Creating a Smart Home Hub with Alexa

By Paul McFedries

Alexa works as a smart-home controller, so it can recognize and work with multiple devices from multiple manufacturers. An Alexa device such as an Echo or Echo Spot is an example of such a controller. Devices Alexa can control (like thermostats, speakers, TVs, and so on) just have to be compatible.

You must make sure you get smart-home devices that are compatible with your controller, so be sure to buy items that are Alexa compatible.

Smart-home devices are all the rage. Using apps on smart phones or simple voice commands from Alexa, you can control light bulbs, thermostats, garage door openers, security cameras, and so much more.

To get your Alexa device to connect to and operate smart-home devices, you’ll be using either your home’s Wi-Fi network or a direct Bluetooth connection. In most cases, the connection procedure involves two steps:

  1. For a Wi-Fi connection, use the manufacturer’s app to give Alexa permission to connect to the device.
  2. Enable the manufacturer’s device skill to update Alexa with the voice commands needed to operate the device.

How to set up a smart home with Alexa

If your smart-home device is Wi-Fi-friendly, go to your mobile device app store and install the manufacturer’s app. Then follow these steps to get your Wi-Fi smart-home device set up in the app:

1. Plug in and, if required, turn on the smart-home device.

2. Open the smart-home device manufacturer’s app.

3. Initiate the procedure for setting up a new device.

Look for a command named Add or Add [manufacturer] Device (where manufacturer is the name of the company), or just a big plus sign (+).

The setup routine will tell the device to broadcast its Wi-Fi network.

4. Open your mobile device’s Wi-Fi settings and look for the device’s Wi-Fi network.

5. Tap the device network to connect to it.

6. When the connection is complete, return to the device app.

The app automatically detects the new network and uses the connection to set up the device. This usually involves giving the device a name. You’ll often have to set up an account with the manufacturer, as well.

7. The app will usually ask for your Wi-Fi credentials, which enables the device to connect to and operate over your network.

Having the device on your network is also how Alexa discovers and operates the device, so this step is important.

8. If you see a notice asking whether you want to upgrade the smart-home device firmware, by all means tap Yes or Allow or Update or whatever button answers in the affirmative.

With your smart-home device installed, you can view it and rename it if you so desire in the Alexa app. Just tap the Devices icon to open the Devices screen, and from there, you can change the settings for your device.

Discover Smart-Home Devices Using an Alexa skill

If you’re not using an Alexa device that includes a smart-home hub (such as the Echo Plus and second-generation Echo Show), then you usually need to upgrade Alexa to work with your smart-home device. You upgrade Alexa by enabling the device manufacturer’s Alexa skill. This not only lets Alexa discover the device but also upgrades Alexa with the voice commands that enable you operate the device.

1. Install the manufacturer’s app and use it to get your smart-home device on your Wi-Fi network.

2. In the Alexa app, tap Devices.

3. Tap the Add button (+) that appears in the top-right corner.

4. Tap Add Device.

The Alexa app displays icons for some popular brands and some device categories.

5. Tap the category that fits your device, and then tap the manufacturer. The Alexa app prompts you to perform the duties I outline in Step 1. You’ve done all that, so proceed.

6. Tap Continue.

The Alexa app opens the information page for the manufacturer’s Alexa skill.

7. Tap Enable.

At this point, what happens next depends on the skill, but you’ll usually have to perform one or both of the following:

  • Use the smart-home device app to give Alexa permission to access the device.
  • Link Alexa to the user account associated with the smart-home device.

8. When you’re done, tap Close (X) to return to the skill page.

9. Tap Discover Devices.

The Alexa app uses the manufacturer’s Alexa skill to search for available devices.

10. Tap Done.

With a manufacturer’s Alexa skill enabled, you can discover new devices by following steps 1 through 5 and then tapping Discover Devices, or you can ask Alexa to run the following voice command:

“Alexa, discover my devices.”

Control Smart-Home Devices with Alexa

Devices Alexa can control are any Alexa-compatible plugs, lights, thermostats, garage door openers, security devices, speaker, TVs, and so on. There are actually three methods you can use to control a smart-home device:

  • Voice commands: This is how you’ll operate most of your smart-home devices, and the rest of this section takes you through the most common voice commands for a selection of smart-home devices.
  • Alexa app: If you have your Alexa device microphone turned off, you can still use the Alexa app to control your smart-home devices. Tap Devices, tap the device type (or All Devices), and then tap the device you want to mess with. The screen that appears contains the controls you can use.
  • Alexa device with a screen: Swipe down from the top of the screen to open the status bar, and then tap the icon for the device type (such as a bulb icon for your smart lights, plugs, and switches). Note, too, that after you issue a smart-home device-related command to an Alexa device with a screen, you see some device controls on the screen for a few seconds.

Turn smart plugs on and off with Alexa

A smart plug is an electrical outlet that you can control with voice commands. The smart outlet plugs into a regular electrical outlet for power and then you plug a non-smart device — such as a lamp or coffeemaker — into the smart outlet. Voilà! You now have voice control over the dumb device.

Note, however, that “control” here just means turning the device on and off using the following voice commands:

  • “Alexa, turn [device name] on.”
  • “Alexa, turn [device name] off.”

Replace device name with the name you gave to the smart plug using either the manufacturer’s app or the Alexa app.

Work with smart lights and Alexa

Another easy and relatively inexpensive way to get your smart-home feet wet is with a smart lightbulb or two. You can buy a smart bulb for less than $20, and installing it is as easy as changing any regular lightbulb. You can also get smart bulbs that change brightness without a separate dimmer switch and that can display different colors.

Here are the voice commands to use to turn a smart lightbulb or light switch on or off:

  • “Alexa, turn [device name] on.”
  • “Alexa, turn [device name] off.”

For dimmable smart lights (or smart dimmer switches), use any of the following voice commands:

  • “Alexa, brighten [device name].”
  • “Alexa, dim [device name].”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] brightness to [number] percent.”

For smart lights that support different colors, use these voice commands:

  • “Alexa, set [device name] to warm white.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to cool white.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to [color].” (For example, “Alexa, set Chill Room to blue.”)

Control smart thermostats with Alexa

A smart thermostat gives you voice control over not only the thermostat mode — for example, switching between heating and cooling — but also the temperature setting. You can also interrogate a smart thermostat to learn the current temperature setting.

After you’ve installed a smart thermostat, you can control it using the following voice commands:

  • “Alexa, set [device name] to cool.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to heat.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to auto.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to off.”
  • “Alexa, set [device name] to [number] degrees.”
  • “Alexa, increase [device name] by [number] degrees.”
  • “Alexa, decrease [device name] by [number] degrees.”
  • “Alexa, what is [device name]’s temperature?”
  • “Alexa, what is [device name] set to?”

Keep an eye on things with Alexa and smart cameras

Smart cameras come in both outdoor versions and indoor versions. Outdoor cameras are usually called security cameras or surveillance cameras. You can also get a smart doorbell that has a built-in camera that activates whenever someone rings the bell.

If you have an Alexa device with a screen, you can show the smart camera’s feed right on your screen by saying the following voice command:

“Alexa, show [device name].”

To turn off the camera feed, issue the following voice command:

“Alexa, hide [device name].”

Other Types of Smart-Home Devices That Work with Alexa

Here’s a quick summary (in no particular order) of what’s out there that’s Alexa-friendly:

  • Smart speakers: Echo isn’t the only smart speaker game in town. Big-time audio companies such as Bose, Denon, and Sonos have their own smart speakers that have Alexa built in.
  • Smart locks: These are door locks that you can control with your voice.
  • Smart sprinklers: You can control and schedule garden and lawn watering with a smart sprinkler system.
  • Smart TVs: This is a television or remote that you can control by voice.
  • Smart appliances: These are kitchen appliances that you can operate with voice commands. Amazon’s new Alexa-friendly microwave is the latest addition to this category.
  • Smart vacuums: Why push a vacuum yourself when you can have a robot vacuum that you control via voice?