Smart Home For Beginners: How Do Smart Homes Work?

Smart Home For Beginners: How Do Smart Homes Work?

December 4, 2020

Smart home is just like every other house, just with lights, plugs, thermostats, and more with additional control options. But the difficulty is adding these extra controls, and learning how they work can help you create a better smart home.

In the past, we have discussed what a smartphone is and also given recommendations for hubs, voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant, and how to set up a budget-based smart home. But if you’re setting up your first smart homes or updating an existing smart home, when you make choices about what to add to it it’s important to understand how they function. And with smart homes, it’s all about the brain and the radio.

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They all have something in common when it comes to the gadgets that run your smart home: a speaker. Radio is the main difference between your smart computer and a non-smart version, whether it’s Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, or proprietary.

But that radio does not give any intelligence to your bulbs, plugs, and doorbell. It is for contact there. You may assume your devices communicate with your phone or tablet directly, and vice versa, but that’s not typically true. And that’s always the end of the story, except in cases where it is, like Bluetooth. Nearly all your smart devices connect with an intermediary, if you will, the brains of your smart house.

You should know when you speak to your Echo or Google Home devices by now; they relay your voice for interpretation to Amazon and Google servers. Voice assistants don’t comprehend a word you say without that process. The fact is almost all your smart devices (if not all) work similarly. It passes via the doorbell manufacturer’s servers until your clever doorbell video reaches your computer. The signal goes from your smartphone to your wireless router, to the Philips center, when you click the off button in the Philips Hue app. The hub then interacts to switch them off with your Hue bulbs.

Think of the networks or hubs as the brains of your smart home (and sometimes both). That’s where there’s intelligence. Not in the computers themselves, and not in the software or physical remotes that you use to connect with them. And those servers and hubs allow for additional skills beyond on and off. Routines, facial recognition, automation, voice control, and more are given.

But the point to remember is that there might be more than one set of brains for your smart house. Your Google Home is connecting to Google servers; your Philips Hue bulbs are connecting to a Philips hub, Lutron is connecting to its hub, etc.

Some manufacturers, such as Z-wave devices that link to a SmartThings or Hubitat hub, build devices to connect with universal hubs. But for interaction between all your computers, you would also need to use other company servers and hubs. For example, Philips Hue bulbs will operate with a SmartThings hub, but in the process, they still use the Philips Hub.

Knowing that something a hub, a server, etc.) interacts with your smart device is vital because smart homes work best when everything works together. If you prefer to speak to your home to monitor it but Alexa doesn’t work for your lamp, then it might not be a smart light either.

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Fortunately, manufacturers of devices understand this and typically aim to collaborate with as many different providers as possible. So when you incorporate motion sensors, if you have already decided on a specific light bulb brand, you need to double-check that they interact with your bulbs. But above all, you want to pay attention to how they communicate.

In the chain, each extra ‘brain’ adds points of failure and chances of lag. Imagine, for instance, that when you come home and open the door, you create a routine that switches on your living room lights. If your smart lock works on Wi-Fi and your Z-wave lights, then the knowledge you’ve come home needs to move to your router from your lock, to the cloud of the smart lock, back to your router, to your hub, then to your lights. The cloud and hub will see the details along the way and decide what to do about it.

These extra trips result in lag. Depending on the speed of your network, the equipment involved, and the servers and hubs, it can be minimal or very noticeable. An entirely locally managed system (for example, all Z-wave through a cloudless hub like Hubitat or HomeSeer) would almost always operate faster than a cloud-using system. But giving up the cloud will restrict what devices you can use and even prevent voice control that relies solely on cloud servers to run.

Beyond misinterpreted results, when a computer manufacturer goes out of business or changes access rights, another point of failure for “multi-brained” homes is. Your hub may stop working, or access may be completely cut off by the service you use (like Nest). And because of it, your smart home could break down.

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