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Home automation

My phone buzzes. It’s my home security system telling me the motion detector has picked up something and the alarm is about to go off. I check the app and can’t see anything on either the still photos or the live video camera. I remotely reset the alarm and get back to work.

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That was something that actually happened to me while writing this article. Then, because I was going to be late home, I set my entrance lights and electric blanket to turn on. Again, all from my phone.

This is known as the “internet of things”, devices that are connected to the internet and controlled by you through your phone or computer.

Security and convenience

The range of everyday appliances that can connect to the internet is growing at an amazing rate. Non-connected “dumb” appliances can also be smartened up by using smart power plugs that let you remotely control them.

All of this is in the name of convenience.

For example, some companies make WiFi-connected motion detectors. While basic motion detectors turn on a lamp when you walk into a room, a connected one can be programmed to start a video camera recording as a security system when you’re not at home. You can even set it to detect if your kids get out of bed and have the lights turn on at a low brightness and then fade once they settle down again.

Webcams are nothing new, but the popularity of stand-alone WiFi-connected cameras has taken off. These high-definition cameras give you a live view of what’s happening in your home at any time from your phone or tablet. Some people use them to check in on their dogs during the day or to see the kids when they get home from school. Some cameras have built-in speakers, so you can yell at your dog … or burglars.

Internet-connected home security systems you monitor yourself are new to the market. Sometimes they are packaged as a complete product with all the equipment you need such as cameras, motion detectors, door sensors, control panels, and alarms. Alternatively, some systems allow you to buy individual components that can be pieced together by the user.

These security systems can be much cheaper than traditional monitored alarms and allow you a lot more control. For example, if you receive an alarm, you can do a quick scan of your house via a remote camera and see if there’s a real emergency or just your cat knocking over a vase. They can also automatically record footage (both video and still images) online, so if the cameras are tampered with, the footage is already stored in the cloud.

A company called Nest makes WiFi-connected smoke detectors. They are pricey (over $100) and currently only available to New Zealanders through Amazon, but these alarms can let you know if smoke is detected while you’re away from home and claim to last 10 years. They can also be “hushed” via your phone if you’ve just burnt the toast.

Lighting

WiFi-connected lights can connect through either the light bulbs themselves or with a smart switch.

The former uses a central hub that connects to your WiFi with a series of smart LED bulbs attached to it. This allows you to control the intensity of individual lights in a room, including – if the bulb has this function – the colour it glows.

Philips Hue WiFi light bulbs allow you to experiment with all colours of the spectrum to create the desired atmosphere.
Philips Hue WiFi light bulbs allow you to experiment with all colours of the spectrum to create the desired atmosphere.

This means you can change the “mood” of a room by dimming lights or changing colours. You can also create alerts for events, for example, having your bedside lamp glow blue in the morning if the forecast is for rain.

Smart switches are installed into the wall like a conventional light switch but connect to your WiFi network. They work normally but can also be controlled from a connected device. This means you can set them to turn on at a specific time or fade in or out over a specified period. While smart switches are cheaper as they work with your existing light bulbs and circuitry, they have the same limitations as a standard light switch so you can’t control individual bulbs in a room.

If you’re in the room, it’s usually easier to get up and change the lights yourself rather than get your phone out, open an app, and click a button. But even this is changing; Philips has a range of WiFi light bulbs called Hue, and it has released a controller, which you can pre-set with a range of lighting options. The controller is also WiFi-connected and is portable so you can carry it or just leave it on your coffee table.

These kinds of controllers work well if you have children who are afraid of the dark, so they can keep it and control the lights if they get scared during the night. Especially useful if you add a motion sensor that turns the lights off after the kids fall asleep.

If this then…

IFTTT, which stands for “If This, Then That”, is a free website and app that uses “recipes” to control your devices. It works with hundreds of websites, apps and devices. Recipes are written as “if X happens then do Y”. They can be as simple as “if I post a photo on Instagram, then also post it on Facebook”, but when you add in home appliances it gets really fun.

For example, if you catch the bus, you can set your lights to turn on when your phone’s GPS registers you at the nearest bus stop. Your electric blanket can be programmed to automatically turn on if the outside temperature drops to a certain level. You can even make a WiFi-connected light switch be a panic button, with a long press instantly alerting your friends via a pre-written message.

Setting up IFTTT recipes is simple. There are a number of pre-made ones or you can create your own. First, you set a “trigger”, like a time of day or GPS location from your phone, then set an “action”, like a light bulb turning on. You can either do it through the site or the app on your phone or tablet.

When setting up a device to be controlled by IFTTT for the first time, you need to give IFTTT permission to do so. This varies from device to device, but usually involves logging in to the device and clicking an “agree” button.

The cost of convenience

However, none of this is cheap. A WiFi-connected set of light bulbs can cost over $200. A home security system much more than that, especially if you pay for video data to be stored online.

Simple smart switch systems can cost $70-$90 depending on what options you pick. So how much is convenience worth to you?

There is also the issue of security. It’s unlikely your home network will be hacked, there’s more of a chance, albeit a small one, that the site you use to control your appliances might be.

We believe you should treat these threats with the same level of concern you have when using your credit card online. Be careful, but not so much that it scares you off. As always be safe online and choose a strong password.

How to set it up

Each smart device you connect will have a different set-up depending on which manufacturer it comes from, but they all have a few things in common. For example, you will almost certainly need your phone or tablet connected to the same WiFi network the device is on.

First, you need to make sure there’s a decent WiFi signal where you’re planning on putting the device. You can use the signal strength icon at the top of a phone or tablet’s screen as a guide. It’s not a perfect measure but it’ll do.

Once the device has power, you need to connect to it over direct WiFi to your phone or tablet. This means the device sets up its own low-power WiFi network that you join for a short time to set it up. This is where the process differs from device to device, but in general you enter your home WiFi details and the smart device connects to that.

Some devices, such as WiFi connected light bulbs, use a central wireless hub to connect them to the network. This hub needs power and to be physically connected to your router, so plan for that.

Some of the devices, such as the Belkin WeMo Light Switch, need to be installed by an electrician. None of these products use large amounts of internet data, except for the live video cameras.

WiFi

To use these systems you need a reliable home WiFi network. Check out our test of wireless routers to see which one gives you the strongest network.

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