The Digital Home Magazine

Smart tech reviews, how-to's and more

a smart home is a home equipped with a number of 'smart', interconnected devices that automate tasks normally handled by humans.
There are various technical aids now on the market such as sensors, lighting, controlled motors, cameras and virtual assistants now available. Smart home solutions can generally be divided into the three areas; comfort, energy saving or security.

After telephones, computers and televisions, household appliances and building technology are increasingly being networked. The market for smart home applications is growing steadily.

The essentials in brief:

  • Intelligent networking can make living safer and more comfortable and also help to save heating energy.
  • A smart home can be created in a new building or it can be retrofitted. Entry-level sets are available from a few hundred pounds; the upper limits are open.
  • Those who want to remain flexible choose an open system that can also integrate products from other manufacturers.

Smart Home - what is it actually?

Today's new buildings as well as modernized old buildings should be economical, sustainable, energy-efficient, comfortable and usable over the long term. Against this background, a steadily growing market for technology-assisted living is gradually establishing itself. Individual products and the networking of building technology, household appliances and services are increasingly being offered in the areas of home automation and electronics as well as communication for private living. These technical solutions should interact intelligently, intuitively and safely.

According to the manufacturers, if all possibilities are exhausted, energy consumption will be reduced, the building safer and comfort increased. As a result, the house offers more quality of living for people of all ages. The technology, which can be individually adapted to needs, offers the prospect of making living smart - that is, pleasant, smart, clever and intelligent. This is why the term smart home is used more and more frequently in new buildings, but also in modernizations.

The term "smart home" or is not clearly defined. Occasionally it is also used for intelligent individual solutions such as heating controls. Most of the time, and this is also the case here, this means systems made up of several networked products from different areas. A fully networked and "intelligent" house is also referred to as a smart home.

How does a smart home work?

A smart home typically consists of several elements:

  • from the end devices or the so-called
    actuators that are to be included in the intelligent control. This includes, for example, radiator controls, lamps, shutters, blinds and ventilation systems, but also televisions and stereo systems or speakers. Some washing machines and stoves can also be integrated into a smart home.
  • from one or more input devices . These can be touch displays, room temperature controllers, tablets and smartphones, but also classic-looking light switches. Control via voice commands is also becoming more and more common.
    With the help of these human-to-smart home interfaces, it is easy to check whether the lights in a certain room have gone out or the room temperatures are within the desired range. If this is not the case, a direct switching command can also be issued via these devices.
  • from sensors . These are required, for example, to measure the room temperature, to register whether doors and windows are open or closed, to determine the brightness in rooms or to detect the presence of people.
  • from a central control unit, the so-called gateway , on which all sensor data is received and commands are sent to heating control valves or other actuators, for example. The gateway enables the networked devices to communicate with one another. It is practically the "brain" of the smart home. The gateway can be controlled by the users via the input devices. Depending on the system, direct control of the individual devices is still possible regardless of this. A possible connection to the Internet is also established via the gateway.
  • a network that enables end devices and gateways to come into contact with one another. The connection can be made by cable or by radio. Some systems also use the existing power grid ("Powerline"). Naturally, cables have to be laid for wired systems, which in turn requires forward-looking building technology planning. In old buildings in particular, radio-controlled systems are easier to implement without interfering with the building fabric. They are also suitable for rented apartments, as they can be dismantled again without any problems and relocations can take place.

How do you operate a smart home?

Smart home systems can be operated in different ways. Particularly small or highly automated systems require almost no operation of their own: if you press a self-adhesive light switch, you simply control the light as usual. In this case, it goes unnoticed that a smart home installation is behind it. Smart home technology is also hidden behind the central power circuit in hotel rooms with a keycard.

Another possibility are control devices such as small rotary switches, with the help of which the room temperature can be increased or decreased centrally.

Often, however, control panels with touch displays installed on the wall can also be found. Here your own house installation can be used and controlled with provider-specific user interfaces. Often logical function groups are combined. There are separate control fields for lighting control, heating and ventilation or air conditioning. The room-by-room display of all functions is also conceivable. The devices and actuators are then influenced via virtual sliders and switches.

With the spread of smartphones and tablet PCs, user interfaces for building control are increasingly being made available on these mobile devices.

What are the benefits of smart homes?

The benefits of a smart home depend not only on the products and system chosen, but also on one's own expectations. Added value can arise when energy is saved, comfort is increased and / or safety is improved. A popular and effective application is, for example, the automatic lowering of the room temperature when absent, combined with reheating in good time before returning home. Depending on the previous behaviour, this saves between two and eight percent heating costs and increases comfort. Another example is equipping the house with energy-saving lighting and motion detectors.

This increases comfort and safety at typical stumbling blocks in the house such as stairways or narrow hallways, and less energy is used. Motion detectors in the outside area of ​​the house and house access also improve protection against burglary.

If you opt for a keycard instead of a front door key, as is often used in hotels, three things are achieved by automatically switching off all electrical devices - with the exception of the absolutely necessary devices in standby or normal operation such as refrigerators and freezers :

    1. An energy saving,
    1. an increase in comfort and
    1. The certainty that devices such as the stove or the coffee machine cannot represent a source of danger.

If the door locks automatically after removing the keycard, there is an additional security effect.

If you don't want to use a keycard, the same effect can also be implemented, for example, with a central on / off switch on the entrance door, operation via the smartphone or a fingerprint sensor on the front door. In this case, the heating can be turned on before entering the house, and the door can be opened with a fingerprint. So the children can come home without their own keys, with full shopping bags there is no need to look for keys or cards and older residents don't have to use their glasses first.

You should refrain from controlling the front door via mobile phone (regardless of whether via Bluetooth or via the Internet) due to the considerable security risks. On the one hand, this could be an interesting target for hackers, and on the other hand, there is a high risk of misuse if a cell phone is lost or stolen.

What does a smart home solution cost?

The costs for a smart home vary greatly depending on which networking technology you choose and how many devices you want to integrate. Entry-level offers for networked technology based on radio standards start at several hundred pounds. It can make sense to choose basic equipment first, which can be expanded if necessary. Care should be taken to choose an open system . A cable-based system is generally more expensive than a radio-based one. Several thousand pounds have to be invested here. There is no upper limit to the costs of a smart home.

What are the differences between open and closed systems?

There are many different technologies in the smart home. Open systems have a standard supported by various providers of smart home solutions. This means that products from different manufacturers can be combined with one another. Examples are Bluetooth LE, WLAN, Z-Wave, ZigBee and KNX. With the exception of the latter, all are radio systems.

Closed systems, on the other hand, are not compatible with devices from other providers. If a provider does not offer a technical solution for a particular task, technology from another manufacturer cannot be used.

Cable or radio?

The installation of wired systems is only advisable for a renovation or a new building that is already pending. A separate line must be laid for each consumption point that is to be accessed. This also contributes to the sometimes considerable costs of such a system. In return, the data transmission is very fast and the susceptibility to failure is very low.

Radio-based systems can be installed more easily than wired systems, even if the effort involved can vary greatly depending on the degree of automation. However, radio systems can be more susceptible to interference.

There are also systems that use the power lines in the house for data transmission. Then there is often talk of "powerline". However, power lines can transmit less data than specially laid cables and are more prone to failure. Therefore this system is not suitable for data transmission over long distances.

There is also the option of connecting the systems with one another and using a combined cable and radio installation. With a few exceptions, the batteries must be changed in radio-based systems. However, there are also mixed solutions in which actuators are inserted into the power line in a flush-mounted installation and are supplied with energy from there, but receive their commands via radio.

Install systems yourself or have them installed?

Some simple systems can be installed yourself with a little skill and craftsmanship. However, wired systems require specialist planning and installation. It is also advisable to consult specialist companies for more complex wireless solutions.

If programming is required, an installer or building system integrator should carry out the initial programming in most cases.

In the meantime, the market also offers systems that are delivered fully programmed, but still offer the user the opportunity to make changes.

Are my details safe?

The use of smart home products is often associated with extensive collection and processing of personal data.

Smart home devices are usually controlled via an app on a tablet or smartphone. To use these apps, it is usually necessary to create a user account with the provider. In the course of this, data such as e-mail address and sometimes also telephone number, date of birth or postal address must be provided for authentication .

The majority of smart home devices are permanently connected to the Internet and save user data in a cloud , i.e. on the servers of the device manufacturers or third-party providers such as Amazon or Microsoft. This sometimes includes sensitive data such as

  • Video recordings from the apartment that are created and transmitted by a surveillance camera
  • Location data transmitted, for example, by a vacuum robot. With this data it is sometimes possible to precisely measure living spaces
  • Voice commands from smart speakers such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, some of which are evaluated by the respective providers to improve voice recognition

For the user, it is often not clear which data is being collected and which sensors smart home devices really have: Many devices, such as smart TVs or intelligent smoke detectors, have integrated microphones , which at first glance does not always appear can be seen. Collected consumption data or the times when the door is locked or opened allow conclusions to be drawn about lifestyle habits or the presence and absence of residents. Vital data from body sensors provide information about the state of health.

The transmitted data is not only processed by the smart home provider itself, but often also by third-party providers . These include, for example, cloud operators on whose servers the data is stored. But also other providers that are integrated by the device manufacturer, such as Facebook. These collaborations between smart home providers and third-party providers can be problematic from a data protection perspective, as some studies show:

  • As part of a study by the market watchdog team at the consumer centre in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) tested 4 smart home devices from the security technology sector for their IT security. It was found that with one of the surveillance cameras tested, the associated app transmits data about app usage and the smartphone to Facebook via a programming interface. As a result, there is a risk that Facebook can identify the user by linking this data with an existing Facebook account and the data collected can then be linked to a person.

Please also note: When using a smart home system, the personal rights of third parties may be impaired. This can apply to visitors as well as to the cleaning staff, who may be filmed by a surveillance camera without having given their prior consent. Video surveillance of children or relatives in need of care can also be critical from a data protection perspective. In the EU General Data Protection Regulation, video surveillance in non-public areas is not clearly regulated.

Data security: how do I protect my smart home?

All internet-enabled devices can be potential targets for cyber criminals. In the smart home, 4 potential sources of danger can be identified that can offer attack surfaces or gateways for hackers:

  1. Devices in the Smart Home: The devices themselves can often be a fundamental weak point if they have technical weak points. The more smart devices are integrated into a system, the more vulnerable the system as a whole is. A fundamental problem: By taking over a device in the smart home system, other devices in the same system can also be hijacked. This means that if, for example, the smart light bulb is hacked, unauthorized persons may gain access to all devices connected to the local network, such as surveillance cameras, or even take over the home PC.
  2. User accounts: Smart home services with a user account are usually only protected by a password. Therefore, it is important to choose a strong password to protect yourself from hackers.
  3. Data transmission: Another source of danger is the transmission path of the data from the app to the cloud or to the corresponding server. Here, it is important that modern encryption technology is used during transmission so that the data sent is not intercepted in plain text on its transport path and can be read.
  4. Storage of user data: Finally, another source of risk is the storage of user data in the cloud, i.e. on the provider's servers or on external third-party servers. Data breaches, for example when data is freely accessible on the Internet without password protection and encryption, can result in sensitive data becoming accessible to third parties.

Tips for more data security for smart home devices

  • Find out before and after your purchase what data protection and IT security are like:
    • What data is generated when using it?
    • Does a user account have to be created when registering and which data is required?
    • What access rights does the control app need? For example, is the location recorded?
    • Are personal data stored in the cloud?
    • Is data transmitted in encrypted form?
    • Is there a possibility of two-factor authentication?
    • How long and how often is the device supplied with security updates?
  • Make data protection-friendly settings for the associated device apps as early as possible during setup. Take a look at the default settings during the setup and change permissions such as location tracking if it is not necessary for using the app. Access authorizations can also be adjusted retrospectively via the settings.
  • Choose a strong password . So-called "strong" passwords contain capital letters, numbers and special characters. Change default passwords immediately. Renew your password at regular intervals.
  • A two-factor authentication principle increases the security access to smart systems. Two steps are carried out to authenticate the user. There are various methods for this: For example, after entering the password in the user account, the provider sends a code to the smartphone, which must also be entered. In this way, for example, "phishing" can be prevented.
  • Devices and associated apps should always be up to date, and available updates should be installed promptly.
  • Set up separate router networks for your PC and your smart home. In this way, an attacker does not automatically gain access to the home PC if he has gained access to the smart home system or device.
  • Be careful with used smart home devices : When selling your smart home devices, make sure that there are no more sensitive data traces such as your WLAN access data on them. If in doubt, also contact the device manufacturer. The purchase of used devices can also pose a risk, for example if the devices have been deliberately manipulated or if previous owners can continue to access the data on the devices sold due to security gaps.

What is the relationship between a smart home and a smart meter?

A smart home can become even smarter if the electrical devices are not only networked with one another, but can also react to information from the electricity market. In other words: if electricity prices are cheap on the market, suppliers could pass this information on to households so that electricity-intensive devices can be used precisely in these time windows. A so-called smart meter, an intelligent measuring system that can record different tariffs at different times, would then be billed.

Some manufacturers of electrical appliances and white goods already offer devices that have a "Smart Grid Ready" standard. However, it cannot be foreseen at the moment when energy suppliers will also pass on electricity market impulses to end customers.

So far, smart meters have not been installed across the board.

Can you save energy with a smart home?

Basically there is the possibility of saving energy with a smart home. How high the savings are cannot be quantified across the board. This depends, among other things, on individual usage behaviour, the structure of the building, the size of the building and the selected smart home equipment.

The control of the heating offers an energy saving potential of an average of eight percent, especially if the thermostats have not been manually controlled so far. The information provided by manufacturers on maximum energy savings should, however, be viewed critically and can in some cases be exaggerated.

Central control of electrical devices can also save energy. However, the savings here are rather small. When purchasing smart home devices, it makes sense to ensure that your own consumption is low, so that the switchable socket does not suddenly cause a higher standby consumption than the device to be switched.

For example, some manufacturers produce switches that use the pressure when this switch is pressed to generate energy and thus do not consume any additional energy. However, if you equip every room in a household with its own touchpad for operation, the total energy consumption can even increase with these control elements.