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5 things I learned while building my smart home

Integrating smart devices into your home is still more complicated than it needs to be, but the technology is improving. Here are a handful of lessons I've learned along the way.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
Westend61/Getty Images

Dr. Frankenstein would be proud of my smart home. Like the not-so-good doctor, I built this surprisingly capable, if occasionally awkward creature myself, using parts I collected from here and there.

Our smart home has a bunch of lighting hardware as well as a connector to our smart thermostat and our smart TVs (one Samsung, one Roku).

Also: Smart home starter pack: 5 devices that will make your life easier

I didn't have a plan when I started this project. Instead, I've made everything up along the way. And during that adventure, I learned a few lessons.

1. Lighting is the killer app

With conventional lighting fixtures, it's nearly impossible to set a mood properly. Lamps with a single bulb at a single fixed wattage offer one level of illumination, take it or leave it. Three-way bulbs and dimmers allow slightly better control over the lighting in a space, but it's still challenging to get things just right.

This is where smart lighting, uh, shines. Add smart bulbs to any fixture and you have nearly infinite control over the intensity of that light, and even (with the right bulbs) over its color and warmth. For fixtures where smart bulbs aren't appropriate, a smart switch capable of connecting to the network via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth adds the same capabilities.

Our mishmash of smart lighting hardware includes a dozen Philips Hue bulbs and two Hue lightstrips, smart Wi-Fi switches from Kasa and Lutron, a custom illuminated mirror in the main bathroom, and one oddball Govee lamp in a corner of my office.

It took four separate apps to set up and configure that motley crew, but once the initial configuration was out of the way, we were able to control everything with the Google Home app or by using voice commands to talk to the Google Assistant. With the help of Google Home automations, we've even created custom lighting schemes for dining, watching TV, and bedtime. Thanks to presence detection, the lights are smart enough to turn off when everyone has left the house and turn back on automatically when someone returns.

2. Physical switches are still a must

It's absolutely delightful to be able to turn a light off or set a precise dimming level with a simple voice command or a tap on a smartphone app. But what happens when your internet connection is interrupted? That's when physical switches that work over local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections are essential. The Google Assistant (or Alexa or Siri) might be unreachable, but as long as there's power, you can still get up and hit the switches just like in the old days.

Also: How I made my home smart on a budget (and how you can, too)

Our Kasa and Lutron switches still work even when the only network is local, as does any bulb or lightstrip connected to the Hue hub. Thankfully, internet outages are rare in our neighborhood, but you'll still want to make sure you have a backup plan for lighting when the network is down.

3. Smart locks and security systems are an expensive luxury

After we signed the papers to buy our current home, I briefly considered replacing the electronic front door lock with a smart version that could open with the help of a smartphone app. And then I asked myself, "Why do you want to do this?"

Also: The best smart locks for a secure home

I didn't have a good answer to that question, which is why we still have that same not-smart Kwikset lock on the front door. You can open the door by using a key or by entering one of three numeric codes I've programmed in (I can easily change any of those codes if I think it's been compromised). It locks itself automatically after 30 seconds, so I never have to get up in the middle of the night because I'm afraid I left it unlocked. I change the batteries and the "random visitor" code every year, and I honestly can't see a reason to replace that middlebrow tech with something that's controlled by an app. One smart security-related addition I will probably incorporate soon is a smart doorbell with camera.

4. Smart hubs are still an emerging standard

If I were building a custom home from the foundation up, I would totally spec it out so that everything was controlled by a single smart hub running a modern protocol.

Our electrician waxed rhapsodic about his Lutron-based system, but it would have cost thousands of dollars to emulate that environment in our apartment, and I still would have had to integrate Hue bulbs into the system for use in table lamps. I also looked at Samsung's SmartThings, but at the time it didn't support the hardware we had already invested in.

Also: The 4 best smart hubs: Get smart about home control

Matter? This emerging industry standard sounds great and is supported by every smart home heavyweight (including Apple, Google, and Amazon), but devices that work with the standard are just beginning to hit the market.

Maybe in a few years, I'll be able to migrate our existing infrastructure to a Matter-compatible system (Samsung's new SmartThings Station, which is ZDNET's pick for best smart home device overall, looks promising), but for now, I'm content to watch and wait.

5. Choosing a smart assistant is crucial

"Welcome to your smart home. Will you be using Apple, Google, or Amazon?"

That should be in the welcome packet when you move to a new home. If you already have a significant investment in Apple HomeKit devices or Alexa-enabled hardware from Amazon, then your path forward is already set. For us, the choice was easy. We have Google Nest hubs in every room, and every smart home app is able to tie into that infrastructure.

Also: The best home automation systems

Smart home technology still requires a fair amount of tinkering and manual setup, but once you get past those steps, it's relatively easy to use and expand. Maybe, just maybe, the widespread adoption of new standards like Matter will mean you don't have to be a mad scientist to make all this stuff work.

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