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Would you consider a 'smart' home? A look at your options

Image of smart home controls on a tablet computer
The combination of automated controls and the ability to control the likes of lighting and heating from your smartphone or tablet can improve energy efficiency and comfort in your home.

Latest technologies promise to keep you connected

It wasn't that long ago that most cellular phones couldn't do more than make a phone call, or entertain you with the high-tech game of Snake.

Not so today. Our ever-present phones and tablets do more than ever before. And with more "smart home" products and connected apps hitting the market each year, you have more control over your comfort and energy use.

Thanks to wireless home networks, you can monitor and adjust everything from your home heating to your security system to your lighting all with a few taps and a swipe within an app. Experts say it gives you greater control, offers increased home security, and can even help you cut back on your energy costs.

Team Power Smart member contest: Enter to win a Wink connected home starter pack.

Start with a smart hub

The process of making your home as smart (or perhaps even smarter) than you starts with selecting a smart hub. Like the invention of the assembly line, advances in home technology today are all about automation: enabling devices and products to turn on, turn off, or adjust based on schedules and settings that you determine, rather than by the manual flick of a switch.

Although there's a huge range of devices available that you can control wirelessly, almost all of them require a central "smart hub" that connects to your mobile phone or tablet using an app. Different hubs offer support for different devices, manufacturers and products, so do your research before selecting one.

The experts at CNET.com offer up a few suggestions on what to look for in the best smart hubs:

  • Look for sensors and a central unit that are easy to install. The goal of home automation is the kind of "set it and forget it" convenience you've come to expect from products such as programmable thermostats, so check online reviews and product descriptions to ensure that the product is easily installed (and one that works with your mobile phone or tablet).
  • Check the listing of compatible products (and mobile devices) before you purchase a hub. Make a list of the things that you want to control, such as thermostats, home security alarms, and lighting, and select the products that you plan to buy. Not all smart hubs are compatible with all "smart" products. Some products, such as the Wink Hub Gateway, are even compatible with door locks and blinds.
  • Use online reviews, such as this review from CNET to check other features. For example, if your home is large, you may want to look for a hub that offers the best range for sensors. And be sure to find out whether the system you're considering has monthly subscription fees, or a one-time purchase price; it can vary by manufacturer.

For energy savings, consider smart thermostats and lighting

If you've ever lived in a home with a programmable thermostat, which have been available for years, you'll know how much easier it is to manage your heating and cooling costs when you can program a schedule once and forget it. Nowadays, thermostats go even further: some can even learn your schedule.

  • The long-time leader in smart thermostats is the Nest Learning Thermostat, which gradually learns your schedule over time and adjusts heating and cooling cycles to your needs. You can also check your past energy use and watch for a leaf icon to see temperatures that are helping you achieve energy savings.
  • Coming home to a dark house could be a thing of the past with connected bulbs and dimmers. Some options, such as the Casetra wall dimmer work with virtually every LED on the market today, and most can simply replace your existing light fixtures or dimmer switches with a few DIY steps.
  • Choose LED bulbs such as the GE Link series and you can program schedules and scenes. For example, program bulbs in the kid's room to dim gradually as they fall asleep, or create a setting in the TV room that's perfect ambient lighting for watching a movie.
  • If your home automation needs run more to cooling than to heating, there are even smart air conditioners on the market, such as this smart window-based model reviewed by CNET.

Safety and security with home automation

Many of us leave lights on, the television blaring, or music playing when we leave the house, to simulate occupants and discourage break-ins. It's a lot of wasted energy and in some cases, looks about as realistic as Kevin McCallister's cardboard cutouts in Home Alone. Thankfully, some of the biggest advances in home automation these days are focused on safety and security.

  • On the safety side, high-tech smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are compatible with most leading smart hubs. Wireless connections between products such as the Nest Protect or the Wink Wireless Combo Alarm can set off all the alarms in your home in the event of a fire, not just the one nearest to the source of smoke. And most will alert you with voice activation to issues such as low batteries, offering you peace of mind that your detectors are always at the ready.
  • For home security, automated cameras that connect wirelessly to your phone, such as the Nest Cam are a great way to keep an eye on things when you're out. You can even select smart deadbolt door locks, which offer programmable user codes and resist fingerprints. Some smart alarm systems, such as iSmartalarm might completely replace traditional home security systems for some of us — they feature motion sensors, alarms and cameras for much lower prices than monthly monitoring.
  • One of the best parts about the smart alarms and sensors of today is just that — they're a lot smarter than our old alarms. That means you get some comfort and convenience along with your peace of mind. For example, most of the connected smoke alarms can be turned off with a wave of your hand or a quick tap in your app. No more frantically waving dish towels and opening the doors when you've accidentally burned your toast.

Team Power Smart members can win a smart home starter kit this month

Team Power Smart members who are ready to give the connected home idea a try are in luck this month. In September's members-only contest, you could win a Wink starter home kit, featuring the Wink gateway, LEDs, a dimmer, and a 2-in-1 smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector.

Log in to your Member Tool Box and answer the contest question to enter this month's contest.

Not a Team Power Smart member? It's easy to join and link your BC Hydro account online for your chance to win.