Smart technology ultimate guide for the 21st Century home


If you want to protect your property and live a more eco-friendly existence, then smart technology might just hold the key to your future happiness. Smart technology is the topic everyone’s talking about these days: in fact, the buzz surrounding the technology is so great that the majority of home security experts would maintain that if you don’t have access to all the latest smart gadgets, then you could be putting your home, your family and your valuable possessions at unnecessary risk, and spending your hard-earned money on utilities needlessly.

However, whilst there’s no doubt that smart technologies have transformed home security, making it more accessible and reasonably affordable to the wider population, and revolutionised the way we use our precious energy resources, is smart technology really such a game changer? Can the sophistication offered by such technological monitoring and control really transform our lives? In short does every 21st Century house need to be a smart home, or are there other things out there that can do the job just as effectively, but for a fraction of the price? Well, hopefully the following information might go some way to answering some of those questions.

What exactly is smart technology?

Smart home technology connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you monitor and control both your security and household 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 all sorts of different functions within the home. What sort of levels of control does smart technology deliver? Well, apart from monitoring the security of your home and possessions, advanced smart home technology can also 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?

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.

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, and will let 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 smart technologies are available for the 21st Century home? 

Smart door and window sensors

Door and window sensors are the backbone of any home security system and monitor when and which doors and windows are opened and closed. Door and window security devices are often very similar. Most systems come with a set number of sensors and allow you to add more depending on how many your home might eventually need. Ideally, the sensors should be placed on every door and window in the home. If a door or window gets opened or breached when the alarm is on, the sensor sends a signal to the main control panel and immediately triggers the main alarm.

How do the sensors work?

Door and window sensors are generally supplied in two separate pieces. One piece fits onto the door or window itself, while its counterpart attaches to the frame or the pane of the window. Fixing the sensors is down to personal preferences. Heavy duty adhesive will usually be sufficient to keep the sensors in place: however, although this isn’t strictly necessary, sensors can be screwed directly into the frame or around the window for extra support. It’s important to position the two pieces of the sensor next to each other because they interact when a door or window is moved.

The sensors utilise magnetic fields to track movement between the door or window and the frame. If they separate, such as when the door or window is opened,the sensors send a signal to the alarm panel. The panel then assesses the situation and notifies you of unusual activity inside your home. In the event of a burglary, a professionally monitored home security system will contact the emergency response centre closest to the property to dispatch help.

How many door and window sensors are necessary for adequate and effective home security? Well, that depends on the property and your specific needs and requirements. However, 8 separate sensors on doors and windows should normally offer sufficient security protection for the average home. Once installed you will receive immediate alerts if doors and windows are opened when you’re away or asleep, and get immediate notifications if movement is detected in your home. What’s more, by pairing an alarm  to your door and window motion sensors, you can trigger lights to turn on, or a loud siren to sound, whenever unexpected entry or movement occurs.

Smart motion/heat sensors

A motion sensor is a tool used to detect movement. The device contains an electronic sensor that is triggered by motion, typically used to alert the presence of a moving object within a specific field of view. Motion sensors are often used for security applications, businesses, and homes where the users want to be alerted of any movement in a specific area. Motion detectors are typically small and detect movement by infrared waves; these waves are typically heat waves that radiate from moving objects such as people, cars, and animals. The movement then electronically triggers lighting fixtures to turn on for a set period, depending on the timer used. There are many different types of motion sensors, and while they all perform the same basic function, each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Active Sensors

Active sensors may use infrared energy, radar waves or other methods to sweep the area they cover to detect movement. Once activated, an active sensor sends out pulses of energy and calculates the time the pulses create when their energy reflects off nearby objects. If someone walks into the scanned area, the echo time will change, indicating that someone is moving through the area. When the sensor detects movement beyond its tolerance limits, it will trigger an alarm.

Active sensors are usually the most effective motion detectors, although they require more energy to run and require calibration to prevent false positive results. The sensors that trigger automatic doors in supermarkets and retail stores are often active sensors.

Passive Infrared Sensors

Passive infrared sensors work by measuring the infrared energy of the surrounding environment. All living things give off heat, and these sensors can detect that heat. When a human or animal enters an area covered by passive infrared sensors, the increase in infrared energy tells the sensor that someone, or something, is moving through the area. Users can calibrate these sensors to trigger only at certain levels of infrared heat, to stop them going off in the presence of birds or small animals.

Passive infrared allows you to cover a much larger area with motion sensors and requires less energy, but a slow increase in temperature may or may not trigger a passive detector. These units are common parts of security systems, especially in remote areas.

Beam and Photoelectric Sensors

These motion sensors rely on a focused beam of energy traveling between an emitter and a sensor unit. Whenever something moves between the emitter and sensor, it interrupts this beam and triggers the motion detector. In some cases, this beam may be invisible infrared energy, while less expensive units may use visible light to detect motion. Some passive sensors rely on ambient light to detect movement, only triggering when something passes near enough to the sensor to reduce the amount of light available.

Beam sensors are often the cheapest and most simple form of motion detector, and often cover doors and windows in home security systems. However, they are prone to false positives, and an intruder must step directly into the beam to trigger one of these units.

Smart home hubs

A smart home hub provides a uniform platform through which you can control several smart home devices that wouldn’t normally be able to communicate with each other. A smart hub also lets you automate a lot of processes. Using a smart hub, you can get your lights to turn on, change the temperature on the room thermostat, lower the window blinds when it gets dark, start playing music and unlock your front door on your return from work. But what about simply using your smartphone or smart speaker to do this? Wouldn’t that be just as effective, and cheaper? Well, yes, you can, and it is. Smartphones can do many of the things dedicated hubs can do, and the new generation of smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo can also carry out these tasks. It’s all a matter of preference: the choice is down to you.

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 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.

Smart 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 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 thermostats

Smart thermostats are one of the most popular devices you can buy if you’re building a connected home: however, they should not be confused with smart meters, which send meter readings digitally to your energy supplier. What do smart thermostats do? Well, one of the principal benefits of having a connected smart thermostat is that it lets you set the temperature in your house remotely using your smartphone. However, the benefits of the technology are limited to simply setting heating temperatures remotely: smart thermostats also have other associated benefits too. When a smart thermostat is linked to other smart home devices, like motion sensors and lights, it can save you money in the longer term by reducing your heating and cooling costs, as you won’t be using unnecessary energy when you’re not in the property.

In a traditional non-digital thermostat, you set the temperature on a dial. A thermometer inside the thermostat is connected to metal strip. This strip completes an electrical circuit, that tells your boiler to turn on. As your home heats up, the strip does too. When it gets to the desired temperature, the circuit breaks, as the metal strip has expanded, and moves away from its connectors. The boiler then turns off. When the house cools, the strip does too and clicks back into place: this completes the circuit, so the boiler turns on again. With digital thermostats, the circuit is controlled by a thermometer that shuts off the boiler automatically when the desired temperature is reached.

Smart thermostats are more intelligent pieces of kit which connect both to your boiler – via your existing thermostat wired connection – and your home Wi-Fi network. What that means is that your old boiler can still be work effectively in your smart home. So, there’s no need to shell out unnecessarily on a new boiler with embedded Wi-Fi. Having said that, your boiler will need to be compatible – so check carefully when you are choosing your smart thermostat. The other word of warning that should be mentioned is the question of security – and this applies to all smart devices: make sure you choose a secure password, or someone else might take control of your smart devices remotely, and that could ultimately cost you fare more than you’ll save on your energy bills.

Smoke detectors and heat alarms

What’s the benefit of having smoke detectors and heat alarms in your home? Well, the answer’s self-evident. If there’s smoke, or fire, in your house, a connected smoke detector can alert your smartphone and notify you of the danger, wherever you are. The added benefit of an integrated smart smoke detector is that it can automatically turn on smart lights, making it easier for you, or whoever’s in your house, to get out safely should a fire occur. Monitored home alarm systems will not only warn the property’s occupants about the presence of smoke in the home: they will also warn of about the sources of heat as well. Fire prevention is critical to safety in all homes. That’s why it’s worth investing in heat detectors and incorporating them into home security system.

What types of smoke and hear detectors are available?

There are two main types of smoke detectors: ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. A smoke alarm can use one or both methods, and a heat detector to warn of a fire. The devices are typically powered by a 9-volt battery, a lithium battery or are directly wired into the home mains electricity system.

Ionization Detectors

Ionization detectors have an ionization chamber and a source of ionizing radiation. The source of ionizing radiation is usually a minute quantity of americium-241 – sometimes as little as 1/5000th of a gram.  This provides the source of alpha particles (helium nuclei). In the ionization chamber a battery applies a voltage to the plates – one positive and one negative.  Alpha particles are constantly released by the americium-241, and remove electrons from the atoms in the air, ionizing the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the chamber. The positively-charged oxygen and nitrogen atoms are then attracted to the negative plate and the electrons attracted to the positive plate, generating a small, continuous electric current. When smoke enters the ionization chamber, the smoke particles attach to the ions and neutralize them, stopping them reaching the plate. The subsequent drop in current between the plates triggers the alarm.

Photoelectric detectors

There are a number of photoelectric smoke detector devices, however, in the most commonly used photoelectric unit, light is scattered by smoke particles onto a photocell, initiating an alarm. In this type of detector there is a T-shaped chamber with a light-emitting diode (LED) that shoots a beam of light across the horizontal bar of the T. A photocell, positioned at the bottom of the vertical base of the T, generates a current when it is exposed to light. Under smoke-free conditions, the light beam crosses the top of the T in an uninterrupted straight line, not striking the photocell. However, when smoke is present, the light is scattered by smoke particles, and some of the light is directed down the vertical part of the T striking the photocell. When enough light hits the cell, the current triggers the alarm.

Both ionization and photoelectric detectors are effective smoke sensors. Both types of smoke detectors must pass the same test to be certified as UL smoke detectors. Ionization detectors respond more quickly to flaming fires with smaller combustion particles; photoelectric detectors respond more quickly to smouldering fires. However, steam and high humidity can affect both types of detector, leading to condensation on the circuit board and sensor which will trigger the alarm.  Ionization detectors are generally cheaper than photoelectric detectors but are every bit as effective.

Smart garage door openers

The principal benefit of adding smart technology to your garage door, is that you can control it directly from your smartphone. However, this ability to open and close the door automatically isn’t the only advantage. If the door is opened when you’re not at home, you will also receive a message on your smartphone, so you’ll know if an intruder has broken into your property.  You can also link your smart door opener to smart lights and cameras that will both activate when the garage door is opened.

Infra-Red garage door openers

Infra-red garage door openers work in a similar fashion to TV remote controls. An infra-red signal is sent by the garage door remote control to a receiver inside the garage. The receiver is wired to the garage door opener and in turn, when the remote control is activated, the signal tells the door to open. The sensor switch receivers are usually found just inside the garage door, very close to the ground.

Hard Wired garage door openers

Garage door sensors can also be hard wired into the home, so that before you leave you can open your garage door via a switch, which sends a signal to the remote receiver. The door then opens automatically so that you can drive your car from the garage. At the same time, you can press the remote-control device from your car to close the garage door as you leave.

Smart glass break sensors

Glass break sensors work by listening for a specific acoustic frequency that is generated when glass breaks.  Glass breaks sensors are active whenever your alarm system is armed, so don’t be surprised if your alarm is triggered if you drop and break a glass whilst indoors. The sensors generally have a range of 20 feet in any direction, so one sensor is capable of covering lots of windows in a single room, as long as there are no doors or walls blocking the “sight” of the sensor. It’s therefore much more economical to have a single glass break sensor in a room with multiple windows and a patio door, than it would be to place a door/window sensor on every glass surface in the room.

Wireless glass break sensors can be mounted on walls or ceilings, and don’t have to pointed directly at the glass they are protecting. All they need is a clear line of sight. Wireless technology means glass break sensors can now be installed without drilling and running wires. They can also be moved or adjusted far easier than their wired counterparts.

Smart water sensors

Water ingress and leakage within a home can be devastating and very costly to fix. So, it makes absolute sense to take precautions and stop the problem occurring in the first place. Water sensors offer this extra protection. They will tell you when water is detected in an area where it shouldn’t be.

How do water sensors work?

The principle behind electronic leak detection is that all leaks produce sounds. An electronic leak detection system operates using acoustics.  A water sensor attached to a building’s security system registers the sound made by leaks, picking up sound waves and transmitting their originating site to the security system.  All you need to do is place a moisture sensor in an area of your home that’s prone to leaking or flooding, such as under an old suspect pipe, in a basement, or near a washing machine, and you’ll receive an instant alert on your smartphone soon as water is detected. If you happen to have a siren or smart lights, you can also trigger lights to flash or change colour, or a siren to sound if a leak is detected.

Leaks produce different sound frequencies depending on the type of leak: that is, high-pressure leaks or low-pressure leaks.  An electronic leak detector is equipped with a transducer that is sensitive to sounds coming from the pipe system. If a sound registers on the machine, it is transmitted to the security system at a higher frequency. The amplified leak is then detected and can be attended to immediately following detection. An electronic leak detection machine finds leaks in water systems, toilets, drains, industrial pipes, steam pipes, oil pipes and other pipes transporting liquids. The principle of sound is what is used to detect leaks in pipes using an electronic leak detector

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