Smart Home Getting Started

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Introduction #

Welcome to the world of smart homes! We’re here to help you create the smart home of your dreams with our smart home guide.

We know that technology can be daunting for people as there is so much choice of devices and brands, and you might feel overwhelmed by it.

We decided to write this guide to help boost your confidence to take that next step into adopting smart home technologies.  We believe very strongly that smart homes should be accessible to all regardless of age, ability or finances, as we know how transformational that they can be especially for the vulnerable in our society.

Our mission is to create a world where smart meets kind®.  It means a lot to us to be able to share our knowledge and have you join us on this mission.  We hope that by boosting your confidence with technology that you can share this kindness with others and help others to become more confident too.

This guide is also available as an ebook. Just click here or the image below to download a copy.

eBook cover - How to Create the Smart Home of Your Dreams

We hope that you enjoy your smart home journey!  Remember you can use all the other guides on our website for free.  There are also additional tips in our regular blog posts and newsletters.  Plus we have a growing library of video tutorials over on our YouTube channel.

We’ve split this guide into five steps that lead you through the basics of the things you need to consider when buying your smart home devices.

  • Decide what matters to you most
  • Sort your security
  • Check your WiFi coverage
  • Choose your control hub
  • Start small and try out these ideas

Finally, we share our top smart home picks to suit those on a budget.  There are of course many solutions and what is right for you is uniquely personal to your preferences and circumstances, but we hope this guide gives you a good starting point.

Decide What Matters to You Most #

The first thing you will want to do is think about what matters to you most.  We’d encourage you to make a list, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Are you worried about the wellbeing of a loved one?
  • Would you like to get more time back by getting organised with shopping and to do lists?
  • Perhaps you’d like your home to be more energy efficient.
  • When the nights get darker would you like your home to know you’re on your way back and turn on an outside light, or light up a hallway when motion is detected.
  • Would you like your heating schedule to adapt according to when you are at home?
  • Do you have a pet at home that you worry about leaving on their own?
  • Perhaps you’ve got secondary school kids and you’re worried about giving them a house key that they might lose.

Smart homes can help with all this and more.  With our help you can create a unique and supporting home environment.  The great thing is that you can prioritise your list to suit your budget and add to your system over time.

Sort Your Security #

Before we get started showing you a bit more about the smart home capabilities, it’s important to talk about security.

One of the top reasons that people site when asked why they are not keen on adopting smart home technology is security.  There is a natural wariness about who has access to your data and how easy it might be for someone to enter your home through the internet connection to the devices you own.  This fear is not helped by some high profile cases where baby monitors and security cameras have been hacked, giving criminals the ability to see inside the home.  And other cases where video feeds from another customers account have accidently been shared to the wrong customer.  We put together a guide in a recent blog article that helps guide you through what you need to do to secure your home network and devices.

Here are our top three tips:

  1. Create a second dedicated network on your router that is separate from the network that your computers are on.
  2. On your router and all devices change the default passwords.  Consider using something like Lastpass to record them.
  3. Register every new device with the manufacturer so that you are on their mailing list for any important update information or security concerns.

Check Your Wifi Coverage #

You may already have a good idea of where the problem spots are in your home for access to WiFi signal.  If not, you can check this by using a mobile phone app such as Network Analyzer.

Improving your home’s WiFi coverage will make a big difference not only when it comes to your smart home devices, but also for using mobile devices around the home and streaming TV services, or making video calls.

If you’ve been with the same internet provider for a while, you may find that a newer model of your router is available which is likely to have better signal capability. So it’s worth contacting your internet provider to see if are eligible for a free upgrade.

If the signal is still an issue the next solution to consider would be purchasing a plug-in WiFi extender.  What an extender does is picks up the signal from your router and boosts it so that it can reach further.  Therefore, when you are choosing a location to plug-in the WiFi extender you should look at positioning it centrally (perhaps in your hallway) between your router and where you need the signal boosted.

We would recommend the Netgear devices, as they are affordably priced and easy to set up.  The EX6120 model has a coverage up to 1200 square feet and can handle up to 20 devices and so is a pretty good choice for most people.

Choose Your Control Hub #

The control hub is essentially the brains of the smart home.  While it is not essential to have a hub device, as some simple systems can be run to talk to each other directly, a hub will provide you with the foundation of your smart home to build-on as you get used to living with the added functionality and as your needs change.

When choosing a hub you will see a variety of technical specifications. For example, there are a number of different ways that smart devices can communicate with each other.  The communication method that we recommend is Zigbee, which is similar to Bluetooth and WiFi and is designed for short-range communications.  It is perfect for smart homes due to its low cost and low power demands.  It’s a good idea to choose a hub that uses Zigbee as this opens up a lot more options when it comes to choosing devices and interconnectivity.  It is a standard that is being adopted by many manufacturers (see the Zigbee Alliance for a list of companies using Zigbee) which means that it is less likely for your devices to have compatibility issues both now and in the future.  This can also help get round issues with poor WiFi signal as each Zigbee device can talk to the next and creates a communication network across the home.

Our favourite devices are the Amazon Echo Alexa voice assistant speakers which have a built-in Zigbee hub.  This is a really affordable solution and saves space too, rather than buying a separate voice assistant and separate hub device.

Other Zigbee based options include the Samsung SmartThings hub and the Tuya Zigbee Smart Gateway Hub.  When choosing a hub you will also need to consider issues such as obsolescence. By this we mean that manufacturers tend to update their designs and can stop supporting older devices.  For that reason it’s always best to buy the latest model for your hub.  We know that Samsung for example are due to stop supporting some of the earlier legacy devices, meaning that customers will need to pay to upgrade and replace their older hub.  This is not always a bad thing as the new devices are likely to have more robust security and better user interfaces and compatibility.  But worth bearing in mind when you are weighing up how much to spend on your control hub.

Start Small and Try Out These Ideas #

Note that any prices quoted were correct at the time of writing (May 2021).  We are an Amazon Associate, therefore if you use any of our links we earn from qualifying purchases. There is no additional cost to you, but by using our links you are supporting us to promote digital inclusion.

There is even more that you could do with your smart home by including additional sensors, such as motion, light levels, humidity and by adding handy button controllers or a video doorbell which we haven’t covered here.

Smart Plugs #

You can convert any traditional plug-in device to a smart device using an adaptor plug.  The only important thing to note is that you will need to leave the socket switched on to be able to control your device remotely.  Most of these plugs work over your WiFi and therefore you can try something like this out without needing to buy a separate control hub.  The WiFi based plugs are also much more affordable than the ones that communicate with Zigbee.

You can buy a set of four WiFi smart plugs for well under £40, whereas the Zigbee smart plugs will cost you a minimum of £30 each.  However, as we said before each Zigbee device improves your smart home connectivity and reduces the amount of traffic on your WiFi, so you may want to spend a bit more for this.

If you already have any remote controlled plug adaptors (the ones that work with infrared or RF control) you can actually link these into your smart home with a device called a Broadlink RM Pro.  This is a little box that you plug in that works like a universal remote, where you can programme and link the devices in a mobile phone app and it is also compatible with Alexa so you can control things with your voice too.  The only disadvantage to this over buying dedicated smart plugs is that you will not be able to see whether a device is on or off.

Many of the smart plug adaptors have additional capability such as monitoring energy demand.  This can be really useful for example if you wanted to know if your washing machine has finished its cycle.

Lights #

Like the smart plugs, there are quite a few options.  The simplest is to insert a smart lightbulb into your existing light fitting.  This, like with the smart plugs, means that in order to use the smart control you will need to leave the light switched on at the wall which can take a bit of getting used to.

And again like the smart plugs there are bulbs that you can buy that don’t require a control hub, or can work over WiFi or our preferred Zigbee.  The bulbs that can work without a hub tend to be more expensive and you might also need to buy additional wireless switches.  WiFi bulbs are the cheapest option, but you may want to spend a bit more to extend your Zigbee coverage and keep the devices that communicate over your WiFi to a minimum.

If changing out your light bulbs doesn’t appeal you can also look at changing your light switch to a smart switch.  You will need an electrician to do this and therefore it becomes a doubly expensive option to buy and pay to fit the device.  If you were thinking about changing your light switches anyway then you might consider upgrading to smart ones at the same time.  A WiFi smart switch typically costs £20-30 each.

There is another option, but this also requires a qualified electrician, where instead you wire in a low cost WiFi adaptor to the back of the light switch that then allows it to turn on and off the light at the switch using the WiFi signal.  This means you can keep your traditional light bulbs and switch, and you don’t need to worry about accidentally switching off the light at the wall.

Heating #

Getting better control over your heating is one of the top reasons why people invest in a smart home.  There is nothing better than being able to switch your heating on remotely and check the temperature of your home when you are away.  Some systems can link to your mobile phone so that your home knows when you are away and adjusts the heating, and can turn it on for you before you get back, so you never come home to a cold house.

We like the systems by Tado, as they have a nice simple design, packed with smart features and the devices are really affordable. You will probably want to purchase a starter pack initially, which will come with the main heating controller and a couple of smart thermostatic radiator valves.  Then once you’re used to how it works you can add additional smart radiator valves.  Adding additional rooms is where the costs can start to add up, but you can look out for deals and buy additional valves when funds allow.  As a guide, a smart thermostatic radiator valve will set you back at least £60 each.

Some energy suppliers are offering smart heating packages to their customers as an add-on to their electricity and gas.  This can be a good way to get a branded system such as Nest or Hive, without having to pay the full upfront cost.  Here are some links to two British Gas and EDF so you can see more about what they offer and the benefits.

We really like this guide from Martin Lewis at the Money Saving Expert site that provides more information on smart heating options.

Our Top Smart Home Picks #

Here is our smart home buying guide to help you get started building your smart home without breaking the bank.

Control Hub #

Amazon Echo Alexa voice assistant smart speaker (£89.99)

There is so much functionality packed into a smart speaker that will help you to get the best out of your home environment, this model is only £50 more than the basic speaker as it includes the smart home control hub as well.

Smart Plugs #

Set of Two Meross Smart WiFi Plugs – with Energy Monitoring (£19.99)

We think smart plugs are a great way to get more control over your existing devices on a very small budget.  These are our favourite as they work with Alexa.  For less than £10 each they are excellent value!

Lights #

Set of Two Warm Light and Multicolour Meross Smart Bulbs (£26.99)

The easiest DIY way to get lights that you can control with your voice and mobile phone is by replacing your existing bulbs with smart bulbs.  The Phillips Hue bulbs are expensive, but these Meross ones offer all the same functionality at a more affordable price.

Heating #

Tado Smart Thermostat Starter Kit – with two radiator valves (£214)

Smart heating control is by far the thing at the top of most people’s smart home wish lists, but they can be expensive.  We love the Tado devices for their minimalistic design and affordable prices.

Still Have Questions? #

If you are still a bit unsure on anything or feel like you’d like help with installing and setting up your new smart home, we’d be happy to help. You can book a free consultation appointment or home visit survey by pressing the button below or contact us​ to discuss further.

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