By Debbie Carlson,  Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Thinking of a smart home device but don’t know where to start?

A smart home device is loosely defined as an object connected via Wi-Fi or a different technology to other things in the home, so that a person can control it remotely from a touch panel or an app on a device, said Carley Knobloch, smart home expert for HGTV.

More people are looking to buy these gadgets. A study by consulting firm McKinsey forecast 29 million homes will become connected in 2017, up from 22 million in 2016. Getting a “connected” home doesn’t necessarily mean going out and buying several new devices. Instead, start small, experts said.

Knobloch said first-time buyers should ask themselves what problem they want to solve, rather than buying a device to see how it fits with their lifestyle.

“The truth is, this stuff is all more expensive. How are you going to feel like you made the right investment? How will you stick with it given the learning curve? You also have to know how to keep them updated for security reasons. How to know when it’s ready to upgrade and replace completely? It’s an uphill climb, and you’ll feel the most engaged with it if you’re starting with something that will have a huge impact on your life,” she said.

Knobloch and Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief of review guide Tom’s Guide, suggested a few devices for smart home newbies.

Energy-efficiency devices

Smart electrical plugs and thermostats can increase energy efficiency. Smart plugs Spoonauer likes are the relatively inexpensive WeMo Insight ($40) and iHome ISP8 ($50). They turn manual objects like lamps or fans into devices that can be controlled by a remote control or smartphone. They can give energy readouts of how much electricity the plugged-in device is using, and can be turned on or off when the user is away from home and put on an automatic schedule.

The Lutron Caseta Wireless Smart Lighting Dimmer Kit ($190) turns any floor lamp into a dimmer and allows the homeowner to program lights to turn on and off with sunrise or sunset, or to turn on before the user gets home, among other options.

Smart thermostats can improve energy efficiency by learning the homeowner’s schedule and can give the user information about energy usage and ways to improve efficiency. While the Nest Learning Thermostat ($250) is popular, Spoonauer likes the ecobee E3 ($245), which has a sensor that can be put in the chilliest part of the house to ensure proper temperatures. These thermostats can be difficult to install if a home doesn’t have modern wiring, but Spoonauer says home improvement stores are beginning to offer installation services.


Smart speakers, like Amazon’s Echo ($180) and Google Home ($129), “took the whole industry by surprise with how much it’s been embraced in the home. It started out as a way to play music or answer questions, but it’s really developed far beyond that,” Spoonauer said.

The speakers have developed into smart home hubs, as they are compatible with other smart devices, like smart plugs and thermostats, allowing users to operate all their smart devices by voice commands.

“You can do so much more with it, and what you can do is expanding over time,” he said.

Although Home doesn’t work with as many devices as the Echo does, for people who already use other Google products, like email and their calendar, it’s a good option.

“Some people are a little worried about what Google knows about you, but that’s one of the benefits, in a way. Because it knows more about you, it can set your schedule and have it read your email (among other tasks),” he said.

Garage-door openers

Of all the smart devices she uses, Knobloch said, the smart garage-door opener is her favorite. What she likes about the garage-door opener is it can be controlled simply — by the phone app or manually with a clicker, if needed. She likes the Liftmaster MyQ series (about $350 installed).

“It’s fantastic for the kid who is constantly out on the street playing, leaves to go to a friend’s and leaves the garage door open,” she said.

She can check remotely to see if the door was left open and close it from her phone, and can set it to alert her if the door was left open for 10 minutes or more. Plus she can let people remotely into the house while she’s away.

“It’s freedom and control over a gaping security part of my home,” Knobloch said.