How I turned my rental apartment into the ultimate smart home

Imagine walking up to your apartment building on a hot summer evening and using your phone to unlock the main building entrance. You get to your apartment door and automatically, the door unlocks, the lights turn on, the AC is running, the ceiling fan is on, and the blinds are closing for an evening of privacy.

Just a few years ago having all of this happen automatically would have been nearly impossible for a layman to accomplish, let alone on a budget in a rental apartment. Fortunately, the technology needed to accomplish this is now readily available and getting cheaper every month. I know this because I’ve done it in my rental apartment that was originally built in the 1940's. Read on to learn how.

In this post I’ll cover:

  • The recent developments that have made sophisticated smart homes cheaper and easier than ever to create
  • Examples of what’s possible with a modern smart home
  • What to consider when choosing a smart home platform
  • How to choose smart home products
  • A comprehensive list of products and software I used to create my smart home

Let’s dive in!

Changing smart home landscape

Before I dive into the specifics on how I automated my apartment, I think it’s important to set some general context on the state of the smart home industry since there have been several recent developments that have opened the door to cheap and sophisticated smart homes.

Cheap hardware

You can now buy good smart bulbs for less than $10 each, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Wireless locks, motion sensors, thermometers, blinds, switches and many other devices have all become incredibly inexpensive as companies try to lure new customers into their ecosystem with low cost hardware. Many of the devices needed to automate your home are now wireless and last for years on a single battery, meaning it’s viable to retrofit them in a rental without issue.

Unifying systems — kinda

Until recently, the only easy way to automate your home was to either 1) buy into a single ecosystem of products (e.g. Philips Hue) and use their proprietary app or 2) rely on Google Home, Alexa, or Apple’s HomeKit to act as the connective tissue between all your smart devices.

Unfortunately, neither option is great. If you rely on a product ecosystem, you’re severely limited by what devices are available. For example, if you’re a Philips Hue light user, how are you supposed to have your smart lights be synchronized with your IKEA smart blinds? You can’t, and unless you can find a single product ecosystem that has all the products you’ll ever want, this is not a viable option for a comprehensive smart home.

The home automation systems created by Amazon, Google, and Apple were supposed to solve these problems by creating a single platform that integrates a wide variety of devices. They do a decent job on the device integration front, however, there are three big drawbacks. First, all of these systems are ‘voice first,’ meaning if you want the ability to use physical switches to control devices, you’re basically out of luck; after attempting to control my house with just my voice, it turns out switches are a surprisingly elegant solution. Second, all of these systems have relatively limited abilities for creating automations that use a wide variety of triggers or rely on sophisticated conditional logic. Third, if the internet goes out, local device control is iffy at best.

Enter Home Assistant

The good news is that there are now several systems that allow you to 1) interface with nearly any smart device on the market, regardless of the manufacturer and 2) easily build sophisticated rules that synchronize and control devices based on logic you define.

The biggest and most established player in the independent home automation space is Home Assistant (HA). It’s a free and open-source software that is most commonly run on a Raspberry Pi. Technically inclined people are the most common users, however, it is making great progress at becoming accessible to a wider audience. If you’re interested in trying out HA, here’s a great getting started video.

What’s possible with a modern smart home

Now that we’ve covered all that — how should you get started on your home automation journey? I recommend first identifying what your dream smart home would look like and work backwards from there. For inspiration, here’s some of the things I’ve been able to accomplish by automating my apartment:

  • With the press of a single button on my phone, I can buzz myself into the main entrance of my building, unlock my apartment door, and have my lights automatically turn on if it’s dark. I don’t bring keys with me anymore!
  • All of the lights in every room are synchronized and adjust brightness/color temperature depending on what I’m doing.
  • The ceiling fans and wall unit ACs can all be controlled via voice commands or physical buttons.
  • My blinds automatically open and close based on sunrise/sunset or voice commands.
  • The fan in my bathroom automatically turns on/off based on the relative humidity of the bathroom compared to the rest of the apartment.
  • If my doorbell rings, I can buzz the person in using a voice command from any room in the house.
  • When I go to bed I can automatically turn off all the lights/fans and lock the front door with a single button press or voice command.
  • The bathroom light automatically turns on/off at variable brightness depending on the time of day, state of other lights in the house, and if the bathroom door is open/closed.

There’s much more, but this hopefully gives you a good idea of what’s possible.

How to choose a smart home system

If you’ve decided you want to pursue creating a smart home, below are a few of the questions that you’ll want to consider as you plan out your home automation journey. There are many ways you can make your home ‘smart,’ some requiring much more effort than others.

How do you want to control your devices?

Controlling your devices is the crux of home automation. Asking yourself the following questions will help uncover what solution is best for your needs.

  • Do you want to use your voice to control your devices?
  • Do you want the ability to use physical switches/buttons?
  • Do you want the ability to use sensors (e.g., motion, temperature, brightness, or humidity) to trigger your devices?
  • Do you want to create sophisticated automations that pull in multiple data sources and/or have complex conditional logic?

If you want the ability to control your devices via voice, you’ll have to invest in getting an Alexa-enabled speaker, a Google Assistant-enabled speaker, or an Apple HomePod Mini.

If you’d like to have your devices controlled by buttons or simple motion sensors (but no sophisticated automations), then you have two main options:

  • Invest in a setup like Home Assistant.
  • Rely on a product ecosystem that has physical switches and motion sensors like Philips Hue or Ikea Tradfi.

If you’re looking to create sophisticated rules-based automations, use a wide variety of sensors (buttons, motion, light, temperature, etc.), and/or mix and match devices from nearly any smart home company:

  • You’ll have to invest in a setup like Home Assistant.

Usability note: Remember that others will likely need to be able to use the lights/devices in your house too, so I encourage people to have intuitive physical buttons in addition to their other control mechanisms. I learned this the hard way when my cat sitter had no idea how to use my house.

How to choose smart home devices

Let’s say you’ve decided to go down the Home Assistant path — good choice! This is where things get exciting, but also sometimes a little overwhelming. I broken out some of the most common questions and provided general guidance to help you navigate this tricky part of the process.

What type of smart home products are available?

You can break up the smart home device world into three broad categories:

  • Devices — these are the things being controlled (lights, fans, smart plugs, speakers, blinds, locks, etc.)
  • Sensors — these are the things helping provide the control (switches, buttons, sensors etc.)
  • Infrastructure — this is the hardware and software that 1) allows the devices and sensors to communicate with each other and 2) controls and coordinates the devices and sensors.

At the end of this post I’ve listed out every device, sensor, and infrastructure component I’ve used in my apartment, along with a quick overview of what each thing does.

Should you buy products that use WiFi or Zigbee (or something else)?

Smart devices need to communicate wirelessly, and there are currently a few different technologies commonly used to do this, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. This topic could be an article in itself, and to make things more complicated, the world of smart home tech is currently undergoing a big change with the release of a new protocol called Thread.

It’s a confusing landscape, but systems like Home Assistant make things much simpler because they do not force you to exclusively use one wireless technology over another. Instead, you can make your decision based on what’s available/what makes sense for your specific application. Here’s some rough guidance as you’re considering your options.

  • WiFi: Nearly everyone already has a WiFi network in their home, so in theory this is a great option. However, there are two main issues with WiFi-only smart homes. First, if you have a lot of devices on one network it can cause problems, especially if you have a cheaper router; these problems can manifest in slow WiFi speeds or devices that intermittently become unavailable. Second, WiFi is relatively energy-intensive, so most of the available sensors/buttons don’t work on WiFi (they most commonly use Zigbee). WiFi can be a great option for plugged-in devices (think lamps) if you’re not going to have too many and/or have a good router. It’s also the most secure option (think locks).
  • Zigbee: This is a wireless protocol that operates on the same frequency as WiFi, except it has been designed to be low-energy and long-range specifically for smart home applications. This makes it a great option for things like battery powered switches and sensors, but it also works very well for lights. To allow Home Assistant to communicate with Zigbee devices all you need is a simple USB Zigbee hub (details on this at the bottom of the article). Zigbee products have recently become quite cheap, are widely available, and from my experience, very reliable.
  • Others (Z-Wave, Bluetooth, Thread): There are a few other wireless technologies available for smart homes, most notably is the imminent arrival of Thread. I’m not going to go into detail of these options here, but the main thing to know is as of this writing (July 2022), there are very few Thread devices available.

Personally, I use a mixture of Zigbee and WiFi devices with my Home Assistant setup. Most of my lights, sensors, and switches are Zigbee, and I have a few lights, relays, speakers, and locks that use WiFi. If new devices come out that use a superior wireless technology I’m confident Home Assistant will be able to quickly handle them.

Is local device control important to you?

Many people don’t like the idea of their lights, locks, etc. being connected to/reliant on the internet due to security and/or reliability concerns. Unfortunately, these concerns are valid as there are many stories about smart home devices ceasing to work when their parent company has issues (looking at you, Wink). If you have a flaky internet connection, avoid devices that don’t work locally.

The rule of thumb is:

  • WiFi devices often rely on being connected to the internet to function; there are some WiFi devices that support local connections, but this is more of an exception.
  • Zigbee, Bluetooth, and Z-Wave devices typically can function without an internet connection.

You’ll need to do some investigation/soul searching to decide what is best for your needs. Since most of my devices run on Zigbee and I use Home Assistant to control them, I could unplug my router and/or Philips Hue could go out of business, but my home would continue to function. Running devices locally also has the added benefit of improving device responsiveness.

Which specific smart light, lock, switch etc. should you buy?

This is one of the biggest issues you’ll encounter if you decide to go down the Home Assistant/Habitat path. There are many options, and not all of them will work.

If you’ve decided upon Home Assistant, the first place to check is here. It is a great database that lists out compatibility across a wide variety of device types.

Home Assistant has excellent device support, and as long as you stick to mainstream brands you’ll most likely find your devices will work with very little effort. And when you do bump into questions, there is a thriving Home Assistant community on Reddit and their forums, so you’re never far away from help.

In closing, making your home ‘smart’ is a really fun and rewarding hobby, but also can be time-consuming to set up. As you can probably tell, I’ve tried to boil down hundreds of hours worth of work into a single article. If you’re looking for a simple plug and play option that won’t take much time, stick to the basics with Amazon, Google, or Apple’s smart home offering. But, if you’re excited about the prospect of putting in the work to build your own ultimate smart home, there has never been a better time than now. Good luck!

P.S. Yes — If I ever move it’s going to suck, but everything I’ve done to my apartment is 100% reversible and could all be put back in the span of a (long) day.

What’s in my smart home

If you’re curios about exactly what I used to automate my apartment, you’re in luck! Here’s a comprehensive list of all the devices, sensors, and infrastructure that is powering my home.

Devices

Sensors

  • 1 x Philips Hue 4 Button Remote. Used to control the living room lights. Each button is mapped to a different scene that has a different brightness/color temperature (Cook mode, Chill mode, Movie mode, Off).
  • 3 x IKEA 5 Button Zigbee Remote. The model I have seems to be discontinued, but it’s very similar to this version. It’s used in the bedroom and office to control the lights/blinds. IKEA is an excellent value for Zigbee products.
  • 1 x Aqara Motion and Light Sensor. Used to detect motion in the living room and automatically turn lights and fans on/off.
  • 1 x Philips Hue Motion Sensor. Used to detect motion in the bathroom to automatically turn the ceiling light on/off.
  • 1 x Aqara Door Sensor. Used in the bathroom to make sure the automatic light does not accidentally turn off when occupied (motion sensors alone can be finicky).
  • 1 x August Door Sensor (part of the August Smart Lock). Used to turn on my lights automatically when arriving home.
  • 3 x Aqara Temperature and Humidity Sensor. Used to control the bathroom exhaust fan (humidity) and sometimes window AC units (temperature).

Infrastructure

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Jasper Curry

Jasper Curry

Previously product at Policygenius, NBC News, AMC Networks, and Fueled.