How I Made My Tiny Apartment Into A Smart Home
I'll start with this: I am not very technologically savvy. Let this be a disclaimer for those who have everything from their fitness routines to their smart televisions hooked up to their phones, and an invitation for those who love the idea of doing that, but don't know where to begin, and can really be helped by a Smart Home 101.
Despite having tech skills that leave room (like a lot of room—in fact, more room than my New York City apartment has) for improvement, ever since moving into a new apartment, I've become obsessed with making my 500-square-foot space "smart," or at least, smarter. In part it's because I've always been fascinated with homes that boast solar panel roofs (I don't know why, I just... have); in part because my prior home had been accessed on several occasions without my permission by my management company, and I really became obsessed with the idea of setting up a security camera; and in part because I am really lazy when it comes to setting a timer on my phone when I cook, which has contributed to many things burning. And after purchasing a Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner and becoming obsessed with it—most notably for its standout feature that allowed me turn it off remotely when I'd forgotten when leaving home in the morning rush and then on again 10 minutes before I got to my apartment in the midst of a sweltering New York summer when everything smells like hot garbage.
And while the concept of a 100 percent smart home is still ways away, there is no shortage of companies that are on a mission to make an internet-connected habitat a reality as quickly as possible. Here's how I made my New York City-sized apartment into a seriously plugged-in home.
Another disclaimer: While this is by no means a list of all the smart home technologies out there, it's a good start for those unsure if they want to make a switch.
When I first set out on making my home smart, a mattress was the last thing on my mind. Sure, I knew that there were smart light bulbs and automated thermostats that I could operate at the touch of my fingertips, but a mattress that could track my sleeping patterns, put me to sleep using a meditation track, and turn on my coffee machine when I woke up? Let me introduce you to Eight, which does all that, and, in fear of sounding like a total cliche, more.
"Eight uses movement, heart rate, and respiratory rate to infer when you are asleep and awake, and also to identify sleep phases," says Alexandra Zatarain, co-founder of Eight. "It uses ballistocardiography, which makes it more accurate than devices that just use movement to tell if you are sleeping." (So, yeah, it's better than the tracker you wear on your wrist.)
The mattress arrives in a surprisingly small package. After you roll it out from its tightly wrapped bundle and onto your bedframe, you have to cover it with a sensory layer, that looks and acts as a pad, and connect it to the discreet tracker, which I've since left underneath the bed. While you can opt to just get the sleep tracker, having tried both separately and together (yes, at one point, for a day, there may have been two mattresses in my house), I recommend spending a little extra and getting the mattress, too, because it's the most comfortable surface I have ever slept on, a fact that Zatarain confirms: "We focused on making a comfortable mattress first. We had already developed the technology, so the mattress comfort became our main priority." In addition to basically acting as a cloud to hold your resting body, once you register your mattress and fill out your personal details (including which side you sleep on; so, yes, if you have a partner you share a bed with, you can see their metrics and compare) on the Eight app, it will be able to track your light and deep sleep, give you an overall score for the night and notify if you missed or achieved your sleep goal, and record your body temperature and heart rate at various increments of time.
In addition to tracking your daily patterns, the Eight app will also pull up the date from the last seven or 30 days, providing you with an average score, time slept, and number of toss and turns you make during the night, as well as your deep sleep average (which turns out to be pretty low—18 to 25 percent—for me). Upon first getting the mattress, as someone who's obsessed with my sleep, I checked the app religiously as I made my way from the bed to the shower. It turns out, I am not alone.
"For our parents, sleep was not a priority because it wasn't a part of the conversation. As millennials entered the workforce, the obsession with sleep and mindfulness grew because we realized that the old standards of eating well and exercising were not enough. Our generation doesn't build boundaries between personal and professional lives: we work from home and while on vacation, but we also shop from the office," says Zatarain. "Plus, we live in a more connected world that fights for our attention. So we have to be intentional about our resting hours in order to prioritize them. This can only be done by being aware of how much we rest, and how long and how well we sleep. Tracking is step one towards better rest, and, in turn, a balanced life." If I wasn't already convinced by that statement, the number of people who have asked me to show them the app after hearing about the mattress, were all the proof I needed.
And I haven't gotten to the best part: There is a bed warming feature, which is naturally a dream come winter time but also, as it turns out, an add-on whose necessity is backed up by science. "Sleep occurs during the part of the circadian cycle when core body temperature is dropping, while our body heat loss is maximal. So we naturally look for something to cover our bodies with—like blankets—because we need our surface temperature to be warm enough to send the signal to our brains that we can go from an alert state to a relax state and enter sleep." Plus, it's just really nice to get into a warm bed on a cool night, or, like, crank up the heat on your partner's side during a hot summer eve and see when they notice.
Eight, The Smart Mattress, $855, available at Eight.
If the sheer number of smart light bulbs out there is enough to prevent you from getting one, I don't blame you; in fact, I was overwhelmed with options myself, which is something I did not expect at all when doing my research. How are there so many light bulbs out there??? Out of all the options available, offerings from Philips seemed the most foolproof to me. And while they have a myriad of light innovations available—from LED lights that offer several light settings without the use of a dimmer (which is rare, as I learned) to actual smart lamps—they all have a specific function for every need.
I started off with the basic Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit, which includes three light bulbs and a bridge. Once you screw in the lights bulbs, attach the bridge to the router via ethernet cord and download the Hue app to connect to the said bridge. First, name, identify, and number the bulbs and the rooms they are in the app. Next, using the HomeKit setting, enable Siri commands to control your light settings from iOS devices; you can similarly connect the light bulbs to Amazon Echo using the Alexa app (I set up both). Now you can use either Siri or Alexa to change the light colors, adjust to desired brightness, and turn the lights on and off without using the switch. You can also create "scenes," such as Night Time (all lights off) or, say, we don't know, Sexy Time (a dim fuchsia? a cool green? a deep red? whatever rocks your bedroom boat), that can be called upon when in need of a specific mood.
If you don't care about the numerous light color options, Philips Hue White Ambiance A19 Starter Kit might be the best choice for you with light bulbs that boast more subdued light variations, ranging from cool blue to warm white, and mimic natural light to help you wake up or go to sleep more seamlessly. In order to use the dimmer, you should similarly connect to it using the bridge. If you're wondering what the dimmer is for—you can dim the lights with your phone after all, right?—it's so that you can use the lights without the app or disconnecting from the system by having to use the physical light switches installed in your home. I've installed mine in the bathroom so that I can operate the lights and settings in there without having to bring my phone in or use the bathroom switch and lose all my light presets and preferences (namely the neon blue lights that I like to have on when I take an evening shower). If you want to take it even further, invest in a Hue Motion Sensor that will automatically turn the lights on and off when you enter and exit the room.
In addition to finding out that my management company allowed workers, who were complete strangers to both me and the company by the way, to access my then-apartment on their own without me or my super being there and then gave them the key to my apartment (which then proceeded to get "lost" without my knowledge), a government home inspector, investigating the many complaints filed by the many building tenants, discovered that I did not have a functioning smoke or carbon monoxide detector installed in my apartment for the entirety of my two-and-a-half years of living there. Cool. (Is anyone surprised that I moved??)
In fear of yet another "fake shell" of a detector in my new apartment, I opted for a Nest Protest smoke + CO alarm after hearing from numerous people that this was the holy grail of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. I opted for the battery-operated device, but you can also get the wired version if you're comfortable installing it. The device is incredibly easy to set up, both physically and on the app, and performs alarm tests before completing the installation. While it has not yet detected smoke or carbon monoxide in my home (which, I guess, is a good thing), Nest Protect sends alerts to your phone, even if you're not home, letting you know if there's a problem or if the battery is running low. Say you burned the popcorn in the microwave or smoked up the room with the remains of a dying candle? You can easily silence the alarm through your phone, as opposed to frantically waving every dish towel in sight at the device to no avail.
After making a name for themselves for their smart alarms and thermostats, Nest a few years ago has come out with a series of indoor and outdoor cameras that essentially function as security systems. One of the things that surprised me most about the Nest Cam Indoor security system is how discreet it is. It easily fit on my bookshelf and doesn't stick out should someone enter the apartment for the first time. After you set up the app on the phones of all living in the apartment, and those who might frequently enter it alone (like a cleaning service or a friend who has your keys and is known to frequently crash on your couch), the Nest systems will alert you any time it detects an activity from an unknown intruder when you aren't home. It also provides a 24/7 camera should you want to check on your apartment at any given moment (I used it recently to show off my new carpet to someone) and an audio feature which you can use to, like, tell a stranger to get the hell out of your apartment, remind your roommate to take out the trash that's still standing by the door, or yell at your dog to get off the bed. More than anything, though, it gave me peace of mind, something you can't put a price tag on, especially in New York real estate.
At this point, if all the above didn't give it away, the internet-connected entertainment market boasts everything from wireless devices, like Echo and Sonos speakers, to appliances, like smart televisions. And while Echo's Alexa has proven to be integral in my smart home setup—I consistently lose my phone in my bags, coats, jackets, underneath pillows—I get away with using just the Apple TV with all my apps hooked to it (Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Bravo, Hulu...) in lieu of having cable or a smart television.
At the end of the day, if you're looking to make your home tech-savvy in one step, all you really need is a smart plug. Using just iHome's iSP8 smart plug, I could control any connected device from my phone from lights and thermostats to fans, audio systems, and appliances like my coffee machine and television. It's a jack of all tech trades and by far the easiest smart accessory out there since it plugs directly into the electricity socket and needs no hub to be set up. It's also compatible with Wink, Nest, and Alexa, making it really the best for tech fools like myself. Plus, it's easy to unplug should you want to take a break from being, well, so plugged in.