Get Me a Margarita

David Powell

I HAVE LONG ADMIRED my good friend Nick for his generosity with friends—but also for his inspiring ability to pinch a penny. The man can pinch so hard he makes Lincoln cry, so I knew the world was changing fast when he installed a Ring video doorbell. Really? Pinch me.

A decade ago, new technologies inspired fantasies of living in a Jetsons-style “smart home.” There was a nascent market for internet-connected products, such as the original Nest Learning Thermostat. Since then, the number of players and products has exploded. Smart assistants like Siri and Alexa also came along, further stoking growth, and sending companies scrambling to connect smart home products with assistants, so customers can control things with their voice.

“Hey Rosie, get me a margarita on the rocks, no salt.”

Okay, we’re not there yet. What is the state of smart home products? Some promise to save you time or money. Others offer improved home security, comfort or peace of mind when you’re out of the house. How much of it is currently worth sinking money into?

In my own home, I’ve deployed a handful of the new technologies, some with good results and some mixed. Before you even consider any of this, be sure your family has a wi-fi network which reliably covers your whole home.

My first project was “smart-for-dumb” device replacement. I swapped three of our seven old smoke-and-carbon-monoxide detectors for Nest Protect devices. Why not all seven at once? Smart devices are often two-to-four times the cost of “dumb” ones: $120 for Nest Protect vs. around $40 for a basic detector. I started with units in our foyer and hallways, leaving the bedrooms for later years.

Installation was easy enough. I simply added the Nest units to our wi-fi network and they’ve been working reliably ever since. I love the convenience and peace of mind. My phone gets an alert if there’s an emergency. The alarms are more easily muted if cooking in the kitchen triggers the alarm. Nest also warns in a clear way when batteries get low—no more annoying, mysterious chirps. Detectors in high places can be tested easily without a ladder.

Another worthwhile project: swapping out our standard landscape irrigation controller for one from Rachio. It’s compatible with the typical control wiring used with most old school irrigation controllers. Installation and setup took me less than 30 minutes. The Rachio 3 unit is way easier for creating and changing irrigation schedules, which you do with its mobile app. What’s more, it can automatically skip a day when it rains—a handy feature here in Seattle—and, like most smart home solutions, it enables control from anywhere.

My first mixed experience involved lighting control, where things get more expensive and complicated fast. Most solutions for this, like those from Insteon or Lutron, involve a hub device that’s linked to your home wi-fi network. The hub controls power to devices through smart switches you buy, usually from the same manufacturer. These are either plug-in switches, for things like lamps or coffee makers, or hardwired ones for electrical circuits in your house.

My goal was to control exterior house lighting, holiday lighting, and our landscape and patio lighting, with an eye to putting all of it on an automatic sunset-to-sunrise schedule. Unfortunately, these switches typically talk to the hub without using a home’s wi-fi network. This can lead to connection problems, though range extenders are available. Most solutions can also leverage your electrical wiring to send signals, with some gotchas.

Home security video cameras are another area with potential for happiness and headaches. Video doorbell solutions like Ring and Nest Hello are a popular way to get started with home security cameras. For new house installations, I would pick models which use a single ethernet cable for both power and connectivity, such as Ring’s Video Doorbell Elite. The upfront cost is much higher, but it will be far more reliable, secure and convenient.

For existing homes, you’ll need to choose between the hassle of regularly replacing video doorbell batteries, or the installation grief of finding—and likely replacing—your doorbell power transformer, so it meets the new doorbell’s needs. Either way, you’re looking at wi-fi for connectivity. If your wi-fi network isn’t really solid, you’re in for a one-star review experience.

And if you’re the anxious type, inclined towards imagining nightmare-worthy life scenarios, I’m sorry to report that cellular and wi-fi communications can be easily jammed with a $600 gadget, rendering your video camera useless. But if you simply want to see who’s at your door, whether you’re at home or away, and like the idea of helping to cut down on garden-variety vandalism or porch package theft, this approach should work just fine.

Many of these video doorbell solutions are most useful when paired with optional services, like Nest Aware or Ring Protect, which cost $3 to $10 a month. One more caveat: These products raise real privacy issues. Before you get an always-listening smart assistant device or an indoor video camera, check the company’s privacy policies.

David Powell has written software or led engineering teams for 35 years. He enjoys work, vegan fine dining, cycling and travel with his spouse. His previous articles include Making a MeshElon and Me and Beefing Up Security.

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