How to make a Smart Home: The Basics

If you’re tempted to take the plunge into smart tech, but don’t know where to start, or even if you don’t know if it’s really ‘for you’, then this article was written with you in mind.

As we’ve renovated our house we’ve started adding more and more smart tech in. We started small, but as we got a little bit, we realised we’d use more. And so on and so on…

As I work at online electricals retailer ao.com, I’ve seen quite a lot of information about smart tech, it’s capabilities and how it’s ‘the future’ but most of the people who ask me about it ask ‘well do you actually use it’. I am by no means an expert, but I am most certainly a user – I probably use it in excess of 50 times a day, without even thinking about it. So what I wanted this article to be, is a guide to the potential of a smart home, what the essentials are to get started, and how it can really enhance your life:

The essential: A Home Assistant.

This is the one you should really start with. A home assistant (we have Google home, but there is Amazon’s Echo too) is the device that really ties everything together for us. It controls all of the other items we have, but it’s a fantastic stand-alone item. There are different versions (the hub, and mini are variations on the original) but the premise is the same; a voice activated device.

For us, everything really starts here. It works our calendar ‘Hey Google, what meetings do I have today?, our shopping list ‘Hey Google, add yogurts to my list’ (which is then accessed via my phone when I’m out an about), my commute ‘Hey Google, what’s the traffic like for my drive this morning?’, my wardrobe ‘Hey Google, what’s the weather like today?’.

It’s so practical too; we use it when we cook, ‘Hey Google, set a timer for 30 mins’ or ‘Hey Google, what’s 3oz in ml?’. More functional questions such as ‘Okay Google, can I freeze rice?’ or ‘Hey Google, how do I defrost a freezer?’ work too, and honestly as cheesy as it might seem to actually speak like this, it really becomes normal so quickly. The latest Google Home (the hub) has a screen too, so you can follow recipes without actually having to touch a book or screen with dirty hands.

It is a huge source of entertainment as it plays our music, ‘Hey google, play my summer-time play list on Spotify’, the radio or just new headlines. It’answers general knowledge queries for us too. I spend hours using it to help entertain my kids: ‘Hey Google, what noise does a train make’, ‘Okay Google, play Baby Shark on Spotify’, Hey Google, play a Harry Potter quiz’. I can only imagine we’ll find more uses for this as the kids grow up.

It helps with bedtime routines. We often fall asleep listening to music having told Google to turn off after half an hour, and it (of course) works as an alarm clock too.

You can normally get the mini versions for under £50 and it’s really a great place to start. Obviously, if you then choose to invest in more tech (check they’re compatible first!) you’ll get more use out of it. We currently have three, and we have plans to add them into most rooms throughout the house as we finish them, they are that useful.

The Tech:

Next on the list of things worth getting are the showy bits. If you don’t already have a Smart TV then definitely start to consider it for when you upgrade. We rarely watch TV, favouring apps such as Netflix and the on demand viewing channels. YouTube is an essential for us and we also have Chromecast, meaning we can ‘mirror’ the videos we’re watching on our phones or tablet onto our TV.

Because our TV is compatible with Google assistant we can control things with voice activation. Obviously this sounds lazy – but I have been stuck under a feeding or sleeping baby so many times recently where getting up for the remote would have been inefficient; ‘Hey Google, play Friends on Netflix on the living room TV’, I also have children who are obsessed with trying to eat the TV remote (teething babies eat anything)  . We also play Spotify through our TV too as the surround sound we have means we get really good audio quality if we do this.

Multi room speakers are also well worth considering. We use Google home again, but other options (including more traditional ‘speakers’ such as Sonos and Samsung) are worth considering – some including JBL are starting to add Google assistant. We can play music on multiroom in three out of the four corners of the house as our Google home’s are in the bedroom, kitchen and living room – so if you’re cleaning or even just moving through rooms then you wont walk away from the song/radio station/audio book you’re listening to. This is (obviously) a great feature if you entertain lots at home too.

Smart Heating:

The next step I’d suggest you upgrade is your heating. Not only will this save you money, but it will also change your life – I promise!

We have a Nest thermostat which we love, but we haven’t ruled out swapping to a Tado one (purely because Tado will regulate the heat on individual radiators whereas Nest just works off the main thermostat).

Our heating is controlled by the thermostat, and by apps on our phone. This means that when we leave home in the morning our heating knocks itself into eco mode. Obviously this is a massive energy and cost saving but it’s just so convenient having our heating thinking for us.

Because we have the app on our phones it’s really easy to turn the heating on remotely. If we’ve been out all evening we can check what temperature the house is set to and switch it on so that it’s nice and warm by the time we walk through the door.

If we’re away in winter we can also switch it on if there’s a particularly bad forecast – and set a minimum temperature for it to maintain.

And (once again!) it comes into its own if you have a home assistant. I can wake up in the morning and if it’s cold turn it on using voice command ‘okay Google, turn the heating to twenty degrees’. I don’t even have to get my arm out from under the cover.

Home Security:

The Nest system is clever – their products all work together. Their smoke alarm can also detect Co2, and if it does this the thermostat will turn off the boiler at the same time as alerting you via your phone.

If you have a Nest cam (scroll down!) then you can also get a live video stream to your phone to see what’s going on inside the house. We don’t have the full system, but it’s definitely on my radar.

Obviously there are plenty of brands who do cameras, so if you were considering these then shop around, but a complete suite by the same manufacturer means you only need to have one app on your phone. Indoor and outdoor cameras are available. Great for checking: the weather, activity outside your home, what your pets are up to…

Obviously you can stream a live link to your mobile whenever you want, and unlike older CCTV style cameras you can get motion alerts if activity is detected.

The last thing I’d recommend you consider to keep your home smart and safe is a doorbell. A Ring doorbell is next on our list to buy (again Nest is one of the main competitors) as family members who have this already have convinced me how good it is.

Again, you get notified that there is activity at your front door, but you can also ‘answer’ your door remotely. From a purely practical point of view, this means that if you’re forever having to nip to your post office to collect the parcel that you weren’t in to receive you’ll be able to ask your driver to just leave it around the side for you.

Lighting

Heading back indoors (although you can get outdoor ones too – they will feature heavily in our garden when we eventually landscape it) we are slowly upgrading every light in the house to Phillips Hue bulbs.

The majority of the bulbs are ‘coloured’ (they’re set to white by default) and again we can control these both by our phones (change the colour, increase the brightness, turn rooms on and off) and by voice activation.

Often I’ll run a bath and have a slightly pink twinge to the bathroom to have a really relaxing spa-like experience. We also control them remotely when we’re away from home – turning different rooms on and off so there isn’t a pattern to lights (unlike traditional methods like using a timer). I also find it really useful when I’m feeding a baby and I need to see what I’m doing ‘Okay Google, turn the lights on to 10% brightness) as well as they make a brilliant nightlight if turned to red and set to a low brightness. You can set them to increase gradually in the mornings if you don’t like a harsh light being switched on.

We also have so much fun with them. Ewan learnt colours by asking us to turn the lights in the living room different shades: ‘okay Google, turn the lights blue’ and certain apps will let you ‘disco’ with them (quite literally light changing bulbs in time to the music). In fact one of the best effects I’ve seen was Halloween – green lighting and flickering candle light effects in time to creaking doors and shaking chain sounds via the Google speaker – the kids absolutely loved it.

Obviously the possibilities (and products) are endless. I’ve focused on the home products here (it’s a DIY and interiors blog after all!) but wearable tech is becoming such a huge craze too. I think these are the key products you should consider investing in to get started.

Are you tempted to try smart? Or have you already taken the plunge? Is there something I’ve not listed that you couldn’t live without?

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