Only five or so years ago, the idea of a “smart home” was more of a novelty. It was often an exercise completed in frustration. Keeping everything working, much less communicating with each other, would sometimes feel like a full-time job.
That is no longer the case. Smart home technology has come a long way, and most smart home devices are super simple to set up. There are many ways you can easily have them “talk to one another,” through either official partnerships or third-party services (IFTTT), even if they are not the same brand.
Now is as good of a time as ever to take the plunge into the smart home world. Not only is the setup more straightforward, but it is becoming increasingly affordable thanks to a lot of competition in the market.
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Why Should I Have a Smart Home?
You already spend a lot of time on your digital devices, so adding one more notification to distract you might seem a little foolish. That is understandable. But smart sensors can play a crucial role in keeping yourself, your belongings, and your home safe.
Knowing what is going on at your house when you’re not at home is a good thing. Video doorbells, motion sensors, and cameras can let you see what is happening remotely. They can be particularly useful for monitoring a vacation home.
Smart devices can also make your life and home more efficient. They can let you know about that leaky pipe before any severe damage occurs or turn off your sprinklers if it’s already been raining.
9 Types of Popular Smart Home Sensors
So, which smart home sensors should you buy? We’ve shared nine different types of popular sensors, and you will also find our recommended models for each one.
Motion sensors do what you think they do. They detect motion and alert you when it occurs or turn other devices on or off based on movement. In many smart homes, they are used in conjunction with a security camera or lights. For example, a motion sensor in your garage could detect when you’re home and trigger your smart lights to turn on, so you never walk into a dark house.
How does a motion sensor detect movement? There are two ways. Most will work by infrared emitting beams and looking for changes in temperature. Others use ultrasonic waves to detect a change in a position of objects in view by the differences in waves reflected in the sensor.
Our Top Pick: Wyze Sense Motion Sensor
Motion sensors used to be quite expensive, often $30 or more. However, Wyze has made an excellent motion sensor that costs just a fraction of that. The infrared sensor inside detects motion up to 26 feet away and lasts a full year on battery power, meaning there are no cables to run. And while Wyze’s sensors work within the broader Wyze smart home product ecosystem, you can also connect them to a wide variety of smart home devices through IFTTT. Reviews of the sensor are positive, and Amazon’s got a great package deal, which includes not only this motion sensor but two contact sensors and one of Wyze’s outstanding cameras.
Again the name describes what the sensor does. When the two pieces of the sensor are separated, an alert is triggered. There’s a variety of places where you can install these sensors, from doors to windows, even on appliances like the refrigerator so you can tell when somebody’s raiding the fridge.
We’ve heard of some unique applications for these sensors. One person placed one in his mailbox to alert him when the mail came, another on her dryer dial, so she knew when her “dumb” dryer had completed a cycle, negating the need to go out and buy an expensive new smart dryer. The possibilities are endless.
Our Top Pick: Wyze Sense Contact Sensor
Again we turn to Wyze for their contact sensor as our favorite pick. The sensor is as good as those many times its price, and it works on the same concepts as other sensors.
Like Wyze’s motion sensor, it also has a one-year battery life, and is connectable to other smart home devices through IFTTT, or used as a trigger for Wyze’s products through the Wyze app. Again, we’d recommend the Amazon Wyze smart home kit because you’re getting two of these sensors plus the motion sensor and the camera at an economical price.
Water Leak Sensor
I hope you’re noticing a pattern here. Water leak sensors are a necessity for those of us with leaky pipes or flood-prone basements. The sensor has probes that detect water. If you choose a sensor with metal legs, you’ll want to place this on a non-metal surface to prevent false alarms.
These sensors can be simple or include additional handy features. The most basic just look for detection of water, while more complex sensors also include temperature detection to alert you when there’s a risk of your pipes freezing. Top-end sensors can even monitor water usage, but for most of us, the basic sensor will do just fine.
Our Top Pick: Govee WiFi Water Sensor
Unfortunately, Govee doesn’t work yet with integration services like IFTTT. Still, their package deal that includes three water leak sensors gets excellent reviews, and it’s the best deal we’ve seen, especially if you’re monitoring potential leaks in several places. The sensor is placed directly on the ground and has two ways it can detect water. The sensors on the underside detect leaks on the floor, while the sensor on the top is perfect for discovering a dripping pipe.
Better yet, they will work even if your WiFi is inoperable. If no network is available, the sensor will instead sound a 100dB alarm if a leak is detected, so you’ll know if there’s a problem even when the WiFi’s not working, or the power’s out.
Video doorbells combine two old-fashioned ways of knowing who’s at the door (the doorbell and the peephole) into a high-tech package that allows you to find out through an app who’s at your doorstep even when you’re not at home.
In addition to showing a video of who’s at the door when the doorbell rings, video doorbells also record motion in its view, which helps you to detect suspicious activity. We think the video doorbell is a “must-have” in any smart home setup.
Our Top Pick: Ring Video Doorbell 2
Ring just recently came out with its third-generation doorbell, so the Ring Video Doorbell 2 is getting discounted. The original is still on sale but opt for the second-generation model as it dramatically improves on the video quality, which was one of the most significant issues of the original model. It also has better overall motion detection. Those of us with the first model know how annoying the motion alerts can be if you live on a busy street.
Another fundamental change is a redesign that allows you to remove the battery, making charging easier. With the original, you must remove the whole doorbell to charge it. We think the ease of charging, plus the better video, makes it well worth choosing the Ring Video Doorbell 2.
Temperature and humidity sensors are a must-have for smart homes. These sensors can monitor conditions in rooms, the backyard, and even your basement to help you create a comfortable and healthy environment at home. A WiFi temperature sensor can also serve to protect your temperature or humidity sensitive items like your wine collection or your guitar.
The data from these sensors can also help control other smart devices. For example, you can heat and cool your home more efficiently by sharing the data with your smart thermostat.
Our Top Pick: Ambient Weather WS-8482-X3
The WS-8482-X3 includes three remote wireless thermo-hygrometer sensors that you can place around your home, and a desktop console, which has a sensor of its own. The added benefit of this package is that the console is WiFi-enabled, which allows you to view data from within an app, or via the Ambient Weather Platform. Its web-based platform is where you can also set alerts and connect with IFTTT.
As a bonus, the sensors are suitable for indoor and outdoor locations. You can also add up to four additional sensors for a total of eight sites. If you’re interested in measuring more weather conditions than just temperature and humidity, keep reading.
Home Weather Stations
We’ve talked a lot about weather stations here at Weather Station Advisor, so of course, we’d mention them on our list. Home weather stations can give you an overview of the weather conditions outside before you step out for the day. They typically measure indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and rainfall.
Some weather stations can also measure UV, so you know when to take sunscreen along, some can detect lightning nearby, and even produce a short forecast of what weather you can expect. And since they’re internet-connected, you can call up these conditions from anywhere on the web or in an app. The top stations are also compatible with smart home assistants (such as Amazon Echo or Google home) and IFTTT to allow you to set triggers for other devices. Many smart home users will set up triggers based on rainfall to control their sprinkler systems.
Our Top Pick: Ambient Weather WS-2902C
The Ambient Weather WS-2902C gets our nod for the best home weather station overall. This station is the perfect all-around internet-connected weather station with smart home capabilities. It includes a wide variety of sensors: indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, rainfall, UV, solar radiation, barometric pressure, and more.
Successive revisions of the WS-2902 line have made it even better. The WS-2902A made setup more manageable, and the WS-2902C now allows you to add additional sensors, including two particulate monitors. It’s a big deal for those of us that are pollution sensitive. And all of this comes at a price that’s far cheaper than competitors. Take a look at our detailed Ambient Weather WS-2902C review here if you’d like to learn more about what this home weather station can do.
If you have something that you might want to control based on changes in light or the UV rays from the sun, then a light sensor is a great thing to have.
We’ve used these to trigger our smart home lights at our porch and yard at dusk as a security deterrent. But others have used it to automatically unfold their mechanical awning when the UV gets too high. What you use it for is up to you.
Our Top Pick: Aeotec MultiSensor 6
As its name implies, the Aeotec MultiSensor 6 can also detect much more than just light. In all, the sensor can measure temperature, humidity, light, UV, vibration, and motion, making it useful for a variety of applications outside of just measuring light.
The sensor runs for up to two years on two CR123A camera batteries, although you can also choose to power the unit indefinitely via the provided USB cable. There’s only one real issue with the Aeotec MultiSensor 6, and it’s the fact that you need a Samsung SmartThings smart hub to control it. But for everything it does and considering SmartThings’ prevalence in smart home tech, that isn’t a deal-breaker.
Air Quality Monitors
Those of us who are pollution or allergen-sensitive know just how important it is to understand what the air quality is like each day. In the home, this is even more important since its where you’ll spend most of your time. An air quality monitor allows you to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, airborne particulate matter (PM2.5), and chemicals (VOCs).
The monitor draws air through it, and then takes measurements which you can view on the companion app. These measurements can help you make decisions on how to improve the air quality in your home, for example, running an air purifier (which you could link it to with IFTTT) or opening the windows for some fresh air.
Our Top Pick: Awair Element
The Awair Element is beautifully designed and is fully featured, with connectivity to the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant platforms. It provides measurements on temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, chemicals, and particulate matter, and these measurements are reported to the companion app and shown on the front display. The app also helps you to take actions to improve your air quality by providing suggestions, and Awair’s platform supports multiple devices so that you can put secondary monitors anywhere you need them.
While the Awair Element isn’t cheap, it has by far the best design. It doesn’t look like a techy sensor, so it blends in better with your décor. The app is equally well-designed and quite useful, primarily since it guides you on how to create a healthier space.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
The smoke and carbon monoxide detector have been around for decades. But in the smart home world, they’ve gotten a 21st Century reboot. They detect fire in either of one or two ways, each with a specific type of fire that they’re best at detecting.
One method uses a photoelectric sensor, which looks for disruptions in light between the sensor. This technology is best for smoldering, slow-moving fires, as the smoke disrupts the light beam. Ionization sensors, on the other hand, have small bits of radioactive material connected to a circuit. Smoke causes the circuit to break and trigger an alarm. These are best at detecting fast-moving fires.
Our Top Pick: Nest Protect
Unlike the other types of sensors on our list, there are surprisingly few options available here, even from companies that have produced traditional detectors for decades. Our favorite is the Nest Protect. In addition to smoke detection, it also detects carbon monoxide. The Nest Protect can detect both slow and fast-moving fires thanks to its split-spectrum sensor.
A detection in one location triggers them all if you have multiple set up, they will provide an audio announcement of the fire’s position as the alarm sounds and pulses red. The device will also send alerts to your phone in case you’re not at home.
Another nifty feature is the motion detection path light, which can light up a dark hallway as you pass it at night. The path light is a nice bonus feature. They’ve also recently received a deep price cut, so they’re much more affordable than they’ve ever been.
A Few Final Words
There are a ton of smart home options out there, way more than just a few years ago. Our recommendation is to start small and build your smart home from there. Which of these above sensors would you find the most useful? Start with those. You can easily spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a complete installation.
Another recommendation is to always opt for a smart home sensor that is compatible with third-party devices. Most of our options above can do that, but there are proprietary sensors that work just with their brand alone. Unless you’re incredibly brand-loyal, avoid these, as they can pose a problem.
Have any questions on where to start when building out your smart home? Feel free to ask in the comments.