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  • John Bell

Tech Sense: Smart Home Automation

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

This month I thought I would start a discussion of home automation and monitoring. Home automation is where devices in our homes do things like control the temperature in our house, turn lights on and off, and lock and unlock our doors. Some of these technologies have been around for many years, like smart thermostats that adjust the temperature settings to save energy when people aren't home, or motion-sensor lighting that turns off in daylight and only turns on at night when motion is detected. These systems are typically autonomous, reacting to input from sensors based on configured values. Modern systems allow remote configuration of the devices and monitoring of their sensors. Home monitoring allows remote monitoring of cameras and sensors, like the motion detectors and temperature and humidity sensors, for example. The big difference between what has existed for a long time and what "smart" systems are capable of today is that the latest systems allow control and monitoring from our cell phones and from voice recognition systems like Amazon's Alexa devices and Google Home.

Alexa and Google Home

Before we discuss types of smart devices, we should discuss voice control. Amazon's Alexa and Google Home devices can often be used to control these smart devices. For example, if I say, "Hey Alexa, turn on living room lights," the lights in my living room that are connect to a smart plug will turn on. The voice command is processed by Amazon through the Alexa interface, and a Wi-Fi command is sent to the smart plug turning the lamp on. This can also be done using a phone or other network-connected device. Before you purchase a smart device, you should make certain it works with your voice devices and smartphones. Most devices work with both Android and iOS.

Smart plugs

Smart plugs are devices that plug into an electrical outlet and can turn the power on and off for the device plugged into the smart plug. These devices normally have a small circuit board inside that connects to the Wi-Fi signal in your house. Many smart plugs connect to a service on the Internet to allow the switch to be turned on and off remotely by an app on a phone over the Internet. These devices will stop working if the company stops supporting the Internet service. Some smart plugs will allow light dimming. Dimming devices should only be used with dimmable lights. Smart plugs can be purchased from $5 to $30.

Smart light bulbs

Smart bulbs are light bulbs that have added circuitry to allow them to be controlled by messages sent via Wi-Fi. The bulb is simply installed into the light socket and then configured to connect to a hub or directly to Wi-Fi. The bulbs will typically accept commands to turn on or off, to dim, or to change colors. Some light bulbs connect directly to the network; others like the Philips Hue smart bulbs may require a hub that connects to the Internet allowing control of the bulbs. The hubs normally support only one brand of bulb. Smart bulbs normally use LED lights internally and can be purchased under $15 for single-color bulbs up to about $50 for multi-color bulbs.

Smart cameras and baby monitors

The old-style security camera that recorded video allowing review at a later time has been replaced by the smart Wi-Fi camera that allows the video stream to be watched in real time on a smartphone as the video is recorded. These newer cameras also support sound, frequently allowing two-way conversations. Night vision cameras are also available with invisible infrared lighting used to illuminate the scene in the dark. Some of these cameras can be moved and zoom in and out using commands from the app on the phone. Most cameras can be configured to only record when motion is detected to minimize the space required to store the video.

Many cameras send the audio and video to the cloud where it is retrieved by the smartphone app. Some companies charge a fee for the cloud storage. If the company providing the cloud storage stops supporting the device or goes out of business, the devices will stop working. If the company's accounts are compromised, then your video recordings may be made public. Even worse, there have been occasions when accounts have been compromised allowing strangers to talk with children being monitored by baby monitors or smart cameras.

Smart cameras can be purchased for indoor or outdoor use. Often, outdoor cameras can be battery powered with batteries lasting as long as one or two years. Smart camera prices range from $20 to over $200 depending on the features and manufacturer.

Smart doorbells

Smart doorbells have recently become very popular due primarily to Amazon's Ring devices. The Ring devices can be used to monitor packages left by the front door. These are essentially smart cameras with a doorbell capability added. The devices allow conversation between a person on the mobile phone app and a person in front of the door. This can give the appearance that a person is at home and responding to the doorbell even when they are away.

Smart thermostats

The popularity of the smart thermostat was started by Nest. Nest designed and created a thermostat that not only learned the characteristics of how long it takes the home to get warmer and cooler, but it also learned the schedules of the residents to determine when the house needed to be warmer or cooler. Smart thermostats typically connect through Wi-Fi and the Internet to a phone app allowing the homeowner to monitor the temperature and humidity and adjust settings as needed. Smart thermostat prices typically run from $125 to $300.

Wrap up

That wraps up this month's column. These devices are all a part of what is known as "The Internet of Things" or IoT devices. In a future column, I will discuss how to be protected from IoT devices.

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