Starting out in home automation is a rather confusing decision. As you start doing your research, you’ll see there are an endless companies releasing products with the label “smart.” The term smart has been stamped on products that include light bulbs, switches, thermostats, blinds, washing machines and even crock pots.
Generally, if you want to turn a few lights on and off with an app while home or away, most products will fit that need. Integration isn’t really something most people think about when they jump in to smart home products. Integration however, can be costly if it’s not something you think about when getting started so let’s talk about developing a plan to save you money and some headaches.
Starting out Simple
As mentioned, most people start off by wanting to control their lights in a more advanced way than flipping a switch on a wall on on a lamp. We’ll use the lighting as our starting point in creating a smart home. For lighting we have hundreds of choices just as many companies competing in that market. Sure, you can buy some $10 smart bulbs and turn them on and off with a mobile app, but what if you want to control them with a voice command? This is where integration starts! Some products will have a “Works with Alexa” badge on them letting you know that it integrates into the Amazon Alexa family of products. If you don’t have an Amazon Alexa already, but do have either an Android phone or Apple products you may want to look for something that fits into either Apple Homekit or Google Assistant products. So now that you have an idea of how integration comes together let’s dive in deeper.
Planning for the future
Let’s think a little bigger than controlling your lights by voice commands. Let’s think ahead a little and what your needs might be next month or next year. Imagine you’ve bought a thermostat, more lights from different manufacturers, a garage door opener and some smart switches. Now imagine having an app on your smart phone for each one of those companies. Each app has an account associated with it and each one of those apps has to be installed on every mobile device and setup accordingly for each user in your household. Suddenly walking into the kitchen and flipping a switch is a lot less complicated than using a smart light bulb. Eventually it becomes too much to manage and that’s why a lot of people abandon their Smart Home projects. What if you were able to integrate all of those devices into one user friendly dashboard style app? Essentially what you’ll need is a hub of some sort to communicate with all of those devices on the back and to provide you with one user interface for all. This is the heart of integration.
Not to be confused with some of the hubs that come with your lighting products that says “Requires Hub” an automation hub ties together all of your supported deices and propriety hubs. Tis is truly where you should start when you think about beginning with smart home automation. For simplicity lets use the Samsung SmartThings hub as our base. The SmartThings Hub is essentially what you’ll base all your future purchases on. Anything you buy that works with SmartThings will now fit into that App\Dashboard Samsung provides on their app. Now if you want to control your thermostats, Lutron switches, Hue light bulbs, etc from one interface you can. On top of that the hub is also a translator for other technologies you may want to use. Let say those light bulbs you originally wanted only work with Alexa, but you already own a Google Assistant hub. If they work with SmartThings you are in luck. We know the Google Assistant can talk to SmartThings (Because you check ahead of time) so SmartThings becomes the middle man that pulls them all together. Now you know that if it works with SmartThings it’s going to work with Google Assistant. On top of providing a user-friendly interface, a hub can also provide actual automation. If you want your kitchen lights and TV to turn on when you arrive home, but only after the sun has gone down, you’ll want a hub to tie that all together and provide an automation interface.
There are a lot of different hubs to base your home off of. We used Samsung as a starting point, but other products such as Homeseer. Home Assistant and OpenHab are available and vary in price from a few hundred dollars to free. Google Assistant recently added somewhat of a dashboard to their mobile app that may get you by until you go into a full hub type environment.
You don’t have to start out big by getting a hub, but you should think about the future when you when you start to purchase these products. If you want to buy some Phillips Hue bulbs and eventually get Nest Thermostat use the hub as the base to your integration. I use this an example because Hue works well with SmartThings, but SmartThings doesn’t have a direct integration for Nest. In that situation you’ll want to think about another hub or maybe an Ecobee Thermostat. Unfortunately you aren’t going to get much help in stores that don’t specialize in this so your best option is to research ahead of time and never be afraid to ask questions where you can.
Here are links to purchase some of the products mentioned.