The basics: What is a smart home?

A smart home uses one or more internet-connected devices to let you control and see what’s going on in your home, whether you’re in another room or another country. A true smart home ecosystem can connect and integrate everything from temperature and lighting to security and entertainment. Smart devices — controlled via applications, voice commands, automation, and even artificial intelligence — are intended to make your home safer, more efficient, and more comfortable. 

Because there’s such a wide definition of the term, consistent data on the popularity of smart home technology is hard to come by. It’s safe to say, though, that somewhere between one-third and half of all American households employ at least one smart device. According to TIME, the U.S. is expected to have 63 million connected homes by 2022. Popular devices include:

  • Smart speakers
  • Smart TVs
  • Smart thermostats
  • Smart lighting
  • Smart security (windows, doors, locks, cameras, and motion detectors)
  • Smart appliances

But what exactly makes a home “smart”? Is the convenience worth the cost? In this blog, we discuss what exactly constitutes a smart home and the pros and cons of having one.

 

Pros for a smart home

Convenience

In today’s fast-paced society, the less you have to worry about, the better, right? Convenience is a primary selling point of home automation devices, which virtually eliminate little hassles like turning out the lights before you go to bed, adjusting the thermostat when you wake up in the morning, or forgetting a key and finding yourself locked out. 

The majority of systems come with remote dashboard capabilities. By simply pulling up the dashboard on a smart device or computer, you can have your pot of coffee ready once you get to the kitchen — and turn it off from work if you forgot to do so before leaving.

Smart devices provide a hands-free experience that allows you to multitask and do more with your time. If you’re coming home in the dark with your hands full, then switching on the lights before you arrive or with voice activation can be a great help. Instead of searching for songs you like, just ask your smart speaker to play your favorites. 

 

Energy efficiency

Home automation systems have proven themselves in the arena of energy efficiency.  Some of the most common smart devices — smart lighting and thermostats — can adapt to your patterns and switch controls on and off at the appropriate time. They can even “learn” your schedule without your ever inputting a preselected schedule. 

Smart thermostats, expected to be one of the most-connected home devices in the next five years, use a system called IFTTT (“If this, then that”) to learn from habits. Their programming dictates that if someone gets home from work at 6PM in the winter, then the home should be warm and toasty at that time. Having logged your typical arrival time each day, the heat will begin turning on shortly before then. By eliminating extraneous energy use when you’re not home, smart thermostats create energy-saving schedules that can reduce heating and cooling consumption by up to 30 percent.

Actual energy savings ultimately depend on the type of device you select and its automation capabilities. But on average, product manufacturers estimate the systems can help consumers save 15 percent off of heating and cooling bills.

 

Safety and security

Your house’s safety — and that of the people in it — is probably high on your list of priorities. Remote monitoring can put your mind at ease while you’re away from home. In fact, while most men polled about their reasoning for choosing smart technology cited convenience, women were largely concerned with security.

Smart systems allow homeowners to remotely turn on and off lights and automatically raise and lower blinds. By adding a security system with cameras, you can also detect vehicles approaching your home, automatically lock doors, and get room-by-room surveillance. Your smartphone will even receive an alert if something uncharacteristic happens. Needless to say, these capabilities drastically reduce the risk of intrusions.

In terms of safety, let’s not forget about things that might accidentally be left on or off. Heat and fire risks can be mitigated and, oftentimes, automatically handled. Beyond that, smart thermostats can help prevent pipes from freezing, smart leak detectors can shut off water if they detect moisture, and smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can alert you through an app.

 

Cons for a smart home

Compatibility

If you buy a range of different smart devices (e.g. light bulbs, thermostats, or locks), it’s not guaranteed they’ll all be able to speak to each other and become a seamless part of the ecosystem. Your security system, for example, may require you to log in to one platform to manage settings, while your smart thermostat may utilize another.

Manufacturers earn money when you have to buy an entire line of their products, so, logically, they make it difficult to integrate their devices with ones made by a different brand. Truly leveraging the one-stop convenience of home automation requires a centralized system, which, while an option, comes at a much higher cost. Even so, integrating devices from different vendors may result in limited functionality and unreliable service.

And if you seek to convert an older home, you’ll definitely find yourself needing an electrician on call. Old houses have all sorts of compatibility issues, from out-of-date wiring to thick, signal-killing walls. 

 

Cost

Even though the price of home automation systems has become much more affordable in recent years, the cost to purchase and install devices still adds up. For some common gadgets like Google Nest, Ring, Amazon (Alexa & Blink), or SimpliSafe, you’re looking at $100 to $3,000 per piece. Considering the cost of the devices themselves plus their installation, a complete home upgrade could run up thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars.

When you install smart software, you’ll also need to ensure that your home is protected against internet outages and power surges. This risk can be minimized by purchasing some sort of backup generator to keep your internet connection up.

 

Security concerns

Are you a well-informed, security-conscious person who feels surprisingly ambivalent about your information being used by companies who have proven time and again to be irresponsible at best with it? You aren’t alone. Most of us are willing, in light of the tremendous convenience afforded by Amazon and the joy of Facebook, to endure the prickly reality of agreeing to the terms.

But even if you’ve made your peace with data-mining gadgets, here’s another, more nefarious risk: All devices controlled via the Internet can potentially be hacked. If cyber-criminals hack into your home devices, they can learn your patterns of behavior and use that to their advantage. Forty percent of smart homes have at least one device vulnerable to cyber attacks that put the whole home in danger.

In 2015, one tech company tested 16 home automation devices and found only one that its researchers couldn’t easily break into. There are currently no industry standards for security on these devices, so strong firewalls aren’t a priority for manufacturers.

Our tips: 

  • Only buy products made by companies you trust. Don’t overlook security for convenience or cost.
  • Treat your smart home products like any other computer and update the software whenever possible.
  • Choose strong passwords and change them regularly.

 

All in all

Smart homes are tremendous when everything works right. But the DIY nature of the technology combined with the sheer variety in home age, layout, and materials makes getting a reliable smart home system tricky at best. Before you take the plunge, it’s important to be fully aware of what you’re getting into and the level of commitment you’ll need to make.

Still, by choosing only the individual, practical devices that make your life easier and keeping an eye on the bigger picture of how they all fit into a smart home ecosystem, we think the convenience and energy savings of a smart home can be well worth it.