Smart Home Devices 101

Get the answers to some frequently asked questions about home automation.

security pad on open door into house
Security door lock keypad.
Courtesy A3 Smart Home

Smart homes may seem like a high-tech promise of the future, but home automation is rapidly becoming mainstream. It's estimated that by 2022 nearly half of U.S. homes (63 million) will qualify as smart, according to research firm Berg Insight. Smart homes come with a lot of perks: lower utility bills, increased property value, and enhanced security. And you don't need to be tech savvy to get started. Learn more about the features of smart homes and what devices might be right for you.

Q. What is considered a smart home?

A. The definition of smart homes is subjective. Brandon Strand, director of marketing at AAA Smart Home Security, says, "To one person, it may mean something simple, such as getting an Alexa speaker and having a voice assistant who can answer questions. To someone else, it might mean a fully automated home." Most smart-home systems have a digital assistant that you can access through your smartphone, a smart speaker (such as the Amazon Echo Dot, Sonos One, or Apple HomePod), or a smart panel (such as the one offered by A3 Smart Home security). These systems connect with automated versions of everyday household items: wall plugs, light switches, garage door openers, televisions, security systems, locks, and more. Devices can be voice activated or may include sensors. Think of a flood detector, which senses a leaky pipe and sends a notification about the issue to your phone. Or a smart sprinkler system that waters the lawn and automatically adjusts its output depending on the weather.

Q. What are the benefits of a smart home?

A. Smart-home systems might be expensive up-front, but they can save you money over time. Smart ceiling fans, lights, and outlets only turn on as needed, activated by patterns they have learned, by your smartphone app or voice command, or by sensing movement in the room. Smart thermostats learn from your manual settings during the first few days of use, adapt according to the seasons, and work to conserve energy. "You'll save even more money if you live in an area with extreme weather," Strand says.

There are safety benefits, too. Forgot to turn off your curling iron, or worried you didn't close the garage door? With a smart plug or a smart garage door, you could check your app and control these devices remotely. Smart smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and security systems also ping your phone with safety notifications and can even call for help in an emergency.

Selling your home? Automated features can boost its appeal. In one Coldwell Banker survey, 82 percent of real estate brokers and agents also said smart-home technology streamlines sales.

Q. Which devices should you buy first?

A. Consider what devices you use daily and which of those could be automated. Smart devices shouldn't feel redundant, but rather integrate seamlessly into your home life. Common starting points are thermostats, plugs, light switches (which can work with regular bulbs), door locks, and speakers with an embedded voice assistant. "Start with one or two devices, get comfortable with what they can do, and then decide how much more money you want to invest in this type of technology," Strand says.

an Amazon Echo Dot smart home device sits on table by two ceramic bowls and book

Amazon Echo Dot.

Courtesy A3 Smart Home

Q. What should you look for in a smart-home system?

A. "There's value in the ability for different products to work together," says Sumanta Chakraborty, director of product at A3 Smart Home. Take, for example, a smart doorbell, home-security system, and thermostat all manufactured by different companies. While these products work well on their own, they have to be managed individually. In a uniform system, you can control each feature with a single app and have the devices easily communicate with each other: The doorbell can detect intruders in tandem with the security system.

Purchase devices within the same ecosystem, the most popular of which are supported by Amazon, Google, or Apple. Make sure devices communicate using the same type of connection, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. There are pros and cons to each.

Q. How secure are smart-home devices?

A. There's a degree of hacking risk when using any device connected to the Internet. "It falls on consumers to do their due diligence," says Chakraborty. "Choose companies that are trustworthy, have been on the market for a while, and invest in the right technology." Do your research before you buy, and avoid certain products with track records of being hacked. Keep up with your Wi-Fi router's firmware upgrades, and change out the router every couple of years.