A Beginner’s Guide to Home Automation

If you’re dreaming of robotic vacuums, lights that dim themselves, and security cameras that are accessible from the palm of your hand, this home automation guide will get you started.

Young woman controlling home with a digital touch screen panel. Concept of a smart home and mobile application for managing smart devices at home

Photo: istockphoto.com

There was a time not too long ago when home automation was for cartoon space families and spy movies. But, with advances in technology, now anyone with a smartphone can automate their home, benefiting from scheduled and voice-activated lights, security systems, climate control, and more.

With so many smart-home products available, however, getting started with home automation can seem overwhelming. If you’re new to home automation, this guide will get you acclimated and pointed in the right direction.

Related: The Best Smart Switch for Your Smart Home

Choose Your Ecosystem

The first step to home automation is choosing the best smart-home system, also known as an “ecosystem,” for your situation. Home automation newbies have lots of choices.

Generally speaking, the ecosystem that is best for you starts with a digital assistant or smartphone. Alexa and Google Assistant are favorites among Android users, while Siri from Apple is the clear choice for iOS users. From there, users can choose devices that are compatible with their Apple HomeKit, Google Home, Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, or other ecosystems. Some devices, like Philips Hue, utilize a smart hub to control devices, but more on that in a bit.

What Is a Smart Hub?

Beyond the device’s compatibility, many home automation devices require a hub or bridge to unlock their full potential. The hub acts as the link between the user’s phone or digital assistant and the smart devices. Rather than using Wi-Fi to communicate between the devices, the hubs utilize radio signals.

In most cases, you don’t need a hub to set up home automation. The appropriate app and ecosystem compatibility are usually enough. However, hubs can actually improve security. With fewer signals sent back and forth via Wi-Fi, there are fewer opportunities for tech-savvy thieves to steal the identifying information they might need to link to the Wi-Fi or access cameras.

Close-up on a home automation system controlling the music at the house - smart home concepts

Photo: istockphoto.com

Decide What You’d Like to Automate

When it comes to setting up home automation, new users might find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of devices they can automate: lighting, security systems, door locks, thermostats, sprinkler systems, window blinds, and more. For non-smart enabled devices, smart plugs can control on-off appliances like fans, some window air conditioners, holiday lights, and even coffee pots. Users can even replace standard light switches with smart switches.

When choosing these devices, check that they’ll work with your chosen ecosystem. Some devices are compatible with Alexa and Google Home but not with Apple HomeKit. No device is genuinely universal.

Related: 6 Things to Know Before Switching to a Smart Thermostat

Understanding the Budget

Smart-home devices tend to be much more expensive than standard home devices and equipment, so be ready for some sticker shock. A standard light bulb costs about $3, while a high-quality smart bulb could cost more than four times that price.

The following ranges provide a bit more background on the cost of automating a home with the best smart-home devices:

Using smart thermostat to change tempreture

Photo: istockphoto.com

Brand Names Matter

In almost any product category, there are less expensive options that work just as well as the big names. With home automation, however, that’s typically not the case.

High-quality brands offer user-friendly apps, and they’re less likely to lose W-Fi connectivity or stop responding with the hub. The big-name brands like Philips, Apple, Amazon, Google, Nest, Belkin, Wemo, Arlo, iRobot, Ring, Sylvania, and August are the most trustworthy and least likely to cause frustration.

Apple HomeKit is an obvious choice for iPhone, iPad, and MacBook users, but the products are typically a little more expensive than Google Home or Amazon products. However, all three brands do a good job of updating and remaining relevant rather than outdated.

The Philips system is one of the more expensive lighting and smart home ecosystems, but it’s a well-oiled machine and usually worth the investment. For security, Ring and Arlo products are typically at the top of the heap.

Related: The Best Smart Switch for Your Smart Home