Smart Home: Getting Started Guide

Comfort. Convenience. Safety Security. Energy savings.

Whether you're just interested in one of these features, or a few of them, you can find many different products and services to start making your home “smart”.

This isn't a new concept. Homeowners have been tinkering with automation products since the 1970's or earlier. X10 was one of the early home automation platforms – but it suffered reliability issues due to hardware & protocol constraints. Newer platforms like Insteon are backwards-compatible with X10, but are much more robust.


Nowadays, the average homeowner has access to much more robust technology that is truly limited only by the imagination. The exciting thing is that even though we've had home automation products for decades, we're really entering an era where these products are becoming even more “smart” – and it's an awesome time to start taking advantage of these newer, more-capable products.

But where do you begin? There's so many brands to choose from, and if you start simple with one product line, you might find it more difficult to integrate new devices later on.

You might walk down the aisle in Home Depot and find a neat wifi-controllable light bulb, and it will probably work well-enough with its own proprietary app. But what if you buy a different product later, and want some level of interaction between them later on? If they're not the same brand, they probably won't work together, unless you put in some effort.

It's great that there are more and more products being created for the smart home market, but the bad news is, different product lines and brands don't really work well “together”. Sure, they will all do their own thing reasonably well – but the more you add (from different manufacturers), the harder it gets to manage them in one simple interface – you have to begin using multiple apps that all seem to approach things a little differently.

The good news is that there are some products entering the market that are attempting to make it easier to integrate products from different manufacturers. Still, there isn't one great platform on the market.

Hopefully, we can look forward to a trend toward platform convergence that integrates a diverse line of products into a more simple & convenient interface. Assuming that is the case, let's take a look at a few products that can help you get started in this world of smart home technology which opens up an endless world of automation possibilities.

So where should you begin?

I suggest getting started with lighting controls, because it's usually the most frequent way that you interact with your home, and it can start to get your creative juices flowing. So, let's start with lighting.

Lights are usually made “smart” in one of two ways: – Making the light switch remote-controllable, or; – Make the light bulb itself controllable (and always leaving the light switch in the “on” position)

For light bulbs that are part of a fixture (ie. ceiling and wall lights), I prefer to make the switch remote-controllable, because you never know when someone might inadvertently turn the switch off – and you wouldn't be able to control that bulb which has no power! So, for ceiling and wall light fixtures, I absolutely love the Insteon product line. Insteon makes a range of incredibly robust products that control the power to your lights, outlets, and appliances.


For lamps and other “portable” light fixtures, my preference is mixed between controlling the power source, and the ability to control the bulb itself directly. Some light bulbs (like the Philips Hue product line) allow you to change the colour and brightness of the bulb through an app on your smartphone.

When you're getting started deciding on how you want to control your lights, I have two suggestions: 1. If you want to control the color of the bulb, and it's not a ceiling light, buy the Philips Hue system. 2. If you want to control on/off and dimming, and have the ability to control any (non-smart) bulbs or devices you choose, buy Insteon switches.

With either of these product lines, you can setup “scenes” where you have a bunch of different devices that come on to a certain level, and perhaps dim lights based on your preference – say, for example, you are having dinner, or watching a movie. You can set lights on a schedule – say, have your outside lights or room lamps turn on/off depending in the time of day.

Both Insteon and Hue can integrate with other products and services to help “automate” them.


Hue works with 3rd party apps, and IFTTT – so you could have your lights flash when you receive an email, or change color based on the weather forecast. (I don't have mine do that – but it gives you an idea of the possibilities you can implement.)

Insteon works with 3rd party controllers, like my favourite – the ISY994 by Universal Devices, which is probably more complicated than it needs to be, but gives you incredible control over the logic of your Insteon devices, and other devices like Z-wave and the amazing Elk Alarm system. For the time being, save yourself the learning curve of this (very advanced) controller and stick with the basics. Insteon makes its own hub, which is significantly easier to setup for a beginner, and gives you some great functionality out-of-the-box like remote access to your devices while you're away from home.

So, where should you begin?

My suggestion: start small. Pick a few lights, or maybe a single room. Try out some Hue bulbs if you think you'd want some color. They might not be bright enough for ceiling bulbs, but they can add some nice color if you're in the mood.

Think about doing one room at a time. Or, choose a different smaller application. I've got a small project to install Insteon switches in all the bathrooms to control the fans, for automated ventilation control. My furnace fan will turn on along with all the bathroom fans, to draw fresh air into the house. After an hour, the fans shut off. I also setup my fireplace to be part of a scene, using an Insteon in-line module and a relay.

One thing I absolutely love about Insteon switches, is that they always function as a normal switch by themselves. You can't mess that up – it always works as a light switch, and gives you the capability to extend its functionality.


Just use your imagination – but start with a simple project of two, maybe three devices. For Insteon, maybe choose a light switch and a lamp plug-in module, so that you can have the lamp turn on/off with the room's light switch. For Hue, pick up the starter pack which includes the (required) hub and a few bulbs. You can always add more devices and functionality later!

Question: What's the first thing that you'd like your system to do for you?

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