Smart Living
Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - By Jim Gibson

Smart homes offer homeowners more than just convenience. Smart devices also have the potential to save homeowners thousands of dollars in utility bills, help prolong the life of appliances and other electrical devices, may help avert break-ins or property damage from water leaks and could very well save your life by alerting you to imminent danger. Here are some of the latest smart devices that can turn your humdrum home into a cutting-edge 21st century smart home.

Virtual Assistants

A virtual assistant is the brain that controls your smart home. Virtual assistants are the central controllers that serve as hubs for all your separate smart devices. This gives homeowners the ability to control any smart device they choose with just a simple voice command from one centralized location.

 

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo is a wireless smart speaker that connects users to the “Alexa” voice service. This interactive device plays music, gives users access to virtually any information that can be retrieved on the internet and is one of the leading home automation hubs on the market.

Echo is cylindrical in shape, is a little more than 9 inches tall, has a diameter of just over 3 inches and weighs 2.3 pounds. It contains a woofer and a tweeter and broadcasts in a complete circle, filling the room with sound. Echo’s simple design fits in with almost any décor in any room.

All a homeowner has to do is say the word “Alexa” and the speaker immediately begins “listening.” Echo has seven microphones that can pick up your voice from practically anywhere in a room, even over music it is broadcasting while you are speaking. If the music is too loud or if you are too far away, then you may have to yell to be heard.

Once you have Alexa’s attention, you can then use voice command to ask questions or control the various compatible smart devices you have in your home. When it comes to controlling your smart devices, the key word is compatible. When outfitting your smart home for total integration, you must make sure that the various smart devices in your home are compatible with the central controller you choose to run your system. The list of devices that are compatible with individual controllers is constantly changing, so you must make sure you do your homework in advance.

Echo’s hearing has a limited range, and to help extend the hub’s usefulness, Amazonreleased the Echo Dot. The Dot is a smaller and cheaper version of Echo. Echo costs $189 and Echo Dot costs $50. Dot is just 1 inch tall, has a diameter just over 3 inches and weighs just under 6 ounces. It also contains seven microphones, a woofer and tweeter. Amazon claims it produces sound on par with the larger Echo.

Dots can be placed in each room, allowing homeowners to remain in constant contact with their home’s smart devices. The Dots are designed to be fully integrated so that Alexa will respond from the Dot you are closest to when you speak. Conveniently, this type of constant contact could allow a homeowner to lock all the door locks instantly if they were in a distant area of the home and heard a strange noise outside.

It also affords homeowners the convenience to ask Echo or Dot a question from anywhere in the home and get an immediate response. For instance, if the homeowner is in the kitchen, he or she could ask Alexa to turn on the light and then ask for their favorite recipe. Alexa can then perform both tasks through either device, turning on the light electronically while retrieving the recipe from the internet. If the homeowner discovered that they didn’t have the necessary ingredients, he or she could ask Alexa to order that ingredient through Amazon Prime and have it delivered to their door the next day.

Echo and Dot are the conduits through which the homeowner contacts the Alexa voice service, which exists in the Cloud. Amazon says that Alexa “learns” the habits of the user, including speech patterns and vocabulary. It also learns your personal preferences and “anticipates” your needs.

One aspect of smart home control that must always be considered is the fact that all virtual assistant hub controllers must be connected to a power source and cannot be used during power outages unless the homeowner has a backup power supply.

 

Google Home

Google’s answer to Echo is Google Home. Home responds to “Ok Google” and provides virtually every service that Echo does. The main difference in the two systems is the amount of peripheral services they supply.

For instance, when it comes to providing music sources, Home has access to Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn. Amazon has access to Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Audible.

Likewise, when it comes to the smart devices that power your home, the primary difference in the two systems is in the peripherals they are designed to control. Home has partnerships with Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue and IFTTT supported products. Echo has partnerships with Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue, IFTTT, Wink, Belkin WeMo, Insteon, Ecobee and others. Amazon Echo has been on the market for a considerably longer time than Google Home and at the present time, on average, offers more peripheral services than Home in all areas… but the list of peripherals increases almost weekly for both providers.

While Home might presently fall short in providing all the services Echo does, it makes up for this shortfall in other areas. Home has access to Google Search, the most powerful search engine available today. So, when it comes to real-time responses concerning traffic, weather, finance or practically any subject you can think of, Home shines.

Here are just a few of the home products you can control with whichever virtual assistant you choose to run your new smart home:

Garage Door Openers

Garage door opening systems such as Garageio or MyQ Garage now give homeowners the ability to open or close their garage door from inside their homes with just a simple voice command.

Enjoy the convenience of having the garage door open automatically as you pull into your driveway and close automatically as you pull away from home.

Did someone open your garage door without your permission? Now you can get an immediate notification on your smartphone or tablet.

Forget and leave the garage door open? Receive an alert on your smartphone and close it with one click.

Want to give your neighbor access to your garage? You can share services with just a click.

Systems range anywhere from $50-$200 and can be installed by most homeowners.

 

Door Locks & Doorbells

Remember the good old days when you didn’t have to lock your door? Well, they’re back. Sort of. Smart locks make keys virtually a thing of the past. (Although it might be a good idea to keep one handy just in case.) Now, with a simple voice command to your virtual assistant, you can lock all your doors instantly from almost anywhere in your home.

Smart locks can lock your doors automatically when you leave your home and unlock them automatically when you arrive back home. No more fumbling for keys with your arms full of groceries.

Now you can allow access to your home to anyone you choose for any time period you choose. Do you want your neighbor to have access to your home Tuesday at 9am sharp? No problem. And you can cancel access with a simple command on your smartphone, smartwatch, tablet or even using voice instruction.

You can also give family members or neighbors virtual keys so they can conveniently enter your home as needed. You can also keep an activity log that tells you which key opened the door and when they opened it.

Smart doorbells with cameras and speakers allow you to see and carry on a conversation with anyone who approaches your door. Want to let them in? Simply instruct your smart lock to do so and they have immediate access.

Expect to spend anywhere from $150-$300 on a smart lock and approximately $100 to $200 on a smart doorbell. Both systems can be easily installed by any experienced DIYer.

 

Security & Surveillance Systems

Smart home security systems have kicked it up a notch. In the old days, an alarm went off if someone attempted to break into your home. Today, here is what a top-notch system can provide:

1. When motion is detected anywhere in your home, the system can turn on the lights in that room or the entire home.

2. If unlawful entry is detected, local law enforcement will be notified and security cameras will provide video footage of anyone inside or outside your home.

3. When smoke is detected, the system can alert the local fire department and unlock your smart locks to grant firefighters access to your home.

4. The system can alert you if a water leak is detected while you are away from home.

5. Some systems detect toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and alert you instantly.

6. Systems can arm themselves automatically when you leave home and automatically disarm themselves when you arrive home.

7. You can have real-time video surveillance outside and inside your home from any distant location through your smartphone or tablet. (This service can provide ease-of-mind to parents whose children are left in the care of a babysitter or nanny.)

You can spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars on a system, depending on the services you require. Some systems can be installed by the homeowner and some need professional installation. Systems can also be self-monitored or monitored by professional home-security companies.

 

Thermostats

Smart thermostats can help make your home more comfortable and can also help lower utility bills. Nest thermostats are leading the way in today’s smart thermostat market.

Nest smart thermostats can “learn” your daily habits. This allows the system to automatically adjust the temperature inside your home depending on whether or not you are present. If the system learns that you prefer a constant 77-degree air temperature and if it learns that you leave home each day from 8am and arrive back home at 5pm, then the system can keep the temperature at a more economical level during the hours you are away, and then return it to a comfortable 77 degree just minutes before you arrive back home. Advanced technology allows the system to determine exactly how many minutes it takes to get your home to your favorite temperature, so no excess energy is wasted returning the home to 77 degrees.

Some systems can discern when you are on your way home by detecting the location and movement of your smartphoneand adjust your home’s temperature accordingly. The ultimate goal of a smart thermostat is that you will never have to touch it again… and this offers convenience and avoids unnecessary changes in temperature, saving homeowners time and money.

Smart thermostats, in conjunction with electronic vents, allow the temperature to be adjusted in individual rooms depending on the amount of use they receive. Individual vents can be shut down or partially closed to rooms that get little to no use. Individuals can also raise or lower the temperature of rooms they occupy to ensure their personal comfort. Over time, the smart thermostat learns which rooms require what temperature.

You can access smart thermostats from your smartphone, smartwatch or tablet and know what the temperature is in your home from any distant location. You can also be notified if there are any mechanical problems with your heating and cooling system.

Some smart thermostat systems also allow homeowners to control their hot water heaters, adjusting water temperature and helping save even more money. Systems cost anywhere from $100 to $250 and should quickly pay for themselves, as manufacturers claim smart thermostats can save consumers almost one third on their annual heating and cooling bills. They can easily be installed by any experienced DIYer.

 

Outlets & Switches

Smart outlets and switches turn normal electrical devices such as lamps, coffeemakers, overhead lights, fans, etc. into smart ones. Smart outlets and switches give homeowners the ability to turn them on by smartphone or tablet or with a simple voice command to a virtual assistant.

Some outlets have separate plugs that give you the convenience of controlling two electrical devices from one outlet. In order to deter break-ins, lamps plugged into smart outlets can be scheduled to come on and go off at various intervals while you are away on vacation. Lights throughout the house can operate on a coordinated schedule to naturally simulate your presence.

Imagine this: Your Fitbit watch health tracker on your arm notifies your virtual assistant that you are awake. The assistant then activates the smart outlet that turns on your coffeemaker. By the time you have dressed, fresh hot coffee is ready to pour.

Smart switches turn your overhead lights into smart lights while still allowing you to turn them on and off manually just as you have always done. Dimmer switches can be controlled with just a simple voice command to your virtual assistant or by smartphone or tablet.

These devices cost from $30-$60 and are reported to save homeowners up to $100 annually when used to control standby devices. These could be installed by the homeowner but care should be taken when working with any electrical device… it might be best to contact a local professional to be on the safe side.

 

Light Bulbs

When it comes to smart light bulbs, Philips Hue and LIFX lead the way. Philips smart bulbs can be used inside or out and require a “bridge” to connect the bulb to your router and virtual assistant. Once connected, the LED bulbs can be controlled by a click, swipe or simple voice command. The bulb eliminates the need for a smart outlet or smart switch and allows full control through the bridge alone.

LIFX bulbs don’t require a bridge and are controlled through an app on your smartphone or tablet.

Philips says the bulbs last an average of 15,000 hours and use up to 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. A white bulb that is comparable to a 60-watt incandescent bulb uses only 9.5 watts of energy. The bulbs can be dimmed down to .9 percent brightness on command, and both companies offer bulbs that change color, lending ambience to any occasion.

LIFX bulbs can “connect” with a Nest smart thermostat and turn your lights off and on automatically while you are gone for extended periods of time to help deter break-ins.

One concern is price. The Philips White Light Starter Kit, which includes the bridge and two bulbs, costs $70 and the White Color Ambiance Starter Kit, which includes the bridge and three bulbs, costs $180. The LIFX Starter Kit, which includes two bulbs, costs $100.

 

Everything Else

Your smart home can also include smart pet feeders, high-quality audio systems, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaning systems, landscape irrigation systems, vehicles and virtually anything else you can imagine.

As more and more home products go onto the smart market, it only makes sense to determine whether they are right for your lifestyle. They don’t just make the 21st century easier to live in, they make it more economical, too. And that’s smart living.


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