Smarthome 101: How to make your home smarter

by Mark Burstiner | January 28, 2016

We hear an awful lot about smart homes these days. We know about smartphones, smart watches, smart appliances, smart cars, and more. As these separate devices converge around the places we’re in the most, the internet of things rises up around us. The internet of things is just a fancy way of saying that devices that didn’t used to have internet connectivity now do, and they can talk to each other.

How could my refrigerator possibly speak to my lights or phone? Well, lots of devices now have Wi-Fi connectivity. With Wi-Fi, devices can take a step forward and execute tasks that might otherwise need additional interaction on our part. For example, instead of having to check the weather when you go to set your thermostat, Nest will let you know onscreen what it’s like outside so you can inform your decision. Wi-Fi works well for devices that could feasibly maintain a constant connection to a network and are a bit beefier in functionality. For other kinds of devices, we’ll need a different wireless protocol.

For things like connected deadbolt locks, light switches, and the array of sensors you can get for your home, something “lighter” than Wi-Fi works better. Wi-Fi certainly can handle more data but in cases like these you really don’t need all the robustness of it. There are two major platforms devices can utilize for low interference communication: Z-Wave and Zigbee. Z-Wave is a totally proprietary technology controlled by one entity, but there is an alliance in place to ensure it’s broadly adopted. Zigbee is very similar, but it’s open source. Many devices support both, but pay attention to what you pick up and make sure it’s compatible with the rest of what you’ve already got.

There is one more thing worth mentioning. At I/O in 2015, Google announced Brillo and Weave. Brillo is a tiny fork of Android that is stripped down to run on low functionality devices. Google also built its own protocol for devices to speak to one another called Weave. Weave works similarly to Z-Wave and Zigbee, but comes with the added advantage of being built into Brillo, so when devices running Brillo come out, we should expect to see more products with Weave. Of course, we’ll need to make sure we have a hub that will work with Weave. Wait, what? Hub?

Well, yeah, of course. You need somewhere for all of your devices to converge to get a connection to the internet. For example, at home, I have a SmartThings Hub, which supports both Z-Wave and Zigbee. I have a relatively light smart home setup, but you can really go crazy with LIFX bulbs, Raspberry Pis, and more. For me, a Nest and a few switches and sensors is enough. I used to have a Z-Wave Schlage lock but that stayed at my old apartment in Chicago.

Ok, but what can you do with such a setup? Good question. At home, I have it set up so that when the Nest goes from Auto Away to Home, it automatically turns the living room lights on. This is a bit of a finagle, though, using IFTTT, which is another phenomenal tool for home automation. You can also do things like set your locks to lock, lights to go off, and motion sensors activated when you leave the house. When the Nest detects you’ve left, it goes into Auto Away, sends a message to SmartThings telling it to lock the doors, turn off the lights and go into Armed mode. After that it can notify you if the motion sensor detects an intruder.

There’s a plethora of things you can do with smart devices. I can’t wait until we’re far enough along this path that getting out of bed triggers your coffee in the morning, starts your shower, warms your car up a few minutes before you get in, and locks the doors for you on the way out. We’re just getting started, devices are finally started to talk to each other and across multiple platforms. The future is exciting.

Mark Burstiner

Mark is a former entrepreneur from New York by way of Chicago. He's a tech enthusiast and heavy gamer. If it's bleeding edge, he wants it. If it's...