With the rapid expansion of the smart-home consumer base, and the ever-expanding list of new smart-home products, sometimes it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Not every smart device talks to every other, and you can end up with a few disparate smart devices that don’t work cohesively if you don’t plan ahead. I realize that sentence sounds intimidating at best and boring at worst to nearly everyone in the world who isn't me, and the overwhelming-ness of the smart product market can put people off of getting started at all. But I promise, it's not all doom and gloom.
That said, even if you do get one or two neat gadgets to begin with, sometimes they might make it difficult for you to expand your smart home in the future, if they don’t “talk” to many other products or services. For example, my Amazon-evangelism finally convinced my mom to get an Amazon Echo. She loves Alexa nearly as much as I do now, particularly the shopping list feature. She then got a smart-lock and two outlets, as well as a security camera and thermostat, as a gift from a friend. They were from a company called Z-wave, and they do not integrate directly with the Amazon Echo. So what could have been a convenient way for my mom to control the door lock without having to go downstairs, and to turn her lamps on and off using voice commands, instead ended up being a more complicated process using 3 separate apps to control 4 separate devices. Fortunately, direct integration isn’t the only way to connect smart devices.
I contacted Z-wave through their website and asked if they integrated with IFTTT or with any smart hubs, and luckily, all of the products my mom got as gifts work with the Samsung Smart Hub as well as the Wink hub. From a prior setup at my apartment, I had an out-of-use Samsung Smart Hub that my mom could use, and luckily, the Samsung Smart Hub integrates directly with the Amazon Echo. Even if it hadn’t, though, both integrate directly with IFTTT, which could have bridged the gap between the devices.
Now, connecting all of my mom’s smart-devices to a single hub doesn’t only serve the purpose of connecting it to her Echo. It also enables her to control all the devices through the Samsung SmartThings app, although she will still have to open a separate app to view the monitor from her Piper home security camera, which she mostly uses to check on our dogs during the day at work, but which can also be used to trigger the Aotec smart-switch 6 outlets that the lamps are plugged into, or CT32 thermostat, now that they’re connected to a hub and can be connected to IFTTT. Now my mom, who is slowly getting as addicted to this stuff as I am, wants the temperature adjusted, lights on, and door unlocked as soon as she pulls into her parking spot.
Temperature adjustment isn’t instantaneous, so the first trigger I set up is for the thermostat to adjust when she leaves work. This works by tracking the location on her phone, and when it leaves a radius of about 1000 meters from her office, her phone tells IFTTT, which tells the smart hub, which tells the thermostat to adjust to 68 degrees. Within the 20 minutes it takes for her to get home, the apartment cools, and is all set for human habitation. The next is lights, which works off the same principle as the thermostat. I set the lights to turn on when she gets within 1000 meters of her house, although I briefly considered having the lights turn on whenever her phone connected to the home wifi, because she typically leaves her wifi on. And finally, the door lock. I don’t trust the service enough to have it work on the 1000 meters system, and I don’t want the front door just unlocking and locking too often. To get around this, I have two choices - a DO button, or the camera. If we faced her security camera outward, we could have the door unlock when someone pulls into my mom’s parking spot. But, since my mom likes to watch the dogs on the camera all day, I set up a DO button through IFTTT. When my mom pulls into the lot, she can just tap the DO icon on her phone, which tells IFTTT to tell the smart hub to tell the door to unlock, and then she doesn’t need to put in her passcode if her hands are full.
So, how do you figure out if you can connect your random smart home devices? Your first step is to see if they connect to any hubs, like the Samsung Smart Hub, Wink hub, Insteon hub, Amazon Echo, etc. or if they connect to any services, like IFTTT or Zapier, Cloudwork, WeWiredWeb, or Elastic.io
If each device connects to the same hub, or service, it’s very possible you can use that hub or service directly to connect the two, but there’s a chance you might not. Some devices only talk in one direction. For instance, I can have my phone beep loudly, regardless of if it’s muted or not, whenever I have my Echo “trigger” IFTTT to “Find My Phone”, but I can’t have my Echo play music whenever I get an email. That’s because the Echo will only trigger IFTTT, not vice-versa.
There’s also the issue of immediacy. The more stops there are on the map, the longer it will take your smart-home to pass the commands along. So when you map a notification, or trigger, make sure you keep the path short enough to actually be useful. For instance - I use IFTTT and my Lifx lights to let me know if, when home, I’ve missed a call from my mom.
So if I miss a call from my mom and I’m at work, my lights are likely to be “off”. IFTTT will not turn them on just to blink for this notification, so this trigger will likely only be carried out if I’m home. Why does this matter? If I’m home, my phone will be on wifi, with data turned on in the background, and this ensures that if there is internet to be had, my phone will have it, and thus will minimize the delay between my phone getting the missed call, and IFTTT getting the signal that my phone missed the call. Then, IFTTT contacts my Lifx APP - NOT my Lifx lights. If I uninstall the Lifx app from my phone, this trigger will not work. This again means that my phone should be optimally connected to the internet when this trigger is carried out. My Lifx app tells my Lifx lights to flash pink, twice, and I scamper over to my phone to call my mom back. There’s usually barely any delay whatsoever.
For contrast, one trigger I use that has a slight delay is “bus times.” I set up the “bus times” trigger to help me decide whether to take the train or the bus. To set off this trigger, I say the phrase “Alexa, trigger bus times” in my bedroom, or into my voice remote. Then, my Amazon Echo needs to decipher what I’ve said, send that information to IFTTT, which then contacts my Android phone. My phone sends a text to “511123” (the text-for-schedules number for Brooklyn busses) containing my stop number and bus route. The transit authority then responds, and by that time, I’ve usually packed up my bag, put on my sunglasses and shoes, found my phone, and received a text with the next three busses on my route coming to my stop, and their arrival times. Because there are 5 stops on this map, instead of 3, like on my missed-call-from-mom map, there’s usually a delay of a few minutes, so I’ve built them into my routine.
Being able to map out your smart devices is helpful not only to connect existing devices, butto help you buy the most cost-effective system for your needs. For instance - say you work in a home office, and either you wear headphones most of the time for focus reasons, or you do it because you’re playing video games for 80% of your free time, and you need to have an alert system in place when you get important emails, or a work call. Well - one thing you could do is get some Philips Hue bulbs, and a Hue bridge, and connect your bulbs to the bridge, and the Hue bridge to IFTTT, and IFTTT to your email and cell phone. IFTTT is free, but the Philips Hue LED White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit in multicolor is about $180 for the bridge, and three bulbs. The bridge is connected to your internet via ethernet cord, so your map would look like this:
However - Lifx bulbs don’t require a bridge to connect to IFTTT, and at $60 per bulb, would cost the same amount as the Hue/bridge/IFTTT map for a much simpler setup, and while Belkin WeMo bulbs are less expensive, they require a hub to connect to other devices or services like Hue does, and do not come in multiple colors.
So, when deciding to buy a smart home product, it can be very helpful to take a look at what other devices and services it’s able to connect with, so that if and when you decide to expand your smart home, there aren’t any areas of your map that are isolated!