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Creating a smart home for beginners

Making your house smarter with home automation

“OK Google, what is a smart home?” You might have heard about home automation in the news. Or maybe friends and neighbors have talked about how they’ve taken steps to make their houses “smart.”

From convenience to safety to fun, there are a lot of benefits to home automation. But you may not know how or where to begin. For instance, what should you do first, choose a smart hub or pick your devices? Do you start with lighting or temperature controls? What’s the best smart home setup?

Without a little background, it can be hard to dive in. That’s why Verizon put together this guide to the basics. As an expert in wireless and fiber-optic networking, Verizon knows a bit about connecting people and devices. So we’ve come up with a few tips and ideas to help you create your own smart home.

What is a smart home?

As with any new technology, there can be some confusion about what’s behind the buzzword. So before we start talking about device compatibility and network technology, let’s try to define “smart home” as simply as we can.

By taking advantage of improvements in networking technologies and innovations in both connected devices and voice recognition, it’s now possible to bring many aspects of your home online – lighting, heating, entryways, entertainment systems and more. Lights that once had to be flipped on and off at the switch can now be commanded by the sound of your voice. And thermostats that had to be adjusted by hand can now be controlled remotely from your smartphone. It’s automation like this – spread throughout an entire house – that makes a home smart. To put it another way, it’s the internet of things in the home.

The best smart home setups include an entire network of intelligent devices, allowing you to effortlessly monitor and control any aspect of your house whether you’re home or away. These intelligent devices – from doorbells to motion sensors to appliances – can be linked via Wi-Fi or a similar cellular frequency to your smartphone or a single wireless hub. And each device can be controlled from your phone or by the sound of your voice through a smart speaker.

But there’s no single smart home concept. Your home can contain as many or as few devices as you want to connect – it’s up to you how complex you want your setup to be.

Now that you have a general idea of what a smart home is, let’s dig into some basics.

What does a smart home do?

A connected home adds convenience and efficiency to your life by helping to automate minor tasks and chores. In other words, it will help you put some of your daily routine on autopilot so you have more time to do the things you love.

How can this technology be applied to your home? You might already be familiar with some common smart home devices – such as smart lights and thermostats. But there’s a whole plethora of devices coming online. Here are some examples of smart home components and what they can do:

  • Lighting – Interior and exterior lights can be commanded by voice, programmed to turn on when you arrive home, or scheduled to come on at dusk and switch off just before sunrise.

  • Entryways – Doors can be locked and unlocked using voice commands. Video doorbells let you see who’s approaching your home. Garage doors can open automatically when you pull into the driveway.

  • Kitchen – Coffee makers can be scheduled to start brewing as you wake up. Dishwashers and washing machines can send you an alert once the cycle is complete.

  • Entertainment – TVs can be controlled with your voice. Stereo systems can be programmed to turn on when you enter a room.

  • Family & pets – Smart indoor cameras can let you know the kids have arrived safely home from school. Intelligent baby monitors allow you to keep an eye on your newborn from the next room. Smart pet feeders let you refill the dog’s bowl when you're away from home.

  • Landscaping – Robotic lawn mowers can mow the lawn for you. (Yes, really.) Sprinkler systems can adjust watering based on the weather.

Almost all of these devices can be controlled from your smartphone, and many of them can be controlled with voice commands through a smart speaker. You’ll need to do some setting up, but once you have everything in place, it works almost like magic.

Here are just two examples of home automation using intelligent devices:

  • Let’s say the hallway to the kids’ room is dark and you can’t reach the light switch since your hands are full with a bunch of their toys. Instead of dropping everything to the floor and fumbling around for the switch in the dark, you could simply tell your smart speaker, “Hey Google, turn on the hallway lights.” And, presto – the lights in your hallway will turn on at your command.

  • Or, imagine you're home with the kids, preparing dinner and waiting for a load of laundry to finish in your smart dryer. With the proper smart-device setup, you can tell Google Assistant to tune to your children’s favorite Netflix show using Google Chromecast Ultra, walk you through a five-star recipe for Chicken Paprikash, and re-run the dryer cycle so your clothes won’t wrinkle while you work on dinner – all without lifting a finger.

To see some concepts come to life, visit the Fios Smart Home page.

A single smart device in your home can do some pretty neat things. But when you start stringing together lists of actions through a smart hub, that’s when it gets really interesting. For instance, you can create an advanced setup where as soon as you pull up to the house after a hard day’s work, the garage door opens, the lights come up and your favorite Spotify station starts playing on your stereo system, all while the thermostat adjusts your home to the perfect temperature for your arrival.

The possibilities are almost endless. Just keep in mind that features vary depending on brand and model of device.

Benefits of smart homes

Let’s face it, having a “home of the future” where things instantly respond to your every command is just kind of awesome. But beyond the obvious cool factor, home automation can make your life more convenient, more secure and more enjoyable. As you begin to create your smart home system, you can focus on just one of these goals or all three.

But, as with any home improvement, there are costs involved. So let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of smart homes.

First, here are some advantages you’ll get to enjoy with a smart house:

  • Convenience – Imagine not having to walk back and forth to flip on a light switch 10, 20, or even 30 times a day. Or trudging up and down stairs to turn the thermostat up, and then down, and then up again. These may sound like minor time-savers, but you’ll quickly get used to the ease of controlling appliances and other devices from your phone or – even more easily – with your voice.

  • Security – Whether you’re home or away, smart devices can bring a sense of security to you and your family. Wireless outdoor security cameras and smart doorbells can tell you when someone is approaching your home. Intelligent smoke and carbon monoxide detectors will alert your mobile device if something’s wrong. When you’re away, control your lighting remotely and monitor indoor security cameras from your phone.

  • Savings – With automated heating, air conditioning and lighting controls, you can save on your electric bill. Schedule the thermostat to use less energy when you’re away and then adjust your home to the perfect temp right before you return. Set exterior lights so that they turn on and off by themselves, without ever worrying if you’ve left something on overnight.

  • Entertainment – Syncing your entertainment system with your streaming libraries lets you enjoy music and video on demand. A song pops into your head and – ta da! – you can command your smart assistant to start streaming it to your stereo system: “Hey Google, play The Safety Dance.”

  • For new parents – Families with a newborn in the house might appreciate having another pair of eyes on the baby. You can add a smart camera in the nursery to let you know when your infant wakes up. There are also smart baby monitors that can send you an alert whenever your little one is crying.

As with any home improvement, it’s important to weigh your costs against your budget before you get started.

On the flip side, here are some of the disadvantages to making your home smart:

  • Time and effort – Even with our tips, creating a setup to your liking and then getting everything to play nicely together can take some time. Luckily, this upfront investment is usually a one-time cost. Once you have things working the way you want, minor tweaks – such as adjusting schedules or times – should be easy to make.

  • Reliance on Wi-Fi – If you’ve ever experienced a slow internet connection caused by devices eating up your bandwidth, imagine how you might feel once your lights and appliances rely upon your home network too. Some internet providers offer gig-speed internet, a service with enough bandwidth to power all of your digital connections. But availability depends on each provider’s technology and coverage area.

  • Technology creep – Smart devices and voice recognition are two rapidly advancing technologies. So the hardware you purchase today may not support the next set of great features that are just about to hit the market. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re the type of person who always needs the latest and greatest devices.

But, for many people, these hurdles are no big deal compared to the idea of having a tricked out home-of-the-future that even Captain Picard would be jealous of.

What is in a smart home?

Typical smart home setups include lighting, thermostats and speakers, all connected by a dedicated smart hub or a smart speaker. But again, it’s really up to you. Your smart home should include components that you will use and enjoy.

Here are some smart devices that you can consider adding to your home:

How do smart devices work?

As we’ve discussed, a smart home is basically a network of connected devices. These devices communicate with each other by transmitting information along a specific, predetermined radio frequency. Wi-Fi is one such frequency, available to anyone who has internet service and a Wi-Fi router.

Other wireless network standards – with names like ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread and WeMo – have popped up to help smart homes work. These standards are billed as being more efficient and less likely to interfere with your existing Wi-Fi connections. But unless you have an advanced setup with lots of battery operated devices, Wi-Fi should be fine for your smart home network. (Many smart devices can operate on Wi-Fi but some do not, so check the specs before you make a purchase.)

An important shopping tip: Before buying a smart device, make sure it’s compatible with your smart hub.

Here’s one smart home challenge you may run into: Not all smart hubs are compatible with each of these wireless standards. So check which standards your smart hub or smart speaker supports and then shop for components accordingly.

How do I make my home smart?

Okay, we hope you’re excited at the concept of a smart home and that your mind is already racing with fun and timesaving automations you can add to your house. If so, great! Now, where to begin?

This is one of those home improvement projects where setting aside a few minutes to plan things at the beginning can wind up paying big dividends down the road, saving you time, money and frustration. Let us guide you through that part and then we’ll get to the fun stuff: adding devices and switching on your smart house.

Step 1: Setting a budget and timeline

There are two ways to go about automating your house: You can add one or two devices at a time, piecing things together as you go along, or you can grab a smart hub and a bunch of devices and add them all at once. It’s the difference between dipping your toe into the pool and diving in head first.

For some people, budget might determine how you go about it. Buying a few smart light bulbs and a smart speaker so you can control them with your voice can cost as little as one hundred dollars. Add a video doorbell, a smart thermostat and a garage door opener, and you’re looking at several hundreds of dollars. Start shopping for new appliances, and – not surprisingly – you’re into the thousands. Other people may just want to see how they like the benefits of automation before spending the time and money to go with a full setup.

No matter which category you fit into, this is a choice you should make before you start buying components since it determines how you’ll control your smart home.

And here’s a word of caution when it comes to buying devices: Let’s face it, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush to buy the latest and greatest gadgets. But smart homes can be an expensive luxury if not planned out properly beforehand. To prevent overspending, why not take a few moments to come up with a budget and think about the devices you really need or want, those that will actually improve your quality of life or save you some money. (On the one hand, a smart thermostat may help reduce your energy bill. On the other, does Lola really need her own automated dog bowl?)

To prevent overspending, take a few minutes to come up with a budget based on the devices you really want.

You can browse different smart home devices and get an idea of their prices at Verizon’s Smart Home Accessories page. That leads into our next decision…

Step 2: Determining what you want your house to do

Before you start spending money on devices, it’s important to ask yourself what your goals are. That is: What do you want your smart home to do for you? Will you be happy with a few basic automations and voice commands to make life easier? Or are you looking to do a full smart home conversion, one where you’ll have the most high-tech home on the block? Each of those takes time and effort, but one more so than the other.

By starting with the end goal in mind, you can build your setup around your needs rather than confining yourself to the capabilities of the devices you purchase along the way. Plus, as we’ll discuss later on, this lets you plan your smart home system so that devices pair together easily, something that may not be possible if you buy things piecemeal.

Step 3: Choosing smart devices for your home

Okay, now that you have your budget and smart home setup in mind, it’s time to start adding devices. At this point you need to decide whether or not you need a smart hub – such as Google Home, Amazon Echo or Samsung SmartThings.

To hub or not to hub?

If you’re going with just one or two devices, say a thermostat and a video doorbell, you can control them using your just smartphone without much hassle. But if you’ll be adding lots of components from different manufacturers, a smart hub is the way to go.

Why? Having a smart hub allows you to control all your components through one single device, rather than switching back and forth between different apps on your phone, which can become a nuisance when you’re dealing with multiple apps.

A smart hub allows you to control all your components with a single device, rather than switching between apps on your phone.

Take the Chicken Paprikash example we discussed earlier. With the proper smart devices you can find a great recipe from the web, stream a Netflix show for the kids in the den and start the dryer using just your voice – all while standing at your kitchen counter. Sounds great, right? But without a smart hub, you’ll need to juggle four or five different apps on your phone to make it all happen: Google for the recipe, Netflix and Chromecast for the kids’ program, the app to turn on the TV and the app that controls the dishwasher. That’s a lot of swiping back and forth.

Without a smart hub, all this app switching can defeat the purpose of setting up a smart home. The right hub will let you command all of these devices by voice, so it can be a sanity-saving investment: “Hey Google, play Dora on the family room TV.”

For basic setups, a smart speaker – like Google Home or Amazon Echo – can serve as your hub. For more advanced setups, those involving location-based automations (actions triggered as you pull up to the house, for example) you’ll need a dedicated smart hub like Samsung SmartThings or Wink.

Here are some of the questions we see asked most often about these devices:

Is Google Home a smart hub?

Google Home is a smart speaker that you can operate with simple voice commands. Among other things, it lets you enjoy your music, manage everyday tasks, and get answers to things you want to know – all hands free. But Google Home can also serve as a smart hub since it’s powered by the Google Assistant. That means you can control your compatible smart devices through Google Home. For example, simply ask Google Home to stream videos to your TV with Chromecast or to turn up your Nest thermostat. For customers who already own one or more Google devices, choosing Google Home as your hub may be a no-brainer.

Is Amazon Echo a smart hub?

Echo is Amazon’s line of smart speakers. These devices, such as the Amazon Echo Show, can act as smart hubs thanks to the Alexa voice assistant that comes built in. Alexa is compatible with many types of smart home devices, including smart plugs, home theater systems, door locks and more, making an Amazon Echo another good choice as a smart hub.

What products work with Google Home?

Over 1,000 smart devices from 150+ popular brands work with Google Home, including the Nest thermostat and the Canary home security system. With so much flexibility built in, Google Home is an excellent choice for your smart hub. Google Home lets you control compatible devices with your voice – lights, security cameras, TVs and others. Plus, it serves as a smart assistant, letting you get your calendar, reminders, information about your commute and more.

Which smart hub is best?

There’s no single best smart hub. It really depends on what products you have in your home. Google Home and Amazon Echo are two popular choices. But if you’re looking to go a step further with home automation, you might want to consider dedicated smart hubs like Samsung SmartThings or the Wink Hub. These can provide even more options for customization.

Of course, some people are more comfortable with certain brands. If you’re a Google fan, let’s say, you may want to stick with Google Assistant and Google Home-enabled products.

If you’re on the fence, here’s a simple way to help you choose: Consider all the devices you want to add to your home and then make sure that the smart hub you’re looking at will support them all. You can find a list of compatible devices on the hub manufacturer’s website. The good news is, if you want to add a new component down the road, products with the same general capabilities are usually available for the major smart home hubs.

Step 4: Now you’re ready to start shopping

Once you’ve made the decision about a smart hub, it’s time to buy your devices.

The number of products available can make your choices seem a bit overwhelming. If you need to narrow things down, limit your search to devices that will sync easily with your smart assistant. For example, if you go with Google Assistant, you may want to stick with Google and Nest devices. (Nest is a part of Google.) Whether you’re using a smart hub or not, this will save you some time and hassle.

Here are just a few components you can add to your home:

  • Smart assistants – Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max.

  • Smart switches for lighting and small appliances – Belkin Wemo Mini Smart Plug.

  • Thermostats – Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Thermostat E.

  • Video doorbells – Nest Hello and Ring Video Doorbell 2.

  • Security devices – Nest Cam Indoor Security Camera and Nest Cam Outdoor Security Camera.

  • Smart speakers – JBL Link 10, JBL Link 20, JBL Link 300 and Bose Solo 5 TV Sound System.

  • Smart streaming – Google Chromecast Ultra.

  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – Google Nest Protect.

And of course, refer back to the smart home concept you’ve drawn up and keep your budget in mind.

Step 5: Setting up your smart home and connected devices

Now we’re ready to get into the nuts and bolts of getting your DIY smart house up and running.

Before you begin

To make this setup process go as smoothly as possible, take a moment to make sure you have what you need to get started:         

1. Free space to open packages and work with the devices;

2. Time set aside to sync things to your phone or hub;

3. A Wi-Fi network that covers your entire house;

4. Most importantly of all, a fast, reliable internet connection with enough bandwidth to handle the demands of all these devices.

For the best smart home experience, make sure you have ample bandwidth and a powerful connection like gigabit internet. That’s because each device in your home will be communicating with the internet, drawing a small share of your home’s bandwidth. And you don’t want your smart assistant slowing down your streaming experience just because it’s updating tomorrow’s weather forecast.

To power your smart home, choose a powerful, reliable internet service like Fios Gigabit Connection. 

Just as importantly, your internet connection needs to be reliable. That’s to prevent the one big drawback that can come with having a connected home: If your internet connection goes down, your entire smart home setup can go down with it. Fortunately for Verizon Fios internet customers, Fios is an incredibly reliable all-fiber network.

Lastly, if there are any spots in your home where Wi-Fi doesn’t reach, consider adding a network extender to expand your Wi-Fi network. That will prevent your devices from zonking out because they’ve lost the Wi-Fi signal from your home network.

Getting your smart home up and running

Now that you’ve got your smart hub (if you chose to add one) and your devices picked out, it’s time to link everything together and get it working.

Even with hundreds of types of devices made by myriad manufacturers, when it comes to adding them to your home many smart devices tend to follow the same basic setup process:

  • Step 1: Download the manufacturer’s app to your phone.

  • Step 2: Turn on the device and link it to your smartphone using the app. Then, if you’re using a smart hub…

  • Step 3: Open the hub’s assistant on your phone and add the new device.

That’s about it. Sounds simple, but as you’ve probably experienced before, linking wireless devices together doesn’t always work without a hitch. If you run into trouble, visit the manufacturer’s website for troubleshooting help or search for how-to’s on YouTube.

Enjoying your smarter home

Once you’ve got everything running through your smart hub – or your phone – it’s time to start enjoying your smarter home.

Now you can do things like:

  • Save yourself from stumbling across a darkened room as you turn on the lights using your voice.

  • Stay comfy as you turn up the thermostat without having to crawl out from under the covers.

  • Smile as you rack up the savings on your heating and air conditioning bill each month.

  • Sleep more soundly knowing you have smart devices monitoring your home and family.

Little smart home advantages like this that can add up to make your life a lot more enjoyable.

If you’d like to go even deeper, look to examples of advanced smart home setups online for inspiration. With smart devices and a location-aware automation system like IFTTT (If This Then That), you can do some pretty amazing things.

And with that, we wish you good luck creating your smart home. Hopefully we’ve demystified some of the jargon around this topic and helped you come up with some concepts of your own. By combining our tips with your imagination, we hope you’ll be able to design a smarter home that you and your family will be able to use and enjoy!