One of the most popular trends in home design is the rapidly expanding universe of smart-home technology.
At this year’s Dwell on Design show of innovations for the home, held in May in Los Angeles, even manufacturers of traditional appliances were clambering to enter the marketplace commonly labeled the Internet of Things. (Its definition: the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity that allows them to exchange data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected objects.)
Devices that can monitor or control your home’s locks, lights, appliances, climate controls and entertainment systems are a rapidly expanding business. Juniper Research estimates that the global smart-home market was worth $33 billion in 2013 and will reach $72 billion by 2018.
Another sign that the industry is poised to enter the mainstream: The mega-corporations are muscling in. Apple and Google aim to become major players. Last year Google bought Nest, a company that makes thermostats and smoke detectors that can be controlled remotely.
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But before you decide you want to control your thermostat, your garage door opener and your water heater from your iPhone, here are a few things you should know and pitfalls to avoid when making your home smarter.
Smartening up your home isn’t as simple as buying a product and plugging it in. “You’d better get ready for maddening complexity if you hope to use your smart devices right out of the box,” tech writer Daniel Wroclawski said in his 2014 article “We’re Losing the War for the Smart Home.”
You can start off on the right foot by being prepared. Just as a great building needs a firm foundation, a smart home requires a rock-solid Wi-Fi system.
“The largest problem we have is keeping the Wi-Fi system up and operating. If it’s down, so is everything else,” said Skip Myers, owner of Reel Time Sight and Sound in San Juan Capistrano.
Myers said there are two related issues that can affect Wi-Fi reliability: the company providing the signal and the amount of work you want the wireless system to do within your home.
“If Cox or AT&T is having a problem, then you’re having a problem. That’s outside of your control,” Myers said.
The rapid expansion of smart-home technology means that Wi-Fi systems are being harnessed to do much more than they used to, Myers said.
“In the beginning, it was just for your computer. Three years ago, the average number of streaming devices in a home was three. By the end of this year it will be up to 12. Soon it will be 40 or 50, each with its own IP address. That represents a huge demand on the system.”
Myers’ company will set up even the largest homes with reliable Wi-Fi, but it doesn’t come cheap. In a home of 3,500-5,000 square feet, “you’re probably going to spend $2,400 to make sure the Wi-Fi is bulletproof. You'll need a really good router and at least three Wi-Fi access points.” The days of simply plugging in a router and turning it on are over, Myers said.
HACKERS IN YOUR HOME
Perhaps the biggest concern with allowing your home to be controlled online is the possibility that someone else could do the controlling. Hackers have proved as adept at infiltrating smart-home systems as they have with other protected networks. Once a device is connected to your home network, it is vulnerable.
Your smartphone is another potential point of entry for a hacker, where they could access your smart-home apps and even freeze your device and hold it for ransom, unlocking it for a fee.
Most reputable manufacturers are constantly upgrading to improve the security of their streaming devices, but hackers are persistent and tireless. In this regard, the best advice is buyer beware. A recent FTC ruling only lightly penalized Trendnet, a maker of home-monitoring cameras, when hackers were able to defeat its security measures, and didn’t hold the company liable for consumer losses.
If you’re ready to make your home smarter, there are some areas that have proved popular and reliable, Myers said.
“About 50 percent of the installations we do are for controlling a home’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Another 25 percent are for controlling and monitoring the garage door.” Wireless audio is also popular – it eliminates the need to run wires to speakers, bringing high-quality sound to every room in the home.
Home surveillance systems are perennially in demand, Myers said, and the technology has gotten much more sophisticated. Motion detectors can now tell the difference between a squirrel and a human intruder in your backyard.
There’s an underlying irony to all this gadgetry. Its aim is to simplify your life, but it often ends up making things more complicated, Myers said.
“The driving force is apps. Everyone wants to use their smartphones to control every-thing, and they cram everything you can imagine onto it. It’s the newest form of keeping up with the Joneses,” Myers said, chuckling. “It can get confusing. And what happens if you lose your smartphone or it gets stolen?”
Misplacing your wallet would pale in comparison with that disaster.