Home automation continues to evolve. Some call it a solution in search of a problem. My experience stretches back to the 1980s with Radio Shack branded X10 Plug ‘n Power products. My earliest apartment included remote control lights.
I continued to my aging X10 modules until 2015 when I cast a wide post-CES net for new home automation technology in the lead-up to a GeekWire story on the topic (see 5 things you need to know about home automation, and where the industry is falling short). I continue to receive home automation products and to review them. Frustrations remain. As much as I use them every day, I still find plenty of issues, so I thought it was time to document my top five observations of awesomeness and another five on why it continues to suck.
5 ways home automation is awesome
Amazon Echo and Alexa replace apps. At the end of this post, I list the hardware in my home. Most would say I am crazy to have so many brands of technology integrated into my home. They aren’t wrong. But when you write reviews, you end up with starter kits for every brand you look at, along with extra plugs and bulbs, and some auxiliary sensors. Alexa’s device feature brings them all together. I no longer need to worry about proprietary apps (most of the time). Amazon’s services control the ons and the offs. Set-up is also easy, as Alexa discovers compatible devices.
Speech replaces taps. Before Echo, I needed dozens of proprietary apps, one for each brand. Today, I only deploy switches that talk Alexa. The proprietary apps remain on my phone, but I rarely use them, as I have signed into the appropriate skill on the Alexa service and run everything through Alexa, mostly by voice, occasionally through a tap in the app, but almost exclusively voice. Name things in a logical way (like Dan Light, Janet Light, Bedroom light) and you should have no problem remembering device names. Alexa isn’t without its own challenges (see this post) but it’s pretty good at turning lights on and off.
Home automation mostly works. Alexa, I ask my older Polk smart soundbar, turn on bonus room lights. “I am having trouble connecting,” I am told. Older devices have a harder time recovering from power outages than newer ones, but for the most part, my home hums while the power is on. Every once in a while a gremlin appears that sucks the signal from the edges of my home, leaving living room lights either on or not turning them on in the first place. This issue has become rarer with newer devices, and newer Xfinity routers, but it does still occasionally happen.
You can control or monitor almost anything. Many devices from televisions and refrigerators to crock pots and speakers include Wi-Fi interfaces. As much as I love technology, I still buy dumb appliances. They are less expensive and less likely to have a peripheral feature fail, like a display or logic circuits.
I had a traditional thermostat for years on my heating and cooling system. Puget Sound energy paid for a Honeywell Wi-Fi replacement. I now have a traditional thermostat again, installed after the Honeywell unit stopped working. I want a Wi-Fi thermostat solution, but I’m worried about investing in a technology that may need replacing more often.
At some point, however, some items, like thermostats may become required technology as power agencies seek to reach into homes as contingencies during strains on the power grid. In the meantime, I’m content controlling my lights, and looking like I’m home even when I’m not home. Bottom line: If you want an appliance, device, or entertainment system to talk to your network, you can probably find it.
The cost has come way down. Amazon regularly sells basic Wi-Fi switches for a couple of dollars. They come in multipacks. That means everyone with Wi-Fi can invoke the magic of remote lights, often without a hub. A phone and an app will suffice, especially if you keep it simple. Higher-end devices, of course, cost more, but they are now in-line with non-Wi-Fi devices–and because the Wi-Fi chips sets have also come down in price, lower-end devices are picking up wireless features.
5 ways home automation still sucks
Smart light bulbs are stupid. I replaced all incandescent and fluorescent bulbs in my home with LEDs, but they are all dumb LEDs. I have removed all smart light bulbs from my home. I have several. Some were relegated to LED bulbs in lamps with WiFi switches, others sit unilluminated in a drawer.
The big problem: resetting a light bulb requires turning it on and off in a particular sequence until it flashes to confirm the reset. As the price of switches dropped, I decided I had spent too many hours resetting lightbulbs and replaced all of them with smart plugs. At least the plugs offer fairly intuitive reset processes reached via a button.
2.4Ghz only devices. If you want cheap, you might buy a 2.4Ghz only switch. The problem: some expensive stuff also works only with 2.4Ghz networks. I run my home on a high-end Xfinity plan. I rent their router. Most of the time it works well, but it sometimes doesn’t reach the furthest walls of my home. So, I purchased Xfinity Pods. Pods unfortunately force a combined, or hybrid, network, where 2.4Ghz coexists with 5Ghz, and now WiFi 6—devices choose what works best for them. Except the devices that don’t have a choice, except to connect or not. Most choose not to.
I have some pretty cool devices, like new Netatmo weather gear that refuses to work on my network. There may be workarounds in the router’s settings, but I’m not going to dig into my router and risk opening it up to attacks. It’s time for vendors to move away from chipsets that only support 2.4Ghz and ship everything so that it works on modern networks. (see Obsolesce below for more on what comes next).
Lack of standards. The problem isn’t the lack of standards, but their proliferation. My home includes WiFi, Insteon, WeMo, and Zigbee. I have a drawer full of unused Z-Wave devices because GE no longer supports my Wink Z-Wave hub. Well, they no longer offer the promised free service. So my Wink experience winked out. Apple’s HomeKit plays a very small role in my home, despite my otherwise strong connection to the Apple ecosystem.
Apple HomeKit devices just didn’t catch on like low-cost WiFi switches. Why implement one standard when another is more universally accepted? I have a couple of products that don’t fit into any ecosystem very well. While they remain plugged-in, they don’t integrate which makes me doubt that should my hot water heater sensor go off if I will see the alert of not.
Power outages. The power goes out. The power comes back on. My house lights up, even if lights were off when the power went off. For many devices, the default state after a power outage is on. So I wait for the WiFi to kick back in, and then start manually turning off rooms, by app or voice. Alexa makes this much easier than when I used individual apps, but it still takes time.
If the lights come back on in the middle of the night, I use cameras to peer into the various rooms to see what is on and what is off. Some switches don’t reconnect, so the next morning, I wander over, unplug them, and plug them back in. So far, that works to reset them, but they need to be smarter.
I would love to see Amazon include a power outage automation that scans the network once the power comes back on and, based on time of day, executes commands to put the home back into the right state for that time of day. It knows what was connected before the outage, if should be able to figure out how to get back to the right state. It would also be useful if when the power came back on Alexa would let me know which devices it failed to connect with.
Don’t let any vendor sell you a bill of goods. There is no way to future proof a smart home.
Obsolesce. And I’m afraid, that as the world progresses, many of my devices will be left behind. Traditional light switches and plugs may have changed aesthetically over the years, but they function the same regardless of appearance. Now enter a world where every homeowner outfits their home with switches and plugs that run on a variety of potential proprietary technologies—and if not proprietary, and least brand specific to the point that they require a branded app, a working cloud service, and a branded Alexa skill to make them work.
Part of the homeowner transition will now require handing over apps and passwords—however, it may also be that some of those components were purchased by companies that no longer exist, and weren’t bought out—in other words, their lifespan is likely limited. Traditional hardware wore out, but it rarely became obsolete (yes, I know, in the U.S. all new homes come with 3-prong electrical outlets, but they are fully backward compatible). Don’t let any vendor sell you a bill of goods. There is no way to future proof a smart home.
Turning off the commentary
I still love to see my lights come on by themselves over the course of the evening, and then quietly retire without me doing a thing. When I want to intervene in the cycle of light, I can pretty simply, by telling my Amazon Echo to turn off a device. But this idyllic narrative isn’t without its frustrations. The home automation market remains fragmented, highly proprietary in many ways, although cheap devices make it inexpensive to swap out failed or obsolete components, it remains an extra layer of maintenance. And keep in mind, the devices you run today won’t likely be the one you will want in a decade.
My inventory of home automation devices
- Amazon Alexa
- Harmony/Logitech (Retired)
- Ilumi (retired)
- Polk Connect
- Wink (retired)
- Tessan/Smart Life
- iHome Control
Got a home automation device you want me to evaluate. Let me know here.
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