Smarthomes are just like any other home, just with extra options to control lights, plugs, thermostats and more. But these additional controls add complexity, and understanding how they work will help you create a better smart home.
In the past, we’ve covered what a smart home is and even offered tips for hubs, voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, and how to set up a smart home on a budget. But if you’re setting up your first smart home or upgrading an existing smart home, it’s important to understand how they work when you’re deciding what to add to it. And with smarthomes, it’s all about radios and brains.
Your smart gadgets work on the radio
When it comes to the devices that power your smart home, they all have one thing in common: a radio. Whether it’s Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, or proprietary, the big difference between your smart device and the non-smart version is the radio.
But this radio doesn’t give your bulbs, plugs, and doorbell any intelligence. It’s there for communication. You might think that your devices communicate directly with your phone or tablet and vice versa, but this is usually not the case. And even in cases where it’s like Bluetooth, it’s always the end of the story. Nearly all of your smart devices communicate with an intermediary, the brains of your smart home, if you will.
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Your smart home requires a brain, sometimes more than one
By now, you should know when you’re communicating with your Echo or Google Home devices; they relay your voice to Amazon and Google servers for interpretation. Without this process, voice assistants don’t understand a word you say. The truth is that almost all (if not all) of your smart gadgets work the same way. Before your smart doorbell video reaches your phone, it passes through the servers of the doorbell manufacturer. When you press the power button in the Philips Hue app, this signal is sent from your smartphone to your wireless router and Philips hub. This hub then communicates with the Hue bulbs to turn them off.
Think of servers or hubs (or sometimes both) as the brains of your smart home. That’s where the mind is. Not in the gadgets themselves, and not in the apps or physical remotes you use to interact with them. And these servers and hubs provide more than just power on and off. They provide procedures, facial recognition, automation, voice control, and more.
But you need to remember that your smart home can have more than one set of brains. Your Google Home connects to Google servers; Philips Hue lights connect to a Philips hub, Lutron to a hub, etc.
Some manufacturers are developing devices to communicate with universal hubs, such as Z-wave devices that connect to a SmartThings or Hubitat hub. But you may still need to involve other company servers and hubs to communicate between all your devices. For example, Philips Hue lamps can work with a SmartThings hub but still use the Philips hub.
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More Brains Means More Gadgets, More Complexity, and Possibly Lag
Knowing that your smart device is communicating with anything (hub, server, etc.) is extremely important because smart homes work best when everything works together. If you’d rather talk to your home to control it, but your light isn’t working with Alexa, then it might not be a smart light.
Fortunately, device manufacturers understand this and usually try to work with as many different services as possible. So if you’ve already settled on a particular brand of light bulb when you add motion sensors, you’ll want to double-check that they work with your light bulbs. But it’s just important that you want to pay attention to how they interact.
Each additional «brain» in the chain introduces points of failure and chances of falling behind. For example, imagine that you are creating a routine that turns on the living room light when you arrive home and opens the door. If your smart lock is Wi-Fi and your lights are Z-wave, then the data you come home should be transferred from your lock to your router, to the smart lock cloud, back to your router, to your hub then to your fires. Along the way, the cloud and the hub will see the data and decide what to do with it.
These extra trips introduce backlog. This may be minor or very noticeable depending on your internet speed, the devices, servers, and hubs you use. A fully locally managed system (all Z-wave through a cloudless hub like Hubitat or HomeSeer) will almost always be faster than a cloud-based system. But moving away from the cloud can limit which devices you can use, and even eliminate voice control, which relies solely on cloud servers.
In addition to misinterpreted data, another point of failure for smart homes is when a device manufacturer goes out of business or changes permissions. Your hub might stop working, or the service you’re using (like Nest) might stop accessing completely. And your smart home can break down because of it.
Add additional devices thoughtfully
This does not mean that your home cannot work well with different types and manufacturers of radios. Sometimes the best solution means going outside of your current mix. You won’t find Ecobee bulbs (at least not yet), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use smart bulbs with your Ecobee thermostat.
But the more you can limit the number of hops through various hubs and servers, the better your home will be. And when it’s unavoidable, try choosing a «dominant» or «control» brain. Whenever possible, send your devices through one «hub», be it a Smarthome hub or a voice assistant. By giving control to a single service, you at least limit application hopping when it comes time to create routines, automations, and even basic controls.
And the best way to maintain control over how your smarthome gadgets interact is to start with a good understanding of how they interact and what controls those interactions.