I took the smart home plunge in 2019 when we decided to move forward with a remodeling project. If we’re going to upgrade the basement, why not make our home smarter in the process?
Now, our lights are smart (there’s even a party mode), we order deliveries through a smart speaker. My doorbell tells me when packages arrive, and I can open and close my garage door from another continent (seriously). Our house is slowly becoming the high-tech McFly home from 1989’s Back to the Future II (minus the flying cars and pizza hydrator).
And it’s been a lot of fun in the process. Here’s what I’ve learned while upgrading to a smart home.
YOUR VIRTUAL ASSISTANT
Price: $30 to $200+ per device
My in-laws bought me an Alexa for Christmas in 2016. It was one of the first models of the Echo and it was pretty darn cool. But I had underestimated the power of that thing (and that I would be buying more of them so that Alexa was available in almost every room in the house). A virtual assistant isn’t vital to a smart home, but if you're going to add smart devices, syncing them with Alexa or Google Assistant can allow you to control your smart things without the push of a button.
Price: $10 to $25 per plug (they often come in packages or 2 or 4)
Smart plugs turn any outlet into a switch — that you can turn on or off from anywhere in the world, or just set on a timer. I bought my first smart plug because Amazon threw it in for $5 when I bought an Echo Show (I did that so I could see who was at the front door). I have an espresso machine that I use daily and it doesn’t have an automatic timer; that is, until I connected it into the smart plug and set a timer with Alexa.
Now it turns on at the same time daily and when I’m done with it, I just tell Alexa to turn it off. In addition, if I forget whether I turned the machine off, I can just check my Alexa app (again, from anywhere in the world) and turn it off from there.
With your virtual assistant, you can also program your smart plug to turn on when you get home and off when you leave. It’s nice to not come home to a dark house anymore!
Price: $10 to $50+ per bulb
While you can control existing lights by plugging them into smart plugs, smart bulbs may be an even better option. That’s because smart plugs are typically just on and off. I like to set the mood (most lights in our house have been on dimmers for years), and smart bulbs take “mood” to a whole new level. Most allow you to do the basics, like dim them, but others allow you to change the color and set scenes as well.
In our house, we went with Phillips Hue. They’re not exactly the cheapest option out there (in fact, I think they might be among the most expensive). But I’m a lighting guy and I like what these bulbs can do. Once you install the Hue Hub (it plugs into your home internet) and the Hue app on your phone, the possibilities are endless. You can control each bulb separately, group bulbs into rooms and even create zones, scenes, you name it.
And it all works seamlessly with Alexa. If you’re ever at our house, try saying something like, “go Marquette,” or, “Go Pack.” The lights will change to the team colors! I even paid $3.99 for the hue disco app. It’s a third party-app that uses your phone’s microphone and makes your lights dance to your music, like at a nightclub.
While the color Hue lights are quite the investment (if you go this route, watch for sales — including the starter packs), there are plenty of other less expensive alternatives on the market.
Price: $100 to $200
A truly smart home has doors that you can lock and unlock from your phone. While I’m not there yet, it’s on my list. But I have installed the Ring — a smart doorbell. More and more of our purchases are delivered, so I wanted to make sure I had a camera keeping an eye on things.
Ring was an easy setup (I had it up and running and installed less than an hour after opening the box). It hooks up to your existing doorbell for power and to ring your existing chime. It will also ring your smart phone and your virtual assistant if you’d like. Now, we can see who is at the door and talk to that person with our Echo Show in the kitchen or through our phones (even when we’re not home). As we had the work done on the basement it was amazing to be at work and still answer the door and talk to the workmen who were coming to the house.
If you do get a Ring and want to record what’s happening at your door rather than just drop in from time to time, you’ll need to sign up (and pay for) Ring’s subscription plan. I just have a single doorbell, so I only needed the basic plan, which costs $3 per month or $30 if you pay annually. If you have multiple cameras, you’ll need to upgrade to the plus plan, which costs $10 per month or $100 annually.
While I went with Ring, there are many options, including one from Nest, which makes a similar family of smart home products, most notably the smart thermostat.
Our kids are old enough to be home alone for short periods of time, so this was important to us. We installed a smart garage door opener, which is simply a device that connects to the internet and can open your garage door.
The opener we bought mounts to the ceiling above an existing garage door opener, connects to your home Wi-Fi and functions just like your basic door opener remote. The difference is now I get alerts on my phone whenever the garage door opens or closes, and I can open and close it from anywhere in the world. If the kids forget to close the door (or if I do in the haste of leaving the house), we can check it and close it.
An additional bonus with our garage door opener, you can integrate it with Amazon, allowing deliveries into your garage.
Price: $100 to $200
We had an energy saving programmable thermostat since we moved into our house. A smart thermostat takes your climate control to a whole new level. We went with the Nest, which was a pioneer in the smart thermostat space. The Nest is easily programable based on a time schedule (like the thermostats from the last century). But it also knows when we come and go, meaning it can be more precise about when it’s energy efficient and when it makes us cozy. And you can check the temperature in your house (and change it) from anywhere in the world.
What I also really like about the Nest was the ability to have it run our furnace fan on a regular schedule. Our finished basement tends to get cold. By simply running the fan for 15 minutes every hour during the day (even when we don’t need heat or air conditioning), we’ve managed to keep the basement temperature the same as the rest of the house.
While the Nest was the original smart thermostat, there are any number of competitors today. Honeywell even reminds that it was making round thermostats way before they were cool.
Price: $150 and up
While you can certainly use your Echo or Google Assistant to play music, I’m a bit of an audiophile. I started adding Sonos speakers in late 2018. You can argue Sonos was the original smart speaker and it also has great sound quality. I like that these speakers sync together meaning you can play the same music, from the same device on speakers throughout the house (all without wires). It also works seamlessly with other smart home devices. I started with a Sonos Play:1 two pack (watch for the sales) and I have added several more along with a couple Sonos Connects, which wirelessly link Sonos speakers to my wired home theater.
With my setup, I can play music anywhere (and everywhere) in the house from any device (or service) I choose. What I really like about Sonos is that it doesn’t run through Bluetooth and instead uses your home Wi-Fi.
BE SMART ABOUT YOUR SMART HOME
As you upgrade to your smart home, one of the smartest things you can do is watch for sales. In fact, I don’t think I paid full price for any of my smart home devices. Between Prime Days, Black Friday and many sales in between, I got almost all my smart devices on sale.
Whenever there’s a big sale, you can be sure smart devices will be included. So wait for those sales. Then enjoy dimming the lights, turning the heat down, playing soothing music or telling the door-to-door salesman that you’re not interested, and do it all without getting up from the couch.