Does your home really need smart home technology?


Smart technology is all the rage these days. In fact, many security experts would argue that if you don’t have access to smart technology, then you’re putting your home, your family and your valuable possessions at unnecessary risk. There’s no doubt that smart technologies have transformed home security, making it more accessible, and reasonably affordable, to the wider population, but is smart technology really such a game changer?

Well, before you take the plunge and sign on the dotted line for smart home technology, there’s one burning question you need to ask yourself, and it’s this: does my home really need the sophistication of expensive technological monitoring and control, or are there cheaper alternative home security options available which will do the job just as effectively for a fraction of the price? Hopefully the following information might offer you some guidance on the matter.

What is a Smart home?

The simple answer to that is that a smart home, or smart house, is a home that incorporates advanced automation systems to provide the occupiers with sophisticated monitoring and control over the building’s functions. What sort of controllable functions exactly? Well, functions like    lighting, temperature, multi-media, security and window and door operations.

What does smart home technology do?

A smart home security system connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you monitor and control your security devices using your smartphone and an app. Using advanced automation technologies, home owners are provided with intelligent feedback and information which they can then use to monitor many aspects of the home. What sort of levels of control does smart technology deliver? Well, advanced smart home technology can enable your home refrigerator to catalogue its contents, suggest menus, recommend healthy alternatives, and even order replacements as food is consumed. Smart home technology can even take care of feeding the cat and watering the plants should you so wish.

How does smart home technology work?

As previously mentioned, a smart home security system connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you monitor and control your security devices using your smartphone and an app. The Internet of Things (IoT) has helped significantly in this regard, making it easier than ever to set up a smart house where you can remotely control your door locks, lights, thermostats, vacuums, lawnmowers, and even pet feeders, by simply using your smartphone and an app. It’s also made it simpler, and it’s fair to say, relatively affordable, to monitor your home from pretty much anywhere.

Any smart security system worth its salt offers components that work together in a seamless environment which can then be manipulated using customised rules. For example, you can create customised rules to have the lights turn on when motion is detected, have your doors unlock when a smoke alarm goes off, and have a camera begin recording when a sensor is triggered.

What about storing recording?

Some systems store recorded video locally on an SD card or a solid state drive, while others offer cloud storage. Locally stored video is a good choice for home-installers working on a budget: however, it’s important to be careful what you do with the recordings as you won’t want to overwrite video that you might need later. Cloud storage is overall a much better bet for longer term storage as it makes it easier to store and access recorded video on demand. However, it can be expensive and can cost lots of money over the course of a year depending on your subscription.

Is smart home technology expensive?

The answer is it all depends on what system/systems you chose, and who installs them. Smart security systems are highly customisable and available as do-it-yourself kits or as full-blown setups that include professional installation and monitoring. If you choose a basic system and install it yourself, then you will be able to keep the costs down. If you choose a state-of-the-art system and have it installed by professionals, then the costs will be considerable.

There’s also the issue of monitoring, and its associated costs, to be factored into the equation. Depending on your needs you can opt for a system that you monitor yourself, or you can pay a subscription fee to have your home watched over and monitored by professionals all day, every day. They will then contact the local fire and police department if, and when, an alarm is triggered. As with all things in life though: you only get what you pay for: so if you want the greatest and most comprehensive coverage, you will naturally have to pay more.

What sort of smart technology options are available?

The most basic entry-level systems typically include a couple of door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a hub that communicates with these devices using one or more wireless protocols like Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, or a proprietary mesh network. You can add additional door, motion, and window sensors to provide coverage for your entire house and build a comprehensive system that includes door locks, garage door openers, indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, lights, sirens, smoke/CO detectors, water sensors and more. Advanced smart home systems will control everything, but unfortunately these systems are anything but cheap. At the end of the day, only you can decide just how much you’re willing to pay for safety and peace of mind.

Nearly all of the latest DIY and high-end home security systems offer support for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and in some cases Apple Siri, which allows you to unlock doors, change thermostat settings, open the garage, and arm or disarm your system with a spoken command to a connected device like an Amazon Echo or a Google Home speaker. Many also offer support for IFTTT (If This Then That) applets, which use triggers from IFTTT-compatible web services and devices to create an action. For example, you can create an applet that says if my garage door is opened, turn on the floodlight.

What part do apps play in the smart home?

Mobile apps let you use your smartphone as your command centre to arm and disarm the system, create rules, add and delete components and receive push notifications when alarms are triggered. Most apps also allow you to do things like view live and recorded video, lock and unlock doors, change thermostat settings, and silence alarms. Some apps will even use your phone’s location services to automatically arm and disarm the system according to your physical location. The more expensive systems usually come with a wall-mounted panel that acts as a communications hub, with a touch-screen display that allows you to do everything the app does, as well as communicate with a professional monitoring service when an alarm is triggered.

Smart homes: DIY or Professional Installation?

Do-it-yourself

Do-it-yourself setups are ideal for homeowners working on a budget because they can save you a small fortune on installation charges and subscription fees. What’s the catch? Well, there isn’t one really, other than the fact that do-it-yourself setups will, by their very nature, be more functional and basic: still, that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile.  Most DIY systems are easy to install and configure and are sold as kits that you can configure to suit your own specific needs. As your needs change and grow you can order additional sensors and other components when required and pair them to the system in a matter of minutes. Basic entry-level DIY systems may only support one or two wireless protocols and usually offer a limited selection of add-on components; while more expensive DIY systems will support multiple wireless protocols and are compatible with dozens of add-on components.

Some DIY systems are self-monitored, which means you’ll receive the alerts when devices are triggered, but the onus is then on you to contact the local authorities if there’s an attempted break-in or a fire. However, more and more DIY vendors are now also offering professional monitoring services: some require a contract, whilst some allow you to pay as you go so you’re only being monitored when you need it, such as when you’re away on holiday.

Professional set ups

While many systems use wireless components that are installed using double-back tape, some high-end systems use components that require professional installation. These advanced systems typically cost considerably more than DIY systems and offer 24/7 professional monitoring. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that you may, as part of the deal, have to enter into a multi-year contract and pay a hefty termination fee if you break the terms. Professionally installed high-end smart home systems usually contain RF, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and Z-Wave radios, allowing them to communicate with and control a multitude of components including door and window sensors, door locks, glass break detectors, indoor and outdoor cameras, light switches, motion and water detectors, smoke/CO2 alarms, thermostats, video doorbells, and a host of other home automation devices.

With a professionally monitored system, when a smoke or intrusion alarm is triggered, an agent will first try to contact the home owner via the two-way control panel before calling your listed phone number. If an occupier fails to respond, the agent will call the authorities to dispatch an emergency responder to the home. How is this beneficial? Well, the principle benefit of a professionally installed system is that everything is taken care of for you: you don’t have to lift a finger. After you’ve placed the, order a technician will come to the home, set everything up and show the home owner how the system works. It’s important to note that in some areas you may need to get permission or a permit to have a security system installed in your home.

Couldn’t I just rely on a security camera or other home security devices instead?

If you’re not ready for a dedicated security system there are plenty of cheaper individual devices available that let you monitor your home from anywhere using your phone or tablet: devices like indoor and outdoor security cameras, video doorbells, and smart locks.

Security Cameras

If you live in a small apartment and want to keep an eye on things when you’re away from the home, a security camera can do the job just as effectively as smart technology but for a lot less money than you’ll be paying for a dedicated security system. Most standalone security cameras connect to your home’s Wi-Fi so you can see what’s going on from your phone or tablet, and most have built-in sensors that detect motion and sound and will send push and email notifications when those sensors are triggered. You can usually tweak the camera’s motion sensitivity to prevent false alarms caused by pet activity or passing cars if the camera is near a window, and you can create a schedule that turns the sensors on and off during certain hours of the day.

Some of the more expensive cameras are also equipped with humidity and temperature sensors and will interact with other connected home devices such as thermostats and smart lighting systems. If you want to save some money, look for a camera with an SD card slot that allows you to record video only when motion or sound is detected, but remember to save your recordings regularly so you don’t unwittingly overwrite them. The alternative, of course, is to purchase a security camera which offers a cloud storage plan.

An outdoor camera is ideal for keeping an eye on what’s happening outside of your home. These devices are weatherproof and typically require a nearby GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet to supply power, although there are a handful of battery-powered models available. Outdoor cameras work in the same way as their indoor counterparts, by connecting to your Wi-Fi network, thereby allowing you to view live video from your phone. They are fairly easy to install, but if you’re not familiar or comfortable with electrical wiring, it’s probably wise to get a professional electrician in to carry out the work.

Most outdoor cameras offer motion detection with push and email notifications, night vision, and cloud storage for event-triggered video, and some also double up as floodlights or porch lights. Some models can even tell the difference between a passing car, an animal, and a person. Look for an outdoor camera that will integrate with other smart home devices such as garage door openers, external sirens, and smart switches if you have them.

Video Doorbells

Video doorbells let you see who is at your door without having to open it or even get close to the door. Video doorbells connect to your Wi-Fi network and will send an alert when someone approaches your doorway. They’ll record video when the doorbell is pressed or when motion is detected, and usually offer two-way audio communication that will allow you to speak with the visitor from anywhere via your phone.

Most video doorbells use your existing doorbell wiring (two low-voltage wires) and are fairly easy to install, but there are battery-powered models available that can be self-installed in a matter of minutes. Some video doorbells work with other smart devices such as door locks and sirens and support IFTTT and Alexa voice commands. If you’re interested in buying one, then look for a model that offers a high resolution (1080p), a wide angle lens (140 to 180 degrees), a night vision range up to 25 feet, and affordable cloud storage for recorded video.

Smart Locks

A smart lock is typically used as a part of a robust smart home security system, however, even if your home does not have full-blown smart technology, it’s still possible to use one.  If you’re using a home automation hub to control things like lighting and thermostats, you can easily add a Z-Wave or ZigBee smart lock to the system. Alternately, if you don’t have a home automation hub, look for a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth lock that comes with its own mobile app. Smart locks use standard pre-drilled holes and are fairly easy to install. Some models use your existing keyed cylinder and deadbolt hardware and attach to the inside of your door, while others will require you remove your existing interior and exterior escutcheons and replace the deadbolt and strike hardware.

A Smart lock can be opened and closed using a mobile app and will send a notification when someone locks or unlocks a door, and most allow you to create permanent and temporary access schedules for family members and friends based on specific hours of the day and days of the week. Features to look for include geofencing, which uses your phone’s location services to lock and unlock the door, voice activation using Siri (HomeKit), Google Home, or Amazon Alexa voice commands, support for IFTTT, and integration with other smart home devices such as video doorbells, outdoor cameras, thermostats, smoke alarms, and connected lighting. There are plenty of smart lock models to choose from, including keyless no-touch locks, touch-screen locks, and combination keyed and touchpad locks.

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