What is a smart home and do you want one? Parts 1-3, September 1-15, 2022


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 1

What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 2

What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 3


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 1

Sepember 1, 2022

Last week I talked about masked/anonymous/disposable email services. Well, DuckDuckGo just recently opened up their masked email beta to everyone so you can easily create as many anonymous/disposable email addresses as you want or need. It’s an email forwarding service that strips out “trackers” among other things, making the email you receive more secure and protective of your privacy. I’m using it and I encourage everyone else to do so as well. Read more at https://go.ttot.link/DuckDuckGo. The last paragraph of the article tells you how to sign up. When you generate a new address, it’s YOURS and you can start using it immediately so copy it and paste it wherever you need it. If you generate it from the email generation page (https://go.ttot.link/DuckGenerator) it will remain visible on that page until you generate a new one. Now, on to this week’s topic.

What is a “smart home?” There are many definitions with varying levels of technical sophistication. I prefer to keep it simple: a smart home is any place that includes some level of automation. So, by my definition, if you have a furnace in your home with a thermostat that automatically fires your furnace when the temperature goes below a certain level, you have a smart home! Simplistic, I know, but I prefer that to an overly involved definition.

What are some other things you can do to add automation to your home and why would you want to? Remember The Clapper (https://go.ttot.link/TheClapper)? Yes, it’s still available – see your favorite retailer. Well, technology has upgraded things and now you can get a “smart outlet” and a “smart light bulb” both of which can connect with your virtual assistant (e.g. Siri, Alexa, Google) so you can control them with your voice, via their app, or via a “smart home controller” app.

OK, I threw a lot at you in that last paragraph. Let me break it down a bit more. First, smart lights. There are many on the market. All of them that I’m aware of are LEDs which means they consume much less power than the older incandescent bulbs and last MUCH longer. An LED that’s a 100-watt equivalent will use only 10-25 watts. Now stay with me here because I’ve got to give you some technical terms that are used with LEDs so you can buy with knowledge and understanding.

Since LEDs use much less power than standard light bulbs, they tend to be rated in “lumens” (which is a measure of light output) rather than watts. Most sources will quote that a 100-watt incandescent bulb produces between 1500 and 1600 lumens but real world measurements show that, on average, they produce a little under 1400 lumens. I seem to get about as much illumination out of a 75-watt equivalent LED that supposedly produces only 1100-1125 lumens. What does this mean to you? Don’t be afraid to try a 75-watt LED. They’re easier to find and a bit cheaper.

Next is color. Some of the LEDs produce light of a fixed color. You may be used to seeing terms like “daylight” or “warm white.” These terms are actually shorthand for “color temperature” (https://go.ttot.link/ColorTemp) measured in degrees Kelvin. Warm white corresponds roughly to 2700K, daylight to 5000K. The article I linked to shows correspondence between color temperature and environment. Some smart LEDs light up at a given temperature while others allow you to change the temperature and even the color (red, blue, green, etc).

Last thing, I promise. Base. A standard light bulb socket is known as an E26 base. There are other bases and other shapes but if you’re looking to replace a standard light bulb in the lamp on your end table, an E26 base is what you need.

Now that you have that info, what do I use and recommend? I have several LIFX bulbs like https://go.ttot.link/LIFXAmazon. Yes, they’re kinda pricey but they work, out of the box, with all the smart assistants and their app works well for setup and such. They allow you to fully adjust the color output, choosing a color (red, green, etc) or a temperature (2700K for warm white, etc). I tend to stay away from the colors and just go with white color temperatures. I change the temperature as the day goes on starting with a bright white of about 4500K in the morning to wake me up and ending with a warm white of about 2700K at night to watch TV. And if we’re watching something that is fairly dark on the TV, I can turn down the brightness of the LED. All of which I can do with the LIFX app or via my smart assistant using a command like “set color temp to 2700K” or, even better, using a custom command I’ve set up in my assistant like “set dark TV” or “set morning light.”

Other choices? I encourage you to pay attention to the lumen output of any LED. If you want to replace a 60-watt incandescent then 800 lumens is fine but if you’re replacing a 75 or 100 watt bulb, I recommend at least an 100 lumen smart light. Sengled makes a 1500 lumen (100 watt equivalent) multicolor bulb that connects directly to WiFi in a 4 pack that[s currently $50 – https://go.ttot.link/Sengled1500.

More common are smart LED bulbs that need a hub – they connect with the hub and the hub connects to your WiFi. Ikea has an 100 lumen smart bulb that can change color temperature but not color for $13 – https://go.ttot.link/Ikea1100 and the gateway (https://go.ttot.link/IkeaGateway) is $40 (which can control up to 64 LED bulbs). Once installed, it works with Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. Philips Hue and GE also make gateway-controlled smart LEDs.

Next week I’ll talk about smart plugs and outlets. I have more smart outlets than I do smart LED bulbs because they’re cheaper and offer more flexibility. I can plug in just about anything that only needs to be turned on or off and control it from any of my smart assistants.

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 tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com 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 – France, Belgium, and Germany among other countries. If you’re an international reader, drop me a quick note and say HI!


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 2

September 8, 2022

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 PM and turn off at 10 PM. 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). Do I have a favorite? Well, no, I don’t. 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 tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com 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!


What is a smart home and do you want one? Part 3

September 15, 2022

Last week we talked about smart outlets and smart hubs.This week we’ll briefly look at some other smart devices that are available.

One smart device I recently acquired is a Nest Learning Thermostat (https://go.ttot.link/NestLearning). Yes, it’s been out a while but none of the thermostats were out-of-the-box compatible with my Courier HVAC. I recently replaced a central air unit and the installer threw in the Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd Generation) and, I have to say, I LOVE it! I can control the temperature from any of my smart speakers but the real winner is that

  1. I can detect and change the temperature from ANY of my devices that has the Google Home app installed
  2. It “learns” my scheduling preferences. How? I just set the temperature throughout the day and over the course of a week or two, it figures out what the schedule should be based on those changes, Now, I’ve had setback thermostats for YEARS and I’d always guess at when I’d like this or that temperature and on which days. Now, I see that I really only change the set temperature twice a day. It can “sense” when no one is home and automatically change to an “Eco” mode which suspends your regular schedule and sets a warmer or colder threshold temperature (depending on whether you’re heating or cooling). The thermometer wakes up when you walk near it which is one way it senses your presence. The other way is to allow your phone to be a presence sensor through the Google Home app. You set your home location and the Home app can tell when you’ve left. You can link everyone’s phone to the Home app so it knows when no one is at home. This, by the way, is how I automate things like turning off lights and power strips when I leave.

One thing that you may be thinking – my thermostat is nowhere near where I spend the majority of my time! Well, you can purchase a remote sensor for the Google Nest Thermostat. Place it in the room where you spend most of your time and your Nest can make heating and cooling decisions based on the temperature reading for that sensor. You have multiple rooms? No worries You can buy several and place them where they’re needed (good summary and review at https://go.ttot.link/NestSensor).

My HVAC installer heartily recommended the Google Nest Learning Thermostat but there are many more available. CNet recently gave their opinion as to the “best” smart thermostats of 2022 at https://go.ttot.link/CnetThermostats and includes a link to their review of the other smart thermostat that had my interest – the Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium (review at https://go.ttot.link/CNetEcobee). One thing to note: the Ecobee includes a remote sensor which is an extra purchase for the Google Nest. But, as I said earlier, I’m pretty happy with my Nest.

I also have tilt sensors installed on my garage doors. They interact with my SmartThings hub and let me know when my garage door opens and closes with the current open/close state recorded. I no longer have to wonder whether I remembered to close the garage door when I left! There are many on the market. For reference, here’s a link to one so you can read more about them https://go.ttot.link/TiltSensor.

You can sometimes use an open/close sensor such as https://go.ttot.link/OpenCloseSensor. The one I linked to can also sense vibration and tilt so it’s a good multipurpose sensor, albeit a bit expensive and requires a hub.

Motion detection sensors like https://go.ttot.link/MotionSensor can be used to trigger other smart home devices like switching lights on or off.

Another popular smart home addition are smart locks. They replace or add on to any lock you want to make “smart” (for example, your front door) and give you the ability to lock and unlock it remotely. Some allow you to set temporary access or assign separate codes to different family members. Consumer Reports discusses smart locks and gives their recommendations at https://go.ttot.link/2022SmartLocks. No, I don’t own one of these simply because we don’t use the front door that often. Instead we use the door to the garage and I have a tilt sensor on my garage doors.

Speaking of garages, there are smart garage door openers! Tom’s Guide has an introduction to them and their picks for 2022 at https://go.ttot.link/SmartGarageOpeners. The Chamberlain MyQ consistently gets high marks (review at https://go.ttot.link/MyQReview) but, as with the addition of any smart device to your home, check to make sure your existing equipment meets the requirements specified by the manufacturer.

If you have an irrigation or watering system at your home to water your lawn and garden, there are smart irrigation controllers that control your various valves and can adjust based on weather conditions such as rain or excessive heat. Consumer Reports gives their recommendations and an overview of how they work at https://go.ttot.link/CRSmartSprinklers.

Remote Infrared and RF controllers can help consolidate your various remote controllers (TV, radio, etc.) I have a Logitech Harmony (discontinued but still supported and available for purchase at various site like Amazon https://go.ttot.link/LogitechHarmony) which consolidates the remotes for my TV, audio video receiver, nVidia Sheld TV, TiVo box, and Xfinity X1 cable box. Through their app I can control each device independently or as an “activity” (e.g. turn on the receiver, switch input to TiVo, turn on TV, switch it to HDMI input 3), change channels, change volume, etc. plus I can do much of this by voice (“Hey, Google, turn on the Shield TV”). If you want to go with one that’s still made, check out SofaBaton (https://go.ttot.link/SofaBaton) and Amazon’s Fire TV Cube (overview and review at https://go.ttot.link/FireTVCube)

Next week I’ll discuss laptops – Windows, Macs, and Chromebooks. I have a preference but they each have their strengths and weaknesses which I’ll try to outline and discuss to give you an idea of which might be best for you.

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 tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com 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!