Nick DeLena adjusts his thermostat from Nest Labs in his home on August 12, 2013 in West Newbury, Massachusetts.
Christian Science Monitor—Christian Science Monitor/Getty
By John Patrick Pullen
September 9, 2015

As I sit down at my desk to write this story, it’s 2:01 p.m. My office is 77 degrees Fahrenheit, but just downstairs it’s 72 degrees in the hallway and kitchen. The bedrooms are slightly warmer at 73 and 75. Also, the back door is closed, but the window near it is open. The main entrance is also shut, but I have a clear view right into the front yard. Speaking of which, the UPS guy is here, so I’ll be right back…

Okay, I’ve returned. It’s now 2:31 p.m. (If you must know, I write slowly and took a detour on the way to work.) But what I was getting to earlier is that none of the conditions I just shared came from my own observations. From my basement laundry room to my attic office, my house is covered in Internet-connected sensors.

I spend about 96% of my life here. Really, 96% — I calculated that figure based upon the opening and closing of the door I typically exit and enter from, a thing you can do if you’re a data obsessed shut-in, a work-from-smart home writer, or both. And in that time I’ve learned quite a bit about how the smart home works (or doesn’t).

Here are five truths I’ve uncovered while co-existing with an array of gadgets and sensors.

1. Phone equals home

Don’t let the marketers fool you — we’re still at the early stages of the smart home. And so far, it’s become clear that the smartphone is the most important connected device in the house. Of course, companies like Logi (formerly Logitech) think you should use their smart remote control to turn on your lights or lock your doors; Wink, meanwhile, offers a lovely, wall-mounted, touchscreen controller to flip all your various digital switches; and Nest has positioned Learning Thermostat as the switchboard for all your digital wares.

But the reality is, as disparate as all these devices are — and believe me, they aren’t all inter-compatible — you don’t just need a smartphone to set them all up, but you’ll also be continually tweaking them via your handset along the way. This is troublesome because…

2. House guests are the worst

Even in dumb houses, guests may be burdensome, but once you put them in a smart home, look out, because they become even worse. But it’s not their fault. Imagine explaining to someone how your entertainment center/television/cable box works — something many of us have to do with babysitters, pet sitters, and even just friends who come over to watch the game. Now multiply that hassle by eleven — that’s what it’s like trying to instruct someone on how your smart home works.

For example, when you set up rule-based lighting, it’s programmed against your personal timing preferences or geolocation, not theirs. In fact, forget guests — I’ve even jumped all over my wife for turning the lights on in the kitchen the wrong way. And I’m not alone. Fortune’s Stacy Higginbotham had a similar experience with her Philips Hue lights and her husband.

“There were a few times when my husband rolled over and seriously questioned my commitment to smart home technology — an emerging category of futuristic household conveniences — and, more importantly, his commitment to me,” she writes.

Likewise, smart thermostats will go on and off without peoples’ interference, but if someone turns them up or down, it can muck up your programmable preferences. If “mi casa es su case,” should others be free to turn on the lights or turn down the air conditioning? Of course. But the question arises, whose owns the smart home, the homeowner or the homeowners’ rules and preferences?

Also, if you’re running all these controls through your smartphone, guests have limited ways to turn things off and on, anyway. Of course the switches still work, but sometimes it gets out of whack, much like how a universal remote will confuse the inputs on your TV. Here’s a recommendation even for people who don’t have a smart home (yet): The next time you buy a new smartphone, don’t sell off your old one. It’s much more valuable as a centralized smart home remote for guests and co-occupants alike.

3. Not all sensors are created equally

I currently have five door/window sensors in my home. The back door and window devices are Quirky Tripper Sensors, and they work great. Installation was as easy as pulling off a sticker and mounting them to the door and window jams. The app picked them right up, and I’ve got a notification on my iPhone (or Apple Watch) within five seconds of them tripping, ever since.

Meanwhile, on the side door, a Presence Entry Sensor captures the comings and goings. Well, sort of. Installation was a fight between myself and the sensor’s manual reset button, and it took several tries to get the matchbox-sized device to detect its hub (which is connected to my Wi-Fi router). Now it works most of the time, but that’s more than I can say for the two other Presence Entry Sensors that have been packed away back in the box. They both connected briefly, but never again to my home’s network, much to my swearing and chagrin.

Sadly, this experience was par for the course with the sensors in Presence’s Security Pack: The motion sensor is spot on, the water sensor wouldn’t stay connected, the temperature sensor is always on and accurate, and the touch sensor is too touchy. In fact, I put the touch sensor in my curbside mailbox so I’d be alerted when the mailman came. Not only did that sensor stay connected, but it sent my phone a notification every time the wind blew. Since that wouldn’t do, I removed the touch sensor and placed it on a shelf in my kitchen. It now alerts me every time someone speaks too loudly at the dinner table. Forget the connected self; I have a connected shelf.

In essence, all these sensors are the same device, but I cannot explain why Quirky’s work and many of Presence’s don’t. But that’s par for the smart home course. I have connectivity problems with about 20% of the products I try out. The funny thing is that a lot of these technologies (like Zigbee) have been around for years, so you’d think they have them working smoothly by now.

4. IFTTT is where it’s at

At this time last year, it seemed like the smart home was going to be the next battlefront for tech heavyweights like Google and Apple. In buying Nest, Google gained a foothold in peoples’ digital domiciles, and then Nest (so, therefore, Google) bought Dropcam, which meant they had more than just a foot in the door. Meanwhile, Apple’s HomeKit standard was kicking up excitement among iPhone users and smart home gadget makers alike.

In the outside lane of this horserace was a service called IFTTT (If This Then That), a startup that was piece-mealing together various gadgets and services. Fast-forward to today, and it’s this smart home owner’s opinion that there’s no better way to connect the disparate array of smart home devices than IFTTT. And it does the job without hardware requirements or specific coding demands. But of course, to use the app, you’ll need a smart phone.

5. System maintenance is the new household chore

Wash the dishes, make the bed, take out the trash — all things we must do to keep a tidy home. Turning your dwelling into a smart home introduces yet another obstacle to your day: system maintenance. This is because no matter the gadget — whether it’s Wi-Fi connected lightbulbs or a web security camera — it’s going to misfire more frequently than you’d like. Your solutions consist of diving into gadgets’ respective apps and setting things straight again, or unplugging the smart home gear, letting them reset, and starting over again. At the moment, I have more than a dozen devices whirring away in my home, and I’d estimate that I need to correct at least one of them once per week. Some even require righting several times per day. In other words, as much as these modern conveniences improve our lives, they definitely can take a toll on your patience.

On the other hand, I never have to turn on my porch light at night, or off in the morning. If someone nabs an Amazon delivery off my porch, my Dropcam can catch an image of them in the act. With my Ecobee3 thermostat, I know what the temperature is in my baby’s room. So if resetting an app or rebooting my router is the cost of those conveniences, I’ll gladly pay, because despite the all-to-regular hiccups, this tech really does streamline my daily life.

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