Today’s DIY smart home systems, from companies like SmartThings, Wink, Lowe’s Iris, iRule, Universal Devices, Vera, Insteon and others are fairly easy to install, setup and use. They’re also getting more affordable, so no longer are home automation systems only for the wealthy.
Of course, there’s a difference between what a DIY smart home system can do and what a professionally installed home automation system can do, so if you’re considering doing-it-yourself, then consider these top questions for anyone shopping for their first smart home system.
1. What do I want my DIY smart home automation system to do?
The first consideration is to identify what you actually want your new smart home system to do? Why do you need or want it? Do you want more home security? Many DIY home security systems double as, or overlap with, smart home systems. If home security is a priority, look for systems that are compatible with the necessary security sensors, such as door and window contact sensors, motion and noise detectors, water, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and of course wireless security cameras. If temperature control is your priority, make sure the system supports the home thermostats you want to use, such as the Nest and Honeywell Lyric Wi-Fi thermostats (read more about those here). If you want a system to control your lights, look for one that offers the different kinds of light switches and dimmers you need (and is compatible with the light sources, such as CFL and LED, you need). If you want your system to control audio and video devices, such as your TV and music, then your choices are much more limited, and you may be better off with a professionally installed system.
2. What communications methods does the smart home system use?
Most DIY smart home systems communicate on wireless networks. Sometimes they rely on your home’s Wi-Fi for some features, but mostly they set up their own mesh networks using protocols such as Z-Wave, Zigbee and others. An updated version of Bluetooth is also catching on, and soon Apple’s HomeKit system (read all about Apple HomeKit here) and Thread will be available.
3. How comfortable am I with electrical wiring?
While a lot of the gadgets you can use in a smart home system, including wireless security cameras, motion detectors, smart bulbs and outlet adaptors, are simple plug-and-play devices, others will need a little wiring knowhow. With wiring, there’s always risk (even if it’s just a little) unless you don’t know what you’re doing. Most wireless dimmers and light switches and all smart Wi-Fi thermostats need to be hard-wired into your home. If you’re not comfortable with home electrical wiring, either ask for help, or looks for solutions that don’t need wiring. For instance, this Bluetooth light switch attaches via magnets.
4. How long has the smart home system or company been around?
The explosion of smart home devices that have emerged from crowd-funding campaigns such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo has resulting it great variety and choice for smart home hobbiests. It also has created a lot of start up companies with limited experience in the market. Some of those companies have and will go on to produce great things for the industry, and other will stumble, make mistakes and fail. A certain amount of caution may be required when investing a lot of your home’s security or control to a company that’s only been around a few months. Of course, the same can be said sometimes for large established companies. Still, a track record instills a bit of confidence. Here’s a story of one small smart home company that experienced a significant glitch, but handled it the right way.
5. Does the manufacturer offer all the accessory devices I need?
You need to know what communication systems your smart home hub uses (see #2) because that will dictate what accessory devices you can add to your system. If you go with an Insteon hub (read our review here) you’ll be limited to Insteon accessories (unless you get the upcoming HomeKit Insteon hub); however, Insteon offers such a wide variety that you may be perfectly happy. Some smart home hubs use Z-Wave, some Zigbee and others use a mix.
6. Do I need a system or just individual devices?
Maybe you don’t need a whole smart home system. Maybe all you’re interested in is motorizing a few blinds or wirelessly accessing a security camera or two. If your needs are small, you can happily buy only individual devices and operate them with their individual apps. If you want a more integrated system, then you need a central smart home hub and a centralized app to control all your devices.
7. Can my network support this?
Your home network is going to be critical for any smart home system. The more devices tapping into it, the more Wi-Fi products pulling at it, the more your network will be strained. Read this article for more about maximizing your home network.
8. Do I want to pay a monthly fee?
Some DIY smart home systems require a monthly fee, some like Lowe’s Iris, offer additional services for a fee, and others have no fee at all. Understand how the fees work and what you get for them before you buy any hardware. Generally, the fees cover monitoring of the system for home security, but others, such as Lowe’s Iris, requires a fee before the users can access any of the advanced integration features of the Iris smart home system. Read our Lowe’s Iris review here.
9 Can I do this myself?
Here’s the big question. Do you want to install sensors, light switches, motorized curtains and cameras yourself? Do you feel comfortable spending at least a couple of hours programming scenes, assigning devices to rooms and debugging mistakes? For some people, especially folks who consider themselves smart home hobbyists, that’s half the fun. For others, it may simply better to call a pro and pay the bill. This article may help you decide if you’re ready for a DIY or professionally installed system.