Cost-Effective Smart Home System Choices
Most DIY projects serve two different masters - our enjoyment of doing something by ourselves and the desire to save money. But the fun of learning, hands-on doing, and fiddling around with smart home tech is very different from the goal of keeping the cost down.
DIY automation projects done for fun and learning can be relaxing and enjoyable while projects undertaken primarily to save money are often stressful and unsuccessful. (“If I had the money to buy the right tools, I would have hired someone to do it for me in the first place!”)
Home DIY efforts apply to many things including home repairs, remodeling, landscaping, or major retro-fit construction/expansion. For smart home DIY projects, I never recommend undertaking an automation project solely to save money. If your heart’s not in the work, it is going to be difficult and stressful.
Nonetheless, saving money is a reasonable goal when approached logically and not from an artificially low zero-based budget. It may just be words, but being frugal is a lot different than being cheap. Here’s a few examples.
Smart Dimmers Are Cheaper Than Smart Bulbs
With many smart home technologies, the cheapest solution to start may become the most expensive. If you buy a single automation device, such as a lamp dimmer or appliance switch, you may be tempted to choose the product with the lowest cost. But if you eventually grow your system to handle multiple devices and multiple rooms in your home or apartment, the cost can be much higher than other approaches.
I’ve written in the past about the difference between smart light bulbs and smart dimmers/switches. With smart bulbs, the initial cost can be lower, but each additional light you automate requires an expensive smart bulb. With a smart lighting system, you’ll spend a little more up-front for the hub or controller, but then for each additional light you can use inexpensive “dumb” LED bulbs that cost much less.
Old-School Wiring Is Cheaper Than New-Fangled Networks
Wireless and radio technology continues to amaze us every day. Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth headsets and speakers, traditional infrared (IR) remotes, and newer radio frequency (RF) control systems are all wonderful solutions to connecting a device from point A to point B without wires.
Although wireless works well, it is not flawless and when it doesn’t work, it can be a real nightmare to diagnose the problem and fix it. Poorly designed systems or installations are ticking time bombs but even flawless systems can go haywire.
Wireless signals penetrate walls and ceilings and and don’t understand ownership or property lines. If your neighbor installs or upgrades their Wi-Fi equipment, it could suddenly cause your own network to slow down or stutter - no fault of your own.
A lot of wireless systems, such as Wi-Fi networks, lighting controls, outdoor pool and spa controls, etc. are popular because they avoid the need for installing wires inside walls or in difficult locations such as outdoor areas or underground conduit.
The fear of installation & retro-fit construction can be so great that homeowners will spend a fortune on fancy equipment to avoid a simpler solution - hiring someone to install a cable or wire. Even with the cost of plaster patching and painting to remove any sign of the installation, it can be more cost effective to bite the bullet and have the wires installed.
If a part of your home has terrible Wi-Fi coverage, consider installing an Ethernet cable that will connect that area of the home back to your main router or Wi-Fi system. The new Wi-Fi mesh systems are great, but they work even better when inter-connected with Ethernet cables.
If you have a limited budget for networking upgrades, use it to run one or more Ethernet cables and then buy a cheap Wi-Fi device instead of the more expensive mesh systems. The wire will last forever and you can always upgrade the Wi-Fi gear in a few years when it becomes obsolete anyway.
The Confusing Costs Of Using “The Cloud”
The one phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of both consumers and professional smart home integrators are the words “requires a Cloud connection”. Usually because those words are followed by “requires monthly subscription” and a request for your credit card.
Buying a product that has a one-time purchase price versus using a product that has ongoing monthly or yearly fees can have a dramatic effect on your budget. This can get complicated quickly - some smart home products require an Internet connection but do not have a monthly charge; some products have optional features that need an Internet connection so you can choose whether you want them or not. Some Cloud features are free, some are not.
Choosing a product based on whether it needs an Internet/cloud connection is more than just a financial decision. If you want remote access to control devices in your home or receive updates about the condition inside your home, then you’ll need a system that includes Internet capability for remote access.
I want to focus on one area where this decision is very important - security camera systems (including video doorbells). A security system is one of the most popular reasons many people initially decide to invest in smart home products, so it is worth understanding the costs involved.
Security systems use the cloud to store the video footage captured from the security cameras and video doorbells. The terms and conditions vary, but most products include a limited amount of free storage and then have a choice of monthly fees depending upon how much storage is desired.
Different companies measure this in different ways - some companies specify the total amount of storage based on file sizes (megabytes and gigabytes); some companies measure storage by the number of days (1 day, 10 day, or a full 30 days); and others measure storage by the number of hours of video that has been saved.
Even more confusing, some companies charge a fee per camera (with multiple camera discounts) while others charge a fixed cost for an unlimited number of cameras.
I leave it up to you to compare the differences but with IP cameras selling for $50 to $300 each, and monthly cloud storage running from $5 to $30 per month (sometimes per camera), you don’t have to be a math wiz to realize the cost of the cameras, over the lifetime of the system, is insignificant.
So maybe that fancy camera with a motorized zoom lens and infrared vision isn’t really that expensive after all! Certainly over the long haul you will spend a lot more for video storage than you do for purchasing the cameras themselves - something to think about!
There is an alternative to using cloud storage for your security system and paying those monthly storage fees. The network video recorder (NVR) is a computer system designed to receive and store video footage on a hard drive. In many ways, it is similar to a Tivo or other DVR (digital video recorder) that stores your favorite TV shows for later viewing.
NVR’s can be purchased as a complete plug-and-play system or the more adventurous DIY’r can convert an existing PC or Mac computer into an NVR by purchasing the appropriate software program and setting it up.
Processing and storing video requires a lot of computing power and disk storage so don’t expect to take a 5 year old PC and press it into service. You’ll need to invest in a modern high performance computer and lots of disk storage.
With enough internal storage, external drive, or a network storage system you can expect the total cost of an NVR to run $1000 or more for a capable system. Not cheap, but a one-time cost that avoids all those monthly cloud storage charges.
Keep in mind that with an NVR system you have volunteered yourself to be a computer system administrator. You’ll need to constantly monitor the system to insure it is working. Installing software updates, security patches, and keeping watch over the health and operation are important tasks and hidden costs that you must factor into your decision.
Even a commercial plug-and-play NVR is never really a “set it and forget it” easy product to use.
One More Thing…
Ignoring the cost differences, administrative chores, and configuration or operational issues of having your own NVR system, there is one more thing you should at least consider.
With a local NVR, all your security video is stored on a computer system inside your home. If something should happen to this computer, or your home, all the footage will be lost.
With cloud storage, your video footage is continually being uploaded to a remote data center. Your video is safe and secure from hard disk crashes, computer viruses and malware, or general computer problems. In addition, your video is instantly available for secure viewing from anywhere.
Cost Saving Recommendations
Plan the entire project - A la carte purchases can end up being much more expensive
Invest in wiring if you need it - Hardwiring lasts longer and allows simpler and more cost effective automation/control systems
Choose cloud services wisely - The right online monthly fees might still be much cheaper than the alternatives