Five Observations from Making My Home Smart: A beginner’s guide

Intrigued by the barrage of commercials for Nest smart thermostat, I have been testing smart home devices for the past four weeks. It has been a journey, and I finally tried installing the last of the devices on my list: the Yale Z-wave smart lock. Tried and failed, I should say. Below are some notes on my travels in smart home land. Please note that I am not a paid reviewer. All devices I tested were carefully researched by me using public sources, and purchased directly by me on amazon.com. Any external advice I received is explicitly noted.

1. Recency buzz: The concept of the smart home is not a modern year phenomenon. It is not even a modern decade phenomenon. Insteon and other companies have been making connected switches to control your lights, shades, and other household items for several decades. For a good example of an old-timey on/off switch that works by remote control, try the Etekcity ZAP (about $20 for a 3-switch pack with pre-paired remote, amazon.com). It lets you control three outlet switches (and whatever you have plugged into them) via a small remote control. It is completely self-sufficient and does not require a wireless network or hub of any kind. As such it is a great way to try out the smart home experience without doing any other groundwork.

What is modern about today’s smart home devices is the network that is required used to do the controlling. Nowadays, the broad platform of choice is the wireless home network (“WiFi”), and the wireless smart home platform added on top of your WiFi can speak one or more of several languages: zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, and so forth.

2. Platform selection: While the WiFi platform is now standard just about anywhere, the smart home platform is far from it. So one of the first challenges I encountered was deciding which platform to purchase. I ended up choosing SmartThings ($100, amazon.com; or $200 starter kit), which speaks zigbee as well as Z-wave — as a hedge against a future where (1) one or another language falls out of favor with major manufacturers, resulting in (2) obsolescence of platforms that don’t speak the prevailing language, and (3) terminated development of the accessories and devices that enable the smart home network to grow. Plus, SmartThings was recently acquired by Samsung, so I figured that was a decent sign that the startup would not run out of money. Finally, the SmartThings app is rated highly by the hardcore smart home aficionados that have come before me in this journey.

Side note: Many people compare the developmental path of smart home networks to the historical battle of beta vs. VHS, wherein the technically inferior VHS won out due to industry forces (before losing to DVD). I think it might be like that OR CDMA vs. GSM, where both exist, somewhat uncomfortably.

3. Devices and accessories (aka the cool part): By far, the best part of the whole journey is the satisfaction that comes when I add a new device to my SmartThings network, and it works. It is a simply magical feeling. “And it works” is the important part, though. Sometimes the new thing doesn’t work, and that can spell lots of wasted time and frustration. The worst offender so far has been Yale, whose z-wave smart lock is well reviewed, and positively, on amazon.com. I received what turned out to be a physically defective product, but there was no way I could determine that without knowing what a sound product looked like. So between Yale’s slow email response times and a service organization that only operates on East Coast time, it took THREE WEEKS to get a response. And a crappy one at that — the last response I got from them was written in a form of English I haven’t learned yet. I finally gave up and Amazon.com was quick to take back the broken lock and send me a fresh one in two days. (I also complained about the experience on Twitter, which got a prompt response from @YaleRealLiving. Too little too late. And, maybe the social media help desk should take over the email and phone desks too?)

Alas the story ends poorly. It turns out that the hole for the deadbolt on my door is too small to accommodate the smart lock. So I am sending the replacement lock back to Amazon.com too. I did get it to connect to SmartThings, and had the magical experience of seeing the lock turn and unturn based on a command from my smartphone. But one of the aspects of smart home-ification that feels key to the experience is that I can set things up myself, without procuring power tools or hiring experts. The smart lock definitely required a locksmith, as I was not about to drill a large hole in my door. The lesson here is that smart devices can only show off their smarts AFTER you install them, and the same challenges in physical installation apply for both smart and dumb devices alike. I hear that the August smart lock offers a different — perhaps easier? — experience. Maybe I will try it after I get over feeling deflated from wrestling with the Yale lock.

4. Winners! Sorry to put the complaint before the plaudits. I feel it is useful to embark on the journey with the cold hard facts. As I understand it, the Nest learning thermostat has similar issues as my door lock did — you need an electrician in many if not most cases. But the commercial makes it seem so easy! So new and desirable! So, caveat emptor. And, without further ado here are the winners:

Aeon Labs Z-wave Smart Energy Switch ($30, amazon.com): This is a digital and physical switch for whatever you plug into one end. The other end plugs into your power source. I have my TV/speaker/Xbox power strip plugged into it, so that I can turn on the power strip while sitting on my couch. TVs are notoriously greedy consumers of electricity even when turned off, notes my energy expert friend who runs Carbon Lighthouse. To ward off the resulting “phantom load,” I use a switch to turn on the power strip only when I want to turn on the TV. At $30 on Amazon.com, the switch is the lowest priced that I found, and it both pairs and responds well to the SmartThings app. No more bending down to hit the power strip switch. It stays in the on position, and I use my Aeon switch to feed or cut power to/from it.

GE Link Wireless A19 Smart LED: Controlling my lights digitally was a big attraction for me. Going around to switch off several lights before going to bed was a routine I could do without. Also, there was a prior structural problem I wanted to address, which is that my wall switches do not always control the wall outlets that my lamps are plugged into. Having smart light bulbs means I don’t care where my lamps are plugged, or whether there is a wall switch associated with an outlet. I can simply control the bulbs themselves. I tried both these and the Philips Hue bulbs, and I prefer these. First, they are $15 each instead of $60 (yes $60). The Hue does emit different colors on demand, which is cool, but it really performs best when it is connected to its OWN hub. (Another hub? No thank you.) When on SmartThings, the Hues take two attempts each to turn on or off, even with a firmware upgrade. (More on the firmware upgrade experience later.)

The GE bulb is much more responsive than the Hue. But it does have some frustrating bouts of unresponsiveness that are well documented in the SmartThings Community forum. While cumbersome to do the following, unpairing it from the SmartThings hub, power cycling it to reset it, and then re-adding it does work. I have also used the Aeon Labs switches to control the power into my lamps, using regular CFL or incandescent bulbs. From a reliability perspective, I prefer the switch method. However, I don’t have this option with bathroom lights so I put up with the occasional fritzing of the GE Link bulbs.

SmartThings starter kit: The $199 starter kit came with the hub, a multisenser (a motion detector bundled with temperature and humidity sensers), a door open/close senser, and a presence fob. The kit is like a basic box of Legos: it’s a nice set of components to start playing with if you want to do more than control your switches and lights per the above. In particular, the multisenser ($50, amazon.com if purchased separately) is pretty cool. It lets me use motion as a way to trigger on the lights I have set up on my SmartThings network. For instance, my partner frequently forgets to turn off his closet light. We now have a GE Link bulb as the closet light, and a motion senser to turn it on when he walks in. A minute after no motion is detected, the light turns itself off. At $65 ($50 for the senser, $15 for the bulb) this solution is probably more costly than the occasional waste of keeping the light on for hours while not in use. What this solution has on the traditional bulb and manual switch is the magical feeling of the automatic light turning on upon your arrival. The feeling is not unlike someone opening the door for you (or the door opening automatically) upon your approach — it is just nice. The door open/close senser offers a similar convenience. You can use it to trigger on a switch, be it a light, set of lights, or another switch. Or, you can use it in the simplest way possible: monitor whether your front door is open or closed, or stays open for longer than x minutes. For me, it is a very basic security system. When the door opens, I get a push notification on my SmartThings app. I can also set the device to send out a text message alerting me to the same. The presence senser scares me a bit, and I will address that shortly.

Sonos Play:1 ($200, amazon.com): Talk about magical. Adding a speaker to my SmartThings network has turned my home into a Siri like creature that talks to me. There are several Sonos smart apps available on SmartThings, and I have tried two. The first is to announce the weather, based on a triggering event or action. I have mine set to speak tomorrow’s weather forecast for my zip code, after 10pm when motion is detected in my living room. The voice gives a succinct forecast without my having to look it up. Nice! The second function I have set up is to play custom messages based on triggering events. When we turn off the TV switch, the Sonos now informs us, “A TV needs to sleep sometimes” — a remark that inspires giggles every time. I also set up a farewell message to air when the front door is first opened each day. This audible part of the smart home experience is really fun. I don’t know what else I want the Sonos to say, but I am on the lookout. Beyond being my home’s audible voice, the Sonos also serves as an excellent portable speaker AND manager of our music. The free Sonos app has the ability to pull tunes from both iTunes and Spotify (and others) into a seamless music stream, and unlike iTunes, allows for the queuing of tracks. It is a deceptively simple and magical device + music software, and I would recommend the Play:1 regardless of whether or not you intend to set up a smart home network. Thanks to consumer electronics DIYer MBD, il miglior fabbro, for tipping me off to the Sonos line of products. I gotta save up my pocket change to try more.

5. Yikes!!! As hinted above, I had a couple of moments when I wondered if I should shut down my entire SmartThings network. While struggling to get my Philips Hue bulbs to respond to my SmartThings app commands, I emailed the SmartThings help desk (which is wonderfully responsive, clear, and thorough) to confirm that my firmware was the most current, and to receive an update if needed. (I later learned that I could have done this myself through my app, but this way was far more instructive as to the security issues of playing with a smart home setup.) Within an hour, I got a reply that not only was my firmware not up to date, but that the friendly agent had gone ahead and pushed out an update. So far so good — I also have a cable TV provider that can do virtual diagnostics and push upgrades, so that didn’t seem awry. Then, he said (paraphrased), “I see you have your Hue bulbs set up directly on SmartThings. I recommend using the Philips hub for improved performance.”

Yikes!!! In that moment, I realized that those very helpful folks could look into my entire smart home setup. That is a lot of information about my home, sitting out in — who knows where the help desk is located or who has access to it. Information is power. Used to help improve my setup, like the firmware upgrade, sharing intimate details about my home setup can be helpful to me. But in the hands of someone who wants to help themselves at my cost — well, the same information could be used to determine whether or not anyone is home in the horror story of the social media- or smart home-qualified empty-home burglary. Knowing this, I felt torn. Once I produce the information, I don’t really have control over where it goes. Heck, I don’t even have control over who gets a hold of my credit card number these days (here’s looking at you, Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Bank of America, and others)!

Based on this awareness, I decided to definitely not use the presence senser, which can hang on a key chain or bag and let your home know when you are home. The presence senser lets you set up convenient actions like triggering the TV or Sonos to turn on automatically when you arrive, and turn off when you leave. I then wondered whether to further limit my exposure by removing the motion senser from the living room, or to take down the SmartThings network entirely. I have not done either yet, mostly because I live in a high rise condo building with full time security, thereby limiting my exposure to the broader elements. But I may change my mind. I feel a little queasy thinking about the what ifs.

Was all this “worth it”? Depends on what you mean. The journey was tremendously educational, both technically and practically. I am inclined to comment, offhand, that:

1. There is no such thing as pure progress in the smart home game. I gained convenience and my home got ‘cooler,’ but I gave away a lot of information in exchange.

2. Just because a household device is “smart” does not mean it is easier to install. Whatever you would normally hire an expert for, you will likely need or at least have on call when installing a smart home version of it. I hobbled through a smart wall switch installation with the help of a YouTube crash course on electricity, but it definitely felt like traipsing through the jungle. While I took all known precautions, I was concerned about electrocuting myself and others. Moreover, my handiwork certainly does not compare to an expert’s wisdom of years and practiced hands.

3. There is a long way to go before prime time. I am a pretty experienced user of consumer electronics. I do my own set up of smart TVs, speakers, printers, repeaters, etc. I regularly restore my own laptop to factory settings and re-add everything to improve performance. I write a little html and C, and can probably still debug my old VB Script in Excel. So, technical enough, but not an engineer by any means. I am more of a logician, but after a while, I did tire of the incessant If This Then That (IFTTT) logic that is required to properly set up each device on the smart home network. IFTTT is a form of simple programming, and not difficult to execute. But to make all your devices work as expected, you have to specifically instruct them. Let’s say you want to set up the following: “If I come home between the hours of 6am and 10am, on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, make the Sonos play Gershwin and turn on the kitchen light.” First, you have to think through all that so you can express it. Then you have to figure out how to input the right selections on the SmartThings app, so your IFTTT command executes properly. Both halves of that can be headache-inducing. Bottom line: You can’t just plug in smart home devices and expect them to work, like you plug in a toaster or coffee maker. After a while, I wanted my smart things to just work.

And honestly, some of what goes on in the SmartThings community forums makes my mouth hang open. Not that I don’t think I can figure out how to fiddle with the firmware on my hub or write my own apps. But consumer electronics are sold ready to perform the likely or most desirable use cases, not ready to be programmed by the consumer to do so. As others have remarked, this field is still very much a land of rich hobbyists.

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