Smart homes are no longer a thing of the future. Thanks to the rapid rise of connected devices and the Internet of Things, smart homes are very much here to stay. The good news is that they are easily within reach of most individuals who are looking to improve efficiencies in the home and to make everyday tasks a little more convenient.

What is a smart home?

But what exactly is a smart home? A smart home is defined as a home equipped with appliances, lighting, electronic devices, heating and security systems that can be controlled remotely by a mobile device or computer.

And as technology in the home automation market advances, so too do the possibilities for systems and appliances that can be automated. Think smart lighting and blinds, temperature control, access and advanced security control.

All of these wonderfully convenient automations require rules, which are determined by you, the user. Rules can be quite simple, such as ‘turn on the living room lights at 5pm’, or they can be more nuanced, such as ‘turn on the living room lights at 5pm Monday to Friday’. That’s the beauty of home automation – it can be customised to fit in with your routine right down to the smallest detail.

Thanks to the advent of systems like Apple HomeKit and its extensive list of compatible devices, and DIY apps like Yonomi, a smart home is now easier than ever to achieve. But before you set off downloading any apps, keep in mind that there are two different types available.

Proprietary apps: Proprietary apps have been developed by companies specifically for their own home automation devices and systems. This means if you have more than one brand of device, you’ll also have to download their associated apps, which can make things a bit fiddly.

Third-party apps: These apps aim to aggregate the various connected devices in the home – even if they are manufactured by different companies – so that they can communicate with one another. These apps are particularly popular, given that most people start out by purchasing their smart home devices piecemeal.

Where to get started?

While it might seem daunting at first, setting up a DIY smart home is fairly straightforward – if you have the right apps and systems at your disposal. Here are some of the best options to choose from:

HomeKit: HomeKit is Apple’s framework for home automation, and it brings together all of your smart accessories so you can create ‘scenes’ (where you group multiple accessories to work concurrently) and set up bulk commands. Boasting data encryption capabilities, it’s touted as a secure, but also user-friendly framework.

Time-of-day commands means you can set your lights and heating to turn on when you arrive home, while voice commands make it easy to turn appliances on or off while you’re on the go. With HomeKit, it’s possible to manage all of your smart accessories in one central hub, which could be your Apple TV, iPad or iPhone.

HomeKit also boasts a ‘geofence’ feature, whereby a series of automations will be triggered when your iPhone crosses a pre-determined line. For example, you can create a rule that turns on your lights and heating when it detects that you’ve reached the end of your street.

Home is Apple’s dedicated app for controlling all HomeKit-compatible devices (soon to be available), but it can work with other brands that have a bridge, such as Philips hue lighting products.

Where to get it: At the moment, HomeKit relies on third-party apps to control devices, but HomeKit’s dedicated app, Home, will soon be available with iOS 10. Until then, you can look out for HomeKit-compatible devices which are marked with HomeKit labels, and search for the ‘Apps for HomeKit’ collection in the AppStore to download compatible apps.

2--Amazon_EchoAmazon Echo: The Echo is Amazon’s answer to home automation, and is a cylindrical, voice activated speaker that can essentially control your whole home. To get started with Alexa (the Echo’s default ‘wake name’, which can be changed), simply download the Alexa app, connect to the speaker’s Wi-Fi network, and connect to your favourite services like Spotify or Google Calendars. Then, issue a command to Alexa. Whether you want it to play your 90s playlist, find out what meetings you have tomorrow morning, turn off the kitchen lights or turn up the heating, the possibilities for automation are endless.

The Echo works on voice recognition technology and noise-cancelling microphones, so it can hear you even when you aren’t in the same room, or when there’s background noise like the TV. While it might only look like a speaker, the Echo is very flexible, and can integrate with a range of other smarthome hubs and systems, including WeMo, Philips hue, Nest and Samsung’s SmartThings (more on these below).

Alexa is constantly growing and improving, which means more functionalities (or ‘skills’, as Amazon calls them) are being added all the time, mostly thanks to the fact that Amazon opened it up to developers in 2015. These days, Echo has more than 1,400 skills, which you can find out about by simply asking your Echo what new features it has, or browsing the skills section in the Alexa app. Nowadays, Alexa can order an Uber for you, sync with your Fitbit, control your TV remote, and check the weather for you. With the list constantly growing, it’s worth checking in with your Alexa on a regular basis.

Where to get it: The Amazon Echo is not yet available in Australia. As a workaround, you can purchase it from the US, but you will need a US adaptor to plug it in, as well as a US iTunes account to download the Alexa app. For more tips on how to do just that, read this article here.

Google Home: Google’s yet-to-be-released voice-activated home device is Google Home, which uses the cloud-based Google Assistant to help you simplify those everyday tasks around the home and provide entertainment. Just as you do with Siri, you can ask Google Home to tell you the weather forecast, check flight details or your appointments for the day. It can also control your home entertainment and stream music, and act as an Internet of Things controller – think setting timers, controlling lights, and adjusting thermostats.

Google hasn’t released too much information about Home, other than it’s always listening (just like the Echo), and it will respond to voice commands. Lists of compatible hubs and systems are still unknown, as is its release date. It stands in direct competition with the Echo and Apple’s HomeKit, so it will be interesting to see the full list of Google Home’s capabilities and how they stack up against the Echo.

Where to get it: Release date yet to be announced, so watch this space.

Yonomi: This is perhaps the most popular aggregate app currently available, and it was born out of the idea to simplify all of the various smart home accessories one might have in the home. Yonomi is a unifying system that enables all of your smart devices to talk to one another from a user-friendly interface without the need for any additional hubs or devices. It’s been hailed as “the best thing to happen to the Internet of Things” by techAU, and it works with a range of brands including Belkin, Nest and Sonos, with the list of compatible devices continuing to grow.

To get started with Yonomi, all you have to do is download the app and create an account. Yonomi then sets about searching for your connected devices on your Wi-Fi network. Once the devices have been added, you can customise ‘routines’, which determine when and how your devices interact with one another. For example, you can configure Yonomi to turn your bedroom lights off if your phone has been still for a while (like when you’ve fallen asleep), or you can configure it to mute your speakers when you receive a phone call, and turn the music back on when the conversation is over. In-built into the app are Welcome Home and Good Night routines, which you can customise according to your schedule. Geofencing capabilities also mean you can automate things like your heating and kitchen lights to turn on when you’re 500m away from your front door.

Where to get it: Yonomi is available on the AppStore and Google Play.

Philips hue: Philips has produced a range of wireless lighting systems that can be automated and controlled from your smartphone. The lights also feature geofencing technology, so you can set your lights to turn on or off when you’re a certain distance away from home. The app also lets you control the brightness and ambience, play with colours and sync your lighting with music, TV and games.

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Philips hue can be integrated into Apple HomeKit through a bridge, which means you can get all of your Philips hue lights to work alongside your Apple HomeKit technology.

Nest Learning Thermostat: This might be one of the most popular home automation devices, and for good reason. It’s easy to install and its slim design means it’s not so bad on the eye. Plus, there have been reports that the latest model can actually help you save energy and cut energy costs.

Nest learns your household’s heating and cooling preferences, so you don’t have to continuously monitor and adjust the temperature. Over time, it will learn your schedule, and will heat and cool your home according to when you’re home, going to bed and waking up. Using your phone’s location and in-built sensors, it’ll detect when you’ve left the house and switch to Auto-Away mode to save energy.

The Nest app lets you control the thermostat from anywhere, and it also displays an energy consumption dashboard so you can see your monthly and daily use. Nest is compatible with Yonomi, Amazon Echo, HomeKit, Philips hue, WeMo and IFTTTT.

Samsung’s SmartThings: Samsung’s smart home platform is SmartThings, and it features sensors, hubs and a range of connected devices, all of which can be controlled via the smartphone app. To boot, Samsung also plans on introducing smart TVs, fridges, washing machines and other home appliances for even greater levels of convenience.

Getting started with SmartThings is relatively easy. Download the app, connect the SmartThings hub to your internet router, and start connecting your devices. It’s compatible with a vast array of different products, and is constantly expanding its capabilities to connect with non-SmartThings devices, so it’s likely you’ll be able to use it with at least some of your existing smart home accessories.

One of SmartThing’s more playful devices is SleepSense, which is a disk-like sensor that’s placed under your mattress and turns off your TV and bedroom lights when it senses that you’ve fallen asleep. Conversely, when you wake up, it can turn on your television and open your blinds.

Given that Samsung is a huge manufacturer of phones and home appliances, it’s likely they’re going to produce some very smart devices indeed. With plans to open up the platform to any wireless technology of any brand, it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be a fairly popular system. At the moment, SmartThings has its own hub, but Samsung has announced that they plan to introduce the TV as its smart home hub in the near future.

4--WeMoBelkin WeMo: Lights are often the first thing that many people automate in their home, and Belkin makes this easy (and fun) to do. There’s no need for permanent installation, so you can use them in your rental property or take them with you when you move. WeMo uses your home Wi-Fi and doesn’t require a central hub, plus, it has its own smartphone app. It can also integrate with an array of smart home systems, including Yonomi and IFTTT.

The WeMo home automation switch and motion sensor bundle gives you wireless control of your home appliances and electronics. Simply plug the sensor into an outlet, and it’ll send a signal to turn the connected device on or off when it senses any motion. You can do the same for the lights throughout your house.

Where to get it: The app is available on Android via the Google Play store.

IFTTT (If This, Then That): IFTTT is a free web-based service that lets your gadgets communicate with one another through chains of conditional statements called “recipes”. Essentially, it connects two services together so that when something happens with one service, it triggers an action to take place on the other service.

For devices and systems to work with IFTTT, they must have an IFTTT channel. Some smart home devices with IFTTT channels include Philips hue, Belkin’s WeMo, Nest Learning Thermostat, and Samsung’s SmartThings. The weather channel is also a popular IFTTT channel, given that you can set it to communicate with your thermostat.

IFTTT boasts that it can “improve your home’s IQ” with an array of automations including lighting up your house at sunset, detecting when you’re leaving work and switching on the heating, brewing a coffee in the morning before you get out of bed, and automatically arming your house alarm.

IFTTT is ideal for very simple tasks – there isn’t much room for flexibility so you have to work within the framework it offers, or combine it with another system for increased capability.

To get started with IFTTT, create your free account and connect your favourite channels. Then you can browse existing recipes or choose some from the featured section. Given that new channels are being added all the time, this is a good place to start looking and to gain inspiration from other IFTTT users. Recipes are easy to add to your account, and you can also configure your own. For example, if it rains, then you can program your lighting hue to turn blue, or if you’re leaving a certain area, you can automate your heating to turn on.

Where to get it: Via the IFTTT website or the AppStore and Google Play.

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When is it time to go pro?

Like many things in the home, there will come a time when it’s best to leave it to the professionals. DIY home automation using these apps, systems and devices can be easy to start out with, but things can get tricky if you’re looking to integrate more sophisticated capabilities like home security or whole-house music. You’re also somewhat limited in terms of customisation and how many rules or scenes you can create.

The best way to decide whether to go down the professional route or not is to first work out what kind of features and functionality you want, and then decide on which apps or systems to use. If you just want to control a few lights in the home, then you’re probably safe doing it as a DIY project. However, if you’re looking to integrate smart lights with in-built switches throughout your whole house while customising your lighting load, or installing a home security system with cameras, sensors and alarm functionalities, it’s advisable to consult a professional who is familiar with the ins-and-outs of the required technology. Not only can they fully customise your smart home, but they’ll also be able to provide full training and support following installation.

If you’d like to know more about professional home automation, you can get in touch with our experts here at Urban Intelligence.

Where to next?

If you’re still not convinced that home automation is more than just a gimmick, then consider this: by 2020, we should see the number of connected devices reach 20.8 billion, making the market worth something along the lines of $4.24 trillion. Soon, it’ll be hard to find home appliances and devices that aren’t connected. TVs, locks, thermostats, even fridges and dishwashers are all heading in that direction. And as more manufacturers jump on the home automation bandwagon, we’ll see quality improve and prices go down, making it even more accessible to the mass market, so watch this space.