DIY Home Automation: Where to Start

You’ve probably noticed increasing buzz around smart home devices, from video doorbells to learning thermostats. You may even have an Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker in your home. But if you’re ready to take home automation to the next level by integrating your devices into a more centralized system, read on for step-by-step instructions to get you started with DIY home automation.

What Is DIY Home Automation?

While the terms “smart home” and “home automation” get tossed around frequently, not everyone is completely clear on what these concepts entail. At the most basic level, home automation is automatic, centralized control of your household systems, including climate, lighting, security, appliances and entertainment systems. Also known as “smart home” systems, these products allow you to manage various elements of your household operations with the touch of a button or a simple voice command. Some of the most advanced systems have the capability to “learn” your preferences and will automatically adjust themselves to your desired settings without requiring you to lift a finger.

Why Should I Automate My Home?

 Home automation offers a wide range of benefits that can save you time and effort:

Make daily tasks more convenient

Most household tasks—from unlocking the door to turning on the lights—only take a few seconds each, but multiplied over decades, those seconds add up into real time that you could be spending on more meaningful pursuits. With a fully automated home, you could arrive home from a long day at work, open your front door (which has been automatically unlocked through your smartphone’s Bluetooth function), watch the lights come on in response to the door opening and notice that the thermostat setting is exactly where you want it to be. You might ask your voice-enabled assistant for a dinner recipe or some upbeat music as you let the stress of the day melt away. You notice the sprinklers in your yard come on automatically, triggered by the hot, dry conditions of the last several days. Later, when you’re ready to go to bed, you sleep soundly, knowing that your smart home security system has been activated to alert you if anything is amiss.

Enhance your household security

Today’s smart security devices ensure that your home and family are protected from intruders, fire, carbon monoxide and other dangers. Video doorbells let you see who’s at your doorstep, even if you’re thousands of miles from home, and can record package thieves or would-be burglars. Smart security cameras respond to motion and send a notification to your smartphone, allowing you to track unwanted visitors on your property and solve the mystery of your toppled trash cans (it was the neighbor’s dog . . . again). Smart door locks can be opened with a numerical code, through a smartphone app or even with your phone’s Bluetooth feature, giving you control over who enters your home and when. Smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work together to sound alarms throughout your home and alert you remotely of an emergency.

Manage your devices remotely

If you spend long hours at work or travel often, the option to use a smartphone app to manage your thermostat, lighting and security system can be a lifesaver. You can remotely monitor your security cameras, communicate with visitors via your video doorbell and even double-check to make sure all doors are locked. Even when you’re home, you can manage your lighting and thermostat without getting off the sofa—just reach for your smartphone or tablet to adjust the settings as desired.

Cut your energy costs

Smart thermostats, sprinkler controls, lighting systems and appliances can help you streamline your use to maximize energy and water efficiency. The related smartphone apps also include comprehensive usage reports to identify opportunities for reducing your monthly utility bills. After a year or two of use, these smart systems can pay for themselves through the resulting reductions in your electricity and water costs.

Minimize your impact on the environment

Reducing your energy consumption not only saves you money, but it also reduces your carbon footprint. By finding and eliminating areas of waste and inefficiency, you’ll cut back on the amount of finite resources you consume and create a cleaner, greener household—actions that can have a lasting impact on the world we leave to future generations.

What Aspects of My Home Should I Automate? 

Home automation systems are not one-size-fits-all. Different households will benefit more from some smart devices and less from others, so before you start tossing out your current systems, take a moment to prioritize your home automation goals and let them guide your choices.

  • Convenience: If you want your devices to work seamlessly together to create your desired home environment, preferably with one-touch or voice commands, a smart home hub with several connected devices may be the best choice for you.
  • Security: If your primary objective is to shore up safety and security in and around your home, consider investing in a video doorbell, Wi-Fi-connected indoor and outdoor cameras, motion-activated lighting and smoke, gas and water leak detectors.
  • Cost savings: Want to cut your energy costs by up to 25 percent? Installing a smart thermostat, smart lighting system and smart sprinkler controller can help you optimize your utility use.
  • Entertainment: If you frequently host parties or other events—or simply want to recreate an immersive theater experience in your home—linking a smart TV with a smart speaker and soundbar can provide you with premium quality audio and video at the touch of a button.

 Home Automation Components 

Creating an automated home requires three basic building blocks:

  • Smart home hub: This device serves as the “Grand Central Station” of your smart home, integrating smart devices from different brands and digital protocols to work seamlessly together to save you time and effort.
  • Mobile app and device: Your smart home hub will include an app for your mobile device that you can use to control the settings for individual devices as well as the overall home environment. Simply download the app to your smartphone or tablet (and make sure your operating system is current for best results).
  • Smart devices and systems: Install your desired smart devices and systems—such as thermostats, lighting, security cameras and appliances—connect them to the hub and adjust the settings to your liking. You can program them to work independently or link various devices so that one action (such as unlocking the door) triggers one or more additional actions (like adjusting the thermostat and turning on the lights).

Smart Hubs: The Control Center of Your DIY Home Automation 

If you plan to purchase multiple smart home devices—or are planning to transform your entire household operation—a smart home hub should be at the top of your shopping list. The hub functions as the “brain” that instructs the various devices on how to work together, while you control the hub via the app on your smartphone. In turn, the hub sends reports, alerts and notifications to your phone to keep you informed about the status of your systems.

The devices below are some of the most popular and effective home hub models:

  • Samsung SmartThings Home Hub ($70): This control center from digital device giant Samsung connects to your home Wi-Fi network to manage a wide range of smart devices through the SmartThings app. The hub is compatible with more than 200 products from well-known brands like Ring, Ecobee, Kwikset, Honeywell, Schlage, Sylvania and more, and you can link it to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant to use voice commands for controlling your systems. The SmartThings hub also allows you to create Routines, which are automated series of events that take place at a certain time of day or when triggered by a specific action.
  • Google Nest Hub ($79): With its crisp LCD touchscreen display and intuitive interface, the Google Nest Hub lets you control more than 400 smart home devices through your mobile device, computer or voice command. It’s easy to set up and also serves as a speaker and video display, granting you access to millions of videos via Google-owned YouTube.
  • Lenovo Smart Display 10” ($249): The Lenovo Smart Display with integrated Google Assistant features a vibrant 10-inch display for checking your calendar, watching videos and of course, controlling more than 5,000 models of smart devices. You can use it to watch TV via Google Cast or Netflix, listen to music on Spotify or stream videos on YouTube, and unlike most home hubs, it can even be used to place video calls.

Smart Home Devices: Get the Most Bang for Your Buck

Check out these top-performing smart home devices, all of which are compatible with the above smart home hubs and designed to streamline virtually every aspect of your daily life.

Lock: Yale Assure Lock with Z-Wave ($199)

This smart, secure lock offers you three secure options for locking and unlocking your door: with a traditional key, with the touchscreen keypad and with the smartphone app. The lock stores up to 25 unique 4- to 8-digit PIN codes, making it easy for you to provide temporary access to visitors, repair technicians and more.

Installation of the Yale Assure Lock is also foolproof: with just a screwdriver, you can replace your existing deadbolt in a matter of minutes, and if you get stuck, the lock includes voice assistance in three languages to guide you through setup and customization. It’s also compatible with Z-Wave smart home systems, including SmartThings, Wink, Vera, Honeywell and Iris.

Doorbell: Ring Video Doorbell 2 ($199)

The Ring Video Doorbell 2 connects to Wi-Fi to let you monitor your home and communicate with visitors from anywhere via your smartphone, tablet or computer. Thanks to adjustable motion sensors

and infrared night vision, you’ll receive an alert whenever someone is on your doorstep, and the Live View on-demand HD video feed allows you to keep an eye on your property whenever you want.

Security Camera: Nest Cam Outdoor ($199)

This weatherproof hardwired camera is activated by both motion and sound, instantly alerting you to any suspicious activity on your property, and has a built-in speaker and microphone so you can communicate with visitors (both wanted and unwanted). For less than $10 a month, you can also subscribe to Nest Aware, which unlocks a host of dynamic features, including facial recognition technology, 24/7 video recording, customized activity zones and cloud video storage.

Thermostat: Ecobee Smart Thermostat with Voice Control ($249)

With an advanced SmartSensor that detects both temperature and occupancy, the newest thermostat from Ecobee not only maintains a comfortable indoor climate, but can also save you up to 23 percent annually on your utility bills.

Amazon’s Alexa is built into the unit, allowing you to use voice commands to change the settings as well as make voice calls and play music and podcasts through Spotify and Bluetooth. Home IQ reports help you track your energy savings and identify opportunities for greater efficiency, and the unit delivers alerts when your heating and cooling system is in need of repair or maintenance. The thermostat is compatible with Samsung SmartThings, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant and IFTTT.

Lighting: Philips Hue Smart Lighting Starter Kit ($199)

The Philips Hue Starter Kit includes four smart LED bulbs and a Hue Bridge, which allows you to control your home lighting via your smartphone, voice assistants and other smart devices, such as motion sensors and wireless switches. With the Hue system, you can build schedules and routines to maximize efficiency and save money. You can even turn lights on and off remotely from anywhere in the world—even if your home internet connection gets interrupted.

Beyond the starter kit, Philips offers smart light strips, lamps, fixtures, dimmers and other accessories to fully automate your household lighting.

Smoke Alarm/Carbon Monoxide Detector: Nest Protect ($120)

In addition to the traditional warning alarm sound, the Nest Protect sends an alert to your smartphone whenever it detects deadly smoke or carbon dioxide, so you’ll be notified of an emergency even when you’re not at home. The Split Spectrum Sensor quickly identifies both fast- and slow-burning fires, and the Pathlight feature illuminates when it detects motion to help you escape a burning home (or just get back to bed after a midnight bathroom trip). The Protect also delivers notifications to your phone or tablet when it’s time to replace the battery or if the unit isn’t functioning properly.

Plug: ConnectSense Smart Outlet 2 ($60)

The ConnectSense Smart Outlet 2 provides an alternative to individual smart appliances by converting virtually anything you connect to it into a “smart” device. Compatible with Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Google Assistant, the outlet uses your voice commands to control lamps, fans and dozens of other appliances at a fraction of the cost of replacing them with smart models.

Digital Assistants: Powering Your Smart Home Through Voice Commands

As we’ve mentioned throughout the article, most smart home systems can be used in tandem with voice-controlled digital assistants to make your household operations almost completely effortless. Depending on what type of devices you own, you may use one or even several digital assistants, but the four most popular options are Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby.

For most people, Alexa and Google Assistant are the most useful and intuitive digital assistants, and the corresponding devices (Amazon’s Echo line and Google’s Home models) are affordable, easy to use and double as a portable speaker for music and other entertainment. Apple’s HomeKit, which uses Siri to carry out its voice commands, is more complicated to install and calibrate, and it’s also compatible with fewer smart devices when compared to the Amazon and Google interfaces. Samsung’s Bixby is an even more limited option. 

Final Thoughts on DIY Home Automation 

Despite the myriad smart systems and devices available on the market today, home automation technology is still very much in its infancy, so you can expect even more exciting innovations and products in the years to come. Fortunately, it’s also a field that you can customize to meet the needs and preferences of your household: You can install one or two smart devices to make life a bit more convenient, or you can completely overhaul your home to integrate smart systems into every aspect of your daily life, from climate control to home security. Whether you’re looking to save time, cut costs or simply stay on the cutting edge, there’s a smart home approach to accomplish your goals.

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