This post was created in partnership with Control4, who also supplied some equipment for testing. As always, all opinions are my own.
From behind my kitchen island, I survey the entire back half of my house. To my left, our breakfast nook table where there is often a child doing homework, or a pile of recipe books I’ve unshelved for dinner inspiration. Straight ahead, the kitchen island, whose barstools are frequented by mom-friends or neighbors who are obliged to sample a beverage I’ve concocted (my latest: lime-watermelon aqua fresca & iced turmeric lattes). Beyond them, the entire family room, AKA entertainment central. Out the windows, I can peek at our grassy yard (where the dog likes to uproot my plants), or keep an eye on kids in the pool.
I get asked all the time about the smart home technology and devices I use, and today I’m going to spill the beans on what runs my entire smart home. Because being behind my kitchen island is kind of like being in the captain’s chair of my home, and my Control4 Smart Home touch screen is the steering wheel.
I’ve had a Control4 Smart Home for several years now, and my experience with it has been a pleasure; it works quietly and consistently in the background while we live our lives, which is the mark of great technology.
This post is something I’ve wanted to write for a while, actually, because it will cover another topic that I get asked about a lot— the difference between a professionally-installed smart home and DIY accessories.
But First, What’s So Smart About My House?
Before we get into that, let me tell you a bit about how smart my house is — not because I like to brag (HA!) but because I hope it shows what’s possible, or inspires you with ideas for your own place. Full-disclosure: Some of what’s listed here was gifted from Control4, but much of it was purchased by me and my husband. It’s become a robust smart home that we’ve added to over the years that provides lots of safety, fun and convenient features we rely on daily.
Smart locks: We have two, which provide keyless entry into our garage and home. I love being able to see the status of our locks at a glance when the icon changes from an open to closed padlock (I often check them before I go to bed), and I can use my Control4 App to let someone in when I’m not home.
Exterior cameras: Smart cameras survey the exterior of my home. If the doorbell rings, our touch screens or TVs can be tuned to the camera so I can see who it is before I answer. And if there’s a disturbance at night, I can use them to see what’s going on (I once caught a skunk on camera trying to get into my barbeque!). Control4 touchscreens and TVs make it easy to check cameras from anywhere in my home, and if I’m away, I can see everything on my smartphone. .
Alarm system: The alarm system was already installed when we bought the home. Having it connected to the other devices in the home with Control4 made it easy to check the status (say, if the kids were home and we wanted to make sure they were safe and sound), disarm the house remotely (if someone needed to enter unexpectedly and we didn’t want to share the code with them), and get phone alerts when our home was armed or disarmed.
Garage door opener: Another lifesaver product, it lets me leave things for friends in a secure place (I can open the garage door when they’re in the driveway), and get an alert if the door is left open for longer than 10 minutes (a helpful feature when your kids are out on their bikes and forget to close the door!).
Lighting: Our Control4 lighting system is one of my favorite smart features of the house. There are endless options to change the mood of each room as the day progresses, and to fine-tune the brightness of each light so there’s no room too glaring. Best of all, I can shut off every bulb in the house with one tap, and now with the filter mode in Control4’s most recent operating system, Smart Home OS 3, I have an at-a-glance view of every light on in the house. I can also easily adjust lighting schedules; for example, we have some of our interior lights come on after sunset so that Marty is never left in the dark.
Music: We are a musical family, so meeting everyone’s musical needs is important. We have a Sonos system that is managed by our Control4 Smart Home system, which allows us to do fun things like program a Spotify playlist for each member of the family into some buttons on our kitchen wall so anyone can rock out to their own tunes when making dinner without having to get their phone. It’s also really easy to move music from one room to the next using the Media Sessions feature; that comes in especially handy in the summer when I don’t want to miss a beat switching my music to the backyard after I’ve prepped food to grill.
Window shades: A couple of key windows in the house have automated shades, which are programmed to lower at the end of the day—a nice privacy feature. Our kitchen window shade lowers in the late afternoon when the sun gets super-hot, then goes up when the sun dips behind our backyard trees—a nice way to be energy-efficient and ensure the room doesn’t roast every day.
Thermostats: We have two Nest Thermostats (one for each floor) that are controlled by Control4 as well. If we had interior fans or skylights (we don’t), you could do some sophisticated things with your thermostat and fans together, so that they all work together to cool the house in the most energy-efficient way. I’m just happy I can turn up the heat or cool down my room from bed.
Entertainment system: Our Control4 system gives us one-remote convenience for our AppleTV, video game console, TV, and DVR — I love that it cuts down the clutter on my coffee table! We can also control other aspects of the house with our remotes, like dimming the lights and lowering the shades when it’s movie time. I can also tune any of our TVs to the exterior cameras, which makes it easy to watch my daughter playing basketball in the driveway, or swimming in the pool, while I’m elsewhere in the house.
How They Work Together
While it’s true that you can buy most of what I’ve shared above (Sonos, Nest, etc.) in a store and install it yourself, the magic of Control4 is that all the pieces are programmed to work together, with customized “scenes”. Think of it like this: Individual devices are the limbs, and Control4 is the “brain” of the home. For example, one “Away” button by my garage door lets us lower the shades, turn off the lights, set the alarm, turn off the TVs, and open the garage door as we leave. Another “Welcome” button lights a pathway from the front door to the kitchen so I don’t have to enter in the dark. At the end of the day, a “Good Night” button at my staircase lets me get the house ready for us to go to bed: The alarm is set (this time without motion sensors, so we can move around inside), the thermostat on the first floor goes into eco-mode, the lights dim and light my way up to our bedrooms, fireplaces turn off if they are on, the shades lower and the doors lock. Phew! The possibilities for scenes are endless, and can be thoughtfully created by a professional to meet my needs, or I can create or tweak them myself as my needs change.
While it’s true that some DIY products on the market can be programmed to work together, that can change at a moment’s notice. The Google Nest shutdown is a perfect example: The entire “Works with Nest” system is now in jeopardy of falling apart. If I had a whole house programmed around that, I would NOT be a happy camper. And indeed Nest products are some of my favorites, but it’s nice to know that, with Control4, my house won’t suddenly stop working on a whim.
New to You?
Control4 might not be a name you’re familiar with, but I bet your home builder, contractor, or electrician knows who they are. Long before the Yale smart locks, Sonos speakers, and Amazon Alexa came onto the scene, Control4 was one of the original home automation companies offering smart home solutions. In fact, they’ve been making homes smart since 2003, eight years before the Nest Thermostat would be invented, and when “Hey Siri” was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye (miss you, Steve).
Flash forward to today: All of these DIY products can be incorporated into your Control4 Smart Home system (they’re all in mine), run by a central Control4 brain so they all work — reliably — together.
Which brings me back to the original question….
To DIY or not to DIY?
The truth is, there’s no right answer… only the right answer for you. There are many use cases for going to a big box store, buying a couple of smart home products and installing them in your home. If you’re looking for simplicity and one or two “smart things” (ie. a thermostat, a lock, and a connected speaker or two), or if you live in a small home or apartment that doesn’t require a lot of products to be “smart,” then it might make sense for you to do it all yourself. All these products are easier than ever to unbox, connect to your home’s Wii-Fi, and have working within minutes.
If, however, you’re looking to outfit your forever home with head-to-toe smart capabilities with one system controlling everything (everything is on ONE app, plus touch screens, remotes, voice assistants, and wall keypad controls that add even more convenience), doing it yourself might not get you the results you’re after.
A home integration system like Control4 has many benefits. The first one is immediately apparent when things go wrong…
A DIY system is great if you want a simple home system, but if you’re adding a few things at a time, before you know it you could have dozens of connected devices from several different companies, which can be a nightmare when things stop working.
When your DIY’d smart home has problems (and it will… it’s as certain as death or taxes), it’s up to you to determine why. It could be as simple as updating some firmware or rebooting a hub… but getting to the bottom of what might bring things back online is on you, and it could take a chunk of your weekend to figure it out. Even worse, if everything goes down and you’re not sure which product is the culprit that caused your smart home to go bellyup, it can be like finding the one bad bulb in a house full of Christmas lights. When you DIY, you’re the Chief Technology Officer of the house and the buck stops with you.
Sure, you can call a customer service hotline for one of your smart products (if they offer phone support!), but that can often lead to pointing fingers and passing the buck. Is it your 10th smart light bulb that caused some interference in the system? Is it a bad password on your smart lock that’s creating the problems? Or is your Wi-Fi too taxed to keep all these things online at the same time? Hard for one customer service agent to say, so after they run you through one or two ideas, they might run out of ideas, or suggest that some product from another manufacturer may be the problem.
My home currently has upwards of 70 connected products. Their health and wellness are monitored remotely by my Control4 Smart Home Professional (the awesome Malibu Wired!), who is responsible for keeping them online and up-to-date, and for making sure my network can handle the load and still stream a movie on Netflix without glitches or buffering. As techy as my husband and I are, we’re not interested in being the Chief Technology Officer of our smart home — keeping our smart home up and running is a sophisticated responsibility that calls for a specialist.
Best of Both Worlds
When we first got our Control4 system, my husband wasn’t exactly on board. At the time, he had successfully been managing two Nest thermostats, 8 Sonos speaker zones, and four TiVo DVRs. He liked that he could control and customize the system how he wanted it, and he didn’t want to feel like he had to call our smart home pro every time he wanted to make a change to our home’s programming. With Control4’s new Smart Home OS 3, we get the best of both worlds: A sophisticated home integration system that specialists can program to our exact needs and monitor when things go wrong, AND the capability for my family to tweak programming from moment to moment. If a scene’s lighting feels too bright or if we want to add or remove a light or feature… if we have a different radio station to favorite, if we want to disable something temporarily… we can now go into the system and make basic changes by ourselves with an interface designed for homeowners, not programmers.
Privacy by Design
When I decided on Control4 a few years ago, many features factored into my decision, but to be honest, privacy wasn’t one of them. Since then, we’ve all had a bit of an awakening—big tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, who collect our personal data and sell it, have shown themselves to be motivated by profit rather than our privacy. And these same tech companies are all making smart home products that are listening and watching us at home, and collecting data, which is cause for concern.
I take comfort in knowing that Control4 products are in my home for one reason only—to work well and keep me happy. They are not collecting or selling my data, and they observe what’s going on in my home for the explicit purpose of making sure my system is running properly.
Moreover, Control4 products are future-proof, designed to last for years and keep improving with each software update. Less expensive products often don’t hold up as long, and their manufacturers would rather you buy a new one every few years or so than help maintain your initial investment. The Control4 controllers (their name for a smart home “hub”) are a good example: With software and hardware upgrades, mine continue to not only get cool new features added, but the screen responsiveness and battery life of the hardware has improved as well.
What’s it cost?
When I first started working with HGTV on their Smart Home franchise, installing a smart home was still seen as an expensive, extensive undertaking. Most people thought of smart homes as products for the rich and famous, because a professionally installed system was cost-prohibitive and there weren’t a lot of DIY options. Now things are different on BOTH fronts: DIY options are everywhere and costs for a professional smart home installation have come way down. Getting started with a basic Control4 system to streamline the remotes in your living room starts at about $1,000, where you get the “brain” or “hub” (called a controller) and the handheld remote, and the dealer programs the foundation of your smart home. If you’re starting with other DIY products you have already, the dealer can also connect your Ecobee, your Sonos speakers, your Lutron shades, and your Yale locks so they can work together in the same Control4 App (free on the app store). From there, you can slowly add new experiences to your smart home that fit your budget, so it becomes a long-term improvement and investment.
Think of Control4 as the “operating system” for your smart home. It’s the brain that lies underneath your smart home products, like your phone’s OS lies underneath the apps that you install on top of it. With it, you get cross-operability, reliability, and one system that can monitor and control everything. It’s the difference between having “some smart stuff in your house” and having a truly Smart Home.
A big thank you to Tommy, Tigran and the gang at Malibu Wired for their great programming work!