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This is a continuation of a multi-part series on planning for and setting up a smart home. To see our other posts in this series, click here.
In our last post about building a smart home, we went over the options for making your home smart, the features each offers, and why we ultimately went with an Apple-based HomeKit solution in our own home. In this post, we'll dive a little deeper into some of the specifics about devices and features that we use in our smart home.
To understand what a smart home can do for you, it's useful to understand some of the terminology. HomeKit uses a couple of different terms to describe a smart home setup. The terminology used in the Google/Amazon/SmartThings ecosystem will be similar, but may not match exactly.
- Accessory - This is a smart "thing" - it is a light switch, a door lock, a thermostat, etc. Each item you add to HomeKit will be an accessory.
- Room - This is used to organize your accessories by the room they're used in. You can set favorites that show up on your main screen, but you can also view each room independently and see any accessories that are tied to a specific room.
- Automation - This is something that you set up using a combination of one or more accessories paired with an event. For example, we set up our outdoor lights to turn on 15 minutes before sunset and turn off at 10pm.
- Scene - This is kind of like a virtual switch. Similar to an automation, a scene is used to control a set of accessories, but only when you select it. This is how you "set a scene," such as "movie night" or "go to bed" - things that you do often, but maybe not at an exact time every day.
Now that we've reviewed the terminology of the HomeKit ecosystem, we can talk about the accessories that can be added, what they can do for you, and why we chose the ones we did.
- Smoke alarms [First Alert Onelink Safe & Sound] - Smoke alarms were the first thing that introduced us to smart home accessories. If something is burning in our house, we want to know about it no matter where we are. The Onelink distinguished itself as a smart smoke alarm by going a step further: adding a smart speaker. Obviously, the smoke detector acts just like a normal smoke detector, but it also reports to your smart home if something isn't right. The extra feature that sells it are the speakers that connect using AirPlay 2 (another Apple protocol for audio/video), which lets you play music to any of them throughout the house. You can have different music playing throughout different rooms or you can sync the same song across any number of the speakers. Beyond the Onelink, any combination of AirPlay 2-compatible speakers can work in concert to provide sound throughout your house. In addition to the dual features this smoke alarm offered, we can't say enough about how great First Alert's customer service was. The original set that we purchased had either bad batteries or they just drained very fast. Since they're 10-year batteries, they're not replaceable. With no questions asked or even proof of purchase, they sent us four new ones within a couple days of reporting the issue to them.
- Light switches [Lutron Caseta]: We researched a number of light switches before making this purchase. Our biggest hangup was the appearance. They're not the most attractive switches. However, these are constantly reviewed as the most stable which is something we've come to appreciate in any smart thing we add, since they aren't all that way. Lights aren't something that you want to randomly stop working, and we're glad we based this on stability and not looks, because we haven't had a single issue with them the entire time we've been in the house.
- Thermostats [Ecobee] - We had these in our last house so we already knew we liked them. A big selling point of the Ecobee over something like the Nest (which, at the time, was significantly more popular) were the additional sensors that the Ecobee thermostats have to place throughout the house. In our last house, which only had a single-zone HVAC system, this was very useful. We were able to put a sensor in our bedroom, and the thermostat only cared about that temperature during the night. During the day, the thermostat ignored the upstairs, but it paid attention to the 2 sensors we had downstairs.
- Smart window shades [IKEA FYRTUR] - These were one of our most recent additions. Smart shades are expensive and just don't generally seem worth the cost. Some of the other popular brands come in at 4-5 times higher than what IKEA's cost, so when we did introduce a few smart shades to our home, IKEA's offering was a no-brainer for us. Since it stays brighter out later during the summer, the bonus room we have set up as a theater becomes less and less usable while the sun is out. It has a lot of windows which is great for natural light, but not for watching movies with a projector. While we certainly wouldn't purchase smart shades for every window in the house - they're not particularly attractive looking (and they're still not cheap) - we think they can be used in specific areas for certain purposes. Now, as part of our HomeKit scene that was already set up to "Watch a movie," the shades lower in addition to the projector turning on, the screen coming down, the Xbox turning on (we use it as a Blu-ray player), and our surround-sound receiver turning on.
- Garage door openers [Meross] - After researching smart garage door openers, it doesn't seem that any of them are particularly reliable. Generally, we tried to keep everything as maintenance-free as possible, so we tried to stay away from the need for battery-based sensors that would need to be replaced over time. Meross offered a simple solution to this problem: magnets. When the magnets come in close contact to each other, the sensor considers it closed. When they separate, the sensor considers the door open. While no garage door opener seems to be totally stable, Meross has been decent by comparison, requiring a restart maybe every couple of months. We did just plug the garage door openers into a couple of smart outlets. We set them up to reset every night for a couple minutes, to force the garage door opener to reconnect. I'm hopeful that this will prevent the need to get up on a ladder every couple months and manually reset them, but we'll see how this pans out.
- Smart door lock [Emtek EMPowered] - In our last house, we spent a lot of time looking for a smart lock. We really didn't want a bulky lock on the front of the house, so we were happy to find the Yale Pro SL. It doesn't have a key hole as a backup, instead favoring a spot to connect a 9V battery as a backup if the main battery dies. This offers the peace of mind that you won't get locked out without the bulkiness of a smart lock with a key hole. However, the Yale Pro SL didn't have a matte black option, and all of our door hardware is finished in matte black (Yale does offer the Pro SL with the matte black option now). Luckily for us, Emtek is owned by the same parent company as Yale (Assa Abloy), and they happened to have essentially the same lock available in matte black. It connects to HomeKit using the August connect software. I found it more difficult to connect it to HomeKit than their older system was, but now that it's connected we haven't seen any issues with it.
- Home security sensors [Konnected*] - Our builder included a home security system standard with our home, which includes sensors in windows and doors, and a few motion sensors. However, we really didn't like the idea of paying monthly for something like ADT or another security system. Konnected solved that problem for us. It is certainly more of a DIY system, as it does require removing all the wiring from the existing security system, replacing the existing circuit board with the Konnected circuit board, and connecting the wires again. After that, Konnected can report the status of all the sensors back to our smart home. We thought this was the best of both worlds: the sensors are hidden in windows and doors because they're built in to the home (rather than stuck to doors and windows like most self-installed systems), but now we also have the ability to monitor the system on our own.
- Security cameras [Ubiquiti UniFi Protect*] - We went with this setup for a couple reasons. Our entire network setup is using Ubiquiti products, and this tied in well with our overall setup. They also have cameras that can be powered by power over ethernet, so they are powered with just a network cable, and that's how we planned out the house. It let us run ethernet cables to every corner of the house for adding cameras as needed in the future. We go into a lot more detail about wiring with the future in mind here. In addition to the existing Ubiquiti ecosystem and simple wiring, it also lets us store the video as long as we want and wherever we want instead of being restricted to storage lengths or costs set by something like Ring or Nest. Overall, there are probably more cost-efficient options to achieve the same thing, as the Ubiquiti camera image quality isn't as good as it should be for the price, but we went with it due to our existing network setup.
NOTE: Items marked with an asterisk (*) do not have direct integration with HomeKit. They required a 3rd-party setup that may need an intermediate knowledge of computers to be successful. HomeBridge and HomeAssistant are two of the 3rd-party setups that we use, and both are able to connect to HomeKit and provide updates about the devices with an asterisk above.
As time has passed, we've slowly built up our HomeKit system to include most of the common integrations like those listed above, as well as some more uncommon ones. Most times, when we introduce a new device into our house, we do some amount of investigation to figure out whether it can be tied into our system. Being able to access any device with the press of a button on your phone (or for some, the sound of your voice) adds a level of convenience that is definitely not necessary, but nice to have
With all that said, we hope this gives you an idea of what you can add to your smart home system and make your house work for you. There are so many varying levels of accessories that can do all kinds of things - some useful, and some more...out there. Building the system over time lets you figure out the best tools for the job while also not breaking the bank - smart home stuff adds up in cost, so doing it all at once is fairly expensive. We like to learn as we add each smart thing to our house and make sure we're purposefully adding to our system, or making adjustments if something doesn't work well. There are far too many stories of people diving head-first into a system like this and finding out it's not for them or they picked the wrong items for what they wanted to do. We recommend taking it slow and adding one or two things at a time so you don't waste money.
Next time in our smart home series, we'll address how to boost the power of each individual accessory by combining them using scenes and automations to really take advantage of your smart home.