What happens when your smart home loses power?
Recently we were one of about 738,000 California households that lost power for a couple of days in Pacific Gas & Electric’s shutdown. We aren’t sure how many smart homes lost power.
While we did have some notice, via emails from PG&E asking us to update our information just in case, we didn’t start taking it seriously until a few hours before the shutdown, when our Facebook and Nextdoor communities started lighting up with people complaining and panicking about the upcoming outage.
Our power went out while we were sleeping, around 12:36 a.m. on October 9. Our Internet went down at the same time, which triggered multiple notifications from our smart home devices.
Unfortunately, a smart home without power is not so smart anymore – most all of our devices need power to work and Internet to communicate with the outside world. It was a great experiment to find out what happens in an extended power outage and how to plan for the next one.
We have a few different applications that monitor the power in our home and the health of our network, and as soon as our power got cut these let us know – in the form of phone notifications or emails.
Both our Fing and our Domotz systems let us know almost immediately that the Internet was disconnected, almost right to the minute when the power went out.
We also have a Sense power monitor attached to our electrical box outside our house. You would think this would be one of the first things to let us know, but ironically we didn’t hear from it for almost an hour and a half, via email.
Our SmartThings smart home hub that controls some of our lights, sensors and other automations inside our house let us know pretty quickly that the power was down, both by phone notification and email.
We received all of these notifications from the different devices because when the cloud services can’t communicate with our home, they let us know. The devices didn’t know whether it was the power or the Internet that was down, just that they couldn’t communicate.
Since we were home when it happened, once we woke up it was pretty obvious that the power was out, but knowing the exact timing was helpful so we could gauge how long we had before our food started to spoil.
Even if we had a battery backup for our cable modem and our router, Comcast still lost power so the whole network in our area was shutdown. Unlike PG&E and our local water utility, Comcast did not notify us of the impact of the power shutdown, or that the service was disconnected or restored. Comcast could have been more proactive so customers knew what to expect.
Out of service
Most of our smart home devices are plugged in and/or are controlling things that need power. So most of our home stopped functioning – no Alexa, no doorbell, no lights, no cameras. We couldn’t open our garage door (well – if we were strong enough to lift it we could have) but luckily we were smart enough to leave our car outside.
Mark uses a CPAP machine at night, and fortunately a couple of years ago he upgraded to the Phillips DreamStation Go and bought the backup battery. This was the first chance he had to test it out, and it worked great – his sleep went on uninterrupted during the first night of the outage. By the way, his insurance company paid for the machine, but not for the battery, he had to cover that himself.
We also have a few smart home solutions that were not fully functional, but did keep protecting us through the power outage thanks to battery power.
The Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are hard-wired, but they include long-lasting batteries as required by state law. So while the power was out they kept working and would have alerted us if there was an issue while we were at home. While the power was out, the Guide Lights on the Nest Protects kept working, which was handy to help light our paths as we moved near them in the darkness.
Our Guardian Water Leak Detection system also has a battery back-up and kept protecting us while the power was out. The leak sensors in our laundry room and under the sink are wireless and battery-powered, so if they had detected any water, the Guardian would have automatically shut off the system. We could also go outside and push the button on the Guardian to shut the water off manually if necessary.
No remote access
Without power and the Internet, we could no longer remotely manage our smart home. While the smoke detectors and the water leak detection system were working inside the house, if there had been any incident, we would not have received any notifications. Without the Internet and the cloud, there was no way for us to connect to these devices and see what was going on. While our doors remain locked while we were gone, we could not lock or unlock them remotely.
We have one battery-powered camera with a solar panel, the Ring Stick Up Cam, but since it doesn’t have any local storage, it might have been on but wasn’t recording anything. We do have a lot of cameras with local storage, but they all use AC power, so they were useless.
No Power or Internet required
Our only smart home device that kept functioning without power and Internet were the MySmartBlinds in our offices and a few other rooms. These are all battery and solar-powered, opening and closing automatically at sunrise and sunset, or whenever the temperature reaches a certain point during the heat of the day. Since these are already programmed and are powered by the sun and internal battery, they continued opening and closing on their own. Since these use Bluetooth Low-Energy, if we had wanted to control these manually, we could have used the phone app.
Aftermath and Recovery
Once power was restored, we found out immediately when our devices started coming back online. Domotz, Fing and SmartThings sent notifications and emails, and some of our cameras started coming back up and sending notifications as well.
Once we got home we noticed a few things not working as well as when we left. We heard clicking in the garage that we traced to a Z-Wave smart switch controlling our camera in our side yard. After some investigation, it seems that switch did not survive the power cycle and needed to be replaced. Fortunately we had a spare. Now the side yard camera is back online.
We also noticed that a lot of our in-home automations stopped working. We have several different lights triggered by motion sensors – in the laundry room, bathroom, shower, and closet that didn’t work. Some of our Alexa commands we normally use also stopped working. At one point we actually had to get out of bed and turn off the lamp with a pull-cord. Oh the horror!
After some investigation we traced these issues to our main smart home hub, Wink, that we have been using since 2014. Once we started troubleshooting, we noticed that Wink itself was having some problems, so coincidentally our stuff stopped working around the same time. As of today, their server status site we usually use is down and they have stopped answering their support line.
We had been concerned about the health of the company for some time, so we took this as a sign that it was time to move on. We were already using the SmartThings hub so we migrated everything there and retired our Wink hub for good. So far the devices we moved are working fine.
Considerations for the future
We were fortunate this time we were home and knew there was a power outage. Imagine if we came home after a trip and didn’t know the power had been out for almost 48 hours. We would never know that our food had spoiled. We have started investigating battery-powered sensors for the fridge that can track temperature over time – so if this happens again we will know if our food is safe to eat.
We would also like to have backup for our cable Internet – according to Comcast, our local provider, their Internet equipment lost power at the same time we did – so even if we had a Universal Power Supply for our modem and router, the Internet would have still gone down. It would be great to have a cellular backup so we could still access parts of our home remotely.
What we learned
We knew this power outage was coming and were home to deal with everything, so we were lucky to have very few serious problems. The temperature was mild so we didn’t need air conditioning or heat. We didn’t have too much food in our fridge and freezer, and since we were able to relocate for a couple days we took most all of it with us and only lost a jar of peanut butter.
But our most important lesson was that losing the power and the Internet means we can no longer keep track of our house from afar. While systems like the Nest Protect and Guardian can keep us safe from issues inside the house, if we weren’t home we would never know if there was a fire or water leak until we returned (or sent a neighbor to check). Even if we rigged up a camera with both a battery and local storage, we couldn’t see what was going on real-time without the Internet.
It turns out that a smart home without power and Internet isn’t so smart after all.