Touted as the wave of the future, smart houses’ components are included as integral features of newly constructed homes as well as selectively integrated into older homes. Smart home technology, which is still evolving, aims to use computer systems to automatically provide many of the normal and necessary functions of the modern home such as maintaining the correct interior temperature, lighting, security, door entry, multimedia and a host of other functions which may or may not be essential to the homeowner’s lifestyle. In employing smart technology, the homeowner can use as few or as many devices as he or she chooses. The aim is to make one’s life easier by ensuring that your home functions dependably and automatically according to your needs. Ideally, the homeowner will connect various devices to a central entity so that all of the devices can communicate among themselves and with the homeowner via, for example, his or her smartphone or tablet. Any device that uses electricity can be commanded to function by voice, tablet, remote control or smartphone.
Wouldn’t you love to know at a glance that you did not forget to lock the front door, that your crockpot can be remotely turned on to cook dinner if you forgot to set it when you left in the morning, that you turned off the coffee maker, that no burglar is on your premises, that the thermostat will keep the house at the proper temperature all day, that your children are doing their homework in the den, that your smartphone can open your garage door as you approach it, that your pets were automatically fed on schedule, that your elderly parent was reminded to take medication and that you could know if it was actually taken? Does this sound like something out of science fiction or an episode of The Jetsons? Welcome to the era of The Internet of Things, which refers to the interconnected devices that are identifiable via digital networks. The future is indeed here, although not without its glitches and vulnerabilities.
What can smart technology accomplish? Tasks range from the necessary to the absurd, the comical, and the I-can’t-believe-they-could-really-do-that! For example, when you dispose of your trash, your trash can monitors the contents of your disposal and will automatically produce online orders for replacements. When you are at the grocery store, you can see inside your $4,800 Samsung Family Hub refrigerator so that you can decide what items you need to purchase. If your home is on fire, an alarm will sound, the fire department will be notified, and the doors to your home can be automatically unlocked to provide access for the firefighters. As you enter a room, lights will turn on and will turn off when you leave. The Nest thermostat will learn your schedule and make certain that the home temperature is as it should be during all hours of the day; it will also inform you of how much energy you are using and when to change the furnace filters. A sensor attached to water usage devices such as sinks, toilets and bathtubs will alert you if even a single drop of water falls. Your ventilation fan will be activated if humidity is too high. The Deebot from Ecovacs, Model D77, uses smart technology to vacuum, navigate obstacles and will automatically empty its dustbin. One of my personal favorites is the Clocky robotic alarm that wakes you in the morning and then will run around the room and hide while beeping until you get out of bed, find it, and silence it—it may irritate the heck out of you, but guaranteed, you’ll never oversleep again! My second favorite is a radiator that turns into a bed: the Bediator! No kidding! As a protect-the-environment type, I also love the Eco dish cleaner that helps you to help the environment by using ultrasonic waves to ionize food particles and turn them into reusable compost; solar power is used to recharge the battery!
What are the drawbacks of smart technology? Basically, if you are uncomfortable with computers, then smart technology may not be for you. What would you do if the system fails and essential components of your home ceased to function? What if you could not install these devices without help? Could you update the software? Do you believe that it is unnecessary to install, pay for and maintain devices that accomplish functions that you could perform yourself? The idea behind smart technology is to make your life easier and less complicated, not frustrating and exasperating. A smart system will do this if you actually need the smart devices, if you can easily operate them, if they work dependably, if you can easily reprogram them as needed and if you know what to do and can cope successfully when they malfunction. Finally, ask yourself if the technology is worth the cost. Some devices are inexpensive and easy to install, some are expensive, and the more devices on the system the more expensive and complicated it will be.
A smart home can be outsmarted, resulting in inconvenience, expense and possible danger to you. Hackers who can access your system or even one of your devices can do serious damage and can also terrify you. Think of the couple who entered their baby’s room and heard a strange voice talking to the baby over the baby monitor and saying that the intruder could see everything that was inside the room. Hackers can mischievously turn devices on and off: lights, your thermostat, etc. A hacker can remotely open your “smart” front door or access your central control system, including your home computer, and steal your personal information. Recent news disclosed that a stranger can be watching you via the camera on your smart TV—even if the TV is not on! Hackers have locked people out of TVs and have demanded ransom to turn them on. Hackers can enter your home via your home security system; they can eavesdrop on your communication systems such as telephones; they can monitor your emails; they can access other personal data on your computer.
Smart home technology is constantly evolving. What you spent money on today may be obsolete or unusable tomorrow and expensive to replace or upgrade.
In a house with many devices, you need a central place—also called a gateway—for all of your smart home information: a hub, or a router, or software on your phone or in the cloud from which the system is controlled with a user interface that is interacted with a wall-mounted terminal, mobile phone software, tablet computer, or web interface. But many hubs only work with certain devices, confusing you about which device works with what. Then there is the time required to train artificial intelligence to learn your family’s routines—and what happens if different family members have different routines that must be accommodated? Central systems that control many functions can break down—and take all of the functions with them. Not so with a few individual devices that are not centrally connected.
There are very few worldwide-accepted industry standards, and products are often incompatible with each other. Different manufacturers produce different products but they can’t all be linked: for example, the crockpot controller manufacturer does not also produce thermostats, so if you want a variety of devices that can’t all be controlled centrally then you will need many different smartphone apps and passwords which could produce an annoying and confusing amount of clutter. But if you choose the alternative and eventually have only one provider for all of your smart products, what chaos ensues if this central system fails? And think how critical is your choice of that central system: for example, suppose you control your system through your smart phone. If that phone is lost or stolen, will whoever now has the phone access your system and begin to run your life? Without that phone, how will you control or change routine functions and update the software, what will you do if your smart devices suddenly stop working? What happens if you need access and your phone runs out of juice? Oh, yes—the phone app opens your front door lock but the charger that would make your phone work again is locked in your house!
How much of this technology will cause an intrusion into your privacy? Remember that your smart product relies on knowledge of your personal habits, routines, schedules—all there for a hacker to find out. What humans will have access to your data? Can you trust them? Will they even be in the U.S.A.?
There are many competing smart home technologies and platforms: Wi-Fi, WeMo, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave, for example—but they don’t all communicate with each other. So, you choose one of them, but what if it does not provide all of the functions that you need? If you go to more than one manufacturer, again, you could end up with lots of clutter. What if the manufacturer goes out of business? It has happened.
When vendors do software updates, sometimes your devices simply stop working. New items may not work with previously installed devices. A classic case of software sabotage of a vital home system occurred in Canada in 2015 when the Nest thermostats failed and left people freezing in winter. Thermostats did not respond to instructions, batteries were completely drained, thermostats lost connectivity and went offline and would not turn back on. The fix took time while people shivered.
As you explore the brave new world of smart technology, tread cautiously!
By Vivian J. Oleen, Associate Broker, Sopher Realty