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How Smart Homes Work

Efficiency and Fun

Belkin markets its WeMo home automation switches specifically to smartphone users. For about $100, you'll receive a smart WeMo switch and a motion detector. Plug the switch into an electrical outlet, and then plug a device, such as a lamp, heater or coffee pot into the switch. Pair the switch with your smartphone using Belkin's app, and then you can control the switch remotely, letting you, for example, turn a light on or off from 1,000 miles away (or just from your cozy bed).

Home automation isn't always about pricey products. Some of the most useful smart home tools are actually free.

The WeMo is one of many products compatible with IFTTT (IF Then, Then That), which is a free Internet service that lets you automate an endless number of processes. For example, with IFTTT (which rhymes with gift), you could create a so-called "recipe" that automatically posts Twitter tweets to Facebook if they contain a specific hashtag or keyword in them. Or you could schedule a text message to yourself as a reminder to call your grandma.

IFTTT is basically just a simple way to create triggers that result in specific actions, and it works with WeMo. For instance, you could set up a WeMo motion detector in your bedroom, and when it sees that you're up for the morning, it will trigger the coffee pot in the kitchen.

The potential for these kinds of "if x, then y" type of actions is limited only by your imagination. Of course, it takes some time to set up all of these fun actions. And that brings up one of the biggest challenges of home automation products.

Many smart home products use their own proprietary apps. In short, you could install dozens of home automation gadgets and their associated apps, and then slowly drown in frustration as you try to control all of them.

The Revolv is a $299 WiFi hub that connects to all of your other wireless home automation products. Revolv attempts to unify all of your home automation gear under one app, and also helps you build pre-programmed capabilities, all in the name of realizing a truly automated home.

Once connected, you control all of your gadgets from the central Revolv app. Revolv currently works best with Z-Wave, Insteon and WiFi products, and it's available only for iPhone users. However, the company plans to expand to hundreds of other products and to add Android compatibility, too. You'll find similar consolidation hubs from companies such as Insteon and SmartThings.

Keep reading and you'll see more challenges associated with home automation.