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.
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.
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:
- Bulb-based smart lighting systems
- Switch-based smart lighting systems
- Plug-based smart lighting systems
1| Bulb-Based Smart Lighting System
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
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
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 Smart Home Saves Us More than 30 Hours Over the Course of a Single Year!
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!