This past month I’ve been keeping the Amazon delivery drivers in business with numerous purchases to set my home up as “smart.” I wanted to go through the process to be able to tell you guys about the wonder of the new world of home automation. But, umm, well, I don’t think I’m the advocate the smart home industry was hoping for. I also interviewed some of our best friends, The Simon family, about their smart home experiences, and they offered great perspectives. (You may remember that I interviewed the Simon girls about their use of social media!)
My reluctant conclusion: I just don’t think I need most of this stuff. But you may… as long as you don’t do what I did.
My Smart Home Shopping List
Before I get started on the lessons, here are the smart devices I purchased:
- Five Smart Smoke Alarms at more than $100 each.
Our smoke alarms have been malfunctioning, and we had to replace them anyway, so this was almost a “need.” They will alert you in advance that the batteries are low, and they’ll notify you of alarms via the app. Although it is hard to pay $550+ to outfit a home with smoke alarms, these may be worth it, especially since they also monitor CO2 levels.
- A Smart Light Bulb starter kit for $63.
I went with Philips Hue for the smart bulbs, and they’re kind of a pain. You have to set up a hub somewhere in the house, then each bulb connects to the hub. It was easy to set up, and the app works well. I especially loved how well it fit into the Apple Home infrastructure. I can ask Siri to turn off or on any light in the network.
- An additional Smart Bulb that changes color for $45.
What was I thinking? The last time I “needed” a colored light bulb was for my 16th birthday party. But I spent $45 for one bulb that I can turn Caribbean yellow? Jay Simon said he loved the lights for holiday decor, such as red/green for Christmas, orange for Halloween and so on. Others have told me that they used the color bulbs during a Superbowl party to celebrate a team’s touchdown with the team colors. Whatever. It’s not something I need.
- A Smart Plug for $35.
I chose a WeMo device that plugs into an outlet. Then you plug whatever you want to control into the wifi-enabled outlet so you can turn it on and off remotely. I tried a fan. Getting the WeMo to connect to the wifi network was a total pain. I was about to give up when it finally worked.
- An Amazon Fire TV Stick voice-activated streaming video device for $40.
Ok, this isn’t exactly a home automation device, but I LOVE this thing! We have a smart TV and Roku, but they took a little finagling to use, and when I was away, my poor hubby couldn’t access Netflix or Hulu because he didn’t (have the patience to) learn how to access them. But I reprogrammed our Logitech Harmony remote control so he just needs to push one button on that device then go to the Amazon Fire Stick remote, where he can speak the program or category he wants to find and quickly watch what he wants. I’m so proud of him!
- A Google Home device for $120.
This one sits in my office, but I don’t use it much. Sometimes I ask it to do a calculation, but since it’s right here where I work, I find it easier to just Google things myself. Sometimes I ask it for my calendar events, but again, my computer is sitting right there in front of it, so I’d rather type than talk.
- An Amazon Echo device for $180.
I bought this last year on Amazon Prime Day when it was on sale. Check out the video review from last summer. I use the Echo all the time for music — just tell it an artist or a genre, and it’ll create a playlist. I also ask Alexa to give me news briefings and the weather. We have this one in the living room, but I’m seriously considering one for the bedroom as well — but not the one with video features. A new Echo feature lets me “call” my device from my app. I’m going to freak my husband out the next time I go on a trip by calling him. #LittleNerdyJoysMy friend Jeanie Simon says she loves their Echo as well. She uses it mostly for music and weather like I do. The grocery list option sounds good on paper, but Jeanie says she never knows what other people in her household have purchased from the grocery list, so she just skips it.
Four Dumb Things I Did While Setting Up My Smart Home
- I focused on the “want” instead of the “need.”
My goals for setting up smart devices revolved around letting you guys know what I learned, so I bought stuff willy-nilly just to try them out. I didn’t really think through what problems the smart home might solve for me. Truth is, in our small home with our household of two, we just don’t have many problems. Light switches are usually no more than 10 feet away from any spot in the house. We did need new smoke detectors, but the added connectivity was definitely a “want.” And if it wasn’t my job to review these things, I wouldn’t have purchased them.I did have one real need for my devices. My side of the bed is on the far end of the room. I have zero night vision, so I’m forever groping my way to my side. I thought that I could set up a device on my side that I could turn on and off via voice so I could get over there. But with the setup we have now, I’d have to YELL my command to get the living room device to hear it. And that would be annoying.
So the best solution for my biggest problem? I should have bought “The Clapper.”
- I forgot about other people in the house.
My dear husband is far from a Luddite (despite the fact that he couldn’t operate our remote controls to watch Netflix until now). But as I set things up around the house, I realized that not only would I have to install everything on his phone, I’d also have to teach him how to operate all the different devices since we could no longer just turn things on and off at a switch. I imagined having conversations like, “Ok, honey, from now on when you want to turn on the fan, go to my office and say, ‘Ok, Google. Toggle WeMo.’ And then the fan will come on!” And then I thought about how he was conditioned by his father to turn out every light when leaving a room. “Ok, honey, from now on, we have to leave all the switches on, and you have to turn them off by finding your phone or speaking into one of the devices, which each have different commands to control the lights.” Yeah. Umm. No.Jeanie Simon says this is a problem at her house as well. “It drives me crazy that I can’t just walk over and turn out a light. I can do it from my phone, but sometimes I don’t even know where my phone is!”
Jeanie and D.J. are both pretty savvy and open to new technologies, but what about other people in your home? The kids? When company comes? Are you going to be able to easily teach everyone the system quickly?
- I have yet to streamline all the commands.
This was a problem I really didn’t see coming. Apple Home makes it pretty easy to use Siri to control the lights with Philip Hue, but some of the connections require third-party automators like my beloved IFTTT. A HUGE problem with IFTTT and other voice-activated tools is that you have to come up with a phrase to do things with the lights. And then you have to REMEMBER that exact phrase. I set up an automation to turn my outside light on/off with the Amazon Echo, but I have to remember whether I called it the “front porch” or the “front door.” And I have to set individual recipes for each light bulb in the Hue community. I set up a couple of them like the front porch/door, then got lazy and just set up one to “toggle lights.” But that means that they’ll all toggle at the same time. My husband came home from work early one day and the front porch/door light was on because it had toggled the wrong way. He wasn’t impressed and just switched it off at the switch. So that’s the end of that.
- I forgot about setup time.
I thought I’d just throw everything together one morning and try stuff out, but it wasn’t that easy. Each light bulb, device, plug, etc., had to be installed individually and connected to both the wifi and the app — individual apps for most. And then the apps and tools had to be integrated into other apps and tools. And then you had to try everything out. And then your husband comes along and turns off the switch, and…. It has been a few weeks since I bought everything. If we have a fire on the floor near the easy chair, we’re protected because the five smoke alarms are sitting in a box in the living room. I had an electrician use a smart light switch from WeMo when he installed new lights in the garage. I haven’t bothered to set it up. My husband accidentally (“accidentally?”) turned off the WeMo plug, and it takes forever to connect to wifi, so that one is useless. Several years ago I bought a wifi-connected scale, which disconnected when the wifi went out for a couple of hours once. I never reconnected it. So there’s that.
How Do You Use Smart Home Technology?
Now that you’ve heard my ups and downs of automating my home, what has been your experience? I didn’t try out security devices, thermostats or any major smart appliances. Tell me how you’ve used them!