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Cheap Geek: There’s no place like (smart) home
Cheap Geek

Who wouldn’t want a “smart” home? After all, isn’t that better than a dumb home?

 Wikipedia defines a smart home as “a home equipped with lighting, heating, and electronic devices that can be controlled remotely by phone or computer.”

 For those of us who grew up envying the technology we saw on the Jetsons, much of our wait is over. Video calls have been commonplace for years, and robots can be yours, if you have enough money.

 The same can be said for home automation. The technology has been here for decades, but until now only affordable for the wealthy.

 Home automation took a big step forward with the release of the Amazon Echo, and later Google Home, which made the process simpler because we were now able to use our voices to control the devices.

 The phrases “Alexa, do this” or “Hey Google” spoken into hockey-puck-sized devices costing under $50 have allowed millions of residents to take part in the smart home evolution.

 There are some who say, thanks, but no thanks, to the thought of allowing machines to control their home, and there have been well documented concerns over privacy, but as someone who took the first steps toward home automation last year, I’m able to dismiss that.

 I started with the purchase of three Google Home Minis, a smaller version of the $129 full-sized Google Home, which I was able to get on sale for $29 each.

 Why not the Amazon Echo? It was strictly a preference based on what geeks call an “ecosystem.”  If you’re someone who is part of the Amazon ecosystem where you use and are most comfortable with Amazon products such as Prime and the Fire Stick, you’ll probably want to get the Echo, but I was part of the Google Android ecosystem, in which their Home or Mini is connected to the app Google Home Assistant, which allows me to perform voice commands from my smartphone.

 OK. That’s about as geekish as I will get in this article. I always promise to keep things simple for non-geeks.

 The three Google Home Minis were placed in two bedrooms and the living room. I could have spent four times as much to get the larger version, referred to as the Google Home, with its superior speaker, but I didn’t think it was worth the extra money. Both Google and Amazon offer not only the large and mini versions, but also devices that include a video screen.

 Buying the voice-activated devices was just a starting point. For less than $100 I was now able to ask my assistant anything in the world. Yes, I could have done that directly with my smartphone, but the ease in which I could sit anywhere in those three rooms and say “Hey Google how is the traffic to work?” or “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?” encouraged me to use the device more often.

I could probably do a separate article about all the cool things you can do with these voice-activated devices, such as playing trivia games and asking for corny jokes to be read, but this is about home automation.

 Sitting on my couch and getting answers to questions is one thing, but the real value comes when I can tell it to turn my lights on and off (including dimming them or changing colors), to adjust the temperature in the house, to lock or unlock a door, to turn on the lawn sprinkler, and much more.

 Yeah, I know what you’re thinking… what a lazy bum. Maybe so, but just like when some of us bought “The Clapper” years ago to turn off our lights when we jumped into bed, there are times when you want to be lazy. Plus, if you’re someone immobile or disabled, this voice activation can literally be a life-saver

 Installing the Google Minis consisted of plugging each one into an outlet and then installing the Google Home app on my smartphone. I then followed the instructions the Mini gave audibly. Although I’m sure you have already assumed, but I always need to clarify: You must have a home internet connection to use any of these smart home devices.

 Next on my list was adding the lightbulbs. I was looking to replace most of my lights anyway to the newer LED type, and the “smart” bulb was another way of doing that. Although you can go crazy and have smart bulbs everywhere in your house, I decided to limit it to just one per room. I checked beforehand if the bulb was compatible with the Google Home, and then I replaced four of my lamp shade bulbs. The most common smart bulb brands are Philips Hue and TP-Link. My total cost: $100.

 For the living room I chose a color bulb for times I wanted some red or blue mood lighting. These cost a little more. Most of the time, a simple white bulb will suffice.

 To be clear, one doesn’t need the voice activated hubs like the Google Mini to use these smart home devices. Each one typically can be controlled by an app on your smartphone. You can program each light to go on and off at different times and to dim. It’s just easier when you can do it by voice.

 I won’t go into every possibility available, but the aforementioned temperature control devices (NEST is the most common), door locks (Schlage and August), and smart irrigation systems all require additional purchases, and can range from about $150 on up. Again, if you want to tie it into voice control, be sure to check beforehand whether that product works with Google or Amazon Echo (Alexa).

 Then there’s smart appliances; everything from your refrigerator and washing machine to the cat litter box, that are all on the market offering you ways to program or monitor its usage. I don’t think I’m going that route.

 Finally, my smart home is not complete without adding peace of mind security, which today comes at a reasonable cost. From $30 web cams placed throughout the house, and a front porch Ring video door bell system (purchased on sale for $99), I now monitor all of my home’s activity when gone.

 Again, what used to cost thousands for just one of these devices like video monitoring is now available at prices you and I can afford.

 This writer wants to hear from you. If you have questions on anything you read or have a story to tell, contact Mark at

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