What Is a Smart Home?

From automated lights to motion-activated door locks, smart home devices make your home, well, smarter.

Written by Ellen Glover
What Is a Smart Home?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Nov 27, 2023

smart home is a residence equipped with connected devices and appliances that can be controlled remotely using a smartphone or tablet and are linked via a central hub or network. This includes “smart” lighting, heating and security devices, such as light bulbs, thermostats and cameras. They are all part of the Internet of Things (IoT) — an ecosystem of objects that gather and share data with each other through the web, sensors and other hardware.

What Is a Smart Home?

A smart home is equipped with smart devices that often rely on a network connection and can be controlled with a smartphone, computer, tablet or other mobile or networked device. Lights, thermostats and security systems are a few examples of smart devices, which share data with each other to perform their functions and act autonomously as users permit.

As smart becomes the default for virtually every household appliance, from doorbells to dishwashers, the integration of smart home systems is quickly becoming a normal part of modern living.

“Any home, at this point, can be a smart home,” Elizabeth Lindemulder, the senior VP of connected services at smart home tech provider Chamberlain Group, told Built In. “All the advances around technology have actually made it extremely accessible.”

Related Reading13 Things Every Consumer Should Know Before Buying a Smart Home System

 

What Is a Smart Home?

A smart home is made up of various interconnected, remotely controlled smart devices. Users can control everything from opening and closing their window shades to turning their thermostats up or down — no matter where they are — simply by pressing a button on an app (or even by using a voice command). 

Smart devices can also run autonomously, using either timed or triggered events. For example, a smart coffee pot will turn on at 7 a.m. if programmed to do so. Or if a home reaches 75 degrees, a smart cooling system can be programmed to turn on and regulate the temperature to 68 degrees. 

By embracing smart home devices, people can conveniently streamline and automate their daily routines, enhance their home security and increase energy efficiency.  

 

How Do Smart Homes Work?

In a smart home, smart devices connect to each other using wireless protocols. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave are among the most common wireless protocols. Once smart devices are connected, they often share data among themselves so that they can work together.

When a bunch of these devices can be controlled using the same hub or platform, then you have a smart home ecosystem. That holds true even if they are made by different manufacturers. For instance, Google partners with smart light bulb makers and smart door lock makers so that they can all be controlled using the Google app or Google device like a smart speaker or Nest Hub.

“That culmination is where little devices end up becoming an experience in a smart home,” Hooman Shahidi, the head of product at smart home security company SimpliSafe, told Built In. “More mass adoption comes when you have more holistic, integrated experiences that create value.”

 

Smart Home Interoperability and Ecosystems

Not all smart devices automatically work together. There are a handful of major smart home tech ecosystems in this space, namely Amazon, Apple and Google. Some devices work with only Google, some with both Amazon and Google, and others with all three.

Because of this, the smart home tech industry is making a “purposeful attempt” to standardize connectivity and setup going forward, Shahidi said. That would potentially make the process much simpler for customers.

Matter, an IP-based connectivity protocol, launched in 2022. It’s specifically designed to solve the compatibility challenges of smart homes, essentially providing a framework that allows for seamless communication across devices and their various apps and cloud services. Developed by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (previously Zigbee Alliance), Matter is supported by all the main players in this industry, including Apple, Google and Amazon. 

While it is still pretty new and not yet widely adopted, Shahidi said Matter is putting us “on the path” of solving the setup and operability challenges that IoT devices have right now.

 

A quick explainer on the basics of setting up a smart home system. | Video: Security.org

Smart Home Technology Examples

According to a report from IoT Analytics, there were more than 14 billion connected devices operating around the world in 2022 — transforming everything from healthcare to manufacturing to the very cities we live in. And they’re becoming increasingly present inside our homes, where they can be found in just about every room. Here are some examples.

 

Smart Security Systems

With smart security devices like cameras, doorbells, door locks and garage door openers, residents can both monitor their homes and control who enters them and when. And motion sensors can be used to identify different residents, visitors and even pets, and send notifications to either users or the proper authorities if suspicious behavior is detected.

 

Smart Thermostats

Smart thermostats allow users to schedule, monitor and remotely control their home’s heating and cooling systems, offering more comfort and energy efficiency. These devices can also use behavioral analysis and predictive analytics to detect patterns in user behavior and automatically adjust its settings accordingly.

 

Smart Lighting Systems

Smart lighting systems can be either controlled remotely, or pre-programmed to adjust to things like time of day, ambient lighting and room occupancy. Smart light bulbs can be placed in lamps or overhead lights, and can be connected to smart wall outlets that can be controlled with voice commands via a smart speaker. Plus, artificial intelligence can be used to learn unique user preferences and help customize lighting in the home. 

 

Smart Appliances

Household appliances such as refrigerators, ovens, washing machines, toasters and coffee machines now come with internet connectivity for remote management. AI is often used to monitor the health of these devices, identify mechanical issues and alert the resident when it is due for maintenance. AI can also help these devices make decisions independently. For example, robotic vacuum cleaners can navigate a home all by themselves, avoiding obstacles and adjusting their cleaning patterns in real time.

 

Smart Entertainment

Smart TVs and smart speakers can collaborate to enhance the home entertainment experience. With Smart TVs, users simply need an internet connection to stream shows, movies, music and even games — all without cables or additional streaming devices. Meanwhile, smart speakers use natural language processing to understand commands and act as virtual assistants. If smart speakers and smart TVs are connected, users can deliver voice commands to turn a smart TV on, select specific content and perform other basic tasks.

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How to Set Up a Smart Home

In short, to build a smart home system, you need:

  • Internet connection and Wi-Fi router
  • Smart devices (locks, cameras, light bulbs, thermostats, etc.)
  • App and/or platform to set up and program these devices
  • A way to control them, such as a smartphone or voice-controlled speaker

Following the steps below can ease first-time smart home users through the transition as they upgrade to a smart home.

 

1. Establish Goals and a Budget 

Whether it’s automating a few devices or performing a smart-home makeover, users should figure out what they want to get out of their smart home. Then, they can determine a budget that reflects their goals and decide whether they can afford the costs.   

 

2. Prep the Network

Smart devices often require greater bandwidth and strong internet connections. Users should check their Wi-Fi and select a new network if needed to ensure their home internet can support smart devices and the volumes of data they exchange. 

 

3. Pick an App

A smart home app or platform is the central hub or ‘brain’ of the smart home that enables users to set up, control and monitor all their smart devices. Brands like Apple and Google often provide their own apps or platforms for smart home users’ convenience.  

 

4. Select a Voice Assistant

A voice assistant can serve as another main method for controlling various smart devices, responding to voice commands and autonomously performing scheduled tasks. Buyers can select from popular options like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri.  

 

5. Choose Smart Devices 

Users can now outfit their homes with smart devices that are compatible with their smart voice assistant and smart home app. Depending on a user’s needs, smart homes can be furnished with smart security systems, TVs, lights, thermostats, appliances and other connected devices.  

 

6. Connect and Test Smart Devices

To ensure a smart home functions properly, users should connect their smart devices, smart voice assistant and smart home platform and test these connections. If a device doesn’t respond to other devices, it may not be interoperable with the rest of the smart home system. 

 

Smart Home Benefits

Installing a smart home system can be beneficial on many fronts, from efficiency of automated thermostats to the peace of mind that comes with a security system that can be remotely monitored.

 

Convenience

“It’s about convenience,” said Jim Nye, the chief product officer at smart security company Vivint. In a smart home, devices “all work together to create a really seamless experience.”

Instead of carrying physical keys, users can have a smart lock that opens with their phone or fingerprint. And rather than having to control each and every appliance, heating unit and light fixture, users can monitor and manage them using just one device. 

Each device can also be customized according to user preferences. For example, users can program their garage door to open, the living room lights to go on and the smart speaker to play music from a particular Spotify station as soon as they walk in the door after arriving home from work. Eventually, artificial intelligence could make the smart home system even more intuitive and proactive, having smart devices do things without any prompting at all.

We’re already seeing glimpses of this. A smart thermostat can detect when no one is home and will adjust the temperature to save money. Or a smart leak detector knows when the dishwasher is overflowing, and will shut off the water to stop it. Using predictive analytics on a unified platform, AI could soon be used to collect, analyze and interpret data from an entire smart home system and make adjustments all on its own.

 

Safety

Smart home security systems include things like cameras, locks and lights, all of which can be controlled remotely and monitored from a smartphone or tablet so users can always know what’s going on in their residence. Smart motion sensors can also identify different residents, visitors and pets, and even send notifications if suspicious behavior is detected.

Beyond tech like surveillance cameras and motion detectors, smart home systems can also include sensors for detecting things like carbon monoxide or water leaks, which can send alerts to the proper authorities and trigger security measures. In the end, all of this brings “peace of mind” to smart home residents, Nye said. 

 

Energy Efficiency

Devices like smart thermostats and lighting systems use sensors and AI algorithms to understand user preferences and automatically adjust so they’re only used when necessary. This helps residents use their electricity more efficiently. For example, instead of leaving an AC unit on all day, a smart home system will take into account user behaviors, as well as room occupancy and weather conditions, to optimize its energy use.

Through a combination of data analysis and automation, smart home systems can adjust their settings and operation times based on usage patterns and utility costs. Many smart appliances, such as washing machines and irrigation systems, can be programmed to only run during off-peak hours, when electricity and water rates are at their lowest, helping households to operate more efficiently and save on their utility bills

 

Accessibility

Having the ability to control things like locks, lights and appliances with just a touch screen device or a voice command can give people with limited mobility or physical disabilities more independence in their own home.

Life can also be safer for people with cognitive disabilities when their home appliances have the ability to run autonomously. For example, if a person with memory loss has doors that automatically lock at night and an oven that automatically turns off when the timer goes off, their home is essentially taking care of things that they may not remember to do on their own.

Looking to the FutureHow Will the Internet of Things (IoT) Evolve?

 

Smart Home Drawbacks

Smart homes aren’t perfect. From compatibility to complexity — not to mention privacy and security — the process of making one’s home smart comes with all kinds of issues.

 

Interoperability Challenges

There is no standard protocol that allows all devices to communicate with each other. While Matter is supposed to address this issue, it’s still a work in progress. So, if users aren’t careful about the brands they pick, they could wind up with a “hodgepodge” of devices that don’t necessarily work together, SimpliSafe’s Shahidi explained.

This can lead to a “clunky” and “disjointed” user experience, Nye said. “Let’s say you go buy doorbell camera X and thermostat Y and garage controller Z, and you’re trying to get all of them to talk to each other. That’s really difficult unless it’s part of an integrated system.”

 

Data Privacy Concerns

Smart devices collect user data in order to work. A system has to be able to gather information on a person to be able to work specifically for them, including their location, their daily habits and their biometric and voice data. 

When it comes to smart home technology, though, more convenience often means less privacy. Even with advances in data privacy legislation and practices dictating how companies can use this data, at the end of the day users are still sharing intimate details of their lives and bodies with companies whose devices they bring into their homes. This can be a major deterrent for some consumers.

 

Security Issues

The massive amount of data collected by smart home systems can make them susceptible to security breaches. Hackers can infiltrate a smart home’s camera system to spy on residents. Or they can take control of its lights, locks and alarm system, leaving the home defenseless to a break-in. 

Even with strong passwords, encryption and other precautions, anything is hackable if it is hooked up to the internet — meaning all the sensitive information smart devices collect is vulnerable.

“[Data security] is something that smart home companies in general need to invest in, because there are always going to be those that are looking for ways to compromise the systems,” Nye said. “Companies have to be vigilant and invest in resources, and continually do audits and checks to make sure that their products are as safe and secure as they can be.”

Further ReadingWhy Is IoT Security Important?

 

Smart Homes and AI

AI-enabled smart home devices collect user data from various sensors, inputs and sources, depending on how they function. That data is then processed either in the device itself using a technique known as edge AI, or in the cloud. Based on the results of AI analysis, smart home devices can then make decisions or take action.

As AI advances, our smart devices will only grow more intelligent, offering even more sophisticated, personalized experiences.

“AI and machine learning will really be at the front and center of smart homes — trying to understand user behavior patterns, making suggestions and predictions that can help anticipate needs and automate things more effectively,” Lindemulder said. “And that will only continue to compound, where you go from just being connected to being reactive, to being predictive.”

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A smart home is defined by its integration of internet-connected devices that enhance its functionality, efficiency and safety. These devices automate various aspects of the residence, including its lighting, temperature and security, and can be controlled remotely with a smartphone or networked device, such as a smart speaker.

Smart home systems can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on how sophisticated they are. But many smart devices, including thermostats, lighting systems and appliances, are designed to save users money in the long run by being more energy efficient. Having a more tech-enabled home may also increase its value when it comes time to sell it, with Forbes reporting that most sellers of smart homes see a 50 percent return on their investment.

Any home can be a smart home so long as the resident is willing to invest in the technology required to make one. At minimum, a smart home needs Wi-Fi connectivity. And then it needs enough smart devices to make an ecosystem, where various aspects of the home — its temperature, security, entertainment system and so on — can be run on one platform using a mobile or networked device.

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