So, What is a Smart Home Exactly?

By Jess Rothenburger

There is a lot of talk about the ‘Smart Home’ these days. The term is thrown around loosely, and I am not sure a textbook definition even exists. Other terms, such as ‘Integrated Home’ or ‘Automated Home’, also exist, to further complicate the matter. 


In my opinion, at its root, a Smart Home is one that leverages some sort of technology to enhance how someone experiences living in that home. An enhanced experience can make a person feel more secure, or comfortable, or cool – and I don’t just mean temperature. 


By the above definition, the truth is you probably already live in a Smart Home and use smart devices every day. Think about it. Do you have a thermostat that keeps your house a set temperature or that can even change the temperature based on a schedule? Do you have an alarm clock? Does your oven beep when the chicken is cooked? Does your toaster pop the bread when it has turned into toast?


Our homes are already smart, and thankfully they are getting smarter. Do you remember when power locks and power windows were options in a car? The same thing is happening in the home. Multi-room audio systems, smart locks, smart thermostats, etc. are gradually becoming standard features. I happen to live with these and, frankly, I can’t imagine not having them in my house. This is a good thing. 


The Smart Home is here to stay, so it can be helpful to dissect what we actually mean by ‘Smart Home’. Here are some qualities found in today’s Smart Home systems that not only help us understand what we mean by “smart”, but that can help us differentiate among the myriad of offerings: 


CONTROL: Smart Homes are almost always controllable via your smart device. Some solutions allow for local control and others allow you to control your home remotely as well. Additionally, there is the option for on-wall control, touchscreen control, universal remote control and voice control. 


Ask yourself: What ways of controlling my smart home are important and most convenient for me? 


PROGRAMMING: Basic solutions allow you to set schedules and timers. (Turn my lights on ten minutes after the sun sets) Programming is telling your system to trigger an event when something else happens. (When I get home, turn up the thermostat) The more advanced the system, the more intricate and involved and intelligent this programming can be. Traditional smart home solutions can require a trained professional like me to install the system and to implement high level programming, but basic programming can be done by the homeowner across most platforms. 


Ask yourself: How ‘smart’ do I want my house to be? Am I prepared to get someone to help me, or would I rather keep it basic and do it myself?


AUTOMATION: To my mind, a truly automated system is one that has the capacity to unify a wide variety of sub-systems under one umbrella while having them communicate with each other; the sub-systems in your home can have a two-way dialog and one sub-system’s action can inform another’s. Automation may necessarily involve higher-level programming that works continuously in the background.  So, the lights turning on at sunset is smart.  Automation is when, for example, in the case your system detects C02, it knows to turn on the pathway lights to the nearest exit, turn off your circulating air, unlock the door, open your garage and send you and your loved ones a text message.


Ask yourself:  Do I need the convenience of basic programming, or do I need the peace of mind and added functionality that comes from a truly automated house?


CLOUD-BASED or LOCAL INTELLIGENCE: Some solutions leverage the power of the internet and the cloud to communicate between the smart devices in your home – this can be cost effective but result in a laggy user experience. And, if your internet is out, you are out of luck. Some products have physical or software attributes built-in so that devices can work together across a certain platform, like Apple’s Homekit.  Other solutions require a “hub” which is a locally connected network device that facilitates the communication between smart devices. Some hubs are application or product specific and others are designed to make several solutions work together. Traditional solutions involve a “controller” which is effectively a computer that can replace a multitude of hubs. Controllers also have more physical connections and attributes to be able to integrate the lights, TV’s, audio, security system, video cameras, intercom, etc. Importantly, a controller has the processing power to reliably control all of this quickly, securely and reliably. 


Ask yourself: Do I need my smart home to do a few things pretty well most of the time, or is it crucial that my smart home do many things very well quickly and reliably? 


You can accurately guess that there are seemingly countless “smart home” solutions out there. Some are great and others are, frankly, crap. Getting clear on what works with what and which solution makes the most sense for you can be time consuming and frustrating. 


The smartest homes are those where the appropriate solutions meet your expectations and budget.  The smart thing for you to do is to consult with a home technologist so he or she can help you achieve the goal of making your home as smart as you want it to be.