Smart homes in South Africa: An easy set-up guide

While the idea of the ‘smart home’ might have gained greater traction in the Northern hemisphere of late – particularly aided by the emergence of smart speakers from the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon – that same gravity seems less momentous in South Africa.

However, given the expense of importing (or outright purchasing) many of the same items you might need to connect a smart home, I’ve found that many South Africans might instead opt to purchase one or two items, or services, and stop their quest there.

With that in mind, I decided to take the plunge earlier this year and connect my home, with the view of doing so at a minimal cost. This process involved some trial and error – and eventually, I was able to create the perfect system that suited to my needs.

Get yourself an assistant

The first choice one has when setting up a smart home is which ecosystem they’d prefer to be locked into. For South Africans, this choice largely consists between Google’s Home & Assistant Suite, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri. There’s also Samsung’s Bixby, which hasn’t yet received the same level of commitment as the previous entries I mentioned, and Microsoft seems more inclined to let Cortana sit on the backburner these days.

Before committing to my own choice, I contemplated my own setup. Given that the only Apple product I use is my Mac, and my exposure to Amazon’s product has been slim, it seemed the natural choice was to head to Google’s Assistant. Despite the fact that Google Assistant is ‘supported’ in South Africa (read: available), one still needs to contend with maintaining US English and language settings to get the full benefit of the system.

The principle reason I elected to fly Google’s colors was the fact that at the center of my life sits an Android smartphone (my daily driver is a Galaxy S9, to be specific) – and perched on my plasma unit is a Xiaomi Mi Box (more on that later). Given my existing ability to cast material from my smartphone to the Mi Box (notwithstanding Android TV app support on the unit, in any case), it seemed that I already had a solid base with which to start.

While I still maintain that Google’s ecosystem has come a long way from its first debut, that’s not to imply that there might be better benefit elsewhere. I have routinely seen Amazon’s Echo units retail for lower prices on South African eCommerce sites, and Apple’s HomePod is relatively new compared to both other smart systems. The choice, as they say, is ultimately a personal one – and though my guide will continue to reference Google’s Assistant, my setup below would largely work with other providers as well.

Hit me with the music

The notion that one needs a ‘hub’ to run their smart home isn’t necessarily true in 2019. Google, for example, has endeavored to pivot the conventional Android smartphone to sit at the center of its connected universe as opposed to where its Google Home speaker might have sat just a few short years ago.

With the Google Home app, and through the Assistant, users already have the building blocks for a smart home sitting directly in the palm of their hand. While some few services might be limited to Google Home speakers, the app itself already contains the ability to directly link and associate connected services from lights, alarms, cameras, switches, and television or Chromecast units. This means, effectively, you don’t need to purchase a Google Home unit.

However, given that I’m already a Google Play Music subscriber, I opted to purchase an original Google Home, and later a Google Home Mini. The reason for the later purchase was to install a unit in the latter half of my house (which is separated by a corridor from where I seated the primary Home).

By doing so, I was effectively able to group both speakers under the simply-titled Speaker Groups function, where I was able to stream music to two speakers concurrently (take that, Sonos). More latterly, I disabled the ‘Hey Google’ wakeword on my smartphone, as I found that both the speakers and my smartphone would frequently become confused when receiving commands. Your mileage might differ here, and this was largely a personal preference.

The biggest compliment that I can deliver my Home speakers is the fact that, given their size, the volume and tonality they can produce is astounding. Owning both units swiftly transformed my music consumption – and despite the fact that I initially planned to control my home from my smartphone, I quickly transitioned to issuing voice commands from either Home speaker.

The last component that I one day plan to install would be a car-mounted Assistant unit to field my queries while driving. I have no plans to upgrade my car to receive Android Auto support until it becomes fully supported in South Africa, and would instead prefer the lighter choice of something similar to an Anker.

Let there be light

One of the early hurdles I faced when setting up my smart home was the consideration that, given I am security-conscious, I wanted to be able to turn my house lights on and off remotely.

I initially settled on the idea of purchasing smart light bulbs to achieve this. However, I quickly learned that purchasing smart light bulbs equivalent to incandescent or halogen bulbs that one might already own was prohibitively expensive – and, in the event that one might find a cheaper solution, the light bulb itself usually cast a cool white glow (which, if you don’t know, can be the mild equivalent of having the beacon of Gondor lit inside your home).

After my initial foray, and ultimately considering the cost of swapping out a blown smart light bulb every few years, I eventually settled on the idea of replacing the switches on my standalone lights with smart switches. This essentially became not only a cost-saving mechanic but a far more interesting endeavor if you are able to put in a small amount of DIY elbow-grease; instead of being limited to turning a light on or off with a smart bulb, a moveable smart switch instead enables you to turn certain appliances on or off if you are able to create your own extension cord and insert the smart switch in-line.

With this mindset, I set up my standalone lights with smart switches, and later installed an in-line unit on my borehole pump in my garden; this effectively meant I was able to ‘create’ smart appliances at a minimal cost. For this task, I opted to use Sonoff’s range of wireless smart switches.

It’s worthwhile to consider, however, that this approach only really works if the aforesaid appliance doesn’t have an internal switch of its own; items such as kettles, or anything else with its own power switch, won’t work in this fashion.

By installing wall-mounted switches, I was also able to toggle ceiling mounted lights without the need to cut trenching open or otherwise interfere with the actual light installation.

Don’t be alarmed

Many South African homes already have an active (either monitored or unmonitored) alarm system, which might be comprised of contact sensors, beams, or other installations. While newer alarm models such as those offered by ADT in the United States are already compatible with Assistant services, many of the models available in South Africa are not.

Given that I own one such system, I was desperate to connect it to my burgeoning smart home – however, the cost of installing a newer model seemed prohibitive, and frankly, the benefit of being able to turn the system on or off remotely seemed excessive.

My eventual resolution was simple; rather than upgrade my entire alarm system, I instead opted to introduce a radio ‘bridge’ which, when triggered, could receive a signal over the internet and convert it to the same frequency my alarm system runs on for remote access and control. By using a Sonoff RF Bridge, I was essentially able to gain control over my alarm system through Google’s Assistant in much the same manner as the entry-level US models operate.

Upgrade your cameras

If you (like many South Africans) already own an IP camera for internal monitoring, you might become frustrated (as I later did) given that many newer models on the market support inter-connectivity with smart assistants for reactive monitoring. While certain models also accommodate a free or paid monitoring service, their performance can be less than optimal – particularly depending on where the IP camera itself is placed.

I luckily benefitted from a D-LINK software patch through which I could connect one of my IP cameras to Google’s Assistant; however, for my older models, I elected to run Umbo CV, which is a monitoring suite that is capable of identifying and classifying movement through an IP camera stream.

While Umbo CV, as a paid service, is useful to monitor camera footage, one is still left bereft when it comes to recording through an IP camera. For that purpose, I opted to directly record footage through my Synology NAS – meaning that, thanks to a disk partition, I was able to create 250GBs of hard disk space through which I was able to continuously record footage.

Television isn’t dead

South Africans still remain largely attached to DStv and their decoder of choice, through which they may not only access satellite television, but further ShowMax. For the Netflix subscribers among us, making use of a smartphone or spare computer connected directly to an older-generation television set might also be the norm, if you don’t also happen to own a modern gaming console.

Fortunately, one easy way to enhance a smart television is to alternatively purchase a Chromecast, or an Android TV box. The difference between the two lies in approach; a Chromecast is essentially a wireless receiver that can cast (read: download material itself) to a television set through an HDMI connection when instructed by your smart device of choice. An Android TV box is instead a hard-drive mounted unit that, running a different flavor of Android compared to your own smartphone, can effectively run native apps without the need to be dependent on a smartphone.

Given its low price and its newfound presence in the South African market, I opted to use a Xiaomi Mi Box to enhance my previous generation HiSense television. This means that, when connected with my Google Home speaker, I’m able to command the unit to open certain apps, turn ‘smart’ appliances on and off, and otherwise watch all the same content that one might already enjoy from their favorite subscription services.

The benefit of keeping an Android TV unit is that, thanks to Google Assistant integration, the TV box itself can function as a ‘home hub’ if it is bereft of an accompanying Google Home speaker. Should the two be paired, instructions will automatically be routed to the Home unit, which has a more sophisticated mic.

Future projects

As they say, most hobbyist projects don’t simply end at one given point – and, in future, there are many other ideas I’d like to wrap under the same banner.

Purchasing items such as a smart kettle would eventually be something I’d like to consider, while other smart appliances – such as fridges and microwaves – remain on my agenda. However, given their price in local markets, I’m prepared to wait until such features become ubiquitous.

For now, I’ll update this guide as I continue to introduce new ideas into my home. Until then, let me know what smart home projects you’ve recently undertaken in the comments below!