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A beginner’s guide to how smart homes work

This article is here to guide you through the basics of smart home automation and which smart home devices are easiest to begin with. 

To begin, you'll need:

  1. A Smartphone.
  2. An Active Internet Connection.
  3. A Router that supports 2.4Ghz.

How does a smart home device work?

After purchasing a smart home device, you'll be instructed to pair them to an app. Once paired, the app will become your "remote control" and all commands sent from your smartphone will be stored and transmitted via cloud to the smart device.

Wi-Fi or Zigbee? Let’s talk about communication.

Wi-Fi and Zigbee are communication protocols. Think of protocol as “ways of communication”. There are many protocols out there but we will only talk about Zigbee and Wi-Fi as they are the most commonly used protocols in Singapore.

Smart devices each have their own protocols (way of communicating), that is why you can find both Wi-Fi and Zigbee smart bulbs in the market. Lets explore their differences. 

Wi-Fi routers speaks to each Wi-Fi device individually and can only handle a limited amount of Wi-Fi smart devices. (Different routers can handle different amount, read this to see which routers are able to handle more than 32 smart devices.)

As for Zigbee, the Wi-Fi router will speak to the Zigbee gateway. The gateway then acts as a command centre by transmitting the command to the nearest Zigbee device. Each Zigbee device acts like a repeater and talks to one another like a bunch of gossipers. This translates to a more efficient form of communication as compared to Wi-Fi. 

Pros & Cons of Wi-Fi vs. Zigbee

*Some Wi-Fi routers can support up to 250 connected devices.
**Each Wi-Fi router can support hundreds of Zigbee devices.

Wi-Fi

  • Cheaper in general
  • No Gateway Required
  • Easier pairing process
  • Lower initial cash outlay
  • Shorter battery life
  • Longer respond time for sensors
  • Around 50 devices per router

Zigbee

  • Longer battery life (more than a year)
  • Instant respond time for sensors
  • Each gateway supports up to 50 devices
  • Each gateway only consumes one point on the router
  • Hundreds of devices per router
  • More expensive in general
  • Zigbee Gateway Required
  • If gateway goes offline, all Zigbee devices go offline too.

    Can Wi-Fi and Zigbee smart devices be used together?

    Yes, you can use both protocols together! Some smart home apps allows you to add both Wi-Fi and Zigbee devices and have them working together to create your perfect smart home.

    For example, as Wi-Fi contact sensors take a much longer time to respond compared to Zigbee ones. You can pair your Wi-Fi smart lights with a Zigbee contact sensor for immediate response! 

    Wait, wouldn’t Wi-Fi smart lights be slow to respond too? Nope, because Wi-Fi devices that are powered by direct incoming electricity 220-240V can respond just as quickly as Zigbee devices.

    Which smart devices to buy?

    Now that we understand the basics of how a smart home work. Lets explore some products! A smart home should be designed to improve your life and well-being. It needs to be practical yet out-of-sight. To create the perfect home, you should consider some scenarios such as:

    • Are you living with elderly people?
    • Are you working from home?
    • Do you have a false or concrete ceiling?
    • Is your house single or multi-leveled?
    • Do you know how to install electrical products? 

    Here are some ideas to get you started!

    Level 1: The Basics

    1. Smart Lighting

    Smart lighting is usually the go-to when people decide to start automating their homes. Smart Lighting is readily available, fun and a great starting hands-on product to get familiarized with the idea of an app-controlled home.

    Unless you are already in the midst of home renovation or maintenance, you can simply try a Wi-Fi Smart bulb, prices range between RM25 to RM210. With a smart bulb, you can colour control, dim, schedule when it turns on etc. Smart Light Strips are popular too!

    If you are already renovating or brave enough to DIY, you can consider smart lighting fixtures like ceiling lamps and downlights where you can drastically change the mood and ambient of a place with a tap on your smartphone!

    2. Smart Universal Remote

    Imagine getting home to a cool and comfortable climate just waiting for you to relax after a long day of work! We are not asking you to buy a smart air-con of course! Rather, a Wi-Fi Universal Remote. These remotes operate using Infra-red and it replaces your individual remote controls which allows you to control your air-con / TV straight on your smartphone! Prices range between RM45 to RM150.

    3. Smart Sockets

    Do you have one of those old standing fans or coffee machine plugged into your wall socket? You can make them smart instantly by plugging a smart socket in! now you can switch them on or off anytime, anywhere you are! 

    4. Smart Cameras

    Are you a pet owner or living with young children? A smart IP camera enables you to monitor what they are doing straight on your smartphone wherever you are! You will also be able to speak through the built-in mic. Most smart cameras today also comes with night-vision, perfect for monitoring your sleeping baby!

    Level 2: Intermediate

    1. Smart Lighting...Again

    Maybe by now you are convinced by the health-benefits of smart lighting and decide to go smart all the way, this is where you can hire electricians to change your existing ceiling or recessed lamps to smart ones! So you can create a scene for work and another scene for rest! 

    2. Smart Switches 

    Living with elderly people? This is where practicality really matters! Do not make your life difficult, older family members may prefer the traditional way of doing things. On top of smart lights, you can consider going for smart wall switches too! This way, even if your elderly parents / grandparents were to switch the lights off. You will still be able to get them back on right on your couch with your smart phone and have the all the colour-changing action that you like! 

    In order for a smart light to work, you wall switch needs to be on. This is why a smart switch is practical in homes with elderly people. Even when they power the lights off, a smart switch can be switched on remote, which then brings the smart lights back online! 

    Of course, if you do not care about colour changing functions, you can simply opt for smart switches! In Singapore, most wall switches do not have neutral wires. Do take note of that while shopping for one!

    3. Smart Door Locks 

    Are you someone prone to forgetting your keys? Smart door locks allows you to lock your door with either your fingerprints, cardkeys and/or smartphone app! You can also create one-time codes to allow visitors to enter when you're outdoors! 

    4. Smart Doorbells

    With the help of smart doorbells, you may be able to receive a live video feed when the smart doorbell is pressed. This is useful for contactless delivery for your online shopping. When the parcel arrives, you can instruct the delivery man to leave the product at your doorstep using the built-in 2 way mic and speaker. If you live in an exceptionally safe country like Singapore, you can even give them a one-time code for the smart door lock to put your parcel right at the entrance of your home.

    Level 3: Full Home Automation

    1. Smart Curtains 

    Curtains are key to creating the perfect mood for sleep, movies and daily routines. They can block out or let in more sunlight for all your life's activities! However, it can be a hassle to pull them. Smart curtains allows you to schedule them to open in the morning to let the sunlight in and close before you go to bed to block out street lights! 

    2. Smart Vacuum Robot Cleaners

    These little helpers are getting more and more popular nowadays. If you're a busy person, vacuum robots can save you heaps of time by cleaning your house for you at a set time everyday! 

    3. Smart Sensors

    Contact sensors can be installed on your doors, windows and/or drawers for home monitoring or automation purposes! You can also install a smart PIR motion sensor in the corridor, such that when you walk pass it at night, your kitchen light switches on so that you can get a cup of water. 

    4. Smart Pet Feeders

    If you are a pet parent, smart pet feeders and fountains can help you to feed them automatically at a set routine. Food and water bowls can be refilled automatically to keep the water level sufficient and fresh. 

    There are more and more smart home products added everyday but do not fear missing out! It is key to remember that these smart products are created to serve you! Get only what you need and do not be overwhelmed by options! Have fun! 

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