Nowadays technology is entwined in so much of our lives – I’m certainly guilty of wondering how I ever lived without my smart phone.
So in a market saturated with clever devices, it’s hard to know where to begin when deciding what products are genuinely going to enhance your life – especially when so many of them come with a hefty price tag.
Smart technology is a wide topic and there are loads of gadgets available for your home – from robot vacuum cleaners through to cameras that allow you to talk to your pets when you’re at work. So I’m going to focus on the products that can form part of the infrastructure, whether controlling your home’s comfort levels, energy usage or the money you’re spending on bills.
If you’re investing in a bespoke scheme, whether you’re building from scratch or working on an existing property, an efficient result is probably pretty high on your wish list. Every house has at least a basic level of heating, lighting and security, but smart tech can give you maximum control over how the building runs.
Getting it right is all about integrating devices in a way that will enhance how you interact with your property. “A real smart home should make life easier and give you more time for living rather than cluttering up your day with tech gimmicks you have to babysit,” says Philipp Schuster from Loxone.
Deciphering whether a product is actually going to improve your day-to-day life or not is very much down to the individual, but whatever the technology is, it’s important for the control to be working in your favour.
“If you have to get your phone out and open several apps every time you want to turn on the lights, adjust the heating or listen to some music then you might live in a connected home, but it certainly isn’t smart,” adds Philipp.
Digital thermostats work alongside smart phones, watches and tablets to allow you to manage your heating on-the-go. Whether that means stopping it from coming on when you’ve decided to go for an impromptu dinner date with a friend straight after work; or turning your heating off when you’ve left the house in a hurry and realised you left the boiler going.
You can even manage individual radiators and choose to zone temperatures without having to go round every room to check the various thermostats.
Smart controls are able to go further than this, adjusting themselves as they learn about your household routine or checking in with the weather forecast. “Our Wave controller works intelligently with your boiler to only fire up at the power needed to reach the right temperature,” says Martyn Bridges from Worcester, Bosch Group.
“Such features allow you to avoid wasting energy and in-turn help to cut your bills.” A benefit is that you’ll be able to fully understand your energy consumption and can adjust accordingly.
The ErP (Energy Related Products) directive is an EU regulation designed to boost the performance of heating and hot water products, under which controls are rated into eight categories. Simple on/off thermostats start at class 1 and technology goes up to multi zone controllers categorised under class 8.
“A smart control with weather and load compensating features is a class 5 controller with potential for a 4% efficiency uplift,” says Martyn. “So when your smart thermostat is combined with a high performance boiler your central heating system could boast an impressive efficiency rating of 98% (A+).”
Specialist thermostats can work alongside various power sources and emitters, including renewable tech and underfloor heating (UFH). They are especially effective when it comes to achieving synergy between the different components.
“Our smart balancing system shows a 20% energy saving compared to a normal setup,” says David Playfoot from UFH specialist Uponor. “Having an auto balancing system means it can react and compensate when thermostatic radiator valves are changed.”
The artificial illumination in your home is important for both practical and emotional purposes – whether that’s making sure you’ve got enough task lighting in the kitchen or the right ambience when you’re cosied up on the sofa in front of a film.
Zoning and layering are buzz words in the lighting world and smart tech can help you to efficiently support these. You’ll be able to programme pre-set schemes to quickly and conveniently choose your preferred illumination arrangement at the press of a button.
“A well-conceived design will use multiple circuits of lights,” says Iain Shaw from Brilliant Lighting. “Instead of twiddling multiple dimmers and having to remember what switch does what, you just press the button called ‘cooking’ or ‘dining’; it’s intuitive and practical.”
You can even accurately tailor the level of light – sometimes a brightness level of 80% feels more comfortable than 100%, for instance. “There’s no need for banks of switches and dimmers to achieve this; just an easy-to-understand keypad,” adds Iain. You can also integrate sensors so that lights turn on automatically when you walk into a room.
There are DIY smart systems out there that are great for creating fun lighting in individual spaces, but a whole-house scheme is best left to a specialist installer. “A professional system requires a qualified installer to commission and set up, and the homeowner can then modify the arrangement’s behaviour as their needs change,” says Iain.
Prices vary, from tech allowing you to control two or three lights available for under £100 up to whole house wired systems from £15,000 and more.
A smart security system goes way beyond cameras. You can have sensors to monitor movement on doors, windows and around the garden; keyless locks; and even detectors for water leakage, smoke and mechanical failure of appliances – plus much more.
The great thing about a smart setup is that you can keep tabs on what’s going on at home even when you aren’t there – some devices will allow you to answer a knock at the door via a screen when you’re away from the property, so whoever was calling doesn’t need to know that you’re not actually in.
“Only about 30% of reported burglaries in the UK are solved,” says Fred Potter from Netatmo. “The new generation of smart security cameras can detect unusual situations and automatically report any activity to the homeowner. This quick action means you can take the appropriate steps immediately, such as calling the police or triggering an alarm.”
These cameras can distinguish between people, cars and animals as well as work to detect familiar faces, such as relatives, and send you a notification letting you know who’s arrived.
“You can create customised scenarios to connect cameras to other smart home devices,” adds Fred. “For instance, you could activate an ‘arrive home’ function via the app or using Siri voice control to switch a floodlight on, unlock the door and power on the heating.”
A lot of security devices are fairly easy to install yourself, but if you’re after tech synergy with other smart gadgets in your home you might want to engage the skills of a specialist. Expect to pay over £200 for the most recent breed of automated security tools.
Smart home audio visual (AV) systems have been around for while now, but it isn’t all about creating a home cinema and it’s not limited to million pound projects. “You don’t have to automate your entire home if your budget doesn’t allow; it’s possible to design a system that can grow with you,” says Phillip Pini from Crestron. “Consider everything you want to achieve and then prioritise.”
Multi-room audio will allow you to play different music in various zones and control the volume – even in the garden – plus you can integrate your speakers with security to interrupt tunes when the doorbell rings.
You can have screens recessed and speakers discretely hidden in walls. For instance, you could have a TV in your bathroom to watch from the bath, changing chanels with voice control. You can even buy tubs with built in speakers and lights.
The options are endless, but the right setup for you is really down to your individual requirements, which means prices vary dramatically. “Every project is different and every solution unique to the homeowner,” says Phillip.
There’s a whole host of additional smart products available for the home; some integrated, others standalone devices. Amazon’s Alexa voice activated control is popular, with more and more companies bringing out rival products. In fact, lots of technology out there on the market is geared towards compatibility with voice control gadgets.
Closer look: Wired or wireless?
The general consensus is that a wired infrastructure gives superior performance and flexibility. Obviously this approach is easier if you’re building from scratch as you can introduce the technology at the same time as the rest of the property’s wiring.
Another bonus is that you won’t need to change any batteries. Various building materials can actually block a wireless transmission, such as some plasterboards, insulation and underfloor heating. Always discuss the setup with a suitable professional, especially when it comes to establishing your data requirements and what cable type will be best for your home.
But it’s potentially better to go with wireless if you’re renovating or fitting a system yourself. Having more devices reliant on your wifi could slow things down. “If your bandwidth is under pressure then you might experience buffering and end up waiting for the system to catch up,” says Andy Moss from Moss Technical.
However, wireless doesn’t have to be the same as wifi. “Look for a product with its own wireless communication protocol; these generally feature bidirectional and mesh technology for a reliable and stable connection,” says Philipp Schuster from Loxone.
Electric blinds are particularly handy if you’ve got tall, hard-to-reach glazing. Automated roof windows that can be opened and closed from a device are useful, too – or integrate sensors that will automatically shut the unit when it starts raining.
Weather monitors can go further than simply letting you know whether to wear a scarf – Netatmo’s solution provides reports on indoor air quality, too, for example. Elsewhere around the property, automatic lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners will help to keep things neat and tidy, while home lifts are an added bonus if you’re thinking about future proofing your abode.
In the heart of the home, the kitchen, smart tech is particularly popular. Think fridges with cameras inside that let you check on your phone if you need to pop to the shop before going home; forks that track what you’re eating; and slow cookers that allow you to change the temperature remotely. You can even buy smart wine decanters that claim to be able to mature the drink as if it’s been stored away in a cellar for years.