Starting a Smart Home: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Nowadays, almost everything in your home can be connected to the Internet and controlled using your voice or remotely just through your smartphone.

Setting up a smart home can be a daunting task with a huge range of different devices, apps, and subscriptions available to choose from. How on earth do you know where to start?

If you are new to smart homes and wondering how to get started, you have come to the right place.

In this complete beginner’s guide to starting a smart home, we’ll cover what you need to consider when first getting started and help you set up your very own smart home.

What Is a Smart Home?

Any home can become a smart home, regardless of its size or how many people live there. It’s not the home itself that makes it smart but the powerful technology that is used to control all sorts of things that previously were not possible.

There isn’t an official definition for a smart home, but it is essentially a living area that uses connected technology to improve it. This includes the likes of smart lighting, smart plugs, smart thermostats, video doorbells, and voice assistants but that is certainly not the extent of all of the smart devices that are now available to us.

Although there are standards in terms of the technology and protocols used, there is not a standard for a smart home. Although the concept of a smart home is still relatively new, a lot of people have adopted the technology, yet everyone’s smart home will be different in one way or another.

They could be different in which devices they choose to use, whether they think a smart hub is worth it, or the protocols used to get all the devices talking to each other.

You may view a smart home as being something different from everyone else, which is absolutely fine. It really comes down to what you want to get out of it.

What Are the Benefits of Starting a Smart Home?

Some people are convinced that just being able to turn your lights on and off with your voice is the extent of what is possible with a smart home, but it’s not until you start learning more about smart home technology do you realize that this is just scratching the surface and that having a smart home can provide significant benefits to you and you’re family.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest benefits you can get from starting a smart home.

Convenience

Starting a smart home can certainly provide a bit more convenience in your life.

Smart homes allow you to control all of your lighting, your heating systems, and many different electrical appliances all through your smartphone or even your voice if you would prefer.

You don’t even need to physically be at home to control them either; providing you have an Internet connection, you can control your smart home from wherever you are in the world.

Gone on vacation and forgot to turn the heating off? No problem. Just open the app and turn it off remotely.

Having a smart home with even just a couple of basic automations setup has definitely made life more convenient for myself and my family.

Save Money

One of the main reasons for many people starting a smart home is to save money.

You may be wondering how on earth you can save money when some smart home devices can cost several hundreds of dollars, but in my experience, it really doesn’t take long to make that money back and save even more through improved energy efficiency.

Smart home devices help change the way we use energy throughout our homes by making sure it is only being used when it is actually needed.

At the end of the day, this results in more money in your wallet through not using gas and electricity when it simply isn’t needed, saving money on your energy bill at the end of the month.

If you’re looking to maximize your saving, a smart thermostat is probably the best smart home device you could buy.

Smart thermostats give you complete control over the temperature within your home, even if you aren’t at home yourself.

I use my smart thermostat to warm up the house a bit in the morning before I head off to work, and then again for a few hours in the evening when I return home. Other than that, the heating is turned off thanks to the easy to manage schedule feature.

Combine a smart thermostat with smart plugs for better control over your electricity usage and could well see significant savings on your energy bill, which is not just a good thing for you, but for the environment also.

Save Time

If you find yourself on the go a lot or have a to-do list the length of your arm, starting a smart home can provide some really quite helpful time-saving capabilities.

Some examples include having your voice assistant tell you the weather forecast whilst you are in the shower or letting you know what the traffic is like whilst you are getting ready in the morning so you can plan out your commute.

I personally use my voice assistant to read me the news and my schedule for the day once I have got out of the shower and have started to get dressed. This simply saves me having to check myself after getting ready, which simply saves time.

The time savings may seem small, especially when you consider that it only takes a few seconds to check your phone for the weather forecast.

But you will be surprised at how much time you can actually save over the months and years when you add it all up.

My opinion is that even the smallest ways of saving time are beneficial in these times where everyone is very busy and often can’t spend the time doing the things they really want to.

Improved Safety and Security

One of the biggest benefits of starting a smart home is the improved safety and security throughout your home for you, your family, and your guests.

In fact, this is often the single reason why some people decide to start a smart home in the first place, and it is easy to see why. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a safer environment?

You have your standard security products such as basic security cameras, motion sensors, smart door sensors, and video doorbells that all do a fantastic job at keeping on eye on things and letting you know if there is an unwanted guest trying to enter your home as just one example.

But there are other devices such as smart air purifiers that allow you to easily control the quality of air throughout your home, and water leak and freeze detectors that can warn you ahead of time when there is a risk of flooding or your pipes freezing over.

Don’t forget about outdoor smart lights that can come on automatically at certain times of the day or when motion is detected to light up the path and potentially prevent you from tripping over something and having a nasty fall.

All of these devices can put your mind at ease knowing that your home is safer and more secure for you and your family.

Ease of Access

Starting a smart home can improve the accessibility of your home whilst still keeping it safe and secure.

With a bit of help from a smart lock, you can remotely open your front door to let the kids in when they return home from school or for the delivery driver to drop off that important package you have been waiting days for.

No longer do you need to stay at home all day just in case someone turns up or rush back from whatever you are doing at the time just to open the door.

Smart homes can also provide significant benefits to the elderly or those with some form of impairment.

For example, a video doorbell can notify someone that is hard of hearing that someone is at their front door by sending through a notification to their phone.

Being able to control smart home devices through voice is fantastic for anyone who is visually impaired and smart lights can be set to come on automatically at certain times of the day or when motion is detected to potentially save a fall whilst walking around in the dark.

These are just a handful of the benefits you can get from starting a smart home. Check out my article on 12 Benefits of Having a Smart Home if you want to see even more.

Laying the Foundation

When starting a smart home, first ask yourself these questions.

  • How enthusiastic am I?
  • What is my budget like?
  • How much time do I have to invest?

If the answer to these questions is “not very much”, you probably just want to start off with a single smart home device, like a smart light bulb or smart plug, to see how you like it.

These can be easily be controlled through the app and doesn’t require any additional equipment. They are not complicated, relatively cheap to buy depending on the brand you go for, and don’t require very time at all to get started.

This approach is ideal for anyone that just wants to try out a smart home without investing a lot of time, money, and effort, only to find you don’t enjoy it or it doesn’t bring you any value.

If you have already decided to take the plunge and become immersed in the world of smart home tech, you should go ahead and decide on which ecosystem you would like to use.

Currently, the three most popular are Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit.

So, which one would be best for you?

Apple HomeKit

Let’s talk about HomeKit first as this will be the most obvious choice for anyone that is already immersed in the Apple ecosystem.

One thing that Apple does a fantastic job of is making all of their devices work seamlessly with each other, and HomeKit is no different.

Through the iOS app, you can control everything from an Apple HomePod speaker to your Apple TV.

If privacy is a concern for you, rest assured that Apple do a great job at protecting any personal data that it receives, but one thing to note is that they aren’t as good as Amazon or Google when it comes to the number of smart home devices that are supported.

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

Alexa and Google Assistant are more similar than they are different, so deserve to be bundled together here.

Both are great for beginners just getting started in setting up a smart home. The process of setting up the voice assistant, adding devices to control, and controlling them through your voice is straight forward and presents little to no friction so you can get started much quicker.

They are also compatible with a massive range of smart home devices and other forms of technology. Not a day goes by where more and more new devices pop up with the label on the front of the packaging that shows it is compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant.

Many third-party brands are now very much involved in the smart home industry and so making them compatible with the big players in the voice assistant game is at the heart of their design.

If you are just after a simple speaker with the voice assistant built-in, great. But should you prefer one with a screen, you are in luck as both Amazon and Google produce them which also includes touch-screen controls.

Which Should You Get?

I can’t really recommend one over the others as they are all pretty similar and offer the same functionality in a lot of cases.

If you solely use Apple devices, you may want to consider HomeKit, otherwise, I would probably recommend Alexa or Google Assistant simply because they are easy to set up and use and are compatible with more devices.

Personally, I use Amazon Alexa and have been very pleased and never considered switching over to Google Assistant. Each new device is incredibly easy to set up and the app is very intuitive and provides a lot of functionality.

Once you have decided on your voice assistant, it is time to get a few smart home devices.

Your First Smart Home Devices

Now that you have your voice assistant of choice, its time to move on and get some other gear.

There are literally hundreds of different smart home devices now available which can be overwhelming when you are just getting started.

As with anything, it is made easier is you break it down into smaller pieces, so you may want to just buy a couple of devices, become familiar with them and how they work, and only then consider getting some more.

Whether you want the ability to control your lights with your voice, unlock your front door remotely using the app, or be able to control your thermostat whilst at work so the home is nice and warm for you when you return home, smart home devices tend to fall into categories, so pick one from the list below and see what takes your fancy.

Many people initially start a smart home to improve their home security and so start off with a smart home security device or two, but perhaps you want to start with a smart thermostat so you can begin to hopefully make savings on your energy bill.

Let’s take a look at these different categories and some of the devices you may want to get started with.

Security

Cameras are the most obvious choice when it comes to security devices, but there are others such as motion sensors and door sensors that can help protect your home.

The cameras can often be viewed live from the app and will usually have a feature in which the video is recorded locally or to the cloud whenever motion is detected. You can also receive a notification on your phone as soon as it does pick up motion.

Motion sensors and door sensors can be used on their own, or as part of a routine that incorporates several different devices. For example, your lights could flash a certain color when a door sensor detects that the door has been opened.

The cameras themselves as well as the different sensors are relatively cheap to buy and can bring a lot of value so are an excellent choice for your first device.

Thermostats

There are several different smart thermostats now available, but they all essentially allow you to control your entire heating system remotely.

Through the app, you can adjust the heating or A/C on the fly or set up routines to have your home reach a certain temperature at certain times of the day.

You can also incorporate sensors into your routines so that the heating system reacts automatically when certain conditions are met.

One of my favorites is to have a multipurpose sensor attached to a window so it knows when the window is open or closed. When the window is open, the thermostat will turn the heating off, so it is not being wasted whilst also sending you a notification when it has been left open and the weather forecast shows that it is due to rain.

The thermostat itself may be a bit more expensive to buy initially than other smart home devices, but it is the one device that will likely contribute the most towards saving you money on your energy bills.

Lights

The most popular form of smart lighting is individual bulbs. These can be controlled individually or as part of a group.

As well as just being able to turn them on and off through the app or by using your voice, you can also set up different scenes that allow you to adjust brightness and color temperature to exactly how you want them.

Smart lights can also be part of routines just like many other smart home devices. One example could be to have the lights flash a certain color whenever motion is detected by your video doorbell.

If you like the idea of smart lighting but would prefer to keep your existing bulbs, smart switches are available as an alternative.

Smart lights were what originally got me into smart home technology, and I have enjoyed having them ever since.

Video Doorbells

Video doorbells have a camera built into them so you can see whoever is at your door straight from your smartphone, even when you are not physically at home yourself.

Many will also have a motion sensor built-in that triggers the doorbell to immediately start recording whenever movement is detected. The recordings can then be saved to the cloud where you can view them from your phone or tablet, or they can be saved locally to an SD card.

They also use two-way audio so you can talk to whoever is at the door through the app without actually ever having to see them. This can be useful when instructing the delivery driver to just leave your parcel on the porch or to tell that pushy salesman that you simply aren’t interested.

Video doorbells can also be integrated with other smart home devices as part of larger routines, with motion being detected at the front door acting as the trigger. For example, you could have your TV automatically pause and turn all the lights back on when someone is there.

Locks

Smart locks allow you to enter your home without requiring a traditional key. Instead, your smartphone or a key fob is used to wirelessly communicate with the lock, telling it that it is you at the door and to unlock the door.

Some will be managed entirely through the app, whereas others require a PIN code.

A neat feature of some smart locks is being able to provide temporary “keys” to people, allowing them access to your home but only at specific times.

An example of where this could be useful is if you have a cleaner that arrives at the same time each week; you can give them a temporary access code and know they will only be able to get in within the designated time slot.

Smart locks are definitely a great addition to a smart home, but you may want to think about using one as part of a larger security setup rather than using just the lock itself.

Plugs

Smart plugs allow you to power on and off electrical appliances that otherwise don’t have any smart functionality built into them.

You can plug pretty much anything into a smart plug and control the power to them using an app or with your voice.

A great example of where this can be useful is to connect your slow cooker up to a smart plug. Whilst you are at work, you can turn it on through the app or your phone, so it is finished and ready for you when you return home at the end of the day.

Some plugs also have energy monitoring built-in and provide a great way for you to see exactly how much energy your different appliances are using.

Smart plugs are one of the simpler smart home devices, but a very useful one, nonetheless. Check out my article on 23 Creative Uses for Smart Plugs for some more ideas on how you could use smart plugs throughout your home.

How Does It All Work Together?

Now that you have your voice assistant and a couple of devices to have a play with, you may be wondering how on earth they all talk to each other.

In order to make a home smart, these devices need a way to exchange information with each other. Essentially, they need to speak the same “language”, which we refer to as the protocol.

Protocols determine how information and instructions are sent from one device to another in order to trigger a particular action, like turning the lights on and off.

There are differences between protocols; it is important to understand what these are when it comes to setting up your own smart home as they each have their pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at the four most commonly used protocols within smart home automation: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Zigbee, and Z-Wave.

Wi-Fi

You are more than likely already very familiar with Wi-Fi and how it works, so we won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. It is the most commonly used protocol within a smart home as it is generally considered fast and reliable, and it has a range of around 25m and is already found in the vast majority of homes.

Using Wi-Fi as a protocol means you can make use of your already existing router and so a dedicated smart home hub is not needed.

Bluetooth LE

Bluetooth has a short-range and much lower data bandwidth than Wi-Fi, but to its advantage, it uses considerably less power. The main benefit of Bluetooth LE is that the newer versions are capable of forming mesh networks which greatly expands its range.

The protocol is already widely used and doesn’t require a central hub, so like Wi-Fi, it is incredibly convenient.

Zigbee

Zigbee operates in a mesh network, so it uses a device to relay a signal to other devices. As you add more devices, the network expands and becomes stronger. Zigbee has been implemented into a host of different smart home devices and can be used alongside other protocols.

I have a dedicated article on how Zigbee works if you wanted to find out more.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is similar to Zigbee in that it is a mesh network protocol that is open source. The main difference between Zigbee and Z-Wave is that Z-Wave is around 6 times slower, but it does require less energy to cover the same range.

Like Zigbee, Z-Wave has been implemented into many different devices and can be used alongside the other protocols.

Which Protocol Should You Use?

I personally don’t think you need to worry too much about whether all of your devices work using the same protocol, especially when you are just getting started.

If you just want everything to work using your voice assistant of choice, you will be fine using a combination of different protocols.

You’ll probably find that your devices communicate with each other Wi-Fi, which is perfect for most people.

Depending on how far you want to go with your smart home, you may want to think about investing in a smart hub to provide a central way of controlling all of your devices in the future.

But for someone just getting started, I think going with a hub can be a bit overwhelming as they can be complicated to set up and managed.

My recommendation would be to stick with using your voice assistant early on as they are perfectly suited for controlling individual devices as well as setting up some basic routines to control several different devices at once.

A Word on Privacy and Security

Some people may be concerned about their privacy and security when starting a smart home, which is completely understandable.

There are doubts around whether your voice assistant is always listening, even when muted, and what is actually being done with the voice recordings that they log. Parents may also be wary of having certain devices like security cameras when there are kids around.

Everyone has their own option when it comes to privacy in a smart home, so my only advice is to make sure you thoroughly research each product you are thinking of buying if you do have concerns over your privacy, and make a decision on whether it is worth it.

Now for a word on home network security.

No one is going to be hacking into your smart light bulb and watching your every move through it, but those devices that are connected to your Wi-Fi network do potentially provide hackers with an additional way of being able to access your network if you don’t keep it secure.

The Internet of Things (IoT) – the devices that connect to the Internet and to each other on your home network – certainly brings a lot of benefits but has opened up new opportunities for cybercriminals.

If you think about your router as the doorway into your home network, it’s easy to understand how it needs to be kept secure in case anyone does try and access your network.

Check out my article on 13 Easy Ways to Secure Your Router for some simple, yet effective, ways you can better secure your router and home network as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it expensive to start a smart home?

Not necessarily. One great thing about smart home technology is that you can get started with just one or two devices and then add more later on if you find it is something you enjoy.

It really comes down to your budget and what you want to get out of your smart home.

Can two different voice assistants be used?

Yes, there is no problem with using both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant as just an example. You just have to keep in mind that the different voice assistants respond to different wake words and may only be compatible with certain products.

It might get a bit confusing having two separate systems and does mean you have more to manage, but there is no reason why you can’t have both.

Are smart home apps free?

Pretty much all of the apps that control your smart home devices are free to download and install, but it is worth keeping in mind that certain services will require a monthly fee.

An example of this is a video doorbell that requires you to pay for cloud storage to keep all of your recordings on, so it is worth checking these hidden costs before you go ahead and buy.

What happens if the Wi-Fi goes down?

This depends on which devices you choose to use. Most will continue to work in some fashion but will lose their smart functionality. Others may rely completely on Wi-Fi so it will be unusable until you can get back online.

I have a dedicated article on what happens when a smart home loses the Internet which you may want to check out.

Glossary

Air Play

Apple’s own protocol that allows you to transfer video and audio between your Apple devices over Wi-Fi.

Alexa

A virtual assistant AI technology developed by Amazon that is used within their Echo line of smart speakers. Other devices developed by third parties are now starting to implement Alexa into their products too.

Bluetooth LE

A protocol that allows smart home devices to communicate with each. It connects devices that are very close together; once activated the devices are paired. The LE stands for low energy as Bluetooth LE requires very little power.

Geofencing

A virtual fence which can be used to let your devices know when you are close to home. It uses GPS or RFID to send an alert when a device like your smartphone cross the virtual geographical boundary.

Hub

A central device used to connect various different devices with each other, even if they use different protocols to communicate. This gives you control over all of your devices through a single app or voice assistant.

IFTTT

A freeware web-based service that creates chains of simple conditional statements called applets. Certain actions can be automatically triggered by changes that occur within other web services.

IoT

The concept of connecting different devices and objects to the Internet. This includes, but is not limited to, smart home devices.

Protocol

The “language” that various smart home devices communicate with each other in. The most commonly used are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Z-Wave, and Zigbee.

Wi-Fi

The most commonly used wireless protocol. Smart home devices communicating over Wi-Fi make use of your home network’s router and don’t require a dedicated smart home hub to operate.

Zigbee

A wireless communication protocol that is considered as an alternative to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for some applications including low-powered devices that don’t require a lot of bandwidth.

Z-Wave

A wireless communication protocol that is used primarily for home automation. It uses low-energy radio waves to send communicates and instructions between compatible devices.