State of our Smart Home 2017
As we head into 2017, after more than three years on our journey to automate our home, it’s a good time to reflect about how far we have come and how the products have changed. While we have a good part of our home connected, we are by no means finished but we have learned a lot along the way.
Single-purpose devices still working as promised
We were early adopters of Nest and bought our two thermostats well before we started AppMyHome. We live in a hot climate so our Nests quickly paid for themselves by turning off the air conditioning when we aren’t home. We also added the Nest Protect smoke/carbon dioxide detectors to our home which not only monitor for smoke and CO2 but also make the thermostats more effective by adding extra motion sensors to the network.
We are also still happily using the Chamberlain MyQ for our garage door opener, the Rachio IRO to control our sprinklers and our Kwikset Kevo smart locks. The Kevo has had a few updates including the Kevo Plus to connect it to to the Internet so we can lock and un-lock our doors remotely.
Many of these single-purpose devices integrate with other platforms, but for the most part we haven’t seen much value of connecting Nest with Kevo or the Rachio with Wink, the apps that come with the devices work just fine and after they are installed they don’t need much tinkering.
Choosing between smart bulbs and switches
We started buying the Philips Hue bulbs when they first started appearing in Apple Stores at the end of 2012. We had a lot of fun turning them on and off with our phones and changing the colors, especially when one of us was traveling and the other at home. We bought quite a few of them and started putting them in different places around the house.
However, we soon noticed a problem with smart light bulbs – the dumb switch. When the physical switch is off, you can’t turn on the light bulb, and when the switch and bulb are out of synch it can just get plain annoying. So we migrated our Hue bulbs upstairs where we don’t use them as much and started installing Z-Wave switches to control our regular LED bulbs instead. Most of our rooms now have a GE/Jasco Z-Wave smart switch that allows us to control them via hubs and/or our Amazon Echo and some we have automated with motion sensors and other triggers through IFTTT.
The only problem with using smart switches is that they are far harder to install than lightbulbs, requiring some basic electrical wiring knowledge, and in general, are more expensive than today’s smart bulbs. A clever new product that bridges the gap is the Switchmate – a switch that magnetically clamps on to a regular switch and mechanically turns it on and off through an app. We use one of these and are looking forward to adding it to our Wink hub when the integration is available.
Finding the best Hub
When we began connecting up our home, we were buying almost every mainstream consumer hub that came out just to try them. We started with SmartThings, then added Iris, Staples Connect and Wink. We nearly bought the Revolv but balked at the nearly $300 price tag, which turned out to be a good move since Google bought it and shut it down a couple years later.
One thing we learned right away was that nearly all these hubs were only connecting to devices over the cloud, which was convenient if we wanted to program devices to turn on and off at sunrise or sunset or control them when we were away, but really slow and frustrating when you are home. When you are trying to turn a light on in your house, it seems silly that the command goes from your phone, out on the internet to some far-away server, then back to the hub in your closet to trigger the light and finally turn it on. The delays were probably only a few seconds but felt like ages.
In 2014, we had been moving a lot of our devices to the Wink Hub, but the response time and the reliability of the platform and the associated Wink Relay got so bad that we went in search of another solution to replace it. At the recommendation of Home Controls, we found the Zipato Zipabox which promised and delivered local control. It was a little pricey since we had to buy additional modules for Zigbee and Z-Wave devices, but after we installed it, our latency problems were gone.
One of the issues we have with hubs in general is that you can only associate Z-Wave switches with one hub at a time, and pairing and un-pairing them from the hub is a time-consuming process. This was not such a big deal at the beginning, but once you have a house full of switches it becomes more of a project to keep switching platforms with no real benefit.
So while we were happy with Zipato, we kept putting off moving everything from our Wink Hub over, mostly because we had some specific groupings in our kitchen tied to our Wink Relay we didn’t want to completely re-do. Even when Wink had a big meltdown and bricked thousands of installed hubs (including ours) with a bad security patch, we stayed with them. It really helped that Wink provides friendly phone support – we probably spent hours talking to tech support trying to troubleshoot issues.
We also have a few devices that only work with our Lowe’s Iris hub – some motion sensors, Orbit faucet controllers and a water leak sensor, so we are still using it, but we haven’t added anything in a long time, especially after we tried the 2nd generation platform. We retired our Staples Connect before they shut the service down, and we never bothered to upgrade to the second generation SmartThings Hub after they were acquired by Samsung.
Amazon Echo changes the game
We bought our first Amazon Echo on a whim when we got the special offer for Prime members to buy it for $99. We weren’t sure what to use it for so it started as a bedroom speaker and alarm clock. Soon we found out that we could also connect our smart home devices to it, and Wink became one of the first hubs to offer integration with Echo.
To our surprise, all the latency problems we were experiencing with our Wink devices vanished when we connected it to the Echo and soon we were telling Alexa to turn on and off our kitchen lights. Our Echo also works with our Philips Hue bulbs and with our Belkin WeMo switches that we thought we didn’t need anymore. Suddenly we were in no hurry to retire our Wink Hub, and even upgraded to the Wink 2, and we started bugging our friends at Zipato for Echo support (which is still pending).
We now have two full-size Amazon Echoes and three Amazon Echo Dots in our house and we can’t imagine our smart home without them. They aren’t perfect yet – they aren’t all tied together and there is a lack of consistency in the different skills that developers are creating for their devices, but the voice recognition works great and talking to your devices is so much more intuitive than pulling out your phone to control things.
Looking forward to 2017
There are still plenty of things for us to continue to explore and experiment with here at AppMyHome. We still haven’t figured out the best security camera to use, there are exciting new smart kitchen gadgets to try, and we would love to somehow automate our window coverings. We only have a few Apple HomeKit devices and we are not totally satisfied with our home entertainment system. We look forward to continuing this journey and keeping you posted on our progress.