Tips and best practices for optimizing your smart home

12 key pieces of advice that will turn you into a master of the (smart) house.

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Martyn Williams

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You’ve figured out the basics of setting up your smart home, now it’s time to raise your game. I’ve spent years installing, configuring, and tweaking dozens of smart home products in virtually every product category. Along the way I’ve figured out a lot of the secrets they don’t tell you in the manual or the FAQs, ranging from modest suggestions that can make your smart home configuration less complex, to essential decisions that can save you from having to start over from scratch a few years later.

Here’s my best advice on how to optimize your smart home, digested into a dozen top tips and best practices.

1. Choose a master platform at the start

echo vs homemax primary 1 IDG

These days, an Amazon or Google/Nest smart speaker or smart display can fill the role of a smart home hub (and some Amazon Echo devices are equipped with Zigbee radios)..

There are three major smart home platforms on the market, and your smart home will probably have at least one of them installed: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple HomeKit. The industry now revolves around these three systems, and virtually every significant smart home device that hits the market will support at least one of them, if not all three.

These platforms are different, of course. Alexa and Google Assistant are voice assistants/smart speakers first, but the addition of features that can control your smart devices has become a key selling point for each. HomeKit is a different animal, designed as more of a hub that streamlines setup and management. But since HomeKit interacts with Siri, it too offers voice assistant features—provided you have your iPhone in hand or have an Apple HomePod.

All three of these platforms will peacefully coexist, but you definitely don’t need both Alexa and Google Assistant in the same home, and managing both will become an ordeal as your smart home grows larger. It’s also completely fine to use HomeKit for setting up products and then using Alexa or Google Assistant for control. If you have a HomeKit hub device (either an AppleTV or a HomePod), you’ll want to use it, as it really does simplify setup.

2. You don’t necessarily need a smart home hub

samsung smartthings Christopher Null / IDG

These days, you’ll only need a DIY smart home hub like Samsung SmartThings if want to undertake a more ambitious home control effort.

In the early days of the smart home, two wireless standards, Zigbee and Z-Wave, were going to be the future. These low-power radios offer mesh networking features that are designed to make it easy to cover your whole home with smart devices without needing to worry about coverage gaps or congestion issues.

The main problem with Zigbee and Z-Wave devices is that they require a special hub that acts as a bridge to your Wi-Fi network, so you can interact with them using a smartphone, tablet, or your computer (while you’re home and when you’re away, via the internet). Samsung SmartThings is the only worthwhile DIY product in this category at present; its only credible competitor used to be Wink, a company that is now on its third owner and which has a questionable future at best. The Ring Alarm system has both Z-Wave and Zigbee radios onboard, but it’s much more focused on home security than home control.

As simple as SmartThings and Ring Alarm are, you’ll still face a learning curve to master them, and if your home-control aspirations are basic, you might find it easier to use devices (and the apps that control them) that connect directly to your Wi-Fi network and rely on one of the three platforms mentioned above for integration. It’s worth noting here than the 800-pound gorilla in the smart lighting world—Signify, with its Philips Hue product line—now offers families of smart bulbs that rely on Bluetooth instead of Zigbee, so they don’t require the $50 Hue Bridge.

That said, however, you’re limited to controlling 10 Hue bulbs over Bluetooth. The Hue Bridge is required beyond that, and it’s also required if you set up Hue lighting fixtures, including its outdoor lighting line.

The bottom line on this point: Unless you want to build out a highly sophisticated smart home system, I recommend sticking with products that connect directly to your network via Wi-Fi, rendering a central hub unnecessary.

3. Range issues can create big problems

The downside of installing Wi-Fi only gear is that everything in the house will need to connect directly to your router. If your router isn’t centrally located and your house is spread out, this can create range issues, particularly in areas where interference is heavy: the kitchen, bathrooms, and anything outside.

Your best bet is to check your Wi-Fi coverage both inside and outside the house before you start installing gear. Make a map of dead zones and decide whether you can live with them. If not, you’ll want to consider relocating your router or moving up to a mesh Wi-Fi network with two or more nodes. You can read more about mesh Wi-Fi networks here.

orbi daisychain Netgear

Mesh network routers, such as Netgear’s Orbi product line, connect multiple wireless nodes to blanket your home with Wi-Fi

Interference can also be a troubling problem that changes over time. If your next-door neighbor upgrades or moves his router, you may find that an area of the house with a once-solid signal has suddenly become erratic. You can tinker with the Wi-Fi channel settings in your router’s administration tool, but deploying a mesh network is a more sure-fire solution. Netgear even has an Orbi mesh node that can be installed outdoors to cover your backyard.

4. You don’t need smart gear everywhere

Many a smart home enthusiast has dreamed of wiring his entire home from top to bottom with smart products. A smart switch in every room and a smart outlet on every wall sounds like a high-tech dream; in reality, it can spiral into a nightmare.

The biggest problem is that while smart gear can be amazingly convenient, it also adds complexity to your environment because all of it must be carefully managed. Does installing 50 firmware updates sound like a great way to spend the weekend? Or troubleshooting that one switch that just won’t suddenly connect properly? Deploying smart speakers all over house, so you don’t need to yell for one to hear you, sounds like a great idea, too—that is, until the speakers have difficulty deciding exactly which one you’re talking to.

leviton alexa dimmer installed Michael Brown / IDG

Devices such as Leviton’s Decora Smart Voice Dimmer with Amazon Alexa make it easy to put Amazon’s digital assistant in every room, which sounds like a great idea until they start fighting each other to answer your commands.

In choosing where to install smart gear, think first about necessity. The hard-to-reach socket where you always plug in your Christmas tree is a perfect place for a smart outlet that can be set on a recurring schedule. The kitchen is a great option for voice control, so you don’t need to touch anything with dirty hands. My living room feature is lighted by three lamps which would normally have to be turned off and on individually; with smart bulbs and Alexa, it’s easy to power them on with a couple of spoken words. But does the overhead light in the master closet really need to have any of these features?

And finally, there’s the obvious issue: Smart gear isn’t cheap, and outfitting a large home with smart gear can quickly become exorbitantly expensive. Think about what happens when your gear becomes outdated (and out of warranty)?

The bottom line: While it’s a great idea to install everything you think you’re going to use at the start of your project, don’t overdo it. You can always add on to your system down the road. Install smart gear only where you legitimately know you will use it.

5. Consolidate vendors

leviton wi fi fan installed Michael Brown / IDG

This Leviton Leviton Wi-Fi fan speed controller is installed next to the company’s Z-Wave dimmer, but only the former can use the My Leviton app; the Z-Wave device anticipates being connected to a smart home hub. 

It might sound like common knowledge to suggest you try to stick with a single vendor when it comes to all your switches or light bulbs, but it’s easy to be wooed by a product that promises new features or better performance. Avoid taking the bait: Over time, bouncing from one vendor to the next will leave you managing multiple apps, and you’ll likely get confused about which one goes with which device.

Many smart outlets and switches don’t carry a visible brand logo, so it isn’t always as easy as just checking the hardware itself to see where you should go. (Making matters worse, many smart products use a management app with a name that that has no relation to the hardware’s name.) And while most HomeKit-capable apps can control other vendors’ HomeKit devices, you’ll still usually need the official app to get things set up initially and to perform regular maintenance.

The good news is that TechHive has plenty of buying guides in almost every smart home category to help take the guesswork out of figuring out which brands to build your home around, so you needn’t experiment to find the best products on the market.

6. Give your gear short, logical names

naming your smart home devices Michael Brown / IDG

Give your smart home devices unique names, but remember also that you might be speaking their names to a digital assistant.

By default, many smart products will give themselves a name during setup that consists of generic terms and random digits, none of which will be helpful to you in identifying them later. It’s best to give your gear a short but logical and easy-to-remember name when you first set it up.

Start by giving all the rooms in your house a name in the management app, even if they don’t have any gear in them. (You might install equipment there later.) “Bedroom” is not a good name unless you only have only one. You’ll want to use the most logical but unique names possible here: “Master bedroom,” “Zoe’s bedroom,” “Guest bedroom,” and so on.

Now, when you install a product, standardize names using both the room name and a description of the item—or what the item controls. For example: “Master bedroom overhead lights” for a wall switch or “Office desk lamp” for a smart plug connected to said lamp. In rooms where you have multiple products, you can use a longer descriptor, numerical ID (1, 2, 3…), or something similar. In my living room, the three lamp smart bulbs are named Living room lamp left, center, and right, so if one isn’t working in the app, it’s easy for me to figure out which is which.

Doing this work up front will save you time if and when you connect your gear to a voice assistant. Not only does having a standardized, logical naming system make it easy for you to remember what to say, changing the name of a product in its app generally means having to re-discover the product within your voice assistant app, which is a hassle.

7. Wiring never looks like it does in the pictures

Manuals and online guides always make in-wall wiring look like a standard, well-organized affair, but I can assure you that many an electrician has taken some significant liberties with the way that switches and outlets are wired in the average home. Don’t be surprised to find multiple black line/load wires when you expected to find just two, strange in-wall hardware that doesn’t look like the picture, and wiring that simply doesn’t make sense.

For help in situations where the answer isn’t obvious, take pictures and—as a first step—ask the vendor for guidance. If tech support isn’t forthcoming, consider an online forum like Doityourself.com or DIY Chatroom, where loads of DIYers are ready to lend a hand. Your pictures will be invaluable in situations like this—doubly so if you decide to give up and just put your existing switch back in place.

outlet wiring Michael Brown / IDG

The neutral wire required by the vast majority of smart switches and outlets is typically white. So which of these two white wires is the neutral?

Of course, you can always experiment as long as you’re patient. There’s little risk of damaging the product if you miswire it the first time. Just make sure you’re turning the power off at the circuit breaker before you touch anything.

As a last tip on wiring, note that neutral (typically white) wiring is essential for most of the smart switches on the market. If there is no neutral wire in the electrical box where you want to install a smart switch, you’ll need to seek out the handful smart switches and dimmers that don’t require a neutral wire, like these C by GE models or certain Lutron switches.

8. Expect problems to emerge without warning

You know how your computer suddenly starts crashing every day, or your printer abruptly vanishes from the network? The same kind of things happen to smart home gear, which, after all, are miniature computers of their own, all prone to the same types of issues. Expect the occasional product to abruptly disconnect from your network, vanish from the management app, or stop working altogether—even after months or years of otherwise trouble-free operation, without any discernable reason. In many cases, you’ll need to manually reset the product to get it to reconnect to the app. Sometimes the app will guide you through this process, otherwise a quick Google search can get you squared away.

9. Pay attention to battery life

Devices not attached directly to the grid rely on battery power to operate. Door/window and motion sensors, smart locks, smart doorbells, many cameras, smoke alarms, and more are all likely to require regular battery replacements or recharging, and while many devices claim to last for multiple months or even years, the reality is often shorter than that.

ring device health Michael Brown / IDG

The apps that come with most devices will monitor battery life, but don’t count on them issuing a warning before the battery dies.

Take stock of the batteries each of these devices use—some are truly oddball cells that you won’t have in the junk drawer—and keep spares on hand for when they die. Devices that use a rechargeable battery like the Ring Doorbell are supposed to alert you via the app when the battery is running low, so you can recharge it before it goes totally dead, but my experience is that these alerts are rarely actually delivered (or end up being ignored).

If your Ring Video Doorbell’s battery is dead, you’ll never know if someone’s ringing the bell (which, in my case, usually means a “missed delivery” slip from FedEx). I check my Ring’s battery life in the app once a week (it’s under Device Health), and when it hits about 35 percent, I remove the cell and charge it back up (you can also buy spare Ring batteries and just swap a dying battery for a freshly charged one).

10. Dimmers can be particularly problematic

Electrical dimmers like the old-school wall-mounted dial type work by lowering the amount of electrical current being sent to the load device, which will, say, lower the brightness of an incandescent bulb or slow down a fan. Unfortunately, dimmers pose particular problems for many devices. Smart home devices are especially problematic when dimmers are attached, because they contain electronics and radios that simply won’t work if the power isn’t coming through at full strength. As such, it’s a bad idea to connect devices like smart light bulbs to circuits that are connected to a dimmer.

On a similar front, you’ll need to be especially observant if you replace an old toggle switch with a smart dimmer. As a shortcut, sometimes switches are wired with pass-through circuitry that is meant to pass along current to other devices (such as a nearby power outlet). If you swap out this switch with a dimmer, you might inadvertently connect the dimmer to those outlets, causing them to lose all or partial power, making for a complex troubleshooting session.

11. IFTTT almost always has a workaround

Getting various pieces of smart home gear to work together is one of the most rewarding facets of having a smart home. If you’ve consolidated vendors and are selecting products based on compatibility with your master platform (tips number 1 and 5 above), you’ll have an easy time getting things working together, whether that’s turning on music when you open the garage, or syncing lighting to turn off when someone locks the front door.

But those are fairly simple examples of smart home automations, and if you want to get really creative, you’ll probably need to delve into IFTTT, the preeminent “if this, then that” platform. IFTTT applets can get pretty wild because they can incorporate products well beyond what you might think of as part of the smart home. You can even connect devices to trigger based on Twitter messages, RSS feeds, Instagram posts and more. Want to blink a light red when someone tags a picture of you on Facebook? IFTTT is the best—and maybe the only—way to make it happen.

12. You get what you pay for

wyze lock and gateway Wyze Labs

Wyze Labs manufactures some of the best inexpensive smart home products we’ve tested.

It was inevitable that many smart home categories would enter generic territory as off-brand manufacturers came onboard, racing to the bottom when it comes to price. A quick search on Amazon will reveal all manner of ostensibly smart products from companies you’ve never heard of.

TechHive has tested a lot of this junk looking for diamonds in the rough, but most of it is just that: Low-cost garbage with bare minimum functionality that will create nothing but headaches for you in the long run—assuming there is a long run; the build quality on these devices is rarely comforting. If you are seduced by those impossibly cheap bulbs, plugs, and switches, you can expect to get an app with bad (or no) translation from Chinese, minimal to no instructions on setup, and long waits for support—if you get any support at all.

One of the few exceptions to this rule so far has been Wyze, which offers a wide range of very affordable gear that, while low on features, does generally seem high in quality, at least compared to the vast sea of generic knockoffs on the market.

Updated May 20, 2020 to more accurately describe how the typical smart switch/smart outlet depends on the presence of a neutral wire in the box where it's being installed. 

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