Furnishing

Smart homes: intelligent control for your home

Thomas Bott

Smart homes are the latest trend. But a smart home is much more than just a technical gimmick. Clever devices allow you to create added comfort in your home and even save money. But before making a purchase, there are a number of points to be familiar with and pay attention to. This is because not all devices can communicate with each other. There are also many terms that can initially seem confusing. Here you can obtain an overview of the possibilities of smart homes, learn how to find the main providers of radio or voice controls, and discover how to use smart technology safely.

A woman looks at the central heating control and adjusts the settings the touchscreen.
© Getty Images

In this article

Smart homes: devices for the whole house

First of all, it’s worth taking a look at the possible applications of smart technology. It can now be used almost anywhere in the house. The main focus is on the devices. They can be divided into the following groups:

  • smart lighting
  • smart heating
  • smart power control
  • smart security
  • smart accessories

Smart lighting

Lamps and lights are already among the most widely used devices from the world of smart home systems. Smart lighting means that you no longer have to go to the switch to turn on the lights – instead you can control the lighting remotely using a smartphone or tablet. Models with built-in RGB functionality can be used to produce not only different shades of white, but even millions of different colors. This allows you to create a wide variety of lighting moods in the room. The lamps can almost always be dimmed without the need to install a wall dimmer.

Smart lighting can easily be linked to additional gadgets such as motion detectors or sensors. These can switch on the light whenever you enter the room and switch it off again when you leave. Of course, manual control by remote control, voice control or app is also possible.

Smart heating

Many different heating systems exist, but they all need some means of controlling them. This is why traditional radiators are fitted with rotary thermostats. These older models can easily be replaced with smart versions. In many cases, these more modern systems not only show the temperature on a small display, but are also connected to the home network. This allows them to be operated by remote control. If you’re on your way back from a long weekend or skiing holiday, for example, you can switch on the heating before you actually arrive. A smart thermostat does the rest, enabling you to come back to a comfortably warm home.

Alternatively, wall thermostats are available for some smart home systems. All the thermostats, or one thermostat at a time, can then be controlled via a central display. Like many other devices, a smart heating system can be controlled by voice control. With the right technology, this also works for underfloor heating systems.

A wall-mounted tablet can be used to control a smart home. Two people can be seen in a kitchen in the background.

With the right technology, you can control your heating centrally via app. This also enables you to set the desired temperature.

Smart power control

Smart sockets are particularly simple, yet effective. They plug into a wall socket and then form part of an intelligent home. Basically, three types of control are possible:

  • As a timer: the socket lets electricity through at certain times that can be adjusted from one day to the next.
  • The second option is manual control, where you control the power socket using a smartphone or tablet.
  • With the right accessories, activation is also possible via sensor – for example, the corridor light can be equipped with a motion sensor.

With a smart socket, for example, you can integrate any lamp with a classic plug into your smart home. You might also decide to program the coffee machine to switch on at a certain time every morning. These devices are a good introduction to the world of smart home technology.

Smart security

Modern surveillance cameras are also available for smart homes. If desired, they not only send the picture to your smartphone, but also recognize people or give them a warning if they enter the property without permission. Intelligent doorbells already exist that send pictures and sounds to your smartphone. You can even operate the intercom system from work. For instance, you could tell the mail carrier to simply put the delivery in a safe place.

Even smart door locks are available. They react to a digital key or can be unlocked remotely. This is practical, for example, if you want to let the neighbors into the house to water the flowers while you are on holiday. Alarm systems that send notifications to your smartphone and other possible applications are also no problem.

Smart accessories

This category includes all devices that are an addition to a smart home or have smart technology built in. These include vacuum cleaner robots, lawn mowing robots, smart refrigerators, smart kitchen appliances, smart TVs and loudspeakers. All of them can be fully or partially integrated into an existing smart home.

This makes controlling devices easier and creates new possibilities for automation. For example, you can arrange for the house to have been vacuumed by the time you come home, or you can ask to receive a message on your smartphone when the washing machine has finished.

A vacuum cleaner robot can be seen crossing a room while a woman lies on the sofa reading a book in the background.

Additional devices such as a vacuum cleaner robot are part of a smart home and relieve you of unpleasant tasks.

Radio protocols: not all systems are compatible with each other

Smart home products are not always directly connected to the WLAN. Sometimes they are networked to a central point: the hub. This is then connected to the Internet, allowing devices to be controlled via the home network or while on the move. The internal network relies on specific radio technology. Each manufacturer decides for themselves which protocol they wish to use. It is therefore possible that your newly purchased thermostat may not be able to communicate with the hub installed previously.

The most common protocols include ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. There are differences in energy consumption, susceptibility to interference and frequency load, for instance. At present, however, no single standard stands out in particular. But even the choice of a radio protocol is no guarantee that all the devices equipped with it will be compatible. For example, the manufacturers of ZigBee rely on different frequency ranges. So things can get quite complicated. You should concentrate on one manufacturer to be on the safe side and, if possible, stick with their system.

A large selection: examples of smart home solutions

We have already talked about manufacturers and systems. There are a large number on providers on the market and they all offer a range of devices. Some are designed openly, i.e. they communicate with other smart devices, others only function as a closed system. Below are some examples of current smart home solutions.

  • AVM FRITZ! Smart Home System: the brand’s DSL routers are very popular. Many models also act as a hub for smart homes. AVM also provides smart sockets, thermostats and DECT telephones. The DECT ULE (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications Ultra Low Energy) protocol is the chosen standard.
  • Bosch Smart Home: the company has a wide range of equipment on offer. Devices range from simple motion detectors to smart security cameras and networked roller shutter controls. Bosch uses the ZigBee radio standard for its smart home devices.
  • Homematic IP: the manufacturer eQ-3 offers a very comprehensive smart home system in the form of Homematic IP. There are countless sensors, switches, thermostats and much more, all of which communicate with each other. Even flush-mounted solutions are available. eQ-3 uses its own Homematic standard for communication.
  • Samsung SmartThings: this open system combines a wide variety of devices and radio standards via its own hub. It currently supports ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. Samsung also offers its own smart home components for its system.

Smart voice control: Alexa, Siri & co.

Language assistants are probably the biggest technology trend of the late 2010s. However, the selection here is much smaller. In principle there are three systems that dominate the current market: Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. The latter is only available on Apple devices, Alexa and the Google Assistant can be downloaded to almost any smartphone.

A person is holding up a smartphone with voice assistance enabled, waiting for input.

Voice assistants such as Siri from Apple let you control your smart home with simple commands.

But smart speakers are much more interesting than using an app. The assistants are already installed in them. The speakers can then be placed anywhere in the house. There are three product lines available from the major technology companies:

  • Google Nest: in the past, Google marketed its smart home systems under the name “Home”. Today, the Internet giant groups them under the heading “Nest”. The reason for this is the merger of two departments. Google markets a small speaker (Nest Mini) and a larger speaker with a display (Nest Hub) under its brand. The devices are controlled by Google Assistant.
  • Amazon Echo: the Alexa language assistant is now used in numerous loudspeakers by Amazon. The products available include the small Echo Dot, the larger Echo Plus and the Echo Studio Hi-Fi speaker. The Echo Show 5 and Echo Show 8 speakers are available with a display.
  • Apple HomePod: the company so far only offers one loudspeaker. Siri answers questions and controls compatible devices via loudspeaker.
    Compatibility is a good keyword, because in order to control the heating, lighting etc., the relevant devices must be compatible with the language assistants. Details can usually be found on the packaging.

The exception: Apple HomeKit

If you have an Apple HomePod or want to control devices centrally via the Home App on an iPhone or iPad, they must be compatible with HomeKit. Apple relies on its own ecosystem for smart home systems. This has the advantage that you don’t have to deal with several apps. Instead, Apple Home displays all the devices and their controls. However, the choice of devices is still small – and most of them are quite expensive.

Automation: controlling your smart home via IFTTT

IFTTT is an abbreviation for “if this then that”. This is the basic principle of programming: there should be a reaction when an action is executed. For example, the settings can be adjusted so that when you leave the house in the morning (if this), all the lights will automatically be switched off (then that). The advantage is that the IFTTT app enables you to build your own functions and you are not limited to ready-made scenarios – provided that the device to be controlled is compatible with IFTTT. And that, unfortunately, is the disadvantage: since the system is mainly the standard in North America, not all devices can communicate with it in this country.

Nevertheless, the system is very practical – including for the use of automatic security systems. For example, you can set the lights to turn red (Philips Hue communicates with IFTTT, for instance) when the security camera detects a person. At the same time, you can have an email sent to you with ready-made content. This will warn you immediately if an unwanted person enters the house and may even scare the person away.

Security: concerns about the use of smart devices

The extra comfort is of course an advantage in your home. However, in theory networking also creates new points of attack on your privacy and data. Security is a big issue with everything that is connected to the Internet – smart homes are no exception. The first thing to know is that your Internet connection alone makes you vulnerable. So it’s important to start protecting yourself in this respect. Get a security program for your computer, watch out for suspicious emails and never pass on data to third parties. Secure passwords are a must, otherwise you will open the doors to criminals far too quickly.

A man sits in front of a laptop and concentrates on the display.

With a smart home, the topic of security begins in your home network. You should take appropriate measures now.

This type of measure also protects your smart home, as outsiders can place malicious software on your systems. Numerous cases from the past show what this can achieve. Smart security cameras can be tapped and the images viewed from a distance. Even a networked baby monitor can transmit unwanted sound to hackers. The use of what may at first sight appear to be rather straightforward devices such as intelligent lamps can also create potential security gaps. These in turn are points of attack for outsiders.

There’s no need to panic, but it’s important to protect yourself properly. Pay close attention to any security mechanisms on the products you purchase. Some radio protocols are more vulnerable to loopholes than others. Protect your own home network well. If you don’t know how, an expert can help you. You should also never underestimate the danger that some devices themselves pose.

This applies more specifically to language assistants. These systems send requests to the manufacturer’ servers before supplying the appropriate answers. The assistants are permanently listening in while they wait for a certain phrase. On Amazon this is simply “Alexa”, on Google “OK Google” and on Apple “Hey Siri”. Only the subsequent requests are sent to the servers.

The problem is that it is not unusual for the assistants to mishear and send out recordings that were never intended for them. Companies like Amazon use these recordings to improve speech recognition. Teams of real people listen to the audio fragments and class them as wanted or unwanted requests. It is therefore possible that a stranger may hear sensitive information about you. To prevent this from happening, you can object to the storage and use of this data. The manufacturers’ apps usually offer corresponding options for this, but they can be well hidden.

Conclusion: practical technology to enjoy with caution

Modern smart home products provide a lot of added comfort. However, the market is quite confusing due to the variety of systems and technologies. So you should obtain advice before you buy. Not every manufacturer has the right solution for your needs. You should also pay attention to the security of the various systems. But remember that security starts with you. If your home network is not adequately protected, even the most secure devices will be vulnerable.

A healthy dose of skepticism is also a good thing when it comes to language assistants. But you need not be afraid of them. Just don’t allow the manufacturers to take too many liberties. You should also take advantage of opt-outs, i.e. the deliberate deselection of options whenever it makes sense to do so.

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