Home automation can make it a lot easier to control your home’s heating, lighting and security from a single, central point. You can also control your home’s automation remotely from your smart phone, allowing you to, for example, switch the lights or heating on when you are on your way home.
There are a lot of smart home tech options available for a range of budgets, but there are a few home automation solutions at the more affordable end of the scale that are well worth considering.
Amazon Echo Smart Assistant
Amazon has become a major force in home automation solutions.
It offers three smart speakers, the Amazon Echo (£90), Amazon Echo Dot (£50) and Amazon Echo Plus (£140). This audio functionality is combined with Amazon’s Alexa voice-enabled smart assistant, and these devices are a great introduction into the world of home automation.
As well as playing music, these devices can answer questions and control other smart devices such as light bulbs or locks.
Effectively these devices provide an affordable ‘central core’. They are mains powered and convenient for everyday use.
Interfacing with Smart Heating, Lighting and Audio
Echo acts as a hub for the other devices in your home automation system. These include Hue, Sonos, Nest and Belkin, among others. They now interface conveniently and you can group activities together.
Once set up, on a cold morning you can be woken up by Dot, which could have previously heated your house via Nest, switched on all the lights downstairs and Radio 4 could be playing softly as you descend the staircase.
It can then switch the coffee percolator on via a Belkin WeMo plug. What’s more, if you hear a suspicious noise downstairs, you can turn on the lights and play loud music to scare any potential intruder away. And thanks to the Nest camera, you could have a video record of the event.
Alexa has two extra dimensions. One is a group of skills, like an app, that can help find your phone or control your television. The other aspect is ‘If This Then That’ or ITTT. You can make a very simple three or four command line programme to lock all your doors, for example.
Multiple devices are required for maximum efficiency. It’s a good idea to put them near door openings so they can be used in multiple rooms.
Setting up the system is not foolproof and it may take several goes to make it work. There is also a tendency for it to stop working when you add a new ‘gadget’. With Sonos speakers, for instance, you have to plug them into your router to initialise them.
Hue lighting needs a small extra router box that plugs into your home router. You then need to add each new light into the Hue system and then separately into the Alexa system. You often need to type in the serial number of each lightbulb and it’s not printed on the box. It is also tiny and you find yourself trying to read it in the dark. Amazon units don’t have memory. So your device may not recognise the command to turn off a light it switched on seconds before.
- Prices start at £50 for the Amazon Echo Dot
Hue lighting works well but takes a little getting used to. The system arrives as a base kit with a hub and three bulbs. You can then replace your other ‘normal’ light bulbs. The bulbs are driven by a small white box that is connected to your router. They can be controlled individually or in ‘moods’. The good news here is that in the absence of an internet signal, they still work via a standard switch.
There is a certain smugness in owning a Hue lighting system because not only can you turn on every light in your house via Alexa, the bulbs are only nine watts, so they also offer energy savings.
- Bulbs cost £25-50 each
Nest offer a few products that are easy to integrate. The most popular is the thermostat, that you can program to switch your heating on and it can even learn when you’re not home and lower the temperature. Of course you can set the temperature via Alexa or your iPhone, but the real brilliance of the Nest range is the Nest Protect smoke alarm that communicates with the thermostat.
At night they illuminate when you pass them. Even better, they warn you before they trigger the loud alarm. But most importantly they turn off the boiler if they detect carbon monoxide, so they even help you sleep better.
Even in the detail their design brilliance shines through. In a ‘standard’ smoke alarm, four screws attach it to the ceiling. In the Nest there is just one.
- £219 for the thermostat
- £109 for the Nest Protect smoke alarm
Sonos makes speakers that stream music so it plays over your internet. Basically you can play something in the living room and sing along in the kitchen or bedroom at the same time using slave speakers. The sound quality is awesome. Sonos 3 has a mini jack input and this is crucial to make it all work together. Currently, if you want to use voice activation via Alexa, it needs to be plugged into your Echo or Dot.
Initially the software was frustrating. You had to drag all of your music into its menu and play it from there. At the end of 2016, Sonos released a software patch that now enables you to play straight from music services such as Spotify. Another future release will allow Sonos to be controlled directly from Alexa by streaming.
Oddly, just as Sonos is due to step into the light, there are rumours about how well the company is doing. They may find themselves in competition with the speakers included in the Amazon Echo.
- Prices start at £199 for the Sonos One speaker.
National Smart Home Month will run throughout October to raise awareness about the life-enhancing benefits of smart home technology. Find out all you need to know about adding smart tech into your home with product and project advice from Real Homes, Homebuilding & Renovating, T3 and TechRadar.