Smart Home Basics 101

HOTMILLK Smarthome 101

We are truly the first generation buying homes with technology in mind. The goal of the smart home series is to help you stay up to date with the latest and greatest from the digital world.

In this post, I hope to break down and simplify smart home technology into some basic categories, and share some of my thoughts about the progress in this field.

Smart home automation can be quite overwhelming for those looking to jump in. It seems now more than ever, tech companies are trying to bide for mindshare through presenting incredible solutions without making it clear how to get there. Smart home features can be as simple as buying a few universal sensors and downloading the corresponding application on your smartphone – but let’s be real, you don’t need me for that.

In this 101, I hope to provide some clear starting points on laying the groundwork for future technology with a robust and agile home setup.

person with black and silver leather gloves holding black and silver hair dryer
Photo by cottonbro on

Industry Standards

Z Wave vs ZigBee. First and foremost, let’s get the tech behind the tech out of the way. One of the major pain points when it comes to smart home gadgets is the lack of industry standard. Without over complicating the matter, both these solutions are forms of wireless protocol that enable your smart functionality. Both Z Wave and ZigBee operate similarly, with each having their own respective differences and limitations of course. That being said, they are both reliable, and unlike your modem/router at home, they work off a mesh network meaning each smart device you have bounces off each other (much like repeaters) to amplify and strengthen your signal. This increases reach, reliability and versatility overall.

I’ll stop here with the technical discussion so we can imagine how this impacts you. When you have two competing technologies, you end up with multiple products doing the same thing but inherently different. In my experience, while it’s not critical to stick to one or the other since they will both work, it’s worth the intention of trying to stick to one protocol within your own home. This will strengthen your connections, keeping your smart devices online and more reliable.

Basic Essentials

In my mind, a Smart Home starter pack would consist of these essentials:

  • Smart Home Hub
  • Voice Automation
  • Thermostat
  • Light Switches

Smart Hub: A home for all your devices

There are many software solutions available that aim to consolidate your devices and provide them a home. Why would you want to do this to begin with? The reason is quite logical. There are countless brands and smart solutions available – each requiring a proprietary app managed by unique login credentials and configuration settings. Without a hub or a unified application such as Apple HomeKit or Google Home for Android, you would be left with many different applications each doing something different. Since each application works within its own boundaries, you are limited in creating automated routines and functionality. Unified software solutions allow you to leverage the cloud to login to all compatible accounts under one roof and then go to work customizing actions that optimize and work for your lifestyle.

Enter Smart Home Hub. These physical devices connect directly to your home internet (through WiFi, LAN or Bluetooth) and act similarly to cloud based software solutions – except more reliable since they also establish local connections as well. Leading Smart Hubs are also cross compatible with both ZigBee and Z Wave protocols, so they are able to connect to some devices locally without requiring an active internet connection. This is important because it not only ensures and maintains automation features in the event of a blackout, but it can increase response time and improve performance overall.

Here are the two leading Smart Hubs available in market right now:

SmartThings Hub

smart things hub home
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  • Huge community of developers that expand integration
  • Initial setup can be complicated for off brand accessories

Wink Hub

wink hub smart home
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  • Easy to use and set up out of box
  • Nest integration
  • Persistent rumours about bankruptcy

I won’t go into too much detail comparing the two as I’ll save it for another day. They are both battle tested and will serve any new smart home well. Wink offers a much easier setup with Nest (leading smart thermostat) integration out of box. Samsung SmartThings Hub requires a bit more DIY, however it has an insane developer community which constantly works to create unofficial integration with many devices that may not be supported officially. Think China and the many third party (cheaper) solutions available that may not have official partnerships with the hub manufacturers. This will, over time, offer you more selection and flexibility as your smart gadget portfolio grows. I personally use Samsung SmartThings and have no regrets.

Voice Automation

This pretty much speaks for itself.

When I think about the evolution of the smart home, we started with gadgets that you can control with an app in a singular fashion. We then progressed to smart hubs unifying different gadgets to create automations based on routines, actions and time (think sprinkler on during sunset, or turning on the lights when you arrive home). Voice Automation, in my opinion, is the next step in bringing these routines to life. You are no longer relying on static actions and configurations, but instead layering on two way dialogue to control your home.

With voice, we have 3 leading voice assistants: Google Home, Apple Siri and finally, Amazon Alexa.

Google Home

google home hub
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Apple Siri

apple siri
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Amazon Alexa

alexa home amazon
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It goes without saying that these power house tech companies have tremendous partnerships and integration with many of the smart home gadget manufacturers. You’ll notice that they each offer a wide range of devices that offer voice integration. Aside from the native functionality of a clock, picture frame, speaker, or even a TV – the voice features are the same within each platform.

Ultimately, my advice here is to stick with the phone operating system you use, as that will offer you deeper integration across devices. I loved Amazon’s Alexa when I used her, however at the time I was testing the product, Alexa wasn’t fully functional in Canada. I have since switched to Google and haven’t looked back.

Thermostat: Keeping it cool

Moving on down the list of must haves, no smart home is complete without a smart thermostat. These offer immediate benefits as you can link your location to your home, so that your furnace is only operating when it needs to. You’ll find immediate utility bill savings, and prolong the life of your equipment as a result. In fact, these are so efficient that many hydro companies in progressive cities are offering rebates and discounts for homes with smart thermostats installed.

When it comes to options, there are really only two:

Nest Thermostat by Google

nest thermostat
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Ecobee Smart Thermostat

ecobee thermostat
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Both these thermostats have great reviews, but I only have experience with Nest. I personally went this way because their service was second to none and honestly, it looks way sleeker. Looks matter.

Just remember to factor this purchase in with the Hub selection above. Integration with SmartThings is possible, just requires a few hours in the community forums to make it work.

Light Switches

Smart lights round off my smart home starter list. No home or automation is meaningful without the ability to add lights to your routines. Two points to mention here, options are a dime a dozen as it seems every company wants in on this. Also, I’m stressing the importance of switch vs light. I started off retrofitting my entire home with the brand name Phillips Hue system. The issue with this system is that the lights themselves are the gadget vs the switch. That means the Phillips Hub creates a connection with each individual light bulb and requires the power to be on for them to connect. Hence you are going fully voice and cannot use your switches interchangeably. While Phillips offers neat features like colour, it’s not worth the headache of having to make sure all your switches are on for it to function properly – let alone monitoring yet another proprietary hub for connectivity.

After learning the hard way, I ditched the entire Phillips ecosystem and transitioned to installing switches across all lights I wanted to control. Again, options for switches are plentiful so I went with the brand name Lutron to start. That being said, costs started to pile up, so I have transitioned new installs to TP-Links Kasa line. While Lutron does looks nicer in my opinion, they both function very well and Kasa is a better bang for buck.

Lutron Caseta

lutron light switch
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TP-Link Kasa

tp-link kasa light switch
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Wrapping Up

If you are looking for a more cost effective solution, Xiaomi has a wide selection of affordable smart devices that I integrate into my home alongside some of the bigger American brands:

My only caution here is Xiaomi does not have native integration with Smartthings, and requires some tinkering with your account to make them functional. One of the benefits of Smartthings is the massive growing community of users helping each other get set up, especially with 3rd party solutions. That being said, I do not recommend the Xiaomi line for those who are not tech savvy or anyone looking for an out of box solution.

Joining the smart world can be a daunting task for many. It is truly an exciting time to grow with the industry and explore new solutions as quickly as we can dream them up. I hope this post inspired you to dip your toes in the water and get a jump on it. Goodluck!

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