How to Make Your House a Smart Home

Nearly everything in your home — including air-conditioners, thermostats, lights and garage doors — can be connected to the internet and be remotely controlled with a mobile device or smart speaker. But setting up a so-called smart home can be mind-boggling: There is a plethora of different accessories that work only with certain products, and some work better than others. Here's a guide to help you sort through the jumble and become acclimated to your first voice-controlled smart home.

First, Choose Your Assistant

 

Virtual voice-controlled assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa make it easy to control smart home products by speaking simple commands like “Alexa, turn on the lights.” Each of these tools has its strengths and weaknesses, so choose the one that will be more likely to work for your needs:

Amazon’s Alexa

Pros:

  • If you want to quickly get started with a smart home, buying an Echo product is your best bet.
  • Amazon’s Echo products are easy to set up and plug in anywhere that you need to summon Alexa.
  • At $50, Echo Dot, the smaller speaker, is one of the cheapest smart home controllers in the market.
  • Alexa has more than 10,000 Skills, or third-party capabilities, making it the most broadly supported smart home hub.
  • The smartphone apps for setting up Echo products work with Apple and Android devices.

Cons:

  • Amazon’s Alexa app for iPhones and Android phones, required for setting up some smart home products, can be clunky.
  • Alexa sometimes has difficulty responding to what you are asking it to do.
  • The speakers on Echo products are generally mediocre.
  • You can’t trigger Alexa by speaking to a smartphone; you have to talk to the speaker itself.
  • In its privacy policy, Amazon says it takes no responsibility for third-party products that work with Alexa. In other words, the onus is on you to find out what third-party home accessory companies can do with the data they collect from you.

Google’s Assistant

Pros:

  • Google’s Home speaker and smartphones running newer versions of Android include Assistant.
  • At $130, Google Home costs $50 less than Amazon’s standard Echo speaker.
  • In terms of artificial intelligence, Assistant is generally smarter than Alexa and Siri because it is powered by the brains of Google search, meaning you can ask a broader array of questions and are more likely get a correct response.

Cons:

  • You summon Assistant by saying “O.K., Google,” which gets annoying.
  • There are far more smart home products supporting Alexa than Google’s Assistant.
  • Google Home’s audio quality is just mediocre.
  • While Assistant is slightly smarter than other virtual assistants, it is still flawed and has trouble responding to some requests appropriately.
  • Google’s privacy policy on the data it collects with Google Home is vague. It says: “Google collects data that’s meant to make our services faster, smarter, more relevant and more useful to you.”

Apple’s Siri

Pros:

  • With privacy in mind, Apple worked directly with home accessory makers to ensure that the data transferred between accessories and Apple devices is secure and encrypted.
  • The integration of Apple’s HomeKit into its mobile devices makes it much easier to set up Siri with home accessories.

Cons:

  • Partly because of Apple’s stringent privacy requirements, it has taken longer for smart home accessories supporting Siri to reach the market, meaning there are fewer available.
  • Siri sometimes has trouble understanding what you are asking it to do.
  • Siri is exclusive to Apple products.

Choose Your Hardware

After you pick your virtual assistant, you’ll be able to choose a piece of hardware that will become your primary smart home controller.

  • Amazon’s Alexa: Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Show
  • Google’s Assistant: Google Home, Newer Android Smartphones
  • Apple’s Siri: iPhones, iPads and Apple Watch

The related reading below will help to guide your decision, but cost will likely play a factor, along with your need for a solid set of speakers or desire to have an additional device in your home in the first place.

Then, the fun begins. With your virtual assistant you can set up your home a number of ways to make it “smarter.” Here’s a rundown of the different assistants and some products that work well with them.

Putting Your Assistant to Work: Alexa

 

Alexa is the virtual assistant powering Amazon’s Echo products, including the Echo speaker, the miniature Echo Dot speaker and the Echo Show, a smart speaker with a touch screen. You summon it by saying “Alexa.”

If you want to quickly get started with a smart home, buying an Echo product is your best bet, because Alexa works with a broader set of smart home accessories than its rivals.

To set up your Alexa product you’ll first need to download the Alexa app onto your phone. This app allows your to add “skills” to work accessories or increase your assistant’s set of capabilities.

To find home accessories that are compatible with Alexa, look for a “Works With Alexa” logo on the packaging or in the product description.

Controlling Your Lights

A wide variety of smart lighting is on the market. While some systems require a so-called bridge, a device that connects with a Wi-Fi router and talks to the smart light, there are also smart light bulbs with a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Lifx is one of these that don’t require a bridge — so its setup is relatively simple. The bulbs are multi-colored and dimmable, but because they rely on Wi-Fi, their reliability will depend on your Wi-Fi router.

To use your Alexa to control a Lifx bulb, you will need:

  • An Amazon Echo product
  • A Lifx bulb like the A19
  • An Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Alexa to talk to the bulb

How to control the lights with Alexa using a Lifx smart bulb:

  1. Screw the Lifx bulb into the socket and flip on the light switch.
  2. On your smartphone, download the Lifx app from the Apple or Android app store. Open the Lifx app. On the screen, tap the + or Add Bulbs button and follow the setup instructions to connect the bulb to your Wi-Fi network. Give the bulb a friendly name like “Lamp.”
  3. Open the Amazon Alexa app. Tap the menu icon and select Skills. Search for the Lifx skill and enable it.
  4. Tap the menu icon and select Smart Home.
  5. Tap Devices, then tap Discover. The app will scan for devices and discover the smart bulb named Lamp.
  6. Test the light. Make sure the light switch is on. With your Echo nearby, say “Alexa, turn off the lamp.” Then say, “Alexa, turn on the lamp.” Then try things like “Alexa, dim the lamp” and “Alexa, brighten the lamp.”

 

Controlling a Fan

There are many plug-in appliances, like fans, electric water kettles and coffee makers, that you probably wish were a little bit smarter. By plugging them into a smart plug, you use a personal assistant to do things like set a specific time for the kettle to heat water in the morning or switch the power on or off remotely. These rely on Wi-Fi to work, so their reliability will only be as good as your signal where they are located.

For this hypothetical example, we will set up a fan to work with Alexa and a smart plug from TP-Link. You will need:

  • An Amazon Echo product
  • A TP-Link smart plug
  • A plug-in fan with a physical power switch that can stay in the “on” position
  • An Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Alexa to talk to the smart plug

How to control an electric fan with Alexa using a TP-Link smart plug:

  1. On your smartphone, download the Kasa app from the Apple or Android app store.
  2. Open the Kasa app and register for an account. Once logged in, tap the Smart Plug icon.
  3. Plug the Smart Plug into a power outlet. Plug your electric fan into the Smart Plug. The light on the plug will turn amber. In the Kasa app, follow the instructions to connect your smartphone to the plug.
  4. In the Kasa app, give the Smart Plug a friendly name like “Fan.” Turn on the Remote Control option and follow the instructions to connect the plug to your Wi-Fi network.
  5. Open the Amazon Alexa app. Tap the menu icon and select Skills. Search for the TP-Link Kasa skill and enable it.
  6. In the Amazon Alexa app, tap the menu icon and select Smart Home.
  7. Tap Devices, then tap Discover. The Alexa app will scan for devices and discover the smart plug labeled Fan.
  8. Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s power switch is in the “on” position. With your Echo nearby, say “Alexa, turn on the fan.” Then say, “Alexa, turn off the fan.”

 

Controlling the Heat

Smart thermostats, like Nest, connect to the internet via Wi-Fi so they can be controlled with a smartphone or virtual assistant. The main benefit of a smart thermostat is that it can detect when you aren’t home and determine when to shut off the heat or air-conditioning to preserve energy.

Setting up a smart thermostat with a virtual assistant gives you the extra perk of being able to set the temperature just by speaking a voice command.

For this example, we will set up a Nest thermostat to work with Alexa. You will need:

  • An Amazon Echo product,
  • A Nest thermostat,
  • An Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Alexa to talk to the thermostat.

How to control a Nest smart thermostat with Alexa:

  1. After installing your Nest thermostat, open the Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone. Tap the menu icon and select Skills. Search for the Nest Thermostat skill and enable it.
  2. In the Amazon Alexa app, tap the menu icon and tap Smart Home. Tap Devices, then tap Discover. The app will scan for devices and discover the thermostat.
  3. Now test the thermostat. If you gave it a friendly name like Nest, try saying “Alexa, change the Nest to 70 degrees.” Or say “Alexa, what temperature is my Nest set to?”

 

Putting Your Assistant to Work: Apple's Siri

 

Apple’s iPhones and iPads include Siri, which can be triggered by saying “Hey Siri,” or by holding down the home button. In addition, accessories like smart lights or thermostats can be controlled with Apple’s Home app on iPhones and iPads.

To find compatible products, look for accessories that are labeled “Works with Apple HomeKit” on the packaging or in the product description.

Controlling the Lights

Adding a set of smart light bulbs is an easy way to get started building a smart-home system. Some of these systems require a so-called bridge, a device that connects with a Wi-Fi router and transmits data to a receiver on the smart light. But the bridge on the Philips Hue bulb can be used to operate up to 50 bulbs in one home, making it an investment that you can use to slowly increase the number of smart bulbs you use.

Here are steps for using Siri to control a Philips Hue bulb. You will need:

  • An iPhone or iPad
  • A Philips Hue lighting kit that works with HomeKit

How to control a lamp with Siri using a Philips Hue smart bulb:

  1. Follow the instructions to connect a Philips Hue bridge with a Philips Hue light bulb.
  2. Open the Home app on your iPhone. Tap the + symbol in the upper-right hand corner and then tap Add Accessory.
  3. Wait for the accessory to be discovered. If asked to Add Accessory to Network, tap allow. Use the camera to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the Philips Hue Bridge. Follow the instructions in the app to finish setting up your light and give it a friendly name like “Lamp.”
  4. Now test the light. With your iPhone nearby, say “Hey, Siri, turn on my lamp.” Then say “Hey, Siri, turn off my lamp.”

Controlling a Fan

Beyond lights, there are likely many plug-in appliances, like fans, electric water kettles and coffee makers, in your home that you probably wish were a little bit smarter. A smart plug and a virtual assistant can allow you to do things like set a timer to turn on your kettle to heat water or turn on your fan remotely to cool off your dog when you are away from home.

For this hypothetical example, we will set up a fan to work with Siri and a smart plug iHome. You will need:

  • An iPhone or iPad
  • An iHome smart plug
  • A plug-in fan

How to control an electric fan with Siri using iHome’s SmartPlug:

  1. Plug the SmartPlug into a power outlet. The green light will blink.
  2. On your iPhone, open the Home app. Tap the + symbol in the upper-right hand corner and then tap Add Accessory.
  3. Wait for the accessory to be discovered. If asked to Add Accessory to Network, tap allow. Use the camera to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the SmartPlug.
  4. Give the plug a friendly name like “Fan.”
  5. Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s power switch is in the “on” position. With your iPhone nearby, say “Hey, Siri, turn on the fan.” Then say, “Hey, Siri, turn off the fan.”

 

Controlling the Heat

Smart thermostats connect to the internet via Wi-Fi so they can be controlled with a smartphone or virtual assistant. They are beneficial because they can determine when to shut the heat or air-conditioning to save energy. Setting up a smart thermostat with a virtual assistant gives you the extra perk of being able to control the temperature remotely just by speaking a voice command.

For this example, we will set up an Emerson Sensi Touch Wi-Fi Thermostat to work with Siri. You will need:

  • An iPhone
  • An Emerson Sensi Touch Wi-Fi thermostat

How to set a smart thermostat with Siri:

    1. Follow the instructions to install the Emerson thermostat hardware. On the thermostat, press the Menu button, then Wi-Fi and connect the thermostat to your Wi-Fi network.
    2. On your iPhone, open the Home app. Tap the + symbol in the upper-right hand corner and then tap Add Accessory.
    3. Wait for the accessory to be discovered. If asked to Add Accessory to Network, tap allow. Follow the steps to connect the thermostat with Apple’s HomeKit.
    4. Now test the thermostat. With your iPhone nearby, say “Hey, Siri, set my thermostat to 70 degrees.” Or say “Hey, Siri, what is my home’s temperature?” Also try, “Hey, Siri, lower my thermostat by 2 degrees.”

Putting Your Assistant to Work: Google's Assistant

 

Google’s Home smart speaker and some Android smartphones include Google’s Assistant. To summon it, just say “O.K., Google.”

To find compatible products, look for accessories that are labeled “Works with the Google Assistant” on the packaging or in the product description.

Controlling the Lights

Smart lights come in two varieties. Some systems require a so-called bridge, a device that connects with a Wi-Fi router and talks to the smart light. There are also smart light bulbs with a built-in Wi-Fi connection like Lifx, which don’t require a bridge — a simpler setup. These bulbs are multi-colored and dimmable, however their reliability they are will depend on your service provider.

Here are steps for using Google Assistant to control a Lifx bulb. You will need:

  • A Google Home speaker
  • A Lifx bulb like the A19
  • An Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Google Home to talk to the bulb

How to control Lifx lights with Google Home:

  1. Screw the Lifx bulb into the lamp socket and flip on the light switch.
  2. On your smartphone, download the Lifx app. Open the Lifx app. On the screen, tap the + or Add Bulbs button and follow the setup instructions to connect the bulb to your Wi-Fi network.
  3. With Google Home set up, you should have already installed the Google Home app on your smartphone. Open the app and tap the menu icon in the upper-left corner. Then tap Home Control.
  4. Tap the + sign to add a device. Tap LiFx and sign in to your Lifx account. Tap the Authorize button to let Google Assistant control the light.
  5. Assign the light to a room, such as the living room. This will make referring to the lights easier.
  6. Now test the lamp. With Google Home nearby, say “O,K., Google, turn on the light in the living room.” Then say “O.K., Google, turn off the light in the living room.”

Controlling a Fan

You can use your assistant to control many free-standing appliances with the help of a smart plug. By plugging your fan or coffee maker into a smart plug, you can do things like set a specific time for the device to go on and control them remotely.

For this hypothetical example, we will set up a fan to work with Google Assistant and a smart plug from iHome. You will need:

  • A Google Home
  • An iHome smart plug
  • An Android device or iPhone to set up the Google Home to talk to the smart plug
  • A fan

How to control an electric fan with Google Home using iHome’s SmartPlug:

  1. On your smartphone, download the iHome Control app and open it.
  2. Plug the smart plug into a power outlet. Plug the fan’s power cable into the smart plug. The green light on the SmartPlug will blink.
  3. In iHome Control app, tap the Devices tab, tap Add Device and follow the directions to finish the setup.
  4. Use the app to scan the accessory setup code on the bottom of the SmartPlug. Give the plug a friendly name like “Fan.”
  5. On your smartphone, open the Google Home app. Tap the menu button in the top-left corner. Tap Home control.
  6. In the devices tab, tap Add. Select iHome and log in to your iHome account to authorize Google Assistant to control the smart plug.
  7. Now test the fan. Make sure the fan’s power switch is in the “on” position. With your iPhone nearby, say “O.K., Google, turn on the fan.” Then say, “O.K., Google, turn off the fan.”

 

Controlling the Heat

Smart thermostats like Nest connect to the internet via Wi-Fi so they can be controlled with a smartphone or virtual assistant. The main benefit of a smart thermostat like Nest is that it can detect when you aren’t home and determine when to shut off the heat or air-conditioning to save energy. Setting up a smart thermostat with a virtual assistant gives you the extra perk of being able to set the temperature just by speaking a voice command.

For this example, we will set up a Nest thermostat to work with Google Home. You will need:

  • A Google Home speaker
  • A Nest thermostat
  • An Apple or Android smartphone for setting up Google Home to talk to the thermostat

How to set a Nest smart thermostat with Google Home:

  1. After installing and setting up your Nest thermostat, open the Google Home app on your smartphone.
  2. In the top left corner, tap the menu icon. Tap More settings, then tap Home control.
  3. In the Devices tab, tap Add. Select Nest. Follow the steps to authorize Google Home to access Nest.
  4. Now test the thermostat. With Google Home nearby, say “O.K., Google, set the heat to 71.” Or say “O.K., Google, what’s the temperature inside?”

 

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