Links on Android Authority may earn us a commission. Learn more.
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.
1. Wi-Fi sucks — try Thread, Zigbee or Z-Wave instead
Thread, Zigbee, and Z-Wave enable mesh networks — that is, devices can exchange information directly with each other and relay it point-to-point. This contrasts with Wi-Fi devices, which 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.
Thread accessories often do away with the need for a dedicated hub, since many of them can operate as their own “border routers,” bridging with Wi-Fi and the internet. Just check requirements for using them with your platform of choice — Apple HomeKit for example demands an Apple TV 4K or HomePod as a hub for all wireless protocols, and not every model supports Thread.
Why not Wi-Fi if you have a decent signal throughout your home? For starters, 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. Imagine half of your devices controlled within one app, while the rest live in some other walled-off ecosystem. Not very convenient is it?
You can mitigate this problem by limiting your accessory choices to a single platform such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Samsung SmartThings, or HomeKit. Even so, automations for Wi-Fi devices may stop working if you lose internet access, since they’re often triggered in the cloud. Thread, Zigbee, and Z-Wave ecosystems can process automations locally, and because the protocols are industry standards, a single hub/border router can potentially talk to devices from many manufacturers.
Local processing also means instantaneous response, which shouldn’t be undersold. Turning smart home accessories on or off should feel like a switch, yet the vast majority of Wi-Fi devices insist on that relatively slow internet-based control, even if you’re on the same network.
Thread, Zigbee, and Z-Wave can process automations locally, which is more reliable and speeds things up.
Another advantage over Wi-Fi is low power consumption. A Thread, Zigbee, or Z-Wave room sensor is typically smaller than one with Wi-Fi (or Bluetooth, for that matter), and can potentially run on battery power for a year or longer. Wi-Fi is sometimes so power-hungry that there’s little choice but to run off an outlet.
Wi-Fi products can sometimes be cheaper, but resist the temptation unless there’s no alternative for the features you’re after. Thread, Zigbee, and Z-Wave tend to just work, and that peace of mind is worth the premium.
A note here — platform compatibility issues may eventually become moot, thanks to the October 2022 launch of the Matter networking protocol. Matter-branded products work with all major smart home platforms, and many Matter devices will also support Thread sooner or later. 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 can’t be processed or executed locally, at least not without updates that are only now rolling out, including Matter and Thread upgrades for existing devices. In other words, if your internet connection fails, your evening lighting routine also ceases to run. Voice commands stop working entirely, since these are processed in the cloud too.
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.
I still adore my Google Nest smart speakers and displays, but only as a remote control or multi-room audio system.
3. Pick hub and Thread devices carefully!
Now that we’ve established why you might want hub- or Thread-based systems when building a smart home, let’s run through your current options. These will be products that everything else in your home connects to, so reliability and ease of use are paramount.
Essentially there are two kinds of hub and Thread devices — ones that are locked to a manufacturer, and those that will connect with just about anything. Gated ecosystems promise a curated user experience. That can however be 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, what should you get if you’re just starting out? Here are a few options I’d recommend:
- SmartThings: If you can find it, Samsung’s, SmartThings hub 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. Look for Aeotec hubs as an updated alternative.
- Home Assistant: While Home Assistant is a highly powerful and configurable platform, 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 platform is surprisingly feature-rich and versatile. Apple TVs and HomePods are turned into hubs automatically. The downside, apart from Apple exclusivity, is that there’s no default Zigbee or Z-Wave support — you need a separate hub for those protocols. Thread is present, but only if one of your Apple hub devices is equipped with it, as mentioned.
4. Smart homes don’t have to be expensive
Assuming you’ve picked Thread, 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 rolls things like temperature, humidity, motion, and even UV into one package. Another option is the Enbrighten Z-Wave sensor that bundles an in-wall light switch and takes power from the wall instead.
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 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 bought 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 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 and Lifx 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 hub- or Thread-based devices that don’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. Building a smart home and getting it to work for you is a marathon, not a sprint.