You’re getting ready to leave your house to run errands. As you walk down the hall, the lights automatically dim. The fan whirling slowly above your head comes to a stop, and a camera notices you approaching the door and begins arming your alarm. As you leave the house, the door locks behind you and the lights dim, eventually turning off. That night, as it approaches 10:00 p.m., your mattress pad starts cooling down to 70 degrees, because it knows that soon you’ll be going to sleep. When you’re away, a camera within your home updates you via iPhone anytime there is motion in the house. It won’t bother you if it’s just your wife, kids or family dog moving around, since it uses facial recognition software to remember them. This level of automated living is available today, all part of the growing list of consumer products that fall under the “smart home” category. Ranging from thermostats that automatically adjust a home’s temperature based on outdoor conditions, or allow users to log in remotely and make manual changes, on up to security systems that recognize a home’s occupants and make on the fly decisions about when to arm and disarm a system, or to notify police and rescue. Future apps the use the Apple watch’s ability to measure heart rate have been considered, capable of alerting your alarm system in the event your heart rate goes way outside normal parameters. In the event of a heart attack, your home could automatically notify rescue personnel the minute your watch realizes something is wrong.
Setting out to create a smart home can be daunting. There are a myriad of products, from light bulbs to air conditioners. One thing that all smart home products have in common is that they use your home’s wi-fi internet to communicate with each other and you. By accessing the internet they have a direct line of communication, right up to your personal smart phone. So where to start when setting up a smart home, and what considerations can greatly affect how a smart home functions?
Apple is trying to make iPhones drive smart homes, and Google is putting the Nest Learning Thermostat at the center of operations. Yet, as smart as these companies are (and there are a lot of other players in this space), they have it completely wrong. Your in-home network—which for most people is their Wi-Fi connection—is what’s really running the show. So, before installing your first smart product, give your wireless router’s location some serious consideration.
For instance, my Wi-Fi router sits in the northwest corner of my house, in the basement, in an electronics cabinet next to my cable box, connected to the line that the cable company installed. As a result, even with the newest Wi-Fi routers on the market, I have trouble getting a strong, stable internet signal in my backyard (because the radio waves struggle with traveling through the concrete foundation), my kitchen (where a firewall, refrigerator, stove, and other appliances block the way), the second story (we’re getting further from the router now).
It’s likely that your situation is better than mine, but whether it’s connecting your network to a water-leak sensor in your laundry room or a garage door opener in the yard, you are going to have connectivity issues at some point. Head those off at the pass by installing your wireless router on the ground floor as close to the center of your property as possible.
2. There are no great ways to extend the range of your home’s Wi-Fi.
For example, power-line adapters, which let the home’s electrical wiring act like network cables, may sound magical, but they are fraught with hiccups from power surges to poorly-wired exchanges inside your walls. Likewise, so-called “multimedia over Coax” adapters can turn the coaxial cabling used for your home’s television service into an in-wall data network, but every place the line gets split, it introduces noise into the line, reducing your network’s speed and consistency.
The easiest solution is to use another Wi-Fi router as a network extender, but it’s still not ideal. The relayed signal from your network extender can slow your Internet connection by as much as 50%. For instance, if you’re paying for 60 megabit-per-second service from your Internet provider, your relay router may only deliver 30 mbps. Admittedly, that’s more than enough to drive a smart bulb or a motion sensor, but the problem comes when you try to stream a movie on your laptop or tablet because you’re not able to tell your computer to connect to one wireless router instead of another.
3. Hard-wiring your home is easier than you may think.
The most ideal solution, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is to network your home with ethernet cables, and either install multiple wireless routers around your home or use these new cable runs to plant smart home hub devices in more accessible spots. (These hubs, by the way, are also what run the smart home, since many devices connect to them, not necessarily to your Wi-Fi.)
But fear not, because if your home was wired for telephones, you may have what it takes to hardwire your home for ethernet.
4. Power is a problem.
One more thing to consider when planning out your smart home is having access to power. While some devices, like connected door locks, are powered by batteries, most are not. Whether it’s a web security camera or, to go back to the topic at hand, a wireless router, you’ll need to plug them in, and you’ll want to hide those power cords from view.
So, if you’re planning a remodel or renovation, consider installing outlets in kitchen cabinets, under windows where curtains can camouflage your wall warts, within a custom-built piece such as a bookshelf or bench, or even in floors, if possible. Also, invest in power outlets that include USB ports — this will help minimize the rat’s nest of wiring, extension cords, and splitters that you’ll need. And they will make your home look truly smart.