The ideal smart home devices for property owners to install
There is so much more to the smart home of 2018 than an Alexa speaker, a Bluetooth door lock and some color-changing light bulbs. But, as we addressed recently at GearBrain, those who live in rented accommodation are restricted with just how smart they can make their homes. Thermostats and locks, for instance, are mostly off the table.
But with your own property things are often quite different. Here, with the freedom to change locks, dig up gardens and even replace the entire plumbing and electrics if you so wish, the limits for smartness go as far as your imagination, or your budget.
What follows is the GearBrain guide to which smart products are available to homeowners. This is by no means a complete list, but serves as an overview of what devices are available, and what can be installed to make your home smart. We'll also address issues with installing devices in shared properties, such a security cameras has a view of your neighbors' driveway, or your video doorbells looks into the shared corridor outside.
Routers, wires and networks
Just like the building itself, your smart home needs to be built on solid foundations. This means your internet connection, home network and — as has increasingly become the case in the last year — a smart speaker like the Google Home and Amazon Echo.
Owners in larger homes or older properties with thick walls should begin by searching for any black spots in their Wi-Fi network coverage. This is because almost all smart home devices rely on a Wi-Fi connection either to your router directly or to a hub plugged into the router. So-called mesh networks can help remove black spots by using several hubs to broadcast Wi-Fi throughout the building.
Installing two or three Google Wifi routers should be enough for most large houses, unless you happen to live in a Scottish castle and demand 4K Netflix in every turret. Small and medium-sized properties might work perfectly with the router offered by your Internet Service Provider, but if coverage is patchy a new mesh network could help your smart home run more smoothly. You might also want to consider installing Ethernet cables, but this isn't as necessary as it once was.
Lastly, it is worth considering replacing your wall outlets with ones fitted with additional USB ports. Or, if your budget won't allow, they pick up a few extension cables with USB ports. If your home is anything like ours, you'll need every last port to keep a house full of smartphones, tablets and other devices powered.
Hubs and smart speakers
Next you will want to buy a hub to control everything through. While this isn't strictly necessary for most of the simpler items - smart lights, locks and cameras can all work with their own hub and app - voice control and automation offered by Amazon and Google are hard to ignore.
The Google Home and Amazon Echo are a good place to start, with the former better at answering questions and internet search queries, while the latter offers a more complete smart home control system. There's nothing stopping you from buying both, but using both systems to control your home will quickly get confusing.
Samsung SmartThings is another option and we suspect the company is aiming for its Bixby assistant to rival Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant for smart home control soon. But for now, SmartThings products can all be controlled by Alexa and Google anyway.
Apple's Siri and HomePod act as a smart home hub of sorts, but for now is severely limited compared to the Echo and Home. The Home app on iOS can be used to control devices like smart lights, but for now Alexa offers a more complete solution.
Once you have picked to go with Amazon or Google, you'll want to buy additional Echo Dot or Google Home Mini speakers and place them throughout the home, where they can hear your instructions and speak back to you. Alternatively, products like light switches by iDevices have Alexa built in — but remember that Alexa run on non-Amazon products does not always have the same features, as is the case with the Sonos One speaker.
As we explained in our guide to smart home tech for renters, lights are among the easiest to install and setup. Unless market leaders like Philips Hue and LIFX don't offer bulbs compatible with your fittings (in which case you'll need to modify yours or install new ones), fitting smart lights is very simple and a great thing to expand on over time.
Home owners have the extra freedom of fitting lights wherever they like, but otherwise this is one area of the smart home which can be enjoyed by just about everyone.
Unlike renters, homeowners are likely more inclined to work on their garden, which is where Philips' new outdoor Hue lighting comes into play. Launched in January and due on sale this summer, the range includes lights for illuminating pathways and one for mounting to your external walls.
Similarly, smart plugs are a great way to make your home smarter without breaking the bank. Plug something like the TP-Link Smart Plug into a wall outlet, connect it to your Wi-Fi network via the included app, plug a device into the smart plug, and that product can now be switched on or off with your phone or, with Alexa and Google Assistant support, your voice.
Just be aware that some devices don't fully power up when switched on at the plug. For example, most televisions fitted to a smart plug will only enter standby mode when powered up, although they will switch off on command.
When installing cameras, be aware of your neighbors' privacyNest
Now we're getting into areas where smart home rents and owners can go down separate paths. Where renters can put a Nokia Home or Netatmo Welcome on a shelf in the hallway, they are likely unable to get landlord permission to fit external cameras to the building. Homeowners have no such issues, so cameras like the Nest Cam Outdoor can be installed to monitor your garden driveway and doors.
However, you should always bear in mind the privacy if your neighbors when setting up security cameras. For example, the house next door might object to your camera if it can see into their lounge, even if your intention was for it to keep an eye on your garage.
Another consideration to make is if you live in an apartment block or other form of shared building. You might own your unit within the building, but a security camera focused on your doorstep will be recording in a private area which is not yours. As such, you should check with the owners or managers of the building before proceeding.
Once you have some cameras set up, you should consider helping them see at night with LIFX's 'night vision' bulbs, which emit invisible infrared light at night, giving bright and clear pictures for any infrared security camera nearby.
Doorbells often need wiring to your home's electrical supply, which is a problem for rents but means property owners can go right ahead and fit a new, smarter alternative. Manufacturers like August, SkyBell, Vivint and Amazon-owned Ring all produce smart doorbells with integrated cameras for seeing who is there and Wi-Fi for alerting you via your smartphone no matter where in the world you are.
The Ring Video Doorbell 2 conveniently can be powered by a wired connection to the house, or by its own rechargeable battery, making it suitable to both renters and owners.
As with security cameras, you should be aware of where the doorbell is pointing, what it can see, and how its recordings are captured, stored and deleted. Doorbell cameras are designed to work best at close range, so a view of a house across the road is unlikely to cause concern, but it might be worth checking with your neighbors to be safe - even if that just means explaining that the device is a doorbell and not a security camera recording 24/7.
You should also check with building management if you own an apartment, as the doorbell camera will likely be facing a communal corridor, and potentially at the front door of someone else just a few feet away.
This is another area where there is some crossover between renters and owners, but not much. Where renters might be able to install something like the August Smart Lock Pro, which uses your existing door and deadbolt, owners have the freedom to fit any option they like. This means other locks from August, or alternatives from Yale, Kwikset, Schlage or whoever you prefer.
Picking a smart lock will depend on what features you want from it, the configuration of your current lock, whether you would consider installing a new deadbolt, and of course which manufacturer you feel most deserves your trust. Some smart locks open with a PIN, others unlock when they detect your smartphone is nearby; some offer an option to grant temporary access to other people, like the clearer, and others work with Amazon's new in-home delivery service, Key.
Now we are firmly into home owning territory, as it is very unlikely that landlords will let a renter fit their property with a new thermostat. Units from Amazon-owned Nest, Honeywell and Tado connect to your Wi-Fi network and control your home's heating. They performa all regular thermostat duties like switching the hot water on according to a schedule, or keeping the house at a set temperature.
But they can also be adjusted remotely via your smartphone, and even alter how their schedule based on your routine, in a bid to lower your energy bills.
Combine a Nest thermostat with If This, Then That (IFTTT) and you can do much more. For example, you can configure the heating to switch on when you are a certain distance from home, rather than when you actually return. Buy a compatible smart fan (or attach a regular one to a smart plug) and IFTTT can switch it on or off when your Nest thermostat reads a certain temperature.
As well as thermostats, German smart home company Tado sells controls for each radiator in your home, so you can adjust the temperature on each using your smart home, or by speaking to Alexa. The system also adjusts based on the weather forecast.
Water leak detection
As fun as it is to control smart lights with Alexa, some aspects of smart home technology are more serious — but potentially worth their weight in gold. One such category is water leak detectors, which at their simplest detect when the floor becomes wet and let you know with a smartphone notification.
More complex systems, like the $850 Phyn announced at CES this year, can automatically shut off your water supply in the event of a leak being detected. Phyn, which is part of the Belkin group (itself recently acquired by iPhone manufacturer Foxconn), monitors your water flow 240 times per second to make sure everything is working correctly. The system learns over time to better tell the difference between regular water flow and a lack of pressure due to a leak.
Smart sprinklers can save you thousands of gallons of waterRachio
For home owners with gardens there are plenty of ways to make your yard smarter and more connected. Products like automatic sprinkler systems can be installed to help keep your lawn and plants fed, but also save you money by not wasting water. A sprinkler controller like the Rachio or Orbit B-hyve fits onto your existing system and can save you thousands of gallons of water every year - in testing, a friend of GearBrain saved 29,000 gallons in 12 months.
Systems like the Rachio split your yard into zones and you can tell a smartphone app what type of soil is in each zone, how much shade there is, and the type of vegetation growing there. You can leave the Rachio to do its thing, or control things manually with the app - or issue commands to Alexa and Google Assistant.
While we are talking about outdoor devices designed to save you money, there's also the solar-powered Mistbox. This is designed to keep your AC cooling unit at the optimum temperature, which results in your AC fan working less hard to push cool air around your home, and saves you money.
Blinds, shades and curtains
Smart blinds are not cheap, often priced at over $300 per blindSomfy
Another one or property owners - not least because of the high installation cost — is motorized window blinds. Manufacturers of such systems include Lutron, Pella, Bali and Wazombi, and they mostly do as you would expect - they raise and lower when you ask.
These systems each have their own physical controllers, but some also hook up to Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri for that extra little living-in-the-future touch. With Alexa and a house full of Lutron Serena blinds you could, for example, say: "Alexa, good morning" and have the blinds all raise, or set them through an Alexa Routine to lower at the same time each evening.
Not only is such a system fun and time-saving, but when combined with automated smart lights, helps give the impression to potential burglars that your property is occupied even what it isn't.
That high cost we alluded to will of course depend on how many windows you have and what material you want to use, but with the cheapest systems starting at around $130 per blind, then quickly heading up to between $300 and $500, they represent a serious investment.
Kitchen and laundry room
Samsung and LG are currently in an arms race over bringing automated, smartphone-controlled tech to every corner of our homes, and that includes the kitchen and laundry room. Samsung, for example, sells a range of smart refrigerators with embedded touch screens and cameras. You can also buy washing machines which tap into the company's SmartThings system, and LG's new ThinQ range includes ovens, washers and dryers with artificial intelligence and Alexa support.
For now, we would be cautious about buying an entire new kitchen suite until the system's features and claimed intelligence are proven to be worthwhile. As ovens and the like are replaced far less frequently than smartphones and even televisions, we wouldn't want to find our oven or washing machine was suddenly out-of-date and lacking its replacements major new features just a year later. It'd be worth consumers holding fire here until the rate of improvement from SmartThings and ThinQ has matured and slowed before investing.