In News & Blog, Tech & Innovation

Home automation technology, such as the Amazon Echo Dot, can make your home more accessible without breaking the bank. Here’s a quick glance at some of the possibilities to help you realize the smart home of your dreams.

Imagine controlling your home’s lights, appliances, temperature, and more…all with simple voice commands. It’s intriguing, isn’t it? But until recently, this type of home automation has been expensive—not to mention a little complicated. Enter the Amazon Echo Dot and other similar home assistants such as the Google Mini, along with a host of complementary devices that connect to them.

Suddenly, a basic, easy-to-set-up, voice controlled smart home could cost you less than $500.

Keep in mind, this is not a manual or guide. It’s simply a glance at the possibilities; something to pique your interest and make you realize that the smart home of your dreams might now be within your reach.

What about setting it all up? We think if you’re comfortable with all the nuances of your smartphone, you won’t have a problem setting up the Echo Dot in combination with other gadgets. There are plenty of online guides and accompanying instruction manuals.

A final caveat: this is addictive stuff. What we’ve described here is basic; it has the bare essentials you can easily and affordably get in order to create a voice activated smart home.

But in researching for this story, we discovered two things.

First, there are many directions you can expand a basic system like this. For example, you can add a powered Alexa-compatible deadbolt to your front door, and home security systems. You can integrate your home theatre. You can add outdoor smart plugs and irrigation system controls. You can even control iRobot’s newest robot vacuum, the Roomba 690.

Second, people who write about this type of home automation are enthusiastic about the subject. And they seem to have one thing in common: when it comes to automating their own homes, most have started off small and modest… but have ended up going much, much bigger. You’ve been warned!

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Echo Dot: Where It All Begins

Your smart home starts with the Echo Dot—the innocuous, puck-like bestseller from Amazon. The Echo Dot is a hands-free, voice-controlled, WiFi-connected device that uses Amazon’s electronic assistant Alexa to play music, provide information, read the news, set alarms, and control smart home devices. Yes, there are other similar products on the market, including offerings from Google and Apple, as well as other versions of the Echo.

But the Echo Dot is becoming the benchmark for this type of use—it’s cheap, easy to use, reliable, and works flawlessly with a host of smart home products. Just plug it in anywhere in your house where there’s a good WiFi signal, and where you spend a lot of time. Hearing range is probably the Echo Dot’s biggest limitation, but that’s why we think two or more make great sense—maybe one in your bedroom (where you can use Alexa’s alarm feature), and one in your kitchen/living room.

At $60 or less, they’re not going to break the bank. And remember, with two Echo Dots, you now have an intercom to communicate between rooms. At the time of writing, you could buy two Echo Dots for $120.

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Smart Plugs: Power Up Your Appliances

The first gadgets you’ll likely want to buy for your Echo Dot are smart plugs. The concept is simple: you plug these WiFi-connected plugs into an available wall socket, and in turn, connect anything that operates with a simple on/off switch—lamps, coffee makers, space heaters, music systems and more. Once connected, you wake up Alexa, and then tell her to turn on a specific plug or appliance (you can also group these so that many turn on with a single command).

There are many different varieties and brands of these plugs on the market. Judging by customer reviews, the WAZA Smart Plug WiFi Mini Socket appears to be a winner. It requires no hub, and it’s priced at $13.99 with free shipping at amazon.ca. Start with six for a reasonable $84 total.

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Smart Lights: Effortless Illumination

Next up are smart lights. Again, the concept is simple: you replace any standard bulb with a smart light, which is an LED bulb combined with WiFi connectivity. Smart lights are, for the most part, dimmable. This gives them an advantage over simply plugging in a lamp to a smart plug, which only gives you simple on/off functionality. Smart lights that communicate directly with Alexa without the need for a separate and often expensive hub are only now becoming more available.

Currently, the offerings from TP-LINK appear to be quite popular. In particular, the TP-LINK LB100 is available in a kit of three for $70 from Amazon. Yes, they seem expensive—but remember, they’re LED and could possibly outlive you! For about $30 a bulb, you could upgrade to a tunable version, which allows you to change the light appearance from soft white to daylight.

Smart Switches: Multiple Light Control

What about controlling a bank of lights, like what you commonly find in a kitchen? Obviously, replacing every bulb in kitchen lighting could be pretty costly. That’s where a smart switch could be useful.

A popular example is the Meross Smart Wi-Fi Wall Switch, which again requires no separate hub. It’s $28 at Amazon. We suggest two, for a total of $56. But keep in mind, you’ll have to shell out double this if you want to replace a dimmable switch used with dimmable bulbs in your fixtures.

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Smart Thermostat: Voice-Controlled Comfort

Imagine lying in bed in the morning and really wishing your house was a few degrees warmer. Well, that’s easily achieved with an Alexa-compatible thermostat that replaces your home’s existing heating and cooling control. Originally, only the more expensive, learning-type thermostats were compatible with Alexa—for example, The Nest and the ecobee. But recently, a few new, more economical choices have reached the market. They don’t have the same learning capabilities or bells and whistles, but they seamlessly integrate with Alexa so that you can control your environment by voice alone.

The Sensi Wi-Fi Thermostat by Emerson appears to be a particularly smart choice. It’s available for $130 from Best Buy Canada or Amazon, and perhaps its single most important feature (beyond its Alexa-compatibility) is that it appears to be compatible with most existing heating, ventilation and cooling systems in Canada.

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This article first appeared in our Summer 2018 issue of The Spin, alongside other stories including:

  • Taking Charge: Managing Your Own Personal Care
  • Happy Trails: Great Accessible BC Trails
  • High Top Tables: Exclusion by Design
  • Confusion in the Emergency Room
  • and more!

Read the full Summer 2018 issue of The Spin online!

Have an idea for a future issue of The Spin? Pitch your idea to thespin@sci-bc.ca!

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