House work is a fact of life for most of us - but it doesn't take a lot to create a house that works for you too.
Having once been the preserve of science fiction, smart home technology is now more accessible than ever - and affordable too.
But where should you start, and what are your options when looking to make your home brighter - in more ways than one?
What is a smart home?
'Smart home’ is a term that’s broadly applied to household appliances, devices and objects that can be controlled by the likes of a phone or computer, usually via an internet connection.
That can allow for fairly simple things - like switching a lamp on or off without having to touch the wall switch. However it can also lead to a relatively intricate system - like a home that automatically adjusts to match the weather, time of day or your location.
What to know before you take the plunge
There are a few basic things that you should have in place in your home before you start to add smart devices.
Some smart home tech can link in directly to your phone, but generally the best way to set up is via your home’s wireless internet connection.
The speed of your connection isn’t particularly important - but the quality of the wireless coverage within your home is. If you cannot get a WiFi signal in a certain room, chances are a smart device located there will struggle to connect too.
There are work-arounds to this should it present a problem. Moving your wireless router is the most straight-forward, though it’s not always possible to do without your provider’s help. You could also get a wireless signal repeater, which helps to extend your connection into areas that are normally out of coverage.
Having some socket space near your wireless router will also make setting up easier. That’s because most smart home devices rely on accompanying 'gateways', 'bridges' or 'hubs', which are often physically plugged into your router via an ethernet cable, and powered through the mains.
Your phone or tablet will serve as your main point of control for your smart devices - and are often vital in the setting up process itself.
Pretty much an smartphone made in the past few years will do the job - but if you have a particularly old or basic model it may be worth checking to ensure it can interact with the devices you're thinking of adding.
The vast majority of smart tech will work with the vast majority of smartphones and tablets - however it's important to ensure that the devices can also work with each other.
There are a couple of standards on the market - the main ones are Google Assistant and Apple Homekit, while some gadgets also have out-of-the-box compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa.
It will smooth the process considerably if you stick with products that are compatible with the same platform - and it may make the most sense to go with the one that lines up with the brand of smartphone or tablet you have.
Don't worry too much about this - you'll find that almost everything is Google-compatible, though your options are a little bit more limited on Apple’s standard.
The good news, though, is that those companies are currently working on a joint standard that should eliminate this consideration entirely in the coming year or so.
There are companies that will develop and install a customised smart home system for you - however this kind of set-up can become very expensive very quickly.
For most people, raising the IQ of their home starts small - and gets built on over time.
Light bulbs are probably the easiest route into the smart home - and offer the greatest benefit versus cost.
You can get started for just €39 with Ikea’s Trådfri (€29 for its gateway and €10 for an E27 bulb and remote control) while, at the higher end of the market, starting out with the Philips' Hue range would set you back around €90 (€70 for its gateway and €20 for an E27 bulb).
Both brands offer a range of bulb types - and have options that can light a room to different shades of white, and even different colours (though these ones cost a little more).
Whichever brand you go with, setup is only slightly more complicated than changing a lightbulb - with simple instructions and compatible apps guiding you through the process.
Once in place you can easily control your light through the likes of your phone - in many cases even when you're not actually home - while it's easy to set up schedules for the bulb to come on or off. (And you can still control it through the old-fashioned switch - though bear in mind that physically turning it off will make it inaccessible to your phone).
Another cheap and quick win for your fledgling smart home is a smart plug - which can sit between an appliance and the wall socket to add an extra degree of control. Think of it like those old plug-in programmable timers - but with a few brain cells.
Adding the likes of Ikea's Trådfri outlet (€19) could allow you to set a schedule for a lamp, or make it easier for you to power down something that's plugged into a hard-to-reach outlet, for example.
More advanced smart plugs, like the Eve Energy (~€40) also allow you to monitor a device’s power consumption and even project what it will add to your electricity bill each month.
Meanwhile there is the option to build that kind of functionality into the wall outlet itself, for example through the likes of the Lightwave Smart Socket (~€70).
What else can I smarten up?
There is a huge, and ever-growing, range of smart products on the market - with pretty much every appliance category offering a smart option.
However, much like with bulbs, there is a premium attached to going with the 'smart' option - and in some cases the gimmicky nature of the added functions may not warrant that cost. Some device types may also require professional help to install.
Being able to adjust your home's heating - especially while on the go - is another great smart home application - though doing so isn’t as easy to do as adding a bulb or plug.
There are lots of options available, with many able to directly replace your existing controls or thermostat. However your own heating set-up may dictate your options somewhat - for example, not all devices will work with multiple heating zones should you have them.
It is also worth checking with your current utility company (and their rivals), as many offer discounted devices or free installation to customers and people willing to switch. But be aware that some services on the market also include a monthly subscription on top of the cost of the device itself.
Doorbells & cameras
A smart upgrade of your doorbell can allow you to get a phone notification when someone is at the door (handy if you need to mute the chime for some reason, or if you struggle to hear it at all).
Perhaps more importantly, though, smart doorbells usually have built-in cameras, microphones and speakers - allowing you to see who is there and even interact with them through your phone, whether you're sitting on the couch or far away from home.
An alternative that offers similar benefits is a smart camera, that can be set up to alert you when motion is detected and give you a live view of the outside of your home (or, depending on your set-up and the device in question, the inside too).
Many of these devices are capable of recording and storing the video feed so you can watch it back at a later date if needs be - however in many cases this will also require paying a monthly fee to the company in question.
If you've ever struggled to remember whether you locked the door behind you, a smart lock could be what you need to ease your mind.
Having one installed means you can "turn the key" from your phone - wherever you are - rather than having to rush back home to do it in person.
Smart locks can let you unlock a door when you get close to it, removing the need to fumble for keys, while it is also possible to grant others' temporary access, which can be useful for guests or other irregular visitors.
However depending on the type of door and lock you currently have, you may not have the option to make a smart upgrade just yet. It may also be worth checking with your home insurer, to make sure the lock you go with does not invalidate your cover.
Being able to open or close every blind or curtain in the house with one button is handy - being able to do it when you’re not even home is even better.
An increasing number of companies are offering smart electric blinds and curtains - including Velux and Ikea (though the latter has a relatively limited number of sizes available).
Alternatively you may be able to add a device to retrofit smart controls onto your existing window dressings. For example the Soma Smart Shades (~€170, made up of a €50 gateway and a €119 controller) can connect to the chain on existing blinds and lift or lower them automatically.
Sensors are a simple (and often cheap) smart home addition that can add a significant amount of functionality to your set up.
Among the options available are smart smoke alarms - like the Eve Smoke (€125) which can send alerts to your phone or be easily muted when it’s only your toast that’s burning.
However many sensor types are more designed to enhance the other devices you have.
For example motion sensors can link to a smart bulb so that a light is activated or deactivated based on whether someone is in the room or not.
Others allow you to monitor air quality, temperature or humidity - potentially telling a heater or fan to come on when a certain threshold is passed.
Meanwhile there are door and window sensors that can tell you if either are open or close - removing a day of worry if you leave the house without double-checking.
Individual smart devices can be very useful - but the real advantage of a smart home comes when you link everything together.
This may seem a bit trickier to achieve - but the apps connected to your smart devices, and the major platforms from Google and Apple, do have built-in features to make such a set-up more achievable.
If you’re running on Google’s standard, its Assistant can let you build what are called 'Routines'. For Apple, the same thing can be done with 'Scenes' in its Home app.
The basic idea for both is that you can link various actions under a single command. So, for example, you can arrange it that saying 'Good Night' to your phone can turn on some lights, close the blinds and lock the doors.
Taking the concept to its extreme, it is also possible to create automatic versions of these routines or scenes - meaning the devices in your home can adjust without any input from you.
This could mean, for example, your lights, blinds and heating system reacting to how bright or dark it was outside - or appliances being switched off once you leave the home.
Getting to this point does take a fair bit of investment - and a small amount of messing around with apps - but the end result is a home smart enough to automatically respond to its environment and your schedule.