee and Z-Wave devices process automations via their local hubs, which speeds things up.
Other advantages over Wi-Fi include reliability and power consumption. Since they only need the internet for remote access, Zigbee and Z-Wave products can continue to operate when your ISP is down. Low power use, meanwhile, is why Zigbee room sensors are so much smaller — they don’t need a massive battery!
Wi-Fi devices are sometimes cheaper, but resist the temptation. Protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave tend to just work, and that peace of mind is worth the premium.
A note here — the issue could become moot by the end of 2022 with the official launch of the Matter networking protocol. Matter-branded products should be compatible with any major smart home platform, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit. Many Matter devices will also support Thread, a mesh technology based on Zigbee. We’ll have to wait and see how long it takes for Matter over Thread to become widely adopted.
2. Smart speakers aren’t enough for true automation
Though marketing might lead you to believe that smart speakers like Google’s Nest Audio are all you need to run a smart home, they can sometimes be embarrassingly bad at actual automation.
Google Assistant routines are not processed or executed locally. In other words, if your internet connection fails, your evening lighting routine will also cease to function. Even voice commands will stop working entirely, since these are processed in the cloud.
Amazon’s Echo lineup offers slightly better functionality in this regard. Devices like the 4th gen Echo and Echo Show 10 include their own Zigbee radios, allowing you to use them as proper offline hubs. While functionality is still limited compared to a dedicated Zigbee hub, Amazon’s routines are also a bit more polished. You may even get basic voice command functionality while offline. Having said that, keep in mind that many Echo models like the Echo Dot are limited to Wi-Fi automation.
Read more: The best Echo speakers
I still adore my Google Nest smart speakers and displays, but only as a remote control or multi-room audio system.
3. Pick your hub carefully!
Now that we’ve established why you might want a dedicated hub when building a smart home, let’s run through your options. This is a device that everything else in your home connects to, so reliability and ease of use are paramount.
Essentially there are two kinds of hubs — ones that are locked to a manufacturer, and those that will connect to just about anything. Gated ecosystems promise a curated user experience. However, I’ve found that’s just marketing speak for proprietary protocols, “certification” stickers, or unjustified price premiums. More on that later.
Proprietary home automation ecosystems are frustrating. Interoperability is important!
For now, which hub should you get if you’re just starting out? Here are a few I’d recommend:
- SmartThings: Developed by Samsung, SmartThings is easy to use and intuitive. It’s compatible with a wide range of Zigbee and Z-Wave products, and even supports community-developed plug-ins for non-standard devices.
- Home Assistant: While Home Assistant is the most powerful and configurable platform on this list, it’s unfortunately not very beginner-friendly. Like most open-source projects, though, it has a huge community that’s always adding new features and devices. If you’re a fellow tinkerer, there’s nothing better. Just be warned that it’s more than a simple weekend project.
- Hubitat: Even though Hubitat is one of the smaller players in the smart home industry, it combines the best aspects of SmartThings and Home Assistant. It’s simple, feature-rich, and locally controlled. Hubitat prides itself on its customizability and excellent device support.
- HomeKit: So long as you have an iPhone or iPad to control it with, Apple’s HomeKit platform is surprisingly feature-rich and versatile. HomePods and Apple TVs are turned into hubs automatically, and you can use an iPad for the task in a pinch, though that’s going away in iPadOS 16. The downside, apart from Apple exclusivity? There’s no baked-in Zigbee or Z-Wave support — you’ll need a separate hub for those protocols. Still, it eliminates some of Wi-Fi’s fragmentation and local control woes.
4. Smart homes don’t have to be expensive
Assuming you’ve picked Zigbee or Z-Wave as your smart home protocol, there’s no reason to stick to one brand or ecosystem.
SmartThings and HomeKit both have a laundry list of partner brands and compatible devices on their respective websites. Hubitat and Home Assistant don’t offer certifications because of their open nature, but work with more devices than you’d expect.
Why is this important? Take motion sensors, for example. If you own a SmartThings hub, you don’t have to buy Samsung’s first-party options. A worthwhile alternative is Aeotec’s Z-Wave multi-sensor, which roll things like temperature, humidity, motion, and even UV into one package. Another promising option is GE’s Enbrighten sensor that bundles an in-wall light switch and takes power from the wall instead.
See also: The best smart light bulbs
If you’re a bit more adventurous, lesser-known options like Xiaomi’s Aqara, eWeLink’s Sonoff, and Ikea’s Trådfri platforms are worth a look too. In my experience, devices from these brands almost always deliver acceptable results at a fraction of the cost.
Compatibility isn’t always guaranteed, but a simple Google search or two can end up saving you tons of money.
Ikea and Xiaomi smart home products offer acceptable performance at impressively low prices.
There are some notable compatibility exceptions. Philips Hue, for example, is extremely easy to set up but is not a very open ecosystem. While you can pair many third-party Zigbee devices, unless they’re certified under the “Friends of Hue” program, functionality isn’t guaranteed. Official Hue accessories like sensors aren’t cheap either, in part because so few alternatives exist. Unsurprisingly, most Hue users I know simply ended up getting a second hub for other devices.
5. The cloud isn’t reliable — smart homes still need manual control
Once you’ve got automations up and running, you may be tempted to get rid of “legacy” light switches. After all, you don’t want someone turning off your smart lights and breaking your automations, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
Unless you live by yourself, it’s important that your home’s smart-ness be as unobtrusive as possible. What works well for you probably isn’t the ideal choice for someone else. And the last thing you want is a family member or guest that can’t even turn on a light. Trust me — I’ve been there.
Another point to consider is that server outages are common, or at least common enough. Even big names like Hue, Tuya, and GE tend to go offline every now and then. The more services you chain together, the more likely it is these outages will affect you. Cloud-to-cloud connections like Google-Hue have failed me multiple times, even though both platforms worked fine through their respective apps.
Try and design your smart home with offline functionality as a fallback.
Design your automation system with offline functionality in mind. This, of course, starts with picking a hub that doesn’t turn into a paperweight in the absence of an internet connection. As for manual light control, switches still reign supreme. If you’re concerned about killing power to your smart devices, smart switches are a great idea. Your automations will still run and you don’t have to worry about restoring power manually.
Personally, I use wireless, battery-operated Zigbee switches that sit right next to my dumb switches. I’ll admit that it isn’t the prettiest solution, but you could get proper in-wall solutions too. Switches from Lutron and Inovelli come highly recommended, but be warned that they do cost a fair bit more.
See also: The best automation apps for Android
Hopefully, my findings will help make your home automation journey a bit easier. My final piece of advice would be to start small — try limiting yourself to a couple of devices and sensors at first.
You can always deploy more hardware incrementally, depending on your needs. This approach also lets you gain valuable real-world experience. You might eventually realize that certain things aren’t worth automating or that you need to divert your resources elsewhere. Building a smart home and getting it to work for you truly is a marathon, not a sprint.