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A Quick-Start Guide to Building Your Home Automation System

Dipping a toe into the massive world of smart home automation can be intimidating, but we’re here to help! Today we’re breaking down how we use connected products, and we’re sharing how you can get started for far less than $100.

Custom drapery panels in a neutral living room // via Yellow Brick Home

There are so many Smart Home products. Where do I start?!

This is a great question that we get asked A LOT – from homeowners and renters alike! If you’re a renter, we’ve even written a guide to which smart home investments would be most ideal for a renter vs. a homeowner. (We got you!) We’ve been building upon our system for years, but these are a few of the things our smart home can do with simple voice commands:

  • Play music from Spotify or Amazon
  • Control motorized shades
  • Adjust our thermostats, both in our Chicago and Michigan homes
  • Monitor for smoke and carbon monoxide remotely, both in our Chicago and Michigan homes
  • Control lights via a connected dimmer switch, bulb or plug
  • Trigger ‘scenes’ with pre-selected settings for lights, thermostats and shades. For example, the ‘Bedtime’ trigger turns off all interior lights, lowers all shades and adjusts the thermostat for sleeping
  • Arm/disarm our home security system

If any of these options sound useful or can save time and relieve stress in your day, we’re here to help you navigate the waters. We know that it can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! Let’s break it down, and by the end of this post, we hope you’ll have the confidence to take your first steps towards a smarter home.

The Barrier to Entry is All But Gone

In the past, hubs that communicated to devices were required to get started with a smart home. Recently though, Amazon, Google and Apple have basically eliminated the need for a hub all together! Generally speaking, Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomeKits have replaced the hub completely, allowing you to use your smart products with voice commands. Think of it like this: Echo, Google Home and Apple Home Kits act as the voice-control units, and the smart lighting products are the items being controlled.

Neutral living room with large cream sectional and leather arm chair | via Yellow Brick Home
sectional | floor lamp | sconce | art | coffee table

Our system is Amazon Alexa-based, so throughout this post, we’ll focus on smart lighting products that we use in our own home and can recommend, but most of these products also work with Google and Apple-based systems. Because smart lighting is one of the most common smart technologies out there, it’s an excellent place to start. Today, I’ll be talking about:

  1. Bulb-based smart lighting systems
  2. Switch-based smart lighting systems
  3. Plug-based smart lighting systems

1| Bulb-Based Smart Lighting System

Our home studio with oak credenza, floating wood shelves and trailing plants! via Yellow Brick Home
globe lamp | shelves | credenza

The Echo Flex is one of the least expensive smart speakers out there. At less than $25, this little powerhouse can do all the things that a standard Echo or Echo dot can do, but in a much smaller package that plugs directly into an outlet. For just $10 more, this kit ($35) includes two Philips Hue smart bulbs that can be controlled via voice or app. That’s it! For 35 bucks, you have two smart bulbs that can be used in lamps or light fixtures and a voice hub that controls them. We use Hue bulbs in a several plug-in lamps around our home (like that little globe above!), and in our opinion, it’s the easiest way to add smart control and dimming capabilities to a wide range of existing lamps and fixtures even if they’re not already dimmable.

  • Pros: Very inexpensive! Easiest point of entry. Setup is as easy as screwing in a lightbulb. You can set your bulbs to turn on and off through a schedule. Example: Our lamps turn on every day at 4pm and turn off at 10pm.
  • Cons: Echo flex placement limited by outlet location. Bulbs are standard size, so they may not fit some fixtures. With the Hue system, if a lamp or fixture is turned off at the switch, as opposed to through the app, all functionality is lost until the fixture is switched back on.

2| Switch-Based Smart Lighting System

Home studio with sitting lounge and lighting throughout | via Yellow Brick Home
desk | desk chairs | navy rug | pendant lights | sectional

If your home features multiple lights wired to one switch or fixtures with unique/exposed bulbs, we often find a smart dimmer to be the best control option. The Lutron Caseta Smart Start Kit ($100) includes a two-way dimmer switch, remote (that can replace a switch with a simple plate adapter) and a bridge to get you started. From there, switches can be controlled via the app or through a smart speaker. The app even allows for settings that turn lights on at dusk/off at dawn or at any predetermined time. We’ve utilized this functionality at Tree House to ensure that our outdoor spaces are automatically well-lit when we arrive after dark, which is frequently!

  • Pros: Can control multiple fixtures at once. App offers loads of automation options. Smart switch still functions exactly as a standard dimmer switch! App will still allow you to control your lights, even if it’s turned off at the switch!
  • Cons: Cost of dimmers can add up quickly. Install is straightforward with clear instructions, but does involve some wiring.

3| Plug-Based Smart Lighting (Or Coffee!) System

A moody bedroom design with Benjamin Moore Raccoon Fur walls, navy bedding and soft lighting | via Yellow Brick Home
coverlet + shams | sheets |  sconce | curtains (similar)

For lamps and most other plug-in fixtures, a smart plug may be the most direct option available. Simply insert the smart plug into the outlet, then plug in your lamp or fixture. This kit ($45) includes an Echo Dot smart speaker and one smart plug. The beauty of this kit lies in its versatility. It can be used to control any plug in lamp or sconce, but it could also easily control a fan, coffee maker or white noise machine. The options are pretty much endless!

Since we already have an Alexa-enabled Sonos One speaker in our bedroom, we used a pair of these smart plugs ($17) for our vintage bedside sconces, seen above. We rewired the sconces many years ago to add dimming capabilities, so we’ll leave them at the desired brightness and control them either using preset ‘scenes’, or with simple voice commands. Many of you asked why we didn’t use smart bulbs, which is a great question! These fixtures have a unique shape, in which we wanted to continue utilizing these SlimStyle bulbs that are nearly invisible inside the fixtures. These sconces were the last light fixtures in our home that were still controlled the old-fashioned way, but now all of our frequently-used fixtures feature smart control!

  • Pros: Cost effective & versatile. No tools required for installation. App includes timer options.
  • Cons: Does not include dimming capabilities. If light is turned off at the switch, the smart plug won’t function until the fixture is switched back on. See switch-based lighting above to avoid this issue!

Got it! But how do I set everything up?

Every single smart home product you buy will have instructions that will walk you though set-up, step-by-step. It will often start by asking you to download the brand’s app, and from there, you will either screw in a bulb, install a switch or push in a plug. Then, you’ll follow the instructions provided to you on the app, which usually includes illustrations!

Build Your Smart Home

A Quick-Start Guide to Building Your Home Automation System | via Yellow Brick Home
1. Echo Dot, $50 | 2. Echo Flex + Philips Hue Bundle, $35 | 3. Lutron Caseta Smart Start Kit, $100 | 4. smart plugs, $19

A Smart Home Saves Us More than 30 Hours Over the Course of a Single Year!

A sleeping loft with tree wallpaper, linen shades and vintage rug | via Yellow Brick Home
wallpaper | sconces | credenza | vintage rug (similar)

Smart home functionality has made our lives simpler and allowed us to eliminate guesswork on tasks that we repeat almost every day. If our smart home saves us 5 minutes of blind lowering/light switching/thermostat adjusting every day, then this system saves us 30.41 hours every year. What. (And yes, I did the dorky math to calculate that number, thank you very much!) Time savings aside, our smart home system allows us to simplify our day-to-day. No more guesswork on the perfect level of light for any given situation. We figure it all out once and leave the rest up to Alexa!

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  • Emily2.24.20 - 9:07 AM

    So helpful, thanks Kim! My whole house is on a Lutron Caseta hub and we have Alexas within earshot throughout the house. It’s really convenient even though she can be sassy! But we needed some outlet controlled lamps, in addition to our wired switches, and I saw a 4 pack of the one you recommended is on lightning deal today! Just snagged it. For anyone else interested they’re only $25 right now. Playroom rainbow neon light and llama lamp, you will be on a scene now! ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.24.20 - 3:31 PM

      Oh, hooray!! I love that so much!ReplyCancel

      • Emily2.24.20 - 8:12 PM

        Also, sorry Scott!!! I thanked Kim but saw you wrote this! ReplyCancel

  • Southern Gal2.24.20 - 10:50 AM

    May I suggest looking into or referencing WYZE?  They have light bubs, cameras, sensors and are introducing a lock this week.  Its a great company with great prices – much lower than any of the other companies and they work with Amazon (Alexa), Google and Apple.   I use all their products (only wish they had an outdoor light bulb which i had to get from Philips and buy the Philips hub (ugh) )  They are very responsive to customers – in fact, they beta test all their products and make changes according to the responses and offer special pre order prices on their new products.  ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.24.20 - 11:04 AM

      That’s awesome. We haven’t heard of WYZE, but we’ll look into them!ReplyCancel

  • suzanne2.24.20 - 1:32 PM

    Hi – I have a programable thermostat and use regular old fashioned timers on the lights I use most often as well as holiday lights (inside and out) and XMAS tree. This age-old setup works fine for me – I realize that I can’t control my blinds (don’t have any) or can’t adjust thermostat from far away (granted this is an advantage). But I just don’t think it is worth letting google/amazon/apple in on my conversations for the rest of my life (only sort of kidding!). Would love to hear your thought on potentially giving up privacy to get this slight added convenience?ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.24.20 - 1:45 PM

      Hi Suzanne, it’s funny, because we recently listened to a podcast on Fresh Air about the privacy thing with Alexa! Yes, Alexa does record what you say to her, but only when she’s ‘listening’ (which is when the blue light is on). Otherwise, it’s essentially a paperweight. We’re not too worried, because life is too short to fret over that, we say!ReplyCancel

  • Michelle2.25.20 - 11:19 AM

    I’m still so confused. So if I want to be able to turn on my exterior lights which are on 2 switches, I could get the Lutron kit you mentioned? I have no alexa or anything but wouldn’t mind having the timer set up or turning them on from my phone so they are on when I pull in to my driveway. I already control ADT from my phone so that would be okay with me. I’m still just not getting it even though you seemed to lay this out well (it’s me, seriously!).  Is all your furniture pushed even further from the wall if you have a device plugged in a wall outlet and something plugged into that?? ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.25.20 - 11:38 AM

      Yes, you need Caseta Lutron for your exact application! It’s a smart switch and you don’t need a hub. For the outlets, it may just your furniture off the wall a little. But ours is under the bed, luckily.

      ETA: I misspoke, you DO need the smart bridge! 🤪 It’s all in the kit linked in the post!ReplyCancel

      • Michelle2.25.20 - 11:57 AM

        one more question (told you it was me!), do I need the bulbs? They’re kind of ugly and I have pretty bulbs in my glass fixtures outside. The way I’m reading it I would need two switches, maybe no bulbs and then both switches would be controlled by the app. Am I getting close? (#mortified)ReplyCancel

        • Kim2.25.20 - 2:17 PM

          You can use your own bulbs! The kit linked here has a little hub that hides away beautifully (it’s so small), and everything is controlled through the switch on the wall or the app.ReplyCancel

  • Stacy2.27.20 - 9:07 PM

    I bought my first smart plug last year and used it for my Christmas tree – the amount of joy I felt coming home/WAKING UP (?!?!) to a lit Christmas tree was completely absurd but it made me so, SO incredibly happy.
    Something you didn’t mention about lights specifically but I think is a great use case is the ability to make it appear as if someone is home when they’re not. Set schedules can look artificial, so a lot of systems have a “random” capability where you can set your timers to have lights on from say, 6-10pm, but in practice the system will activate at 6:05 one day, 5:45 the next, etc. It appears more lived in and can give you peace of mind when you’re away. I used this feature when I was away for a long weekend recently and it definitely made me feel better about things. Something to look into for your systems if you haven’t yet!ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.27.20 - 10:02 PM

      Yes, that is a GREAT point! We use random scheduling at Tree House using our Caseta Lutron switches!ReplyCancel

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