How to Plan Your Home to Best Utilize Your Smart Home Devices
A groundswell of innovation has produced an array of smart home devices that, for a small investment, can do just about everything that a $10,000 home automation system does. The products, though inexpensive, depend on two things: having a smart phone to run apps and issue voice commands, and a strong Wi-Fi signal. What you may not have considered, though, is that to get the best in-home wireless signal and performance in the long run requires installing more wire behind the walls.
Wiring for Wireless
There’s a lot of confusion about how to wire a new home for wireless. If you have a big budget for a custom home and don’t have the patience for tech, the best way to go may be to buy a fully integrated home automation system. You can hire a “system integrator” through your builder who will ask key questions, wire the house, and turn over the controls – typically an app that runs on a tablet, phone, and/or wall displays. Just know that moving forward, you’re locked into using products that the integrator’s system supports.
However, you can get the advantage of open architecture, and avoid a lot of expense, by thinking through the optimal wiring for your house yourself. The exercise starts with bringing as much bandwidth into the house as possible through your internet service provider.
After that, consider your router: place it in a high spot in the middle of your home, since the router casts a signal like an umbrella, out and down. You don’t want to bury it behind a ceiling or wall, it’s not a good idea to put it in a hot and dusty attic, and steel and concrete will interfere with the radio signals. You also want to make sure you can get to it in case you need to upgrade later.
Since routers are relatively inexpensive, it makes sense to get the best. Just make sure it’s compatible with your Internet service; most providers publish an online list of suitable routers. The device should broadcast both 5GHz and 2.4GHz signals. A 5GHz signal, though stronger, doesn’t extend as far; and some smart home devices only work with a 2.4GHz signal.
The next concern is making sure that you have Wi-Fi coverage everywhere. Some areas that may get left off this list include the front door (if you plan on installing a smart doorbell with video capability), the backyard (in case you like to work or listen to tunes by the pool), and the eaves around the house (where you might put security cameras). A good rule of thumb is that any house of more than 2,500 square feet will need signal extenders. You may need to hardwire wireless access points, or WAPs, into key rooms farther removed from the router. A Wi-Fi heat map can be used to locate these spots correctly and result in the kind of uninterrupted Wi-Fi service that you get in an office environment.
Perfect for Wi-Fi
Once your home has a strong wired infrastructure, it’s time to figure out what wireless smart home products to install. Consider a smart thermostat that save you money on energy bills by regulating itself based on when you’re home or away. These are compatible with several home automation systems, but Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft being most common.
Home security surveillance is another concept that smart tech is taking over. A video doorbell can show you who is at the front door, as well as store video footage when you’re not around. Cameras around the house can also increase safety and comfort, and features such as garage door sensors and electronically controlled deadbolts can help you secure your home whether you’re near or far.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the average household with a broadband connection owns 10 smart home devices, according to research by Parks Association. Increasingly, the makers of dishwashers, ovens, washing machines, water heaters, and other appliances are equipping them with Wi-Fi connections. These devices can be linked to home automation systems and operated through voice commands, but they can also send information to makers about when and how often an appliance is used. This can assist in in improvements to software operating systems, and appliances equipped with self-diagnostics can even notify the manufacturer of potential problems before they occur.
Don’t Throw Out the Cables Just Yet
Keep in mind, though, that not every device should be run over Wi-Fi; it’s still preferable to hardwire bandwidth hogs that can impair the performance of other devices, such as gaming consoles and 4K ultra-high-definition televisions used to stream movies. Network cabling is typically at least 20 times faster than a Wi-Fi connection and isn’t affected by walls, distance, interference from other sources, or competing Wi-Fi networks.
System integrators will tell you it makes sense to run both Ethernet and coaxial cable to every room where you think you may be watching TV, working, or gaming. If you aren’t sure whether to hard-wire a room, it makes sense to do it anyway, since the incremental cost isn’t big and it’s much less expensive to run cable to rooms around the house before the drywall goes on, rather than retrofitting after move-in. Some integrators even recommend two drops per room so that you have the flexibility to change furniture arrangements later.
Most new custom homes include a panel, usually located in the basement or in a closet, for bringing together non-electrical structured wire into one box. The beauty of having a panel like this is that it makes it easier to switch providers down the road: you already have your own wiring, so all you have to do is change out the controller.
Ultimately, the decision of what to run on structured wire and what to run wirelessly is your call. Most builders today install wireless home security systems, although purists contend that hardwiring provides a more reliable signal. Speakers that run over your Wi-Fi system are widely available, but remember that Wi-Fi compresses signals, so audiophiles may hear a difference compared to speaker wire.
The bottom line is that today the Wi-Fi signal in your house needs to be treated like another utility so that it function as smoothly as your electrical, plumbing, and gas service. The trick is to wire your home for strong wireless (and wired) signals from the beginning, so that you can take full advantage of each new smart home device that arrives on the scene.
Boyce Thompson is the author of three books on residential design and construction. His first book, The New New Home, published by The Taunton Press, was named book of the year by the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Anatomy of a Great Home (Schiffer Publishing 2018) features the work of three dozen of the country’s leading architects. The book identifies the common elements of great residential architecture, breaking them down into terms anyone can appreciate. Designing for Disaster, to be published by Schiffer in 2019, identifies best practices for resilient home design.
In 2008, Thompson was given the Crain Award by American Business Media for lifetime achievement in business media. In 2010, he was inducted into the Editorial Hall of Fame by min magazine, a magazine for publication professionals. Thompson holds a BA in English from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.