What's really smart for a smart house?
January 13, 2013 5:08 AM   Subscribe

I'd love to learn more about innovative uses of technology in the home, beyond media/entertainment. I'm sure there's a lot of development going on out there, but how do I keep on top of it, and how can I find out what's really worth it?

Examples of what I'm thinking about:

The good: Devices like the Nest Thermostat (which has some ardent adherents here on Mefi) seem like a no-brainer: pricy though the unit may be, home heating and cooling is so expensive that something that brings much greater efficiency will pay for itself very quickly. Controlling remotely also makes some sense, i.e., it takes a while for a house to warm up or cool down and if your schedule changes you don't have to wear your coat and mittens in the house for half an hour...

The bad: Things that are getting "smart" but don't make much sense or actually improve function. Farhad Manjoo skewers "smart" refrigerators, washers, and stoves in this recent article.

The uncertain: Then there are things like the Hue lighting system. Infinite color variation, lots of control. OK. Party trick? Actually helpful for saving money or improving functionality (day to day? While on vacation?) How do people actually live with this, and is it worth $200 for three light bulbs if you're not hosting dance parties in your home on weekends?

I would love to hear what MeFi users have used and loved (or hated), but I'd also love to find a dedicated resource where I could stay up to date. Is there a really good site dedicated to discussion and reviews of this kind of stuff? My first thought was Wirecutter but the home section covers stuff like coffeemakers and knives too. Consumer Reports doesn't call out innovative tech per se, though it does cover Nest and other online thermostats in its thermostat section.

Thanks for all suggestions.
posted by Sublimity to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
There's always going to be a certain point where "smart" intersects with "lazy". Can I walk into my home and put on a CD or plug in my music player and then hit play? Yes. Do I want a future home of mine to respond to, "Hello House! Play my 'Relax' mix" and have the lighting and music adjust accordingly? Oh my, yes.

So I would say the expensive lighting system depends on how much use -you- can see yourself getting out of it. I love adjusting the lighting in the room all the time, so I would likely use it a few times a day. Now I need a soft lamp light because I'm relaxing. Now I need a bright room light because I'm trying to clean up the place. Now I want it completely dark (cue auto window shades, pretty please). Now I want a low, gentle "dawn" lighting mood for morning reading.

"Smart" household items and systems are only as clever as you can be with them. If you don't see yourself using their features regularly, they can't show off, if that makes sense.
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:04 AM on January 13, 2013

Saw an article yesterday in NY Times addressing aspects of this ...
Smartphones Become Life’s Remote Control
posted by LonnieK at 6:21 AM on January 13, 2013

If I can just address smart devices in the home. The article talks about highly smart fridges but suggests that some of the elements built into them means they are not useful and not worth the money. Nased ont he examples given this seems justified. However, there is considerable potential for devices in the future to have smart systems which govern their energy usage and these may provide some benefit in managing greater volumes of renewable energy on the grid, more distributed energy sources (eg fuel cells, PV, wind) and higher levels of distributed demand (Electric vehicles, heat pumps). Potentially these might not need to be super intelligent, they jut need to allow shiftability and to be set up such that they still allow good user flexibility (ie don't piss off the user). This might be as simple as having a second button on a washing machine that tells the machine to wait until the price is at its lowest (whoich would typically mean system demand is at its lowest) to wash your clothes. Pressing the other button would wash your clothes immediately, as it would on a standard washing machine now. Fridges might go into their cooling cycles to match usage to demand and so on. Potentially this might make your household demand load shiftable, which would make local grid management easier, and hopefully you as a consumer might be able to access lower tariffs since you would be providing system benefits. (Availability of these tariffs is another issue of course.)
posted by biffa at 6:30 AM on January 13, 2013

Best answer: We just bought this thing - the Lockitron - and I'm excited to have it delivered because I will never, ever again have to wonder about whether I locked the door.

Now, I just need a smart stove that won't let me leave the gas on.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:40 AM on January 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

In a previous house we had automated curtains. This was fantastic for when we were on holiday, or just home late in the winter. The downsides were that the mechanisms are either horribly expensive or not very robust; and it's awkward when your curtains in the spare room automatically open just as your guests are dressing.
posted by emilyw at 6:53 AM on January 13, 2013

Best answer: The blog Treehugger has lots of posts about 'smart' products (and lots of posts, period), that may be a good regular source of information for you.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 7:12 AM on January 13, 2013

For the longest time, X10 was something of a de facto standard for controlling things around a house. I messed around with a couple of starter kits, and found myself on the mailing list for the Smarthome catalog. There's lots of interesting ideas in there, for sure.

NB - I've been in at least one home that went all-in with X10 - all of the light switches and outlets were addressable, on schedules, etc. Staying there as a guest was wildly confusing - flipping the switches didn't do anything because they lights weren't scheduled to be on for another hour, and so on. Another relative has remote controls on everything - again, making it something of a pain to turn on a lamp. Gotta find the little remote first, etc.

My own X10 experiences devolved to simply using the remotes and adaptors to turn on all of our Christmas lights via a cron job. For a lot of folks, though, it's a slippery slope.
posted by jquinby at 7:15 AM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

NB - I've been in at least one home that went all-in with X10 - all of the light switches and outlets were addressable, on schedules, etc. Staying there as a guest was wildly confusing - flipping the switches didn't do anything because they lights weren't scheduled to be on for another hour, and so on.

I inherited a Smarthome along these lines that had some other neat little things in them. I agree that it's important to understand if you're looking for smart or just lazy. The house I was in (which used to belong to my dad, actually you have been there!) was not at all concerned with saving on power bills but rather having stuff be automated in that "I will replace you with a small script" way. When my father died, the house lights turned on and off on their own and it took us months in some cases to figure out what was controlling some of the lights. The good news was that there were definitely some benefits to this system when it is working right including

- outdoor lights coming on when it's getting dark
- indoor lights going off when it's time for bed
- rooms not being dark when you walk into them, if that's what you want

On the other hand, some of the decisions that were made because the house had smart options include light switches either not working, sort of working, or being on the wrong side of the room from where you'd want. A few other things that tend more towards the convenient side of the whole equation maybe more than the money saving side.

- Zone heating systems - the house I am talking about has seven zones which makes getting a bunch of Nests seem like maybe not a great idea but I have thought, since it's a vacation home of getting a wifi-accessible thermostat that I can turn on when I am an hour away
- big storage tanks for saving either grey water or regular pumped water for watering plants even when it's hot out, soaker hoses built into the landscaping for same
- back up power for essential appliances that cycle regularly and are maintained. Built into the natural gas system if possible so you don't have to keep them topped off with kerosene or whatever
- alarm systems, obviously, that will call people and/or you when they are concerned about fire, low temperatures or intruders

Things I would like...

- curtain raising/lowering options
- a wake-up alarm that was plugged in to the house lighting system so not just a bedside light that turned on but an entire roomful of lights that did
- on-demand hot water for more devices. Huge money-saver compared to keeping a tank full of hot water all the time, particularly in a house that you're not in very often or don't use a lot of hot water in, or a hot water heater on a schedule. Hot water during the day, mostly lukewarm at night but heated in the morning before electric bills go up [possibly]
- a green cone for disposing of more food wastes when I'm not planning to compost
- smart humidifiers that keep inside air moist in the winter (again, not cheap)

I'm personally really into the whole open windows/attic fan/ceiling fan combinations to do more ambient temperature management without air conditioning in the warmer months. I'll be interested to hear what other people come up with.
posted by jessamyn at 8:08 AM on January 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I considered a Nest, but wound up with a Radio Thermostat. The app is a little disappointing, in that if you want to program something complex, it kicks you off to the website, but the website works nicely.

I was waived off the Nest by a friend who has one and complained that the auto-away feature was useless, and that the auto-learn was frustrating and ineffective. I don't have personal experience with it.

I also have a real-time power monitoring system for the whole house, which is useful for spotting energy wastage, and helped me get my average electric bill down by $100/month.
posted by grudgebgon at 8:24 AM on January 13, 2013

I saw this Unikey remote lock system on the show Shark Tank. It isn't available yet but when it is, I really want to get one. The site's FAQ states that the final price is expected to be $199 or less.

You can control multiple locks through your smartphone. If you lose your smartphone, you can login via the web and make the key data on your phone disappear. The app can notify you if you've left your house unlocked. You can also send a temporary "key" to anyone else with the app—so if you have a cleaner coming by each week at a specific time, or friends arriving from out of town while you're at work, they can let themselves in.

Of course, some people may be more comfortable using physical keys like everyone has for thousands of years. But, providing that the initial product reviews hold up, I'd really like to give this "remote key" idea a shot. If done correctly, it could make a lasting impact on how modern society approaches home security.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 9:22 AM on January 13, 2013

we have both a Nest and the Hue lighting system (my husband and his toys, sigh). The Nest, so far, has been fantastic. The Hue, well, I really just don't see the point of it. n.b. he installed the bulbs into overhead fixtures since we don't have multiple fixtures in one area that accept standard bulbs (long story related to a remodel) but anyway, I find myself frequently annoyed by the Hue because I have to keep flipping the overhead switch in the bedroom just to get it to turn on. I can't get my smartphone to stay connected to the bridge for whatever reason, so I can't do it remotely.

the ability to turn lights on before we arrive home, that is nice. the rest of it? not so much.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:37 AM on January 13, 2013

I have 2 zones and so got 2 nests. They're awesome. I find the auto away to be really useful and the auto scheduling has helped tweak the schedule that I programmed.

I picked up a Belkin WeMo switch. It turns on a lamp in my living room at sundown and then off in the evening. Then I got a second one on sale, but don't have a great use for it yet. I'm also not sure what I'd do with one of their motion detectors.

I wish that my HVAC system could pull outside air into the system to augment the heating or air conditioning as appropriate. For example, if its hot in my house but cooler outside, I'd love if it could just open a vent and run the fan instead of just running the ac compressor.

We got a tankless hot water system when our tank blew last year. It's been great but I'm not sure if it qualifies as part of a smart home.
posted by reddot at 11:36 AM on January 13, 2013

Demand-side management's the big one. If you can see what power you're using, and how much it's costing you, you'll quickly learn to use less. Our local utility gave out these power meters so that people could see instantaneous demand. Yes, it kind of forces you to save energy by being aware of it, but most people won't until they're forced to care. Folks locally have been squealing like stuck pigs over smart metering and time-of-use pricing, but until the costs of time-of-generation dispatch are met, you're basically getting a tax subsidy.

I've fallen down the X10 rabbit hole recently, but more for convenience than anything else. I also use several microservers (Raspberry Pis, mostly) to do the job of always-on PCs.
posted by scruss at 1:29 PM on January 13, 2013

I've tried a lot of "smart" devices and the only things I've found that were set-it-and-forget-it that worked for me were:

Nest: yes, after a rocky couple of weeks where it tries to overthink temps, if you massage the schedule a bit you'll find it falls better in line with your life. After a year of using one, it's almost always right, heating up the house on cold mornings right about when we need to get up, and cooling down right before we typically go to sleep.

x10/Insteon: I've tried lots of lighting control systems, but whole room or house "scenes" (stuff like "put the living room in a darker I'm Watching Movies mode") were cumbersome and too complex. In the end, the only x10 type stuff that stuck around and felt useful was wall switches that turned on porch lights each night as it grew dark and turned them off around bedtime. Same with my backyard lighting in the garden. It helps to have computer control here, as where I live the time of sunset varies by 5 hours throughout the year and it's great to keep it accurate. The downside is controlling devices over electrical lines is buggy for anything beyond an apartment. I installed a whole-house surge protector last year that ended up wiping out my ability to use x10. I'm looking forward to IP/wifi based solutions coming out instead.

On demand/tankless water heating: I don't know if in the end we save any money, but a couple years ago we replaced an aging water heater that never gave us enough hot water to fill a bath with an on-demand system. Every HVAC installer guy we talked to locally was terrified of them and we had to find an experienced guy from out of town that believed they wouldn't explode randomly (seriously, that's what some of the local plumbing guys said to me). It takes maybe 15sec longer to get hot water to a tap than our old slow water heater tank unit, but once you get it, it can go on forever which is nice. Also, zero chance of a tank leaking while you're out of town and flooding a garage or basement.

House alarm: My house came pre-wired for an alarm but I remember thinking alarms were only for paranoid rich people, so I never installed one until a few months back. My system allows for iPhone app control of the alarm which is great, and alerts me via app and email if there's ever a problem. I can't prove it's totally necessary, but it does reduce a little anxiety after a spate of break-ins in my neighborhood.

About the only other thing that looks interesting to me is stuff like that Lockitron unit. I would love to be able to text a friend a code to get into my house someday.
posted by mathowie at 10:33 AM on January 17, 2013

They're starting to make power strips that are smarter; I don't need my tv to be ready for instant-on at 4 a.m. or while I'm at work. If the dog wants to watch The View, he can wait the extra 30 seconds for the tv to warm up.
posted by theora55 at 1:12 PM on January 20, 2013

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