Smart Doesn’t Always Mean an Easy Home


Philips Hue lights have color-changing bulbs that can be programmed.

Philips Lighting

There’s a reason they call them Smart Homes, not Easy Homes.

Just ask Ken Hutchinson. Mr. Hutchinson is a tech professional who wanted the option of controlling the lights at his family’s century-old, eight-bedroom Brooklyn Victorian by phone, to make it look occupied when the family was away. In 2013, he bought Z-Wave wireless home automation components to control the outdoor and indoor lights, some wall outlets and a door lock.

But setting up the system turned out to be a “herculean task,” Mr. Hutchinson said. Eventually, he got the lights to work remotely, but the door lock never did, so he quit trying.

Still, Mr. Hutchinson didn’t give up entirely on home automation. Last fall, he installed an internet-connected thermostat from Ecobee, with remote temperature sensors in various rooms. And this time around, it was a very different experience.

“It’s so much easier,” he said. “It’s ultimately what I am looking for: Fire it up, take some time setting it up, then it just works.”

These days, even a technophobe can set up a remote-control light switch or thermostat and operate it by phone. Improvements in technology, including voice recognition, artificial intelligence and more affordable sensors, have made home automation easier to use. Cheaper, too.

The smart home still isn’t perfect — or easy, exactly. But if you haven’t used any of this technology yet, it might be time to start thinking about it. Here’s what you need to know first.

What Is This Stuff?

Smart home technology is a catchall term that includes household appliances and devices that connect to the internet, so you can see and control them remotely using a phone, tablet or computer. That can mean being able to turn on a single lamp, or controlling and monitoring almost everything in a house, including heating and cooling, security cameras, lawn sprinklers, televisions, stereos, robotic vacuums, a doorbell, door locks, lights, air quality, fire alarms, baby monitors and more. It means you’ll always have the answer to the question, “Did I leave the stove on?”

Smart devices address household problems great and small. For Adam Justice, a vice president of Grid Connect, the ConnectSense outlet made by the company ended a perpetual spat. “It solves the problem of my wife and I both being in bed and arguing over who is going to get up to turn out the lights,” he said. “So you could say it solves marital problems.”

Internet-connected thermostats tackle a larger issue, energy conservation, although most people probably buy them to increase comfort and save money. Nest, another company making smart thermostats, says it has saved 7.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity since 2011, enough to power 10,000 homes for seven years, and estimates its average user has an annual cost saving of around 13 percent, or about $138.


The Apple HomeKit will act as a central controller for home devices from a phone or computer with the company’s next software update, due out this fall.


Making Connections

If you stick to a single system — say, all lights or electrical outlets from the same manufacturer — setup is pretty easy. But chances are, you’ll want to use products from more than one company, and that’s where the difficulty comes in: Different brands use different technology, and they don’t always talk to each other.

To solve this issue, various companies are vying to become the universal translator and central controller for all your home devices. The leaders in this effort at the moment are Apple, with HomeKit, and Amazon Echo, with the Alexa assistant. Both use voice control, so you can tell your various lights and switches what you want them to do without having to open a separate app for each one. Apple and Amazon share software with other manufacturers, so many companies’ products work reliably with their central controls.

Other contenders include Google, which is working on its own home voice-control system; Samsung, which has a system called SmartThings that works with Alexa; and possibly Microsoft, which has hinted that its voice assistant, Cortana, might eventually be used for home control.

The chief appeal of Apple’s HomeKit is that it’s comparatively easy to set up and use. Devices are paired with your phone or tablet, in much the same way you’d connect a Bluetooth headset or speaker, only with more steps. And the company’s next software update, due this fall, will group all the controls on one screen, so you can run your whole house from a single app. The downside: HomeKit doesn’t have as many accessories as some other systems do.

Amazon Echo’s Alexa is more versatile. Some users find that the system’s voice recognition works better than Siri’s, and there’s an IFTTT app (an acronym for the computer command “if this then that”) that allows you to devise your own commands. Users can also share the commands they make, like one that automatically turns off a GE Wi-Fi Connect oven when your phone, watch or tablet is out of Bluetooth range or another that sends your phone a picture of anyone who rings your Netatmo Welcome camera doorbell.

But tricks like these take some know-how to set up and manage. And neither Apple nor Amazon makes the plugs, switches and sensors that their systems run, which is why these systems can be a technological patchwork. Some of the accessories communicate by Wi-Fi; others use Bluetooth, radio or electrical lines, or a combination.

Of course, there are smart home accessory manufacturers that have their own complete systems. Insteon, for example, makes a hub that translates signals, allowing Siri or Alexa to talk to more than 100 devices it makes, the company says. But while investing in any fast-changing new technology is risky, going with a less prominent brand could be even riskier. Ask those who bought smart-home hubs from the company Revolv. The hubs they invested in are now entirely useless, since Google bought the company in 2014 and shut down Revolv’s servers.

Beyond the Basics

Once you’ve installed and run a simple accessory, like an on/off switch, you should feel comfortable enough to try something a little more complicated.

You might start by creating “scenes,” which send instructions to several devices with a single voice command. This can take some time to set up, as you have to tell the central control what you want each of the individual devices to do. But by issuing a simple command like “Let’s watch a movie,” you could have the curtains close, the lights dim and the television and DVD player turn on.

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