What is a smart home?


Tony Sumrall Contributing columnist

Tony Sumrall Contributing columnist


Going back a few weeks to my column on free and paid TV/movie streaming services, CNet recently published a list of the channels each of the major services carry. Handy if you’re looking for a certain channel. It’s at https://go.ttot.link/CNetChannels.

Last week we talked about smart LED lights and I hope you’re better equipped to read about and make your own decisions about color, light output and brand. If you’re on the fence, try one out and if you don’t like it, return it. My smart lights have become almost indispensable. I have them tied in to Google Assistant routines so I can turn them on and off with voice commands plus when I leave and return home they also turn off and on automatically (check out Google Assistant’s help for how to accomplish this last little trick). It’s nice to come home to a lit house.

This week we’ll talk about smart outlets, something else that I really can’t imagine being without. I have a charging station with several USB outlets that is plugged into one of my smart outlets and I have it automatically turn on every day at 4 p.m. and turn off at 10 p.m. When I leave the house it, along with a number of other outlets and lights, automatically turn off so I don’t have to wonder if I remembered to turn them off. The smart outlets I have plug in to a regular outlet but you can get smart outlets that replace a regular outlet if you like. You use the outlet’s app or, in some cases, your preferred assistant (Google, Siri, Amazon) to set them up. Some even report how much power they use.

Different smart outlets have different ways of connecting. Some use WiFi, some use Bluetooth, others use techniques that require the use of a hub or controller and you’ll see terms like Zigbee and Z-wave and Matter. Here is a good discussion of the various options — https://go.ttot.link/ZigbeeVs. The short answer is if you’re only going to have a few devices then WiFi is probably fine, but if you get more than a few they’ll compete with all your other devices for WiFi bandwidth, in which case a hub and Zigbee or one of the other connectivity methods might be worth considering. When you’re shopping, pay attention to these terms. Often, the product description will also tell you if they work directly with Google or Amazon or Siri.

I’ve had smart outlets for quite a few years and have a mixture of brands with various features. All of them integrate with both Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home. When I first started there weren’t many (any?) WiFi smart outlets so I got a hub from SmartThings (https://go.ttot.link/SmartThings) which allowed me to connect and control Zigbee and Z-wave devices, ultimately also interfacing with Google and Amazon’s assistants. I continue to use and prefer SmartThings and generally try to buy products that work with SmartThings.

Where can you find smart outlets? Search Best Buy (use this link to easily search https://go.ttot.link/BestBuyOutlets), Amazon (via this link https://go.ttot.link/AmazonOutlets), and Lowe’s (https://go.ttot.link/LowesOutlets). There are power strips and even outlets safe for outdoor use (Christmas lights, anyone?). If you’re ambitious and enjoy that kind of work, you can even replace some regular outlets in your home with smart ones. But make sure that any you buy are either UL or CE approved (most are but it never hurts to check). Every one I’ve bought has performed as expected. Some have quit working and some have had support dropped, but over the course of 10 years, I expect that to happen.

The outlets are inexpensive enough that I just buy another and swap it in. I care about the power use of a few of the smart outlets I own. Outlets that report power use are more difficult to replace because they’re less common and are more expensive. One that I use regularly is no longer available but there’s a newer model https://go.ttot.link/NeoOutlet. It monitors and reports energy usage, but it’s a Z-wave device so you must have a hub. The outlet has its own timer facilities so you can schedule on and off times using its app, without the hub or smart assistant.

I’ve mentioned hubs but haven’t really gotten into any details about them. What are they and why would you want one? Hubs are the connection point for certain smart devices (smart LED bulbs, smart switches, moisture sensors, motion detectors, open/close sensors, etc). Hubs talk one or more standards (e.g. Zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, WiFi) and connect with and control the devices that connect to it. Amazon’s newest Echo devices include the capability to directly connect with and control Zigbee devices (https://go.ttot.link/EchoZigbee) and then connects them all to your WiFi network. Apple has HomeKit which supports a whole different standard called Thread (which Google also supports with their Nest hub devices). NBC News gave a good synopsis and rundown of what they consider the best smart home hubs (https://go.ttot.link/BestHubs). Personally, I’m quite happy with my SmartThings (now Aeotec) hub. It works with Google Assistant, Amazon Echo and another service, IFTTT (which stands for If This Then That), which gives you the ability to tie together multiple disparate services. But that’s a topic for another column.

Next week I’ll talk about some other smart home devices that you might be interested in. I pretty much stick with outlets and lights but there’s no reason for you to restrict yourself if you’re interested in more automation.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at [email protected] and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L. It should be updated shortly after this column appears online. My links tell me that I’m getting some international readers. Regardless of where you’re from, drop me a quick note and say hi!

Tony Sumrall, a Hillsboro native whose parents ran the former Highland Lanes bowling alley, is a maker with both leadership and technical skills. He’s been in the computing arena since his graduation from Miami University with a bachelor’s degree in systems analysis, working for and with companies ranging in size from five to hundreds of thousands of employees. He holds five patents and lives and thrives in Silicon Valley which feeds his love for all things tech.

Tony Sumrall Contributing columnist
https://www.timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2022/09/web1_Summrall-Tony-mug.jpgTony Sumrall Contributing columnist