Rules for a “Smart” Home

The Promise

Chips are smaller and cheaper than they’ve ever been. That means that we can measure and control things, affordably, more than we ever could. However, in a race to see what we can possibly create, there are many companies that haven’t thought if they really should be creating what they are.

Steve Jobs noted that when the efficiency of man’s locomotion is measured against all other animals, we barely break the top third. But if we measure our efficiency riding a bike against the most efficient animal, we far surpass them.

“What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” - Steve Jobs

So the question here is are the tools that we’re building actually enhancing our lives or not?

The Rules

In my last apartment, I played with the gamut of connected devices and I found some were more helpful than others.

I fell for Alexa but since then I’ve gotten rid of her. I’d rather reduce the number of spying devices in my home. Mostly, I used it for cooking timers and podcasts, there are plenty of easy ways get that done.

This year I moved into a new home and started from scratch. I wanted to be more thoughtful about what I was incorporating into my smart-home and came up with these rules.

A smart device should:

  1. Solve an actual problem
  2. NOT create more problems
  3. Require little to no maintenance

1. It should solve an actual problem

Now that chips are so cheap and easy to implement everywhere it’s tempting to put them everywhere. But do you really need a “smart” salt shaker?

The Thermostat

When we first moved into our new home it had baseboard heaters and analogue thermostats – dials that when turned a fraction of a degree up would make the room boiling or frigid if turned the slightest bit down.

We had to replace the thermostats before the winter just to not freeze, or blow up our energy bill.

None of the big brand thermostats could handle high voltage, but I discovered Mysa which could.

Mysa is an excellent product. Now, I can schedule the heaters to go down at night, or way down when I’m away. It solves a problem. I also don’t have to think about it. Once I set it I can forget it.

They solved another problem for me.

Humidity

Humidity and houses don’t mix. If you like mold, a good way to get mold is to let your house linger above 60% humidity. Unfortunately, in the summer it gets humid where we live now.

We got a dehumidifier and some cheap sensors which I spread around the house. When we saw that the house went above 60% humidity, we would turn on the dehumidifier. That constant manual monitoring got old fast. Some people run their dehumidifier constantly, but I feel that that’s a waste even if it’s energy star rated.

Mysa thermostats have a humidity sensor, and they connect with SmartThings. So I plugged my dehumidifier into a smart outlet, and have it trigger on and off if a room of my choosing goes above 60% humidity.

There are whole-house solutions for this problem, but that would have cost a whole lot more.

2. It should NOT create more problems

If you’re not making your life easier, why are you bothering with the device?

Lights

Some IoT devices have swept the market. Hue Bulbs are very popular, and rightly so. The color schemes are a ton of fun – I spent a good hour with a giggling 2-year-old niece playing with them.

The problem is that the “smart” elements of the lights – like being able to turn them on and off from anywhere – require a current to be flowing through them.

That means that if you replace your ceiling lights with smart lights, you can no longer use your light switches. It’s inconvenient to take out your phone when entering a room.

That creates a problem.

My solution was to cover up the wall switches and place hue dimmer switches next to the wall switches. It’s not elegant, but it’s not creating another problem.

As far as benefits, aside from being my niece’s hero, it’s great being able to granularly control my lights, preprogram them, and have them turn on automatically when I’m stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

3. It should require little to no maintenance

If you find yourself becoming a slave to your devices, they’re not actually improving your life.

Batteries

One of the challenges in building an IoT device is that if you’re going to be able to put something anywhere you need to be able to power it anywhere. However, to be effective, an IoT device needs to communicate seamlessly. That requires power.

With different radio technologies getting more and more efficient, this problem is going away. But you still should be aware of it – it sucks getting home and not being able to get in your house because your front-door lock battery died.

I backed a project on Indiegogo for a portable air quality monitor but to my dismay I had to charge it daily to work. It made it just inconvenient enough the I ended up not using it.

Vacuums

I love my Roomba. So much in fact I named it. But I found that I wasn’t using it so much in my apartment because I had to clear the floor to effectively use it.

One wonderful thing about living in a bigger space is that I can now have a place for everything. Which means it’s SO much easier to keep my home clean.

It also means that I use my Roomba more.

It makes me do work, but the maintenance of keeping the floors clear, is actually a good habit to keep, in line with the goal of the IoT device itself. So I see it as a feature, not impediment. But I feel that way only now, that I have the space to keep my home clean.

One final rule – it doesn’t spy on me

Every website, app, and device embeds analytics, and these metrics effectively can be used in creepy ways.

So it’s important to vet the company from which you’re buying your IoT device. Where is it? Has there been any security incidents in the past? Are there microphones hidden when they don’t need to be?

Yes our phones are spying on us constantly, but the fewer opportunities you give to be hacked and tracked, the better.

Conclusion

There are so many amazing solutions coming out daily to problems I never knew I had. I love reading about all the creative minds working to make our lives better.

But it’s easy to become a slave to your home, fidgeting with all the different widgets you bought, because it was supposed to make your life easier.