The Amazon Echo can do a lot more than play music and check the weather. As futuristically as you’d expect, it can actually control a wide range of smart home products so that all your home comforts are just a voice command away. Read on as we show you how.
Why Would I Want to Do This?
Why would you want to do this? A better question would be: why wouldn’t you want to control your entire house with your voice? We’ve all waited a long time to enjoy some Jetsons-esque living, and if we have the tools on hand to make it happen there is no reason not to.
If you need more convincing than that, though, just think about how great it is to sit on your couch or in bed and control your home lighting system with mere voice commands. Just the other day, for example, I realized yet again that I’d forgotten to turn on the porch light for the poor Chinese delivery guy.
I could have walked to the front of the house and turned on the lights in anticipation of his arrival, but instead I stayed right where I was and told Alexa to turn them on for me. Living in the sort-of-future is pretty awesome.
What Do I Need?
The Amazon Echo/Alexa system already works with a fair number of smart home products and, if our recent experience at CES 2016 is any indicator, the number of supported devices is only going to grow. You can review the list of compatible devices in both this Echo smart home splash page and this Echo help file.
While we encourage you to dig into the listings and find your specific device, broadly the system works with Belkin’s WEMO switch system, Samsung’s SmartThings hub and appliances, the Insteon lighting and home automation hub and equipment, and the Wink hub and supported devices. Given the reach of the last three smart home hub systems (SmartThings, Insteon, and Wink) a lot of devices are captured in their general stable of supported devices.
Recently we showed you how to control your home lighting via Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Because we already have the highly-supported Philips Hue system on hand, and because it gives a pretty fair comparison between how voice control with Siri and Alexa works with the same system, we’ll be using that to demonstrate how to link a smart home system to the Amazon echo and use it.
The steps for linking the Hue system to your Alexa system are largely identical to nearly every other smart home product but, as always, refer to the documentation found on your product’s website for additional help if need be.
Prepare Your Devices
Before you actually sit down to add devices to your Echo/Alexa system, we’d strongly recommend doing a little updating and housekeeping on the smart home side of things. In our experience, Alexa takes a fairly literally approach to importing things and works best with updated software.
As such, we’d recommend first updating the firmware and companion software for the smart home devices and hubs you intend to add to Alexa. In the case of our demonstration system, this meant updating the Philips Hue hub to the most current software and ensuring that the iOS app we use to control it was also properly updated.
Next, go through your smart home platform and make sure that all your device names, settings, labels, and so on are all tweaked to your liking. In the case of the Philips Hue system, the Amazon Echo platform sucks in all the device names exactly as they are and does not bring the scene names along for the ride. This means you might have a scene name in your Philips Hue system like “Romantic Bedroom” with bulbs named Hue 1, Hue 2, and Hue 3 (or Link 1 and Link 2 if you’ve used third party bulbs), but the Echo integration won’t pull in the scene names. It will only pull in the bulb names (Hue 1, Hue 2, etc.).
To this end, it is very useful to have specific bulb names like “Left Nightstand” or “FrontPorch1” and “FrontPorch2” as you’ll have a much easier time identifying bulbs in the Alexa app.
How to Add a Smart Home Device to Alexa
Adding smart homes devices to Alexa is easy peasy (assuming you’re using a compatible device, of course). To make your experience extra smooth, it’s important to understand how the Alexa system handles smart home devices.
First, you’ll add the individual device or hub into the Alexa system. Then, for ease of use, you’ll create groups within Alexa for all your items. That last bit is a point of confusion for new adopters: Alexa does not import the existing groupings you already have in your smart home systems, but instead imports each raw device.
So let’s say you have a group in your existing smart home hub called “Bedroom” and that group contains two light bulbs, a smart outlet, and a space heater. Let’s say you’ve set up a shortcut on the hub software called “Bedroom on” and everything turns on in the morning when you wake up. You can still use all those items with Alexa, but you’ll need to create a new group within the Alexa app called “Bedroom” so that the “Bedroom on” command works with Alexa.
With that cleared up, let’s take a look how to do exactly what we just described.
Add Your Devices
With your smart home devices all updated and your naming schemes tidied up, open the Alexa app on your smartphone and tap the menu icon in the upper left corner.
Toward the bottom of the slide-out side menu, select “Settings”.
In the Settings menu, select the Echo (or Alexa-enabled Fire TV) you wish to link your smart home devices to. In our case, we want to add support to our Echo unit so we select, as seen above, “[Name]’s Echo”.
Select “Connected Home”.
Within the Connected Home screen there are two sections: “groups” and “devices”. Scroll down until you see the devices section, as seen in the screenshot above, and tap the “Discover devices” link. The app will automatically scan your network for any connected smart home devices and/or hubs and prompts you to perform any actions necessary to grant Alexa access to them. In the case of the Philips Hue system, any application or device that wants access to the Hue bridge requires you do go tap the physical button on the Hue bridge in order to authorize it. Some other smart hubs will not require any physical step, though.
Once you’ve followed the prompts (in our case we simply tapped the button on the Hue bridge to continue) you’ll see a readout of all the available smart home devices, like so:
Remember earlier in the tutorial when we encouraged you to name your smart home devices as well? This is a perfect example of why you want to do that. Bedrooms bulbs? Attic bedroom bulbs? Very clear where those are. Wink 1 bulb? We have no idea where that one is and we’ll need to go poke around to find out.
If you have some pressing reason to keep Alexa from controlling a discovered device, now is the time to tap “Forget” to remove it from the Alexa system. Otherwise, just review the list and make sure all the devices you expected to make an appearance did so. Once you’ve reviewed the list, scroll to the bottom and click “Save” to confirm it.
Group Your Devices Together
Now that we have our smart home devices imported into the Alexa system, it’s time to create a group to control them. Return to the main “Connected Home” screen (which should have happened automatically when you hit “Save” in the previous step).
Under the “Groups” sub section, click “Create group”.
In the device group menu, give the group a name and then select all the items you wish to include in the group.
A word on creating group names: Alexa is very literal. If you’ve played around with Siri and smart home stuff, you know that Siri is fairly flexible when it comes to natural language and smart home devices. Alexa tends to be quite literal, and if you name a group “Bedroom” it will only activate in response to the word “Bedroom” and not something like “Bedroom lights”.
So if you prefer speaking in a more natural way to Alexa, make sure to name your device group something that fits into the syntax “Alexa, turn [group name] [on/off]”. If you want to say “turn the bedroom lights off” then you want to name your group “bedroom lights”.
When you’re done creating your group, scroll down and click “Save” to retain changes.
How to Use Smart Home Voice Commands With Alexa
While each smart home device is a bit different in terms of how it’s controlled, the more literal you are with Alexa the better. When it comes to smart home lighting, Alexa is good for two kinds of commands: binary (on/off) and graduated (brightness via percentage). For other devices she’s only good for on/off or on/off + an additional input (like turning a heater on and setting the temperature if the device supports it).
Let’s take a look at lighting commands. Although we’re using the Hue system (complete with third party bulbs) these commands work well with any lighting devices hooked up to your Echo.
You can use the following commands to control your lights (and other smarthome devices):
Alexa, turn [groupname] [on/off]
Alexa, turn [on/off] [groupname]
Alexa, start [groupname]
Alexa, set [groupname] to [X%]
The syntax above really highlights how you need to craft group names to reflect the exact commands you want to say. For example, there is no universal command in Alexa to control “all” of something. The Alexa system, as of this writing, doesn’t understand the command “Alexa, turn off all the lights” because it doesn’t have a function to recognize the bulbs as separate smart home devices or that “all” refers to the total group of them.
That doesn’t mean you can’t tell Alexa to turn off all the lights, however! You simply need to make a group, in the Alexa app, called “all the lights” and, you guessed it, include all your smart bulbs in it.
You may also find the syntax “start [groupname]” useful for things that aren’t quite so binary as a light switch. For example, if you want to turn the lights on, the charging strip you have hooked up to a smart switch, and the space heater in your bedroom as part of your morning routine, you might create a group with all those items called “my morning routine” which could then be triggered by you saying “Alexa, start my morning routine” when you wake up in the morning.
Compared to Siri’s higher degree of natural-language-flexibility (in regard to smart home products at least), using Alexa is a little kludgy by comparison. But it works well enough if you’re willing to create group names, like “my morning routine” that give clear natural language names to the outcome you want.