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How to build a smart home from scratch

There's much more to smart homes than having a smart speaker and asking Alexa or Google Assistant to play music and answer occasional queries. How much more? Read on.

If you want to smarten up your existing home, the idea is to replace and retrofit lights, plugs, cameras, displays, speakers etc within your existing wiring and interior setup
If you want to smarten up your existing home, the idea is to replace and retrofit lights, plugs, cameras, displays, speakers etc within your existing wiring and interior setup (iStock)

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What do you think of when someone mentions smart devices? Smartphones and smart watches are ubiquitous. And then there are smart cars, smart apparel, smart toys, and well, smart toothbrushes as well. Yet, despite the popularity of smart speakers from the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google and others and a variety of connected and home automation gadgets from technology brands, a lot of people haven’t yet explored smarting up their home and/or office.

Most people buy a smart speaker to have Alexa or Google Assistant play music for them and answer their occasional queries, often just for the fun of it. But there’s more to them. Much more.

Getting started

A smart home is not just about buying a smart speaker and asking the virtual assistant about the weather outside. Of course, they offer considerable value if put to use for seeking news and entertainment, managing calendar and appointments, as well as for to-dos, tasks, and shopping lists.

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The ones with displays, like the Amazon Echo Show or the Google Nest Hub, offer additional functionality and you can even stream your favourite web series on the smart display or have it function like a photo frame when idle.

But that’s just the start. A smart speaker or a smart display becomes much more useful when it talks to smart lights and plugs, new-age appliances, cameras and security locks. And all of this can be augmented by using their corresponding apps to set up schedules and routines and have them act on your behaviour and/or environment. It sounds complex, but really is quite seamless.

But before we get to it, there’s a decision to be made. The ecosystem. Like in smartphones or PCs where you choose between different operating systems, a smart home setup works better if you build within an ecosystem. The choice of the smart speaker is the first piece in the puzzle and broadly the option is between Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. There’s Siri-powered HomePod as well from Apple, but the ecosystem products, especially in India, are hard to find. 

Now, Alexa and Google Assistant doesn’t mean just devices from Amazon and Google, mind you. There are options from the likes of Qubo (a Hero Electronix brand), Xiaomi, and Lenovo as well. So, pick what you prefer in terms of the device as well as the assistant. You might as well want to base your decision based on other devices from those brands that you may already have.

With that out of the way, here’s how you can start building a smart home.

Building a smart home

There are two ways to build automation at home, really.

A new apartment or home can be wired and fitted with smart and connected devices to have a seamless connected home experience with built-in automation and security setup. If you are building a new house or buying one, I’ll recommend you explore this.

However, if you want to smarten up your existing home, the idea is to replace and retrofit lights, plugs, cameras, displays, speakers, and whatever else you need within your existing wiring and interior setup. For example, if a room in your home only has a tubelight but no bulb holder, your option is to have a smart LED baton only even though there are fewer options for those in the market as compared to smart bulbs. 

I moved into a new rented apartment recently and realized that my study only has one bulb holder. Now, most smart bulbs are of limited wattage (mostly <12W) and the light is insufficient for me, so I had to add a smart lamp on my desk. Similarly, what kind of security camera or video doorbell or smart lock you can have depends on your door area and house exterior. You get the drift.

Keeping that in mind, some of the products that you should be looking at are bulbs and lamps, fans, plugs, cameras, bells, locks. Everyone’s familiar with smart bulbs… you can turn them on and off on schedule or via the virtual assistant/mobile app as well as change their colours and brightness. While Phillips was the first brand to push it in the mainstream and still has a wide portfolio, most popular lighting brands in India offer some options in the category. Wipro is pretty good; and there’s the likes of Havells, Syska, and others. There are also some startups like zunpulse and HomeMate exploring the space and tech brands like Xiaomi and realme with limited, but solid, options.

Then there’s fans. Atomberg, an impressive pioneer in the space in India, is pretty good but increasingly more and more traditional fan brands offer smart fan options as well upping from their existing remote-controlled variants.

The plugs are my favourite thing after the smart bulbs. They help schedule devices to power on and off and enable easy control when the wall outlets are at hard-to-reach places. I quite like asking Alexa to turn on my desk light when I enter my study and have my desktop setup and all the peripherals turn to be ready for my daily grind. Additionally, smart plugs help, well, smarten up traditional appliances. I don’t have a smart water geyser, but with a smart plug controlling it, I’ve scheduled it to turn on at a certain time every morning, so I have hot water ready when I wake up. Ditto for things like coffee machines, rice cookers, room heaters, etc. A lot of brands offer smart plugs, including the ones I mentioned above as well as smaller players like Oakter and also Amazon. 

There are also universal remotes like those from Oakter or Crabtree which can be used with your ACs, home theatres, etc. to control the operations via the virtual assistant or the mobile app. Cranking up the temperature on the AC is just one example.

Security is an important need, and CCTVs don’t cut it for home setups. A baby monitoring camera works better in a family with a child while a camera where one can interact with the visitor works better on the door so you can communicate with the delivery persons without leaving your desk or even when you are out and about. Qubo has been focussing on security products with a wide portfolio of cameras and video doorbells. And then there are generic cameras from Xiaomi and realme that would suffice for a lot of people. Again, like in other categories, mainstream brands like Godrej have also ventured in the category now.

Once you’ve got these, progressively, when you buy your next appliance, do explore if you can pick up one which fits into your smart home ecosystem. If you are debating between two air purifiers, maybe pick the one that you can command via Google Assistant or Alexa. Similarly, choose the smart TV or streaming stick that plugs into your smart home. For example, if you have a Google Assistant-based smart home setup, maybe instead of the Amazon Fire TV Stick, you’d want to go for the new realme Smart Google TV Stick or vice-versa.

Level up

Once you get a hang of building automation, the possibilities are endless since there are new things that are coming to the market every day. Some of them are just novelty items for the geeks, but some of the ideas are adopted by mainstream brands or enterprising startups to build useful and popular products. Like those smart toothbrushes that ensure your kids are not skipping on dental hygiene or smart air fresheners (there’s one from Godrej!).

Also, you can build something around the needs of your home and family as you go along. If you’ve got seniors at home, it’s a good idea to invest in smart security products as well as automated lights and fans. I’ve set up a smart plug with the heater in my mom’s room so she can turn it on or off through the day without getting out of bed. If you are out often and have seniors at home alone who don’t keep well, you can set up monitoring for external security and to keep a check on them.

Have a kid? Child monitoring is a very important use-case – right from infants to young kids. I used a baby monitor when my son was born to check if he was sleeping well and not rolling over or crying while I took care of errands around the home. If you have older kids, you can keep a tab on what they are up to around the house, apart from safeguarding their security from any external intruder.

In the kitchen, a smart display is very useful as a hub for all the smart home automation as well as to watch or read recipes online as you bake your first cake or prepare some unpronounceable European dish. You can also switch to a feed from your porch camera to check who’s on the door or keep a tab on your child if they are finished with their snack.

A smart home, like Rome, won’t be built in a day. It’s also an emerging category and has its downsides. There have been several Indian startups in the space that have folded operations, mainstream brands that have rushed middling products to hold on to their market share, and several international players like Yeelight that vanished from the market. It’s disappointing if that happens, but it is what it is.

But when things are working, and they mostly do, it really is a delight. There’s a factor of convenience, some use-cases that you discover as you go along, and let’s be honest, they are also nice things to subtly flaunt when you have guests over. “Oh, want some more fries? ALEXA! Turn on the air frier.”

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