In recent years, home automation has exploded in popularity, with just about every home gadget and appliance offering connectivity. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to separate the deals from the junk with so many choices these days. That’s why I started this site to provide smart home tips for those looking to get started with smart home technology.
I’m Ed Oswald, and I’ve been a tech journalist for nearly two decades. I’ve taken a particular interest in the smart home and have personally tested dozens of devices over the years, installing them throughout my home. All your smart devices can talk to each other, and you can set your devices to react based on certain conditions.
For example, your weather station can help you save on utility and energy costs by turning off your sprinklers when it rains or automatically adjusting your smart thermostat to your individualized comfort preferences. At the same time, you might want your smart bulbs to turn on when motion is detected outside when you’re not home, scaring away potential intruders. Smart security systems keep your property safe, and optional remote monitoring can add 24/7 surveillance of what’s happening at home.
Artificial intelligence is becoming more common in home automation, especially smart thermostats. We’re increasingly seeing this type of functionality in higher-end smart home products and expect that to continue, and smart home devices gain more capabilities at a dizzying pace.
Since this can all be confusing, we’ve created this list of 20 smart home automation tips to help you optimize your setup. Many of these suggestions are based on our own experiences.
Smart Home Tips and Tricks
1) Your network matters.
A solid home networking setup and a strong and reliable network are critical to a smooth-operating smart home. We’ve written a blog on the best Wi-Fi routers for smart homes to steer you in the right direction. You’ll also want to optimize your network: here are five networking tips to implement immediately to improve smart home network performance.
2) Start small, but plan it out first.
While it’s tempting to buy all the smart home technology you can afford immediately, that’s not always the best idea. “Map” out your smart home first: this will give you an idea of what you need and how much you’ll need to budget. Start with only a few devices at first, then build from there. The installation process isn’t always smooth, although it’s improved. See our smart home beginner’s guide for recommendations on where to start.
3) Consider a smart home hub.
While most smart home devices use Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, choosing devices that connect to a dedicated smart hub can save you money and bandwidth on your home network. The smart hub is connected directly to the router, which frees up your Wi-Fi network for other devices. Generally, hub-dependent smart devices are significantly cheaper than their Wi-Fi-enabled counterparts. SmartThings and the Wink Smart Hub are two of the most commonly used.
4) Use a smart speaker (or smart displays).
With so many companies making smart home gadgets, the number of apps you’ll need will be unwieldy before long. Consider using a smart speaker or smart display to control your devices by voice commands. It’s much quicker. Our preference is Amazon Alexa. However, we’ve also published a comparison between Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri, which you might want to read.
5) However, don’t stick with one platform.
When purchasing smart home devices, ensure they are compatible with at least two of the three major smart speaker platforms: Alexa, Google, and Apple HomeKit. This way, if you decide to switch platforms, it’s much less painful, and all your devices are guaranteed to work.
6) Use geofencing.
While the term sounds super complicated, geofencing is pretty simple. When you enter and leave your home, your smart home turns on (or turns off) devices in and around your home based on your settings. This is especially useful in smart thermostats, so you’re not heating or cooling an empty house.
7) Get to know your home’s wiring.
While most smart home devices won’t require you to hardwire them to a source of electricity, some will. In older homes, you may be missing wiring, such as a ground or neutral wire in switches and plugs or the “C” wire to your thermostat. If this is the case, your home’s wiring is incompatible.
8) Opt for smart light switches over smart lights.
Replacing the switches controlling your lights is a better idea in most cases than using a smart bulb. We had to tape over certain switches early on because family members kept using the switch, completely disabling the lights! Old habits die hard, I guess. See our smart lighting guide for suggestions on smart lighting and smart switches.
9) Expect issues.
I’ve used smart home technology for nearly a half-decade now, and while I can tell you things have certainly gotten much better in terms of reliability and performance, there still are hiccups now and then. The great thing is, there’s a supportive community, and chances are somebody’s had the same problem at some point! We cover a few of the most common issues in our smart home troubleshooting guide.
10) Hardwire where possible, or use solar power.
Smart home devices, by and large, are battery-operated. While it’s nice to be able to place these devices anywhere you want, in a large smart home, that’s a lot of batteries to keep up with. Opt for hardwired smart devices: many have backup battery power if the power goes out.
11) IFTTT is your best friend.
IFTTT stands for “If this then that” and is a service that allows you to connect all kinds of smart home devices. Most smart devices aren’t natively compatible with those from other manufacturers, and IFTTT is a way around that. Plus, in our opinion, it makes owning a smart home so much more worth it.
12) Understand how your smart home data is used.
When purchasing a smart home device, make sure you understand how your data from that device is used. For example, a smart thermostat purchased from an electric company might come with the condition it can change its setting during high energy use. While a lot of what’s out there about what these companies collect is exaggerated, there are some things you should know. Our blog on smart home privacy has more.
13) Do not reuse passwords, or better yet, opt for passwordless options.
Keep your smart home secure by selecting complex and unique passwords for your online accounts for the devices you own. If the company offers a passwordless option, use that. This will protect your home from attackers (more on smart home security later in this article).
14) Give your devices unique names.
No, not give them a name like Bob, or Matt, or Kelly (unless you want to). Name each one in their apps by where they are or something identifiable. This makes it much easier to understand what’s happening when you receive a notification, especially from motion or door sensors. Your smart speaker will often use these same names to allow you to control them by voice, so make them easy to say, too.
15) Don’t forget about the outside.
There are so many great outdoor smart devices, from smart sprinklers to robot lawn mowers and smart lighting. While you should build out your indoor smart home setup first, we’ve found our mower and outdoor lights have made our yard secure and well-manicured. It’s a luxury, yes, but it was worth it!
16) Cheap isn’t always bad.
Smart home technology can be expensive, so it’s natural for people to look for ways to save money. But unlike a lot of gadgets, many cheap smart devices are pretty darn good. One of our favorites in this price range is Wyze. The company’s smart gadgets — which include smart bulbs, a smart lock, a smart video doorbell, a smart plug, and more — perform well in our experience, and the customer support is excellent.
17) A smart lighting system is the easiest to install.
Opt for smart lighting if you want to dip your toes in smart home technology. They’re the easiest smart home devices to install and use, and the ability to change colors is fun. It’s also a great place to start as other smart devices can control these lights.
18) Set up routines.
If you find yourself using your smart home devices in a certain way day in and day out, set up a routine to handle them all at once. With Alexa and Google Assistant, they’re called routines; Siri calls them “automations.” This way, a single phrase like “good morning” can control all these devices at once.
19) Be wary of big promises.
While it’s not a big problem among smart device manufacturers, from time to time these companies will make big promises of how “revolutionary” a device is when it’s really not. However, plenty of folks on the internet (us included) actually review these devices to verify those claims. Buying from reputable companies and sellers is a must.
20) Keep your smart home devices up to date.
Most smart home device manufacturers regularly update the firmware for the devices they sell. In our experience, most devices do this automatically. However, it’s worth it from time to time to check to ensure these updates are being downloaded and applied.
Our smart home automation tips aren’t finished… keep reading below!
Building the Best Home Automation System
When you’re building out the perfect smart home, there are some things you need to consider. For example, lighting is one of the most important areas for this technology, so you’ll want to ensure that your lights are a good fit. You can also add in other appliances and devices as well! The great thing about home automation technology is how it’s constantly evolving – this means there will always be new things available for you to take advantage of.
Regarding where to start with building your smart home, the best idea is to start with your lighting. You can pick out individual lights that will be ideal for you in different rooms of your house (you’ll need both bulbs and light fixtures). Afterwards, look at what other appliances may work well for automation – like refrigerators or ovens.
I know that we keep harping on budgetary concerns throughout this guide, but we cannot hide that building a smart home can quickly get pretty expensive (that’s why we started this site to highlight the best smart home deals!). However, there are some excellent lower-cost options out there that work just as well as the big guys.
If you have a limited budget early on, the best smart home gadgets for you will be the ones that have the most immediate usefulness. This is why we recommend either smart lights or a video doorbell early on, as these two devices serve as the basis for your smart home.
Compatibility and Interoperability
Many of the smart home deals you’ll find on our site are part of a larger ecosystem and feature interoperability between their own devices and other brands, either natively or through a service called IFTTT. We highly recommend you stick to brands that offer interoperability with others.
However, brands like Wyze and Ring offer an ecosystem of smart products. This is the easiest way to go, but even these brands are connectable to IFTTT and, through in-app partnerships, allow you to control devices from other brands. Our advice is to build a ” platform agnostic ” smart home system” where all devices play well with other home automation brands.
Your home’s layout
Not many will think of it as something they should consider, but your home’s layout will play a big part in your smart home’s reliability. I’ve found that devices work best in small to medium-sized newer homes, as there are fewer Wi-Fi “dead spots.” Home automation systems are bandwidth hogs and need a stable connection to work well.
This is not to say you can’t make an old home smart (ours is, built in 1928!) or a big mansion smart either, but it will take more planning. With mesh networking, you can answer many of the problems you might encounter. For example, older homes have much more inside (metal piping, plaster walls) that block Wi-Fi, while large dwellings are hard to cover with a single Wi-Fi router.
Available bandwidth on your network and Internet connection
As a general rule, for every 12 smart home devices you have, you should have at least 5Mbps of available internet bandwidth (and at least 10Mbps and likely more if you have video cameras). But within your home, you will need far more bandwidth as these devices (and especially video devices) offer much higher quality streams that can quickly suck up hundreds of Mbps of your network bandwidth.
We recommend buying a router with at least twice the bandwidth you might need today. It might sound like overkill now, but it will prevent the need to spend more money later trying to catch up with your needs. This happened to us early on.
Also, if you can, take anything off the wireless network that you can. If your desktop computer has an ethernet port, use an ethernet cable to plug it in directly to your router. If you’re willing to do a bit of extra work and purchase a mesh networking system, we recommend running cables from your primary node to your accessory nodes will allow them to communicate with each other off the wireless network, opening up bandwidth for Wi-Fi-only devices.
I have a home security system. Do I need smart home technology?
There are many benefits of having a smart home. However, it’s different from other types of homes that aren’t quite so high-tech. For example, home security systems have some connected features but are more security than convenience-oriented. Home automation systems offer advantages far beyond home security.
Smart Speakers: The Perfect Companion for Your Smart Home
While it’s convenient to control your smart home through an app, it’s even more so using smart speakers like Amazon Alexa or Google’s Assistant. For example, you can create a “good night” scene where everything turns off and locks your doors. This is the perfect way to ensure that all of your devices are shut down for the evening.
Alexa vs Google Assistant: Which Virtual Assistant is Right For You?
Amazon Alexa and Google’s virtual assistant are excellent companions to your smart home. You can control all of your devices by voice control, which is an easy way to get things done while you’re busy doing something else. For example, they can assist you while cooking by reading recipes off the internet or giving advice on what spices might go well together in a specific recipe.
Voice assistants are helpful in other parts of your home too. You won’t need switches anymore, as you can turn lights on and off by voice control. Some virtual assistants even learn patterns from using your devices, making home automation super simple.
One downside of Amazon’s Alexa services is that it doesn’t work very well in the Google ecosystem. If you own an Android device or use many Google apps and services, many don’t work well with Alexa. If you’re planning on having an Android-based smart home, we’d choose Google over Alexa for voice control of your home automation system.
Smart Home Disadvantages
With all of these great benefits, it’s easy to think that a smart home has no downsides at all. Unfortunately, there are some minor issues with home automation technology. We’ve already listed some of the issues between Google devices and services using Alexa.
Another disadvantage of a smart home is that they don’t always tell you what’s going wrong. If your lights suddenly stop working, for example, it can be challenging to figure out why. In general, smart home devices are very good at self-diagnosis and recovery – but if you want a little bit more information about what’s going on with the system as a whole, then you might want to wait a bit for the technology to become more user-friendly.
Are smart homes secure?
We get this question a lot. The answer is yes, but you must take action yourself to stay safe. Choose hard-to-guess passwords for your smart home accounts (use multi-factor authentication if it’s available), and share access with only people you trust. Yes, some do track your behavior, but this data is anonymized, so data collectors can’t track it to you.
The actual number of incidents where smart homes are “hacked” is tiny, and many times it has to do with improperly securing your smart home accounts. Connected devices are pretty secure, and home automation technology has improved tremendously in this area.
Home automation systems can be confusing, especially considering there are just so many devices to choose from. We hope you find the site helpful, and if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to comment on our posts or drop us an email. We’ll be happy to help out in any way we can.