Three ways you can go to make a smart (or smarter) home

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“The Jetsons” future we were promised back in 1962 has finally, mostly, arrived.

A number of Jetsons-style technological home conveniences are already here and a lot of them work better than you might expect.

You can video chat with your boss (Mr. Spacely) on a big video screen. You can look up practically anything and play virtually any piece of music on a tiny device you carry around in your pocket.

We’re not quite at the point where a robot maid can keep your home completely tidy, but we do have robot vacuums, intelligent washer/dryers and virtual voice assistants to help plan your day and even tell you jokes when you need a laugh.

Five or 10 years ago, if you’d asked for recommendations on smart-home gear to automate your living space, I would have suggested saving your money. Back then, gadgets such as Wi-Fi lightbulbs, home smart hubs and smart locks were plagued with operational problems. Often, setting them up was more frustrating than the payoff was worth.

Short of paying someone to come to your house and installing a cohesive smart home system, we were lacking ways to tie all these gadgets together. Smart homes felt like a really dumb idea.

But the rise of smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa-powered products and the Google Home have given connected home products a lot of juice. About 22 percent of U.S. homes own at least one smart speaker, and if 2018 holiday projections hold, that could rise to a third of homes by next year. And, says Steve Koenig, vice president of research for the Consumer Technology Association, home Wi-Fi has gotten a lot better, which makes the gadgets work more reliably.

Steve Koenig is vice president of research for the Consumer Technology Association, a large trade group in the electronics industry.

Consumer Technology Association

That has contributed to a boom in devices from smart thermostats, Wi-Fi security cameras, video doorbells, dimmers and outlets, with sales expected to rise to 41.2 million units this year, a 43 percent increase from 2017, and a $4.6 billion market.

Koenig says homeowners have adopted this tech because, to put it simply, it’s begun to prove itself as valuable. “What’s really resonating is consumers are starting to understand the goal of all these technologies is create these intelligent living spaces that take care of us instead of the opposite,” he said. “Consumers endorse options and they abhor complexity. Amazon Alexa and Google Home digital assistants have kind of become the killer app for the smart home.”

But how to start? Let’s look at three ways you can approach building a smart home, from the simplest and cheapest option to the aspirational luxury model.

Option one: DIY and dipping a toe in

Let’s say you have a few devices you’d like to get more use out of or you are completely new to the concept of smart-home devices. In a nutshell, any gadget that helps automate tasks in your home, whether it’s remote-control blinds or a crockpot with Wi-Fi you can control from miles away, is part of a universe of tech called the Internet of Things.

There are lots of standards and behind-the-scenes mumbo jumbo, but the big take-away is that you want to purchase and use devices that are going to be easy to control, easy to set up and easy to expand upon as your smart-home needs evolve. And you can get started with a few wireless home improvements for about $100-$300 or less, if you start with a single gadget.

Some smart-home devices, such as Phillip’s Hue Wi-Fi bulbs and light fixtures, come with their own controller hub that plugs into your home internet and can be controlled with your smart phone and with remotes. Others, such as the Joule sous vide cooker, connect to your devices via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (or both) without any extra hardware.

The Google Home Mini stands tall as one of the best affordable smart speakers out there. It can control a wide range of smart-home devices with voice commands.

Josh Miller / CNET / TNS

But once you start purchasing enough stand-alone items such as Nest thermostats, Ring video doorbells and Belkin WeMo Smart Plugs (useful for turning on and off plug-in electrical devices from a distance), you’re going to want a way to control it all without opening individual apps for each device.

One approach is to set up widgets on your phone or tablet screen for faster access. Some people control devices via smartwatch apps or a remote control that has smart-home functions, such as Harmony’s line of remotes. Samsung’s SmartThings hub is an example of a hardware/software device meant to control a bunch of different smart-home gadgets in one place for about $70.

As Koenig says, however, it may be voice-activated smart speakers that take a smart home from useful to truly life-changing. Being able to turn on an entire set of home lights by calling out, “Google, turn on living room” or commanding your TV to switch from Netflix to a live sports game by saying, “Alexa, turn on DVR” starts to feel like a payoff for all the years of troublesome technologies.

If you’re on a budget, wait for sales (Black Friday week is a good time to invest in smart-home gadgets) and pace yourself on spending; get used to living with one kind of smart-home tech before you dive into the next add-on.

Once you get started learning about IoT, you may get hooked on finding new tricks for your house or apartment. Check out Austinite Stacey Higginbotham’s “Stacey on IoT” website and “Internet of Things Podcast” at for interviews, reviews and insight on where the industry is headed.

Option two: get some installation help

After six years of working in Apple’s Austin operations, Sunny Sneckner founded a business called Keep Austin Online, a kind of on-demand Genius Bar service for locals in need of computer help. But his businesses led to another business, Smart Hauz, that came about as he noticed more clients getting curious about smart-home tech. So he launched his startup in Austin’s Capital Factory and has worked with The Austonian, Travisso Homes and lots of individual Central Texas homeowners.

Smart Hauz built its own system integrations that run through Apple’s HomeKit and other platforms; it can be programmed to make an iPad screen control and monitor all the devices in a house and plays nice with Amazon Echo, Google Home and traditional wall switches. The platform, he says, is agnostic; it also works with Android phones and tablets.

Sneckner said customers save time and money with smart-home devices. “It’s extending people’s lives. You get more time back in your day and more money in your pocket; it’s a massive improvement in quality of life. Seeing the potential in that was why we focused on it and started Smart Hauz.”

The money savings, Sneckner said, is most evident in smart thermostats that can better regulate energy usage in a home and in LED lighting that uses far less electricity than incandescent and CFL bulbs. CEO Sunny Sneckner, who formerly worked at Apple, founded his Austin-based smart-home installation business when he saw that customers were seeking ways to simplify and control Internet of Things devices in their homes. His company built custom software that uses Apple’s HomeKit, but that also works with Android devices and gadgets such as Amazon’s Alexa. He is pictured on July 26, 2018, at a New Braunfels home his company worked on.

Omar L. Gallaga – American-Statesman Staff

While there are all kinds of ways clients can plan out and extend their smart homes, from whole-home audio systems to smart garage doors, the three most popular, functional items, he said, are “Lights, locks and thermostats. Those are the three legs of the stool that make a smart home ultra functional for people.”

In the past, having a professional install smart-home gear meant having someone run wires in your walls. Now, the systems rely on whole-home Wi-Fi networks that leave no dead spots. “It’s the most important part; it’s the nervous system of the whole home,” Sneckner said. Physical light switches and thermostats are typically some of the only smart-home gadgets that require hard wiring, but some switches even are available as wireless remotes that don’t have to tied to one spot.

Sneckner is philosophical about what makes a good smart home. It shouldn’t blare at you and announce itself, he says. “It shouldn’t say, ‘Oh there’s a robot in the room.’ It should be subtle and elegant, and everything has redundancy.” That means multiple ways to turn on and off devices since not everyone wants to pull out their phone just to turn off a light switch or unlock a door.

As far as pricing, Sneckner said people can dream up a lot of smart-home options, and it can get expensive, especially if they live in a mansion. But for many, a complete and functional smart-home system retrofitted to an existing house is about the cost of a computer.

“Depending on the kind of (Wi-Fi) network they have, a thousand dollars gets you in the door for a starter system,” he said.

Option three: start fresh in a new smart-home

Feel like spending some real money? How’d you like to buy a house?

For many people who are already buying a new home, the path to a smart-home may turn out not to require much thought at all. Some home builders including the nation’s largest, Lennar Corp., are going all-in with these types of technology.

Austin was one of the cities Lennar launched its smart-homes package this year, which includes devices such as the Amazon Echo Show (think Alexa but with a video screen), automated shades, smart lighting and a Ring doorbell as part of an “Everything’s Included” package that also sends out an Amazon expert to set everything up.

D.R. Horton and KB Home are also expanding their smart-home offerings, and in some cases, they upgrades aren’t optional.

Charles Coleman Austin Division President for Lennar communities demonstrates how a Wi-Fi certified smart home runs everything through Amazon’s Alexa technology on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.

Ricardo Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

What are the advantages to leaving the smart-home installation to the builder and its subcontractors? For one thing, it’s likely to be a much neater system without lots of exposed gear. And it will likely include components proven to work together. But you might be missing out on the chance to customize the exact smart-home products you want and when it comes time to upgrade to newer Wi-Fi technologies or new iterations of the same products, you may be on your own to figure out how to do that.

And, let’s face it, buying a new house is very expensive; this option is probably best for people already in the market for a newly built home or who are ready to do some major renovation on an existing property.

Whichever option you choose, you should know that it’s past time to be afraid of smart-home tech. It’s here, it’s useful and it’s a lot less expensive to get started than it was just a few years ago.

Vox Media and Ford’s F-150 division hosted a “House of the Future” event in Austin on Friday, June 22, 2018. The event showcased design, construction and smart-home technology as well as gadgets and auto tech. Ryan Muir / Contributed


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