Editor’s Note: At this week’s CES extravaganza in Las Vegas we anticipate being overwhelmed by new devices for home automation, connected homes, and the Internet of Things. But as Marty Winston tells us, just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s the right solution for your house.
When a Retrofit Isn’t a Fit for Home Automation
You’ve seen the stuff: turn on the lights automatically, answer the door when you aren’t even home, know immediately when the plumbing leaks.
Could you? Should you?
Well, you’re a grown-up, so you can if you want to, but paying for smart home products isn’t always the smartest thing to do.
Light ‘Em if You’ve Got ‘Em
Want to turn a light on or off? There’s the switch – get off your butt and just do it. Want to turn a lamp on and off automatically? A timer costs a lot less than home automation gizmos. Want to always have a light come on when somebody walks down a hall in the dark? There are fairly inexpensive things that do that, too. Why do you want automation to turn your lights on and off anyway?
We know what the real answer is for most of the people who buy into home automation products: they want to brag, to show off, to say look what I can do with my smartphone. If that’s important to you, a few hundred bucks, more or less, probably won’t put you on the only ever Ramen Noodle diet.
The Historical Tradition of Ugly
The first home automation systems used something called X10 and involved little things plugged in everywhere with wires running among them. The first do-it-yourself home alarm systems had lots of little adhesive-bottom things you’d stick everywhere and run wires between them. Stereo systems and home theater systems had stuff on shelves and speakers along walls and wires running everywhere between them. In just about every case, those installations lasted no more than a few weeks when the spouse finally commanded, “get that ugly (expletive, expletive) out of my living room.”
It wasn’t just the wires. Modern home automation products put little white blobs everywhere, some plugged into outlets as little blocky wall warts, some stuck in other places as shelf lumps or wall measles. The tradition of spousal objection has not diminished.
If ugly isn’t in the eye of the beholder, it is assuredly in the eye of the beholder’s spouse.
Taking Batteries for Granted
If it isn’t in a wall outlet, something has to power it, so most of the population of home automation products use batteries, anything from coin cells to the familiar letter sizes. Most will claim to have a battery life between 3 months and 5 years. They probably don’t.
However long they keep working, at some point, batteries fade and die. With a flashlight, or even with a TV remote control, that’s pretty easy to tell. With a gizmo that alerts you to a water leak, it might be that there is no leak or it might be that the batteries have been dead for the past 3 months. With a gizmo that reports the temperature or air quality or ambient light to a hub that runs other gizmos, chances are the overall automation will have to degrade a lot before it finally dawns on you that it isn’t working like you wanted. Most people blame the hub and tear it out and put it in a box with the old VCR and take out the other pieces they see or remember, but not all of them.
They might catch the others later when the batteries leak and ruin something.
If it’s really, truly, sincerely important to you that you buy into something automated, make sure you know everything involved to get it to work. Remember, it costs less to bring in the plumber or the electrician ahead of time than to try doing it yourself then bringing them in to fix it, and that’s assuming you haven’t hurt yourself in the process.
Think about what automation really means for the product you’re considering. Is it really taking a chore away from you, or just adding one? If you have to go to where your smartphone is every time you want something to happen, where are you ahead? If it’s as simple as controlling a single thing in a convenient way, check for products that do only that.
Retrofits Can Give You Fits
Do you want to add automation to your lighting? How much juice does each light draw? Is it incandescent, fluorescent or LED? The most reliable products get installed in the gang box or replace the fixture – this is also true for the wall switches and most of the sensors that detect motion or ambient light; some of those need their own gang box and new wiring.
Electronic deadbolts seem provocative but they’re not yet perfect. Many are easier to break into than standard deadbolts. Some of them lock you out when their batteries die. And really, is reaching for your smart phone an easier way to get in than reaching for a key? We’re also hearing more and more stories about people finding ways to hack these and let themselves in without an invitation.
When to Put Home Automation in Quotes
If you’re talking about ways to make things in your home more automated, that’s fine; the thermostat and the pop-up toaster are familiar examples of that happening.
But in quotes, “home automation” is a product category populated by people who care more about making sales than keeping promises – or by people whose companies decided it’s a growth category and they should find a way to play in it, too. About a third of the vendor people we talk to truly want their products to be helpful.
New Construction Versus Retrofit
The most reliable home automation gizmos connect by wires, and adding them into the walls and ceilings before the plasterboard goes up is a lot easier than trying to thread them through later. It gets easier to hide things so the ugly factor doesn’t rear its head. And you can work with the plumbers, electricians, and other trades to make sure the installations are not amateur.
As a Rule, There are Exceptions
Yes, there are things you can retrofit that are truly helpful and can make sense. We like the Sensi WiFi thermostat and Ecovent Systems whole-house comfort wares; together, they cut down energy use, give you more comfort for less money and can let HVAC systems run longer before they need major repairs.
If you get water leaks, a plumber can help you install a Waxman LeakSmart system that can automatically cut off the main water line when it senses a leak.
Be selective and you may find a few such easy pieces yourself.
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