Home Automation: Increasingly Affordable

Home automation has long been the domain of the upper middle class and wealthy. Expensive, professionally installed proprietary systems have traditionally dominated the home automation landscape.

The rise of mobile tech and ubiquitous wireless communications—combined with less expensive and more powerful sensors and electronics—are finally enabling the availability of relatively affordable devices. Most feature leading-edge functionality and the ability to control them from anywhere in the world using your favorite mobile device. Many of the most compelling products are the efforts of Silicon Valley startups, not entrenched players.

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From monitors that sense when your plants need water to video-capable deadbolts that allow owners to communicate in real time with visitors to smartphone-adjustable multi-color LED bulbs, these domestic tech tools are finally delivering real power and convenience at prices that all of us can at least consider.

What Can You Really Get?

But what can you really get? And how much will it cost? Companies like Nest, Lockitron, Skybell, Dropcam, and LIFX are introducing new consumer-friendly products and services at a rapid pace. Nest (now owned by Google), the most recognized name in home automation, has sold millions of cloud-connected and remotely controlled thermostats and smoke detectors. The appeal of the Nest thermostat is primarily the average annual savings it delivers in the form of decreased heating and cooling bills, so it’s a relatively easy sell (even though tech geeks lust for it for obvious and different reasons). But what about other, lesser known products?

Most home automation devices aren’t as practical as the Nest thermostat in terms of saving money. Many of them provide considerable convenience or safety, however (depending on your use case). For example, LIFX sells high-quality wi-fi controllable LED light bulbs. While some of the nicest units on the market, they’re also priced in the zone that gives most middle class consumers the willies: $100 for a single bulb. However, LIFX’s models don’t require a hub controller; you can get started with the purchase of only a single bulb.

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For homes on a budget, but still wanting wi-fi controlled bulbs (many of which offer thousands of colors, all selectable from one’s smartphone or tablet), there’s products like Philips’ Hue, with bulb kits beginning at about $185 on Amazon. The entry-level kit nets you a three pack of bulbs and the hub necessary to control them from your wi-fi network. Philips promotes the “personalization” of its bulb system, noting that owners can adjust the brightness and color of its bulbs to meet any occasion or mood. Other companies offering LED bulbs that can be controlled by your mobile device include ilumi, which sells units priced from $90 to $100, and Insteon, with bulbs costing a modest $30—but they require a $115 hub (always read the fine print).

Smart Locks & Doorbells

“Smart” locks and doorbells are an interesting and sometimes amusing category of home automation. The top vendors include Lockitron, Kwikset, Skybell, and Doorbot. Lockitron, a Silicon Valley startup, sells a remotely controlled smartlock. The $180 device boasts user-friendly installation and fits over most conventional deadbolts—instead of requiring the replacement of your current lock, like most competing products. The $200 Doorbot takes a different approach, adding a wide angle video camera to the outside doorbell and alerting you to visitors on your smartphone. It’s a full two-way communication system, allowing owners to see visitors and speak to them via an integrated speaker and microphone. It’s even compatible with Lockitron, allowing owners to not only communicate with visitors, but also unlock the door to allow entry into their homes.

The $220 Kevo, from old school deadbolt manufacturer Kwikset, takes automation and convenience even further, providing one-touch admittance to your home by trusted friends and family—as long as they have their smartphone in their pocket. But what if your kids don’t have smartphones? Kwikset provides key fobs that act as authenticators, solving this problem (after the company received a lot of flack from customers for not bundling such fobs with the first release of the product). The Kevo can even detect if a request is coming from inside or outside your home, helping prevent unauthorized entry.

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Such products, because they’re software-controlled, even allow you to schedule access by particular individuals, granting them a permission code that works only during a specific time slot. This is practical for folks who travel for their jobs or simply aren’t home for a plumber, pet care, or other domestic maintenance. And what if the service tech is late? They can ping you and request real-time entry.

The companies behind these products obviously market them based on convenience and security. It used to be said that most advertising appeals to only two emotions: Greed and fear. I suppose the convenience of these home automation devices points toward our greed, while security enhancement obviously caters to our fear.

This blog post could easily grow to 10,000 words by describing the plethora of home automation products available today to consumers—some of which are really cool, some of which suck, and many of which are not-quite-affordable for people who count themselves among the middle class. For that, you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming book in 2015, Understanding Home Automation. In the meantime, do some Googling to learn if any of these leading-edge products can enhance your particular home with greater security and convenience.

And if the neighborhood kids begin pranking your Doorbot, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

How Nest Dropped the Ball

unnamedI love my slick Apple-esque Nest thermostat. Equipped with wi-fi and software brains that allow it to be controlled from anywhere in the world using nearly any device, it’s an element of my home that never fails to put a smile on my face. Consider this: The Nest, by automating your heating and cooling, can save you its initial cost every year or so. That’s right. The $250 Nest pays for itself in roughly one to two years, depending on the size and nature of your home and your A/C habits. It then keeps racking up the savings, all while giving you a beautifully sculpted aluminum and glass, cloud controlled, um, thermostat that looks great hanging on your wall.

Thus, it caught my attention when, in October 2013, Nest introduced a connected smoke alarm, the Protect. Having already had a second generation Nest thermostat for several months, I was excited about the prospect of filling my house with intelligent, networked smoke detectors. Especially when one of the notification alarms could be my smartphone or tablet. Of course, all technolust aside, these are critical devices within our homes that protect our loved ones, pets, and possessions from disaster. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly two-thirds of the deaths resulting from home fires are directly connected to non-functioning smoke alarms. Wow. That’s a sobering stat.

Unfortunately, the Protect has suffered from some basic functional shortcomings and marketing flaws. One of these has been partially fixed, the other hasn’t.

First, the Protect was too expensive at its introductory price of $130. This was mainly because most homes require multiple smoke alarms to properly protect them, especially two-story houses. To replace all four of my smoke detectors with the Protect would have cost me $520. Hey now! Half a grand is a damn bit more than $130. For most families, this becomes cost prohibitive—especially considering that the Protect doesn’t pay for itself in saved energy costs like the Nest thermostat. Add to this the fact that your current smoke detectors, if properly maintained, are getting the job done and achieving the same basic goal of protecting you and your family. It becomes easy to understand why many consumers—even those who purchased one or more Nest thermostats—declined the opportunity to put a collection of Nest Protect smoke alarms in their home. I was one of them.

nest protectIn the spring of 2014, after some software glitches that potentially affected safety were discovered in the Protect by Nest, it was briefly (and voluntarily) pulled from the market and tweaked. When reintroduced two month later, it was priced at a more reasonable $100. However, it would still cost the average family $400 to replace four smoke alarms with Protects. This is arguably too expensive. It’s as if Protect should have both an individual price intended for small apartments and living quarters requiring only a single unit (obviously the highest) and also two-pack, three-pack, and four-pack prices, where the cost per unit goes down considerably. I doubt many consumers would spend more than $150 or $200 to replace all of their existing smoke detectors with Protect models (and even that would be a hard sell for many homeowners).

Now let’s explore the Protect’s functional shortcoming. Chiefly, this is the fact that, although the Nest thermostat and the Protect do talk to one another (and both talk to the cloud), the Protect lacks a thermometer. One would reasonably expect such simple functionality in a device at this price point (even given the reintroduction discount). The collective frustration of consumers and OCD-prone efficiency geeks is only compounded by the fact that the Protect and Nest thermostat are designed and manufactured by the same company (a typically leading edge and intelligent company, at that).

Nest has found many of its most evangelic customers among tree hugging tech geeks who have acted as early adopters and helped spread the gospel among friends, coworkers, and Twitter followers. Frustrating this important group by neglecting something as simple as a temperature sensor—especially when your only other product is a freaking thermostat—might seem trivial, but it’s a misstep of grand proportions. By lacking a hygrometer (humidity detection) and thermometer, the Protect seems incomplete. What made the original Nest thermostat an almost overnight success was the fact that it was simple and damn near perfect. A follow up of Protect’s sub-par functionality is akin to Jaws 2 or The Matrix Reloaded (i.e. not nearly as good as the original).

Nest missed the opportunity to provide its thermostat, via data received from its smoke detector, with a more intelligent and accurate average temperature for your home (especially considering that a large percentage of Protect owners would also own the Nest thermostat). Because I have smoke detectors on three levels (basement, first floor, and upstairs), I would love my Nest thermostat to be getting temperature and humidity readings from around my house. Versus its current Neanderthal method: The happenstance location of the Nest itself. The larger and more nuanced the layout of the home, the less accurate this single point of detection becomes. The unit’s dashboard controls, available via the mobile app or website, could easily allow owners to disable the temperature readings from a particular Protect unit, such as one in an attic or basement. This would appease owners who, logically, might not want a particular Protect unit to influence the household average and possibly increase heating or cooling costs. Then again, the units could probably determine this on their own via their motion detectors.

Nest schedule screenYes, I know, Nest (like Honeywell and other competitors) must deal with probably thousands of government regulations and perform hundreds of hours of compliance testing and possible redesigns. This makes getting a product to market with the feature set desired by both Nest and its customers, at a price that makes everyone smile, about as challenging as you might imagine.

In its defense (and like many less intelligent, old school competing devices), the Protect is also a carbon monoxide detector. Slick, leading-edge features include voice and gesture controls. Personally, I love the classy touch of using the color-changing status ring LED on the device to illuminate the path below, acting as a ceiling-mounted nightlight. Because it has a motion sensor, it can dim or shut off the light when nobody is around, saving energy or preserving batteries. Then, when someone appears near it, it will magically pop to life, it’s motion sensor leading the way.

Nest, acquired in the winter of 2014 by Google for $3.2 billion, I’m sure will continue to design and sell cool internet-connected, cloud-manageable sensing and control devices that replace older, typically analog gadgets in our homes. Despite the name of this blog entry, I’m a big fan of Nest and Tony Fadell, it’s fearless leader and ex-Apple executive (responsible for the iPod when at Apple; you can see the circular design theme reiterated in the shape of the Nest thermostat).

The Nest and its future generations I’m sure will be attractive enough to sway the dollars out of my pocket. But until the Protect assumes massive discounts for three or four-packs (or some other way of making filling a middle class suburban home more affordable) and adds basic sensing capabilities like a thermometer, I personally won’t be interested. For $400, you can purchase some nice home theater equipment or a killer latest-generation game console.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.