Part of the fun of home automation is shopping for smart home devices. There’s so many options ranging from high end sleek sophistication to dirt cheap steampunk DIY solutions.
But what if you’re not a homeowner? Is home automation still possible if you live in an apartment or other impermanent living arrangement?
Not only are smart home devices available for apartments, there’s many options to choose from that are cheap, reliable, and play nice with popular smart home platforms like Home Assistant.
I live in an apartment but plan to buy a house sometime in the next few years. That means I need devices I can use down the road, but will also work with apartment life.
All the smart home devices that I end up buying must meet all 3 of the following criteria:
- Impermanent: is the device battery powered and able to be packed up and move with me with little to no effort? All the devices in the list below are free of any wiring or assembling.
- Affordable: I’m still new to the home automation scene and there’s a lot I don’t know. Because I don’t know what I don’t know, I don’t want to spend a ton of money scaling up smart home devices only to find better solutions a few years down the road. The majority of smart home devices in my setup are under $20 a pop, with several clocking in at less than $10 a unit.
- Stylish: or at minimum, not ugly. This is important as the smart home devices in my setup aren’t wired and therefore, generally aren’t hidden in the wall.
I’ve included links to where I purchased each of the smart home devices listed below. They aren’t affiliate links and they may not even be the lowest price. I’ve included them as examples if you’re interested in starting or expanding your own smart apartment setup.
Smart lights are often the first component in a new smart apartment setup, and for good reason.
At minimum, apartment living can become more intelligent with a motion sensor and WiFi enabled light bulb. I’ve tried a handful of low to mid end range bulbs and ultimately settled on TP-Link’s LB130 unit. It’s a solid blend of reliable and affordable ranging between $30-$40 on Amazon. Full disclosure, there are dozens of smart bulb brands out there. Phillips Hue is probably the most well known but also on the pricier end. Even IKEA has their own Tradfri line of smart bulbs.
Before landing on TP-Link, I tried a few bulbs from YeeLight and LIFX. The former is great, when it works…. the latter is unreliable, often loses connection, and not recommended unless you like the uncertainty of not knowing if your bedroom lights work.
The initial setup is done via the KASA app available on Google Play and the App Store. Once the bulb is setup, it can be controlled without the app through one of the home automation platforms listed above.
Motion sensors compliment other smart devices such as lights, by acting as a condition trigger.
For example, lights can be turned on automatically when motion is detected and then turned off after a period of no motion being detected.
Beyond simple occupancy based lighting, motion sensors are perfect for more sophisticated automatons. If you’re looking an impermanent motion sensor solution, Xiaomi makes a reliable, affordable unit that can be mounted the wall or stand alone.
If you go the Xiaomi route, you’ll need a gateway for the devices to talk to each other – see below for the full scoop.
Xiaomi uses a proprietary Zigbee like standard which syncs to the gateway. The gateway can then be synced via WiFi to the home automation of your choice.
Wireless Control Switches
If you don’t live alone, it’s probably a good idea to give others in your space the ability to control smart home devices like lights, media, and whatever is in your arsenal. Even if you do live alone, but occasionally entertain, it’s worth thinking about.
But if you’re looking for an impermanent solution, this can be tricky. Wired Z-Wave or Zigbee solutions exist, but that doesn’t meet the impermanent criteria.
Enter the wireless switch and cube.
These switches can be mounted to most surfaces but they’re also small enough to be mobile.
Switches are programmable to do whatever you want based on click type: single, long press, or double. The units I use are part of the Xiaomi smart home device lineup. These devices require a Xiaomi smart home gateway to communicate, more on that below.
In my household, this is immensely useful to control a range of devices from lights to the TV. Since it doesn’t require any user management, it’s perfect for guests or other users who don’t have access to whatever home automation app you fancy. I have a few of these and use QR code labels to provide simple instructions for guests. Just scan the switch and simple instructional text displays.
Cubes work the same way except instead of clicking, they trigger action by moving the cube in one of six ways: push, shake, knock, rotate, 90 degree overturn, 180 degree overturn
Doors & Windows
Ever started your commute or ran an errand and had a persistent feeling that you forgot to close a door? Used to happen to me all the time until I found a low cost door and window smart home device.
These sensors are mounted through 3M adhesive to most surface types and are small enough to discretely monitor the state of any door or window.
Like motion sensors, these door/window sensors can be used in conjunction with other conditions to create more complex automation.
For example, if you’re phone isn’t connected to your home’s WiFi and the front door status shows open, then fire a text message to the member of your household closest to home asking to close the door.
If you move or no longer need the sensor, it can be quickly removed without any trace using a common adhesive cleaner like GooGone. Like the other Xiaomi devices listed above, you’ll need a gateway or ZigBee stick to control it through Home Assistant.
There’s nothing worse than a water leak in an apartment. OK, maybe a water leak in your own home… but still – it’s not fun.
That’s why after experiencing not 1, but 2 water “events” in back to back apartments, I started hunting for a more proactive way of finding out if a water disaster is in progress.
Leak detection and reaction devices are an immensely useful component in any smart home device stack. The trouble is most involve installation or wiring of some wort.
While there are plenty of DIY options under $20, maybe you don’t have the time, aptitude, or interest to DIY. The solution is yet another Xiaomi sensor.
For around $20, you can get a stylish, impermanent water leak sensor. It claims an IP67 rating, meaning it’s waterproof up to around 3 FT for about 30 minutes.
The sensor gives a binary output (i.e. leak/no leak) and can be paired with any number of other automation for notification, shutting power off, or whatever else fits your needs. If you’re not in an apartment or don’t mind a bit of wiring, you can pair the sensor with a WiFi or Z-Wave controlled options to stop a hot water leak from escalating to a full blown water logged disaster.
Climate Control & Status
Climate sensors. They tell you the temperature and humidity of a room. Not much else to say.
If you go with the Xiaomi brand, they require a gateway or compatible ZigBee USB stick. From there, they pass temperature and humidity data to the smart home platform of your choice. On its on, they don’t do much else.
When paired with other automation flows, they start to become more valuable. Especially if your apartment has a smart climate control system like Nest.
If so, you can integrate each device across ecosystems for some automatons. Here’s a couple of ideas to showcase how a climate sensor can be paired:
- If humidity exceeds an established threshold, switch on the humidifier. Yes, some humidifiers can do this automatically. If you happen to have a “dumb” humidifier, you can use a $10 WiFi switch to control it. Or you can buy a $300+ IoT humidifier…
- If room temperature drops below a certain threshold and the room’s window is open, send a notification to the closest household member to close the window when they get home.
If you’ve read this far, it’s obvious I’m a fan of Xioami smart home devices. They’re affordable, durable, and meet the 3 criteria points outlined at the beginning of this page.
You should also understand at this point that they won’t work without the hub. The hub itself isn’t very exciting. It has a multi-color light, receives 1,500+ Chinese radio stations, and a few other gimmicks. These of course, can be integrated into automatons, but overall it’s nothing to write home about.If you use Home Assistant, you can also skip the gateway and use a Zigbee USB stick: instructions here if you’re interested.
The Mi Home app is needed to setup the hub, and there are few janky steps to overcome before setting up the hub with Home Assistant. You also need an adapter if you’re in the states. By default, the gateway is designed for Chinese outlets. Most sellers will include the appropriate adapter or you can always buy one for a few bucks online.
After I configured all my Xioami sensors, I blocked the gateway from internet access via my router and uninstalled the app. The app has an atrocious permissions policy and who knows where the data goes from the hub. One of the key benefits of using a system like Home Assistant is putting the security and control of user data in the back in the user’s hands.
Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana.
AI assistants have proliferated thanks to computing advances over the past few years. Although there’s still a lot of work going on to really maximize the value of these devices, AI presence at home is probably here stay in open form or another (or not).
At this point, each AI assistant brings something unique to the table. I went with Google’s product because I think long term, they have access to the larger data set and therefore, will get smarter faster through machine learning.
This is far from settled though and AI assistant still boils down to personal preference at this stage.
I have 2 mini’s and a Google Home device in my apartment. They work great for music, listening to podcasts, controlling smart home devices, and text to speech automatons.
For example, when a family member comes in and I’m in the 2nd floor loft, Google Home will announce the name and arrival of the person. Maybe not the most exciting example, but practical. There’s plenty of other practical uses for these devices.
It also helps that setup is as simple as plug and play with Home Assistant.
Smart plugs are the easiest way to turn a dumb device not connected to the IoT and make it controllable.
These won’t work for large appliances, like ovens or dyers, although there are special switches for that sort of thing.
But for everything else, they work great and are a lot easier than installing a WiFi/Z-Wave/Zigbee outlet.
I tried a few entry level brands of smart switches and TP-Link blew the competition away. For around $25, just plug them in, setup in the KASA app, and that’s it.
From there, you can sync and control with your smart home platform, like Home Assistant. This works great for devices ranging from lamps to air purifiers. Just check your device for power input before purchasing.
Word of warning: if the device requires an action to power on each time, these plugs won’t do much. But if it’s a device that can be set to always be “on”, you’re good to go.