What is the one piece of technology every parent needs?
If you think I am going to say a baby monitor, you’re wrong.
A digital thermometer? Wrong again. Those things are all great, but they haven’t changed our life the way one electronic has.
Those things are all great, but they haven’t changed our life the way one electronic has:
An Amazon Echo.
Let me start off by saying that I absolutely, positively DID NOT want an Amazon Echo. To me, it was just another weird gadget that my husband, the collector of gadgets, “had to” have. I also did not want an Amazon Echo because I didn’t want our daughter, Baby J, growing up thinking that Alexa was a person or that it was normal to talk to robots. Or worse yet, that she would turn into Joaquin Phoenix from the movie, Her.
But eventually Erik wore me down, and we got one. Still much to my chagrin, I might add. But it didn’t take long for me to realize how great having an Amazon Echo was. In just a minute, I am going to hand the reins over to Erik and have him explain how he has everything set up in our house since he is the tech master. But before I do, I want to explain exactly how we use our Amazon Echo every single day and the difference it has made.
So yes, this will be a much longer post than normal. Go grab a coffee, come back, and make yourself comfortable. I’ll wait.
Back? Well, it all starts first thing in the morning. I wake up and go downstairs with J to start breakfast. It is a lot to manage. I’m holding her, trying to close the baby gate so she can’t climb back up the stairs. Usually, I have the glass of water that had been sitting on my bedside table in my hand as well. The cat goes tearing by me. And, of course, all of the lights are off in the house. I simply say, “Alexa, tell Stringify to run morning,” and suddenly, all of the lights on that floor are on. I can also say, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen” or “Alexa, turn on the chandelier” if I just want those lights. And I am doing all of it while my hands are still full.
Eventually, I’ll set J down and get to work making breakfast. At 18 months, she’s no longer walking;she’s running very, very fast. She loves to go into the kitchen and ask for food while I am still cooking. Asking for food though means grunting, signing “More,” or saying the small handful of food words that she knows. I’ll hand her a slice of apple or a berry and keep cooking. It’s hard entertaining her while I am also trying to prepare food. So I’ll say, “Alexa, play (insert song title here) on Spotify,” and Alexa will play it. J will dance around the kitchen, apple slices in hand. The great thing is I can say any song, and it’ll magically start playing. Which is great because I’m not shuffling cds or having to hook my iPhone up to a dock and scroll through songs. It’s instantaneous, and J likes song after song with no breaks. She also goes through phases where she only wants to listen to a certain type of music or listen to a certain song on repeat, and Alexa can always accommodate. At first, it was classical jazz followed by Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti on constant repeat. Next, there was an Aimee Mann phase, and now she just wants to hear Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” over and over.
After breakfast, I’ll say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” and she’ll tell me. I then scoop J up and we go to her room, and I know exactly how to dress her for the day ahead.
We also use Alexa to easily order things off of Amazon and to start our vacuum cleaner, Neato.
At night, when we get ready for bed, we’ll say, “Alexa, tell Stringify to run Night,” and all of the lights in the house go off, the alarms set, and certain appliances also turn off so we aren’t using phantom power (which in turn saves us money).
I cannot tell you how great it is to have our alarms activated by voice. We had a scary incident a couple of months ago where someone tried to break into our neighbor’s house. J and I just happened to be alone at the time; Erik was watching a movie at the theater with some guy friends. I immediately called 911, but I also voice activated all of our alarms, and the entire house locked down in a couple of seconds. No running to push a panic button or needing to be in a certain room of the house to set the alarm. So not only has our Amazon Echo made our life easier, it has also given us peace of mind.
If you are wondering what on earth Stringify is or how Alexa controls all of our lights, you are not alone. I actually don’t know how any of it works. I just know what I am supposed to say when. (Hey! What can I say? I’m not a techie person.) So here is Erik to explain how the whole thing is set up.
Hey, Erik here. I want to present how Simply Natural Mama’s house is equipped with connected devices, and how they can make parenting a little bit easier.
But before we begin, here is my smart home philosophy: First, all gadgets should work for you. You shouldn’t work for your gadgets. They should reduce stress and increase convenience. If you spend more time adjusting and fixing smart gadgets than the amount of time they save you, they aren’t worth your money. Second, if there’s a low-tech way to perform the same function, choose that instead. Third, always read reviews. I am partial to CNET as they are intelligent and unbiased, but still show a lot of excitement for cool toys.
The Brains of the House
There are two main devices in our house. The first and most noticeable is the Amazon Echo. We have a large Echo in the living room/kitchen and an Echo Dot in our bedroom. The Echo is entirely voice controlled and it connects to almost every other gadget in the house. It can do way more than I can list here, but we use it primarily for turning lights on and off, setting timers, getting weather reports, and most importantly, playing music. The large Echo has a fantastic speaker, but the best part is that it connects to our Spotify account, and we can ask it to play literally any song we can think of. Baby J loves to dance, and we’ve enjoyed introducing her to lots of different music. It’s great to be able to say “Alex, play Michael Jackson’s ‘I Wanna Rock with You’” and watching her groove.
The second primary component of the house is the Samsung SmartThings Hub. This is the device that talks to all of the smaller devices through Z-Wave, Bluetooth, and Zigbee, which are device languages, and it can be controlled by the Echo. This hub can do it all and that’s why it’s good. To be honest though, its app is buggy and hard to navigate, but I believe that a well-rounded smart home needs a hub. I’ll say more on that later.
Nearly every light in the house is connected. We started on connected lighting with a Philips Hue Starter Kit. It was fun to change the colors of the bulbs, but the novelty quickly wore off. How often do you need your bedroom to be bright pink? I have since moved away from smart bulbs. If you have a house with recessed lights, or any switches that control multiple bulbs, stay away from smart bulbs. They are a waste of money and inconvenient. Instead, get smart Z-Wave switches. I like the GE Z-Wave Wireless Smart Lighting Control Dimmer Switches. You simply replace the switch (which takes a little bit of wiring work, but it’s not hard) with the Z-Wave switch, effectively giving you remote control to that switch. The switches talk to the SmartThings Hub instead of through wifi, which saves on bandwidth and increases simplicity, hence the value of the hub. You can also still control them like a regular light switch. Again, it’s about simplicity and convenience. All of the switches are therefore voice-controlled through the Echo. It’s awesome to have a baby in your arms and say “Alexa, turn off everything” and have all the lights in the house turn off as we leave.
The best remote a person can buy is the Logitech Harmony Companion. There’s a little hub that sits under your TV and talks to all of your components (streaming box, DVD player, TV, surround sound receiver). The remote talks to the hub through wifi, so you don’t even have to point the remote! Also, you can control it with the Echo, so all you need to do is say “Alexa, turn on the TV,” and it’s on, which is great after the baby has hidden the remote.
After extensive research, we settled on the Neato Botvac Connected. It sucks!—but in a good way. Again, you can control it with the Echo by saying “Alexa, tell Neato to start cleaning,” which is really nice. It has schedules and it gives you notifications when it’s done. I like to run it when Baby J and I go out for errands so that I come home to a clean house.
Our house came with the Liftmaster MyQ system preinstalled. So I had to buy the LiftMaster Internet Gateway to achieve a remote garage control. Now I can open and close the garage from my phone, which is nice, as Baby J and I often leave through the garage to walk down to the coffee shop. However, their app is really buggy and slow, so I’m hesitant to recommend it. It also doesn’t integrate with any of my other devices. If it hadn’t been preinstalled, I probably would have bought the Garageio.
Ok, this is a really important one. Both the front door and the garage entry door have Schlage Z-Wave Connect deadbolts. This is not the most cutting edge deadbolt, as there are now some Bluetooth ones, but I believe it’s still the best. Like the other Z-wave gizmos, they’re controlled by the SmartThings hub. I’ve created programs that lock them automatically after a set time, as someone in the house tends to leave the door unlocked. They also have keypads, which are great because you don’t have to carry a key anymore (I don’t even have a house key) and you can give the code to babysitters, so they can come in quietly when the baby is asleep. Again, they can be controlled by the Echo. Hear a strange sound outside? Say “Alexa, lock the doors!” and you’re safe!
The Security Cam
On the front porch, we have a FLIR Outdoor security camera. I’ll be honest, I’m not crazy about this camera, but, it’s durable, it looks like a real security camera and not a toy, and most importantly, it records everything for free. Other cameras don’t do that. Its app is slow and a bit buggy, but it gets the job done.
After a lot of research, I settled on the Ecobee3 . I think it’s superior to the Nest because you can add room sensors and know the temperature in every room. You can program the Ecobee3 to average all the temps and adjust your thermostat based on that, or have it adjust the temp based on any one of the rooms. Want to make sure that the baby’s room is always 79 degrees? The Ecobee3 can do that. And guess what, it works with the Echo. Just say “Alexa, set the temperature to 75 degrees” and you’re there! However, the new Ecobee4 , that just came out, has Alexa built right in! No need to buy a separate Echo.
That’s about it for Simply Natural Mama’s Smart Home. Don’t go too overboard with gadgets, but know that they can help you out here and there with raising that baby!
And now Erik and I want to hear from you! What smart gadgets do you have to help you?
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