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Building a Smart Home Is Cheaper and Easier Than You Think

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Smart-home-thumb.jpgAs Jerry Del Colliano recently discussed in his story Is Automation the New "Audiophile"?, the home automation landscape has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. A category that was once reserved for the higher-income consumer who could afford to bring in a custom installation company to wire the home for whole-house AV, lighting, security, and HVAC control has now--thanks to the emergence of wireless technologies--opened up to the mass market. It's not just that these automation systems have become more affordable; they've also become so much easier to set up that an entire DIY "smart home" industry has emerged.

There's no shortage of smart products in the areas of lighting, temperature/energy management, and home security that are based on wireless platforms like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, and ZigBee. If desired, you could slowly automate your home brick by brick, so to speak. Perhaps you start with a few GE Link, CREE Connected, or Philips Hue smart light bulbs or a basic Lutron Caseta wireless lighting system like the one I recently reviewed. Next you add a few smart locks from Kwikset or Schlage and some Wi-Fi security cameras from Netgear, D-Link, Dropcam, and many others. Finally, you invest in a smart thermostat from Nest or Honeywell. Most of these manufacturers offer their own iOS/Android app, so you can monitor and control the device from inside or outside the home using your smartphone or tablet. While this approach is easy, it's not exactly integrated--as your smartphone quickly fills up with individual control apps, each with its own user interface.

The good news is, many of those same smart products I just listed are also compatible with a variety of smart home hubs: platforms that allow you to integrate control of all your wireless devices into a single interface. That's the type of DIY automation system that I want to focus on in this article...but I want to take it one step further.

Imagine it's a dreary fall or winter Saturday. The weather is lousy, and your schedule is clear--the perfect combination to take care of projects around the house. And on this day, you've got the automation bug. You want to add some lighting, temperature, and security controls, and you want to do it today. No calling a local installer to set up a future appointment. No going online to order products that will arrive later. Where can you go right now, and what products will be available for you when you get there?

To answer this question, I set off to three different retailers in my town: Lowes, Home Depot, and Best Buy. I wanted to see what each retailer carried in stock in the category of smart home automation--not just the individual products, but also a system to unify them.

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Lowes
Front and center at my local Lowes, near the checkout stations, was a display for Lowes' own sponsored smart-home platform, Iris by Lowes. Iris is a Wi-Fi-based system that is built around the Iris Smart Hub ($49.99) that connects to your broadband router. Once you've purchased the Hub, you can choose from a variety of Iris-compatible products--some carry the Iris brand name, while others come from partner companies like Kwikset, Schlage, Sylvania, and GE. In my store, all of these Iris-compatible products were grouped together in one area, so I didn't have to walk all over the store to find compatible options. The product selection included video cameras, motion sensors, door/window sensors, plug-in modules, locks, light bulbs, and light switches/dimmers. Some helpful starter kits were available, such as the Safe & Secure Kit ($129), the Comfort & Control Kit ($129), and the combined Smart Kit that offers the Hub, a Wi-Fi range extender, and temperature/security controls for $199.

Iris-Hub.jpgOnce the products are installed, you can control them via the Iris control app for iOS and Android. Iris offers two levels of control capability: The free Basic Plan allows for limited control and monitoring of the various Iris devices, while the $9.99/month Premium Plan allows you to set up advanced scheduling, home monitoring, and energy management. There are also a few add-on services that carry an additional fee, like special alerts and monitoring for those who care for the elderly.

The in-stock product selection at my local store did cover the major categories, but choices were limited for each product type. Many of the in-house products were Iris-branded, but the sales associate informed me that a much wider variety of Iris-compatible products from third-party partners is available via the Lowes website. That doesn't line up with our "let's get it done today" goal; however, if you're good at planning ahead, the Iris by Lowes website is a great resource for researching and ordering products.

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Home Depot
My second stop was Home Depot. Here, I found more product variety in stock from big-name manufacturers, but it was presented in a less unified way. I had to hit many different aisles all over the store to cover the lighting, temperature, and security categories.

I first stopped at the electrical/lighting-control aisle because I knew from my review of the Lutron Caseta wireless lighting system that Home Depot carried that product line. What I found in the same area was Home Depot's answer to Iris by Lowes: It's called Wink, and it's an open platform that works with the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Lutron ClearConnect, and Kidde protocols. Some Wi-Fi products (mostly light bulbs) are compatible with Wink right out of the box, but most other products require the use of the Wink Hub ($49.99), which connects to your broadband router. Unlike the Iris system, you won't find many Wink-branded products; instead, you have to look for compatible products...and there are a lot of them that may or may not be in stock at your particular Home Depot. Here's an overview.

Home-Depot-Wink.jpgIn the lighting area, I found Wink-compatible light switches, in-wall dimmers, and plug-in modules from both Leviton and Lutron Caseta. Over on the light-bulb aisle, Home Depot did have a whole display of smart bulbs, including Philips Hue, GE Link, Home Brite, and CREE. All of these bulbs were Wink-compatible with no Hub required. Next I headed on over to aisle 37 to find the Wink-compatible Schlage Connect Camelot door lock in stock. Kwikset also sells a compatible Z-Wave Smartcode lock, but it's only sold via the web.

Nest fans will be happy to know that the Nest Smart Thermostat ($249), Nestcam 1080p Wi-Fi security camera ($199), and Nest Protect smoke detector are Wink-compatible and sold in-store at Home Depot, as is Honeywell's line of Wi-Fi Thermostats (priced from $100 to $219)--including the RTH9580 that I recently reviewed. Other Wink-compatible products I found in-stock during my journey included the Chamberlin's MyQ garage door controller, Kidde 2-in-1 smoke/carbon monoxide detector, and the GoControl Essentials DIY Home Security Kit.

Home-Depot-HVAC.jpgAs I said, Home Depot doesn't group these items together in one easy-to-find Smart Home area, so I recommend you do a little online research before heading over to the store. Through some of the links I've provided above, you can determine which Wink-compatible products you want, whether or not they're in stock, and what aisle they're located on. It will make the trip faster, allowing you to get to the actual setup and installation process sooner.

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Best Buy
My third and final stop was Best Buy, which has put a growing emphasis on home automation over the past year. In fact, it was just about one year ago that the retailer first announced it was adding a special "Connected Home" section to many of its stores and to its website. I headed for this Connected Home area in the center of my local store, which consisted of two aisles filled with various home automation devices--from home security systems to smart thermostats to lighting controls and more.

Best-Buy-Wemo.jpgAs for integrated platforms, two stood out. First was Belkin's WeMo system, which works over Wi-Fi and 3G to control compatible devices. The system requires the use of the WeMo Link, which I found only packaged in a Starter Kit with two OSRAM LED light bulbs for $99. Also available were WeMo-branded light switches, plug-in modules, and security cameras, as well as LED light strips from OSRAM. Other WeMo partners include CREE, TCP, and Amazon Echo, but these were not available in my local store.

The second platform is Logitech's Harmony Home Control system, which I reviewed earlier this year. Harmony Home Control combines a traditional AV universal remote with the ability to control compatible smart-home products, via either a dedicated remote control or the iOS/Android control app. The original three Home Control products were the Home Hub ($99.99), the Home Control Remote ($129.99), and the Ultimate Home Remote ($349.99), all of which were in stock at my local store. However, since the completion of my review, Logitech has announced that all Harmony systems that use the Harmony Hub will now support the Home Control platform.

The list of compatible products includes Lutron Caseta lighting controls, Nest products, Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostats, Philips Hue light bulbs, August Smart Locks, LIFX Wi-Fi lighting, Ecobee thermostats, and Insteon smart home products. Most of these products, except for the Insteon offerings, were available for sale in my local store.

As you can see, plenty of DIY products are available through major retailers to smarten up your home in a day or weekend. And I didn't even cover platforms like Smart Things, Insteon, and Staples Connect that weren't offered in the stores I visited. The hardest part of the entire process might be choosing the base platform. To help with that, we plan to review more of these DIY systems in the coming months. If any of you have experience with the platforms I've described above (or ones I may have missed), we'd love to hear from you in the Comments section below.

Additional Resources
Five Good Ideas for Dealers to Lure Consumers Back Into Brick-and-Mortar AV Stores This Fall at HomeTheaterReview.com.
What the AV Industry Could Learn From Colt 45 Malt Liquor at HomeTheaterReview.com.
How Big Is Your (Internet) Pipe? at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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