Smart Home technology is mainstream and gaining traction thanks to a few big players such as Amazon (who bought Ring), Google (who bought Nest), Apple and IKEA. Depending on what you have installed and your tech-savviness, the experience can be either awesome or absolutely horrendous.
Hardware options abound and consumer-friendly devices like Amazon Echo (“Alexa”) and Google Home (“Hey Google”) are entering millions of homes a year. Amazon announced they’ve sold over 200 million Alexa-enabled devices. Assuming two devices per home, that’s over 100 million households. Amazon dominates the smart home market, with Google a distant second and Apple HomePod barely on the radar.
How Smart Can a Home Get?
It depends on your definition of “smart.” The technology exists today to control virtually any electronic device as long as you’re willing to endure multiple setup processes. My typical morning routine is to ask Alexa to turn on the lights, give me a weather forecast and tell me what’s on my schedule today. I ask “her” to turn on my TV (which configures my cable, stereo and inputs). When I’m ready to leave, I prompt her to tell my Chevrolet app to start my car and turn off the TV and the lights.
Alexa and Google voice-enabled devices are great at turning things on and off with a wide variety of third-party devices. What all voice-enabled products struggle with are requests that go beyond on/off. “Alexa, can you send the best route to the Burning Man festival to my car?” or “Alexa can you have Grubhub deliver the same order as last Friday?” These are questions a third-grader can answer with ease using their iPad or smartphone and asking follow-up questions. There are lots of assumptions embedded in those questions. With Burning Man, is there an address the app can route to? Do you want to use highways or side roads? Is time or distance more important? Does Alexa know how to send it to my car? Which car? For GrubHub, which restaurant should it order from? Is the restaurant still open? Should they deliver to the same address as last time? Should it add the same tip?
The AI (artificial intelligence) behind the devices is constantly learning from every request and improving its responses. Given the wide margin of users on Amazon Alexa devices vs. everyone else, it’s safe to assume its AI will learn much faster than the other players thanks to the hundreds of millions of requests users generate per day on Alexa products.
What Are Typical Smart Home Devices I Can Buy?
Many devices can be controlled without a hub using just a smartphone, such as light bulbs and smart speakers, but require a user to set up several apps to manage their smart home. Hubs such as Samsung’s SmartThings, Wink, Echo Plus (2nd Gen) and Alexa-enabled smart home hub give users the ability to add third-party smart devices that can all be managed through one hub device and/or mobile app.
Amazon’s Echo Plus (hub version) is among the easiest to set up but is limited in its range of devices supported and its features. Wink is more complex yet user-friendly and supports virtually every device protocol. SmartThings is one of the most feature-rich hubs but is more limited in device coverage and requires a tech-savvy user to take advantage of the more advanced options.
The basic lowdown on hubs is whether you are tech-savvy and patient or not. I chose Wink for its ease of use and broad device support. Ryan, our CTO, selected SmartThings because he wants to use the advanced features it offers.
Protocols for Connection
One key factor that heavily influences which Smart Home devices you choose is the communication protocol they require. Some need only a smartphone using Bluetooth or WiFi while others require a smart home hub device.
There are three main protocols most devices use: Bluetooth, Z-Wave and Zigbee.
Samsung’s SmartThings and Wink Hub both support the most common protocols for connectivity: Z-Wave and Zigbee. Wink wins on connection capabilities and supports many other protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ClearConnect, Kiddie and Lutron. I use Wink because I chose Nest thermostats and smoke detectors, which SmartThings doesn’t support (to-date).
Aside from Alexa-enabled products, door locks are among the most popular smart home devices installed. I chose Schlage keypads for my doors, which also work with Wink. Newer door locks offer fingerprint controls instead of entering a pin or Bluetooth connections with your smartphone.
Using a hub like Wink or SmartThings allows you to set up a scene/skill/routine, such as “Home Arrival,” which uses your hub app on your smartphone to notify the house to turn on the entry lights, adjust the thermostat, unlock the doors, play some tunes and open the garage door when you pull into the driveway. Cool, eh?
Another key advantage is the ability to quickly create a temporary PIN, say for a neighbor placing delivered packages inside the front door. The PIN is automatically disabled after a certain date/time.
Lights – Smart Bulbs vs. Smart Switches
Options abound for smart lighting but basically fall into two categories: smart bulbs such as Phillips Hue and GE Link, and smart light switches such as Lutron and Leviton.
Smart bulbs offer the ability to truly customize your lighting experience on a bulb-by-bulb basis but take a lot more time to initially set up and reconfigure when a bulb burns out.
Smart switches (which was my choice) require you to become a handyman— turn off the power, wire it into the wall fixture and then configure it. However, afterwards you can control all the lights in your living room with just one smart switch that typically includes a dimmer. The reason for the choice is simple. Smart bulbs in use with a standard dumb switch are a pain. If someone uses the switch to turn off the lights, it doesn’t matter how smart the bulb is. You can’t control it. Used with a hub like Wink, I’ve set up groups such as “Inside Lights,” which I can use to turn off all lights at bedtime. “Alexa, turn inside lights off.”
Power Plugs or Outlet Device
Smart power outlets such as Kasa and smart plugs such as ConnectSense enable you to control a table lamp or other light fixture. Smart power outlets replace traditional outlets, while smart plugs connect into a regular power outlet. I chose a combination of both. Today, I don’t recommend installing smart power outlets. I suggest using smart plugs that require no wiring and accomplish the same thing with more flexibility. However, I do like the clean lines of an in-wall unit; they’re not as nerdy-looking.
There are two advantages for using a smart garage door opener: you can set up a routine to detect your approach and automatically open it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve dashed off on a long-distance journey only to fret about whether the garage door closed all the way. Easy. I open my app that shows me if it is open or not and I can close it remotely if needed. There are several great devices such as the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Door Opener.
Our company recently rolled out a smart home project for a client with between 13 and 15 smart devices and a hub per home for over 20,000 single family residences in 15 states. Moisture sensors were a critical part of the package. One of the most common maintenance issues are leaks, typically by the water heater and under sinks. It’s a cheap solution which can save thousands of dollars. All other technologies aside, this is without a doubt one of the most important smart devices to install and they’re relatively inexpensive.
My personal favorites are LeakSmart, which works with all the popular hubs, and Dome. They both include an automated water main cutoff valve in their product lines that immediately activates when a major leak is detected. Priceless. Back before these devices were on the market, I had a duplex townhome rental in Bend which experienced a major leak on the second floor thanks to the power company cutting power out for 24 hours while transferring from the renter back to our account. During which, the temperature dropped to single digits. This leak cost us over $50,000 in repairs. Smart moisture sensors are a must-have for a home with harsh winter conditions.
Some swear by them and others swear at them. Count me in the latter. If you have hardwood floors, no dogs, few areas where they can get trapped, low-pile carpets and your floors are level with few variations, you’re a good candidate. Otherwise, their value diminishes and the hassle increases. We tried to use an iRobot Roomba for our Five Talent office. It turned out our chairs, desks, stools and computer cables were tough obstacles for it to navigate. We would find the unit stuck and out of power every day. Even we it wasn’t stuck, we often found it in the middle of the floor with a dead battery.
At home, the situation wasn’t much better. Our two rescue dogs either tried to play with it or they cowered in the corner barking like crazy. We have a deep-pile carpet in the living room which was basically off-limits since it would get stuck every time. The unit we had required a separate pair of devices to mark all no-go areas like stairs, plants and other obstacles. Newer bots can map the rooms and only clean the ones you designate.
Vacuum bots last between four and six years of usage and roughly 400 charges but can die even sooner depending on your home’s layout and obstacles.
Battery life has improved over the year. According to Consumer Reports (CR), robotic vacuums they tested in a 12×16-foot space stopped working from 14 minutes to two hours. CR also stated vacuum bots don’t come close to matching the cleaning ability of human-powered upright or canister vacuums. Lower your expectations of bots to just light cleaning and touch-ups. Prices range from $200 to well over a $1,000, so it’s not a trivial purchase decision.
The last column covered how smart homes work, the most common protocols and an overview of a good number of smart device types. In this article we’ll touch on the remaining device types and wrap up with advice and recommendations and a glimpse into the future of smart homes. Hello Smart by Nest is considered one of the best out there.
One of my favorite smart devices is my Ring doorbell with built-in live webcam. It’s easy to install into existing doorbell wiring and connects to several hubs such as my Wink hub. I get motion alert notifications, so I know when someone’s coming or going. It did stop a package thief several years ago. Good to have if you’re out of town and your teenager decides to pull off the party of the century. I also pay a small subscription fee to record all video clips of the alerts so I can view them later, like the clip of the police shutting down all the fun.
Surprisingly, this is one of the easiest in-wall devices to install. I chose the Nest thermostat, but there are plenty of choices depending on the hub you choose such as the Ecobee4, which works with both SmartThings and Wink. One irritating thing about Nest is its learning algorithm, which detects our usage patterns and then automatically sets one. With two teenagers, our house was a chaos of activity, which makes for an interesting temp schedule. Nevertheless, it’s good and saves us money.
Cameras and Security Devices
Webcam prices have dropped to as low as $20-$30 with features commonly found in higher-end devices. They’re easy to install and the monitoring software is simple to use. My favorite is the Wyze Cam Pan, which has all the features I want for just $30. This cam has a long list of features including 1080p HD resolution, Alexa and Google Assistant voice support, motion alerts, sound detection with smoke and carbon monoxide alarm detection, person alerts, motion detection zone, 14-day free cloud storage, microSD card slot, 110-degree field of view, night vision, two-way audio via a built-in speaker and microphone and time-lapse. That’s incredible for the price. Some higher-end models have facial recognition, which can work with your smart door locks to automatically unlock as you approach the door, but that’s not enough to justify much higher price tags.
Smart security devices abound with or without monitoring service, which integrate with several common smart hubs. SimpliSafe is the best do-it-yourself smart security system with monthly monitoring for only $15 to $25 per month. For $25 a month you also get mobile app controls and voice-enablement with either Alexa or Google Assistant.
Smart security systems will be covered by its own dedicated article in the coming months. The breadth and depth of available systems and services is just too broad to cover in a couple of paragraphs.
According to a report from NPR and Edison Research, more than 60 million people in the U.S. own a smart speaker. The average household had an average of 2.6 devices. Some are smarter than others, such as Alexa-enabled Echo, and Google Home speakers such as the Google Nest Mini. These are very good speakers for the price, and satisfy most users. Higher-end speakers such as the $200 Sonos One have the best-rated sound quality and let you pair units for multi-room and stereo sound.
My recommendation for voice-enabled devices are Amazon Alexa-enabled smart devices such as Echo Dot. They are by far the most advanced in voice recognition, and currently integrate with most audio/video (AV) equipment.
The frustrating downside: the sheer number of combinations of TVs, receivers, cable boxes and other devices to control prevents using voice-enabled devices, hubs or remotes for a seamless AV experience. If this is important, then choose a tightly integrated set of components, such as Apple TV and HomeKit, Sonos-enabled devices or Alexa-enabled.
The goal of one-device-to-rule-them-all is still elusive and requires a lot of patience and MacGyver skills to setup a Rube Goldberg way to seamlessly control a mishmash of AV components. If you have a complex setup, call up a reputable AV company to set it up for you. It’ll save you from pulling your hair out.
Another downside: I’m apparently the only one in the house who can do the AV magic, which leads to answering calls from a frustrated family member asking for help. Set up a couple of training sessions with the family to share the knowledge… and the pain.
Most current auto/truck models offer mobile apps with many remote features. Most have created Alexa skills, accessible in the Alexa app that works with your car app, to allow you to start your car remotely.
Automakers like Audi, BMW, Lexus and Toyota have recently added Alexa-enabled vehicles to their line-ups and GM announced both Alexa and Google Voice will be coming to millions of new and existing GM vehicles in 2020/2021. After-market brands like Garmin, iOttie and Nextbase are releasing new products with Alexa built in. Check out what options your hub or voice-enabled devices offer with compatible auto mobile apps.
Home automation extends to your landscaping as well. There are robotic lawnmowers that range from $500 to $4,000. The Husqvarna Automower 450X, on the pricier side, can handle a three-quarter acre and the mobile app allows you to accurately map the yard and to set up zones to avoid. The Worx WR140 is on the low-end of the price range, which is great for small yards but has a less robust mobile app and requires mag-strips to mark the off-limits lawn areas.
There are several smart watering systems on the market. One such smart device is Rachio, which grabs weather data for my area from the internet to adjust the watering amount and schedule. It also considers the yard zones’ details: sun exposure, grass, flower beds or shrubs. Setup is relatively simple and doesn’t require deep-tech skills.
I’m not a fan of “smart” refrigerators, microwaves or washer/dryers. They aren’t smart enough, and their huge price tags are for the novelty of it and don’t offer a corresponding increase in convenience or features. Connection security is minimal, and your usage may be captured and sold to the highest bidder. My recommendation is to skip on the internet-enabled appliances for now.
What the manufacturers should focus on is quality, not smart features. Built-in obsolescence and minimal product life are not production failures, they’re part of manufacturers’ business plans to get you to buy more often to replace the piece of crud they sold you. The only reasonable appliance I’ve seen is the Amazon Basics Microwave, which sells for under $60 and has Alexa built-in, but I don’t’ think the voice features are that useful.
Just Plug In and It Works… Yeah, Not So Much
As an early adopter, it was ugly. Since I chose to install smart switches and outlets, wiring was an issue. A single switch setup was easy, but two-way and three-way were not. The terrible documentation that are common from companies like Lutron, GE and Leviton, are still written for electricians, not consumers. When I called the manufacturer to get help, I found out there was small print in the docs that said the device I had was the controller switch and the other switches required a different model number. Since my home’s wiring wasn’t color-coded correctly, they couldn’t provide any wiring assistance due to legal liabilities.
Hubs worked with certain versions of devices and not for others. Updating the hub’s software often caused some devices to stop working.
Customer service hasn’t improved much since then, but the reliability of devices and their required software has. Most basic installations of hubs and the devices they support mostly work the first time now. My recommendation is to choose a popular hub, such as SmartThings or Wink, and use the most common brands of compatible devices. In other words, avoid products or services offered from Kickstarter campaigns or new startups. Let them prove themselves first with the early adopters (i.e. crazies) like me for a couple of years.
Unless you’re adept at wiring, stay away from smart power outlets and stick to smart power plugs. No need to go through the hassle. I like smart light switches, but smart bulbs may be a better choice for the not-so-handy folks.
One last thing, the list of commands you need to remember can be daunting. For example, Alexa has over 40,000 skills, which sounds awesome. However, most require you to memorize a succinct, precise request.
Take Alexa and the MyChevrolet app as they work today, for example I easily added the Alexa skill, but Alexa won’t start it unless I specifically say, “Ask Chevrolet to start my car,” after which it prompts for the PIN I created in MyChevrolet. I’ve done it enough times to remember, but we practically need a cheat sheet to remember the exact phrases each skill requires. I wish Alexa’s underlying AI could handle it if I simply asked, “Alexa, start my car.” I’d hope she could tell it’s my voice, so no pin required, asks which car if more than one brand/model are Alexa-enabled and prompts me for when to start it. AI will smooth this experience over time, but all my fellow Alexa users out there are familiar with the limitations of using skills.
Who Can Help?
I suggest using a bonded Home Automation company to assist in the setup. Make sure they are rated by the Better Business Bureau, and check out their reviews on AngiesList.com and HomeAdvisor.com. The best ones will sit down with you to create a custom smart home plan and will assist on the many options and tradeoffs.
What Does the Future Look Like for Smart Homes?
We have enough connected devices and appliances. What we’ll see over the next few years are better user experiences in the apps that control them all. AI will get smarter, the number of things to remember will decrease and standards will narrow down to the most used (remember Betamax?), which will reduce the complexity and make the smart home easier to interact with.
Imagine Alexa listening and prompting, “John, I don’t hear any cooking activity. Do you want to order some food?” That’s totally doable with today’s devices — creepy, but doable. For now, Amazon has chosen to make voice-enabled devices passive, but, since they are always listening, I expect the next big wave of use could be proactive prompts. I’d like to have Alexa respond to our dogs while we’re away and keep them entertained or tell them to stop barking.
One notable exception that shows the promise of active voice-enabled devices is Amazon’s release of a new setting in your Alexa app called Guard. It will notify you if it detects the sound of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms or glass breaking. Guard can also arm/disarm compatible security systems such as Ring or ADT and turn connected smart lights on and off to make your home look occupied.
Bottom Line — Dive In or Avoid Like the Plague?
I say go for it with a caveat: Be prepared for the learning curve. Start off with a smart voice-enabled speaker from Amazon or Google that are easy to setup and use. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend hiring a smart-home professional installer and focus on the most commonly used devices such as Amazon Echo Dot, Ring doorbell, Schlage Sense door locks, Nest thermostats and smoke/carbon-monoxide detectors, Wyze cams and Phillips Hue lighting.
Be prepared to be the smart home technician for your family and, most importantly, make sure your significant other or roommate is onboard. I may have forgotten that last one…