Best DIY Home Automation Systems
Why Buy a Smart Hub?
Amazon Echo 2nd Generation
Despite not being a smart home hub in the traditional sense, the Amazon Echo has revolutionized the way smart home devices communicate with each other. It connects with several smart home devices, including several smart hubs we’ve evaluated. It accomplishes this by connecting to other smart home platforms through a cloud server. You only need to link your Amazon Echo to other services and you can control lights, thermostats, outlets, smart locks, video doorbells and more.
Amazon Echo’s most powerful feature is the Alexa voice assistant, which allows you to control devices with simple spoken commands, though the Alexa smartphone app also allows for control of devices. Although we’ve tested the Amazon Echo speaker quality in-depth, our tests with various smart home products generally produce positive results. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to have Alexa execute complex automations and while Amazon added the Routines feature to help with this, it’s not compatible with all Alexa skills yet.
- Excellent smart home compatibility
- Voice controls
- Has trouble with complex automations
Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini, as with the Amazon Echo, is not strictly a smart home hub. However, it can control nearly as many devices as the Echo thanks to its ability to link to your other smart home devices through the internet. This device has a compact design with a fabric shell that blends into your home better than a plain plastic exterior. The voice controls in the Google Home Mini let you string several commands together for more efficient controls. You can also control devices using the Google home smartphone app, so you don’t have to rely on voice controls alone.
At $50, the Google Home Mini is one of the most affordable ways to start a smart home, but it often goes on sale for less. In our smart speaker tests, we found it didn’t offer the rich sound of its larger cousins, the Google Home and Google Home Max.
- Good smart home compatibility
- Lower audio quality than larger smart speakers
Samsung SmartThings is one of the most full-featured smart home systems we’ve evaluated. It does this by offering the best Zigbee and Z-Wave integration in a smart home hub. Although these smart home platforms aren’t as common as Wi-Fi smart home devices, they’re purpose-built to handle home automation. Some of the biggest benefits are improved battery life and the ability for the sensors to communicate with the hub without an internet connection, which is one of the main weaknesses behind the strategy from Amazon and Google.
The 3rd Generation SmartThings Hub can also act as a Wi-Fi network, eliminating the need for a separate router. The unit also has mesh network functionality so you can place additional units throughout your home to provide more even Wi-Fi coverage for your connected devices. While SmartThings is an excellent smart hub, our colleagues at Tom’s Guide have noted that it may be difficult to migrate from the older version of the hub and it still doesn’t work with popular Nest smart home devices.
- Compatible with Z-Wave and Zigbee devices
- Doesn’t require an internet connection to function
- No Nest support
Latest News & Updates (January 2019)
On January 31, 2019, Lowe’s announced that it’s shutting down the Iris smart home platform, effective March 31, 2019. The company is offering prepaid Visa cards to assist in moving some devices to compatible platforms, with SmartThings providing additional transition support. Iris also announced that it will be releasing an open-source version of its software called Arcus. While we don’t think Arcus will allow customers to continue to use their Iris equipment, it’s a possibility. We’ll add more information as it becomes available.
Since our last update, there are several new smart hubs available for purchase as listed below:
- Belkin WeMo Bridge: This allows WeMo smart home products to work with Apple HomeKit. (Released in January 2018 for $39.99)
- Amazon Echo Plus: This version of the popular smart speaker comes with built-in Zigbee compatibility. (Released in October 2018 for $150)
- Wink Hub 2: The second generation of the Wink Hub adds 5GHz Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port, a Bluetooth Low Energy radio, improved security and other new features. (Released in September 2016 for $99)
Several smart hub products were announced at CES 2019:
- AtmosControl: This smart hub mounts on a wall and has attractive touchscreen controls. It works with smart home devices that use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave and infrared. (Available for pre-order for $299 with a projected delivery date in Q2 2019)
- Samsung Galaxy Home: This smart speaker has a built-in SmartThings hub and uses Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant. (No release date yet)
- Nevo Butler: Although this smart speaker has its own voice assistant, it’s also compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. The unit can communicate with other smart home devices over Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Bluetooth and infrared. This is a white label product, which means it will likely come to the market under a different brand name. We’ll update our article with more information as it becomes available.
- Lenovo Smart Clock: This clock has built-in Google Assistant voice controls and is compatible with smart home devices that use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. (Projected release date in spring 2019 for $79.99)
How Much Do Smart Hubs Cost?
You can expect to pay between $30 and $400 for most retail smart hubs. In general, more expensive hubs have better compatibility with smart home equipment than cheaper ones. Some companies, such as Iris and Nexia, require subscription fees that usually cost less than $10 a month. In systems that offer home security monitoring, you’ll pay up between $15 and $30 a month for that service.
However, the real cost of a smart hub isn’t in the hub or service fees, it’s the other devices you connect to the hub. If you want a complete smart home, you need to be prepared to invest in other devices to work with your smart hub. Even if you have a small home, it’s very easy to spend over $1,000 on a smart thermostat, video doorbell, security cameras, smart lights and entry sensors on every door and window. Building your ideal smart home all at once can be expensive, so installing it over time is a way to spread out costs.
DIY vs. Professional
Until recently, you couldn’t automate your home without buying a professional system. The reason why is it involves a knowledge of computer programming and electrical work to set up traditional automation systems, which necessitates a licensed installer. DIY automation now lets the rest of us jump into home automation. There are more DIY home automation products than ever before, all offering the promise of a connected home.
There are two types of DIY home automation systems: retail and maker. Retail DIY home automation systems are available in home improvement and electronics stores and often work with popular smart home products. These systems have accessories, tutorials and warranty support. In contrast, maker systems let you build homemade smart homes and devices. If you have a solid understanding of coding and electronic components, it can be rewarding and inexpensive, but for most of us, this can be overwhelming. While our evaluation focuses on retail DIY automation systems, it’s good to know you have other options. For professionally installed systems, check out our home automation systems review.
What to Expect from DIY Home Automation
We’re still a long way from having intelligent homes that cater to our every whim, but home automation as it exists today can do a lot. During our research, we discovered a few things that can give you a better idea of what DIY home automation does and how it works. Let’s break it down into a few categories: mobile apps, installation, compatibility, pricing, security concerns and uncertainty.
One System, One App
Smartphones are the driving force behind DIY home automation. The best DIY automation systems allow you to control and monitor dozens or even hundreds of devices from a single mobile app. The app helps you set up notifications and automate tasks in your home. The key word here is “helps” – you still need to tell the app what to automate. Examples include programming it to tell you when the kids come in late or to turn the outdoor lights on at sunset.
Installation Is Mostly Easy
A majority of equipment is easy to install and requires nothing more than mounting and a connection to a power source. You can mount most devices with double-sided tape or screws, or you can simply place some on a shelf. These systems draw power from batteries or a power outlet. Security cameras, smart plugs, lightbulbs, sensors and other small appliances generally fall into the easy installation category, and it takes around 10 minutes on average to install these types of devices.
On the software side, once a device has power, you go through a pairing process to connect it to the system. This only works if the device is compatible with the system you’ve chosen, but we’ll explain that in the next section. Pairing takes less than five minutes on average per device.
A few items require a little more effort to install: light switches, programmable thermostats and smart outlets. To install these items, you must turn off the circuit breaker and manipulate electrical wiring. If you’re not comfortable with this, an electrician can install them for you. A smart lock is easy enough to install on your own, but if you want it to use your existing keys, a locksmith needs to rekey it. Installation takes 20 minutes or longer per device.
Compatibility Is Complicated
Truthfully, there are dozens of competing standards, but devices are compatible in one of two ways: hardware or software. When devices have compatible hardware, their transceivers speak a common language such as Z-Wave, Zigbee, HomeKit and Wi-Fi. Those with software compatibility share programming, mostly via cloud-based servers. Examples of strong software compatibility can be found in Amazon Echo and an online task automation service called IFTTT. For the most part, hardware and software compatibility work hand-in-hand, with software compatibility most common on Wi-Fi devices.
Security & Privacy
One of the most attractive things about smart homes is that they can track your personal preferences and location. This creates a new pathway for criminals to steal your personal data. While no system is immune to hacking, most hubs use encryption to help protect your data on their servers.
On the privacy end of things, DIY home automation systems monitor how you use the system to improve service. To reduce their liability, most DIY home automation companies don’t associate your personal information with the data they collect, except in specific instances such as when you request customer support. If you’re not comfortable with companies collecting data about your smart home, then home automation is not for you.
Before you commit to a DIY home automation system, know that new products can be rife with turmoil, since they haven’t reached mainstream popularity. Despite a DIY smart home manufacturer’s best efforts, sometimes there isn’t enough demand to stay in business. You might spend $400 on an automation system to find out it doesn’t work anymore or fails to live up to your expectations. Until smart homes prevail in the market, proceed with caution.
DIY Home Automation: Buying Tips
As is common for do-it-yourself projects, DIY home automation ranges in cost and complexity. Before you can automate your home, take time to plan what you want to do and explore different options to make it happen. Planning helps you avoid buying devices you’ll never use or that have no practical value. Here are some tips to get you started:
Choose Your Starting Point
Your smart home should start with the device you want the most – good starter devices include Nest Learning Thermostat and Philips Hue. Once you choose the piece of gear you want the most, look for a system that can help it talk to other products. Every DIY automation company has a compatibility or “works with” page that can narrow down your choices. If two devices cannot communicate directly, explore alternative devices or services such as IFTTT.
Ideally, the smart home hub should be your third purchase; when you purchase the hub after your first couple of devices, you’re less likely to buy one that can’t talk to either of your first two devices. DIY home automation kits are also excellent starting points.
Determine Your Focus
Focus only on features you want, and don’t purchase pieces of equipment just because you can. Choose devices that contribute to your ideal version of a smart home. As a general rule, a complete smart home has elements of control, security, utilities and entertainment. DIY smart homes do well with the first three but have either weak or no support for entertainment. These categories are not mutually exclusive; for example, lighting plays a role in all four.
- Control – Devices that give you more control add convenience by helping you create schedules, rules and smartphone controls. Common examples are light switches, garage door openers, thermostats and window treatments.
- Security – These devices protect your family, belongings and property by monitoring for and deterring intruders. Some examples are door sensors, motion detectors, smoke detectors, smart locks, security cameras and sirens.
- Utilities – Some devices can encourage you to make you home more energy efficient, which helps you save on gas, electric or water bills. Examples include thermostats, sprinkler controllers, leak detectors and window treatments.
- Entertainment – These are audio-video devices and home theater equipment. Universal remotes, such as Logitech Harmony, are a good way to control your TV, home audio system and streaming sticks with your DIY smart home.
Cloud Control vs. Local Control
In many cases, systems use a remote server to execute commands; for example, if you turn on a light in the app, it talks to the server before the light turns on in your home. This means your devices don’t respond instantly to your commands but take a couple seconds. Cloud control uses a Wi-Fi connection to control your home remotely and doesn’t work without an internet connection. While the best DIY home automation hubs have both cloud and local control, companies mostly use cloud control to cut costs.
Locally controlled components respond instantly with no lag, and they don’t require an internet connection. Systems with local control often can’t perform data-intensive tasks, such as video streaming, and are limited to simple tasks like turning things on and off. Professional home automation systems are more capable of data-intensive local control.
Consider Potential Savings
When you see the high price tag of the equipment, consider that many features can save you money over time. Energy-efficient devices, such as smart light bulbs and smart thermostats, reduce your power bill and eventually pay for themselves. If you opt for security system features such as cameras and sensors, you could get a discount on insurance – check with your insurance agent to see if a DIY system meets the requirements.
Large Appliances Don’t Yet Automate Well
Smart large appliances, such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, don’t currently offer much value beyond a few gimmicks. Outside of a professional home automation system, home theater equipment doesn’t automate well either. Smart large appliances can easily add $2,000 each to your automation budget. Wait for smart appliances to mature a little before making that big of an investment.
Installation & Support
As we said before, installation is mostly easy. However, it can go smoother if you know a few things beforehand. Here are a few suggestions to help the process along:
Prepare Your Home
Make sure you have internet speeds of 10 Mbps or more and a solid wireless router so your smart home has a good foundation. This is especially important if you have security cameras as part of your setup. Your router, or at least your DIY home automation hub, should set up near the center of your home. This puts the system in range of most of your smart devices and allows Z-Wave and Zigbee mesh networks to operate more efficiently.
If a device fails, check to make sure the system still works by checking the other devices in your system. You can often fix a malfunctioning device by removing and re-adding it to the system.
When you install your system, 3M Command hanging strips are a good alternative to double-sided tape, especially if you live in an apartment and need to remove the equipment when you move. Also, keep spare non-rechargeable batteries on hand just in case.
We recommend you go through social media customer support if the company offers it. A public post on a company’s Facebook page or Twitter account is more likely to receive a quick response. If social media isn’t available, telephone and live chat are good alternatives. Email support isn’t as reliable as the other forms of support, since it might take longer for the company to respond. The best DIY home automation systems have vibrant online communities to help you solve tricky compatibility issues and get helpful tips.
The majority of smart home goods have warranties that are only valid for one year. This is a standard warranty, though some manufacturers offer longer ones. Equipment should work for years after its warranty expires.
Every smart home starts with its owner. If you have realistic expectations, it should be easy to choose the system that best fits your needs. Whether you approach it as a novelty, hobby or a serious investment, DIY home automation is a good way to improve your home.