The smart home is gaining ground, but it’s still a muddle of confusing standards, competing platforms, and gadgets that don’t do what you might expect. But the promise of products that can make your life a little easier is hard to resist, so I’m here to answer the inevitable questions that arise.
Whether it’s figuring out the best connected door lock to assembling the right recipe to wake you up with a faux sunrise at the optimal moment based on your fitness tracker’s data, I’ve got you covered. As the host of The Internet of Things Podcast, I install a lot of gear and spend hours testing hardware and software to see what works. Smart homes are still pretty dumb, but I want to help you feel smart.
If you have smart home questions you’d like me to answer, send an email to [email protected]. In this week’s column I’m answering questions I get often from everyone, so forgive the lack of names.
What is your favorite hub?
Currently, my favorite home automation hub is the Wink because it works with my Amazon Echo and my Lutron lights. I have tried and liked the SmartThings hub because it lets you do a lot more, but that freedom also breeds complexity. It can be tough to figure out how to do things with the SmartThings hub. That said, once you figure it out, it offers a world of options. There are also routers such as the Almond 3 and the Google OnHub that work (sort of) as home automation hubs.
The Almond 2 and Almond 3 routers have a lot more compelling rulemaking capabilities as opposed to Google’s OnHub, but that could change in the future. Speaking of Google, the Google Home device is thus far not a great smart home control hub (if you think of it as a hub).
However, the Amazon Echo works really well as a hub (it’s gaining more direct control of things all the time). It is my favorite because it supports voice, which is a tremendously easy way to control my home. It also offers control to everyone in the home, not just those with a smartphone and the correct app.
But once you start getting excited about home automation you’re going to want to go a bit bigger and invest in a hub that lets you make rules and really automate your stuff. For that you’ll need the SmartThings, Wink, or Almond hubs.
You could also use software like Stringify (iOS only), Thington (iOS only), or Yonomi to create rules and actions. I’d also suggest If This Then That (IFTTT), but be aware that because these are cloud-to-cloud, there is often significant lag time (it can take a full minute for my lights to turn on using an IFTTT recipe).
I’ll also put in a word here about HomeKit, which isn’t a hub in a traditional sense, but can be used to control a multitude of connected devices from one place. That place is Apple’s Home app or a third-party app confusingly also called Home, which costs $14.99. You can create recipes and scenes in both places that are pretty detailed. The challenge with the HomeKit ecosystem is that it depends on a dedicated certification chip inside the hardware, and it only works with iOS devices.
So, like many things on the smart home world, your favorite device depends a bit on what you want to do and what devices you currently use.
Why don’t my Lutron light switches work with my connected light bulbs?
No one person has asked this, but enough people have assumed they can connect their Philips Hue or other connected bulbs to Lutron light switches that I felt obligated to set the record straight. Plus, I too wondered what was going on.
Lutron very clearly states that its Caseta line of dimmers and Pico remotes won’t control Philips Hue or other connected bulbs, despite being perfectly capable of dimming a “dumb” LED.
So I asked Lutron. The answer is that smart light bulbs want to be the smartest bulb in the room, and the control of the dimming function lives in the bulb. This is fine when full power is running to the bulb from a switch, but when a Lutron switch dims, the light gets less power and ceases to function. So basically, if you want a smart lighting setup you have to decide if you want it at the bulb level or at the switch level. Or you can look for a Lutron on/off switch. The PD-5WS switch may allow you to control connected bulbs because it is an on/off switch, and can be connected to a hub, but I have never tried this.
Most people have to decide if they want smart bulbs or a smart switch. Smart bulbs cost more if you have a bunch of bulbs controlled by a single switch. Plus, if someone toggles the switch off, your lights are effectively broken. Case in point is my kitchen, which has six downlights. Even the cheapest GE bulbs at $15 a pop cost more than a Lutron switch at $65 or a WeMo light switch at $44.63. The WeMo switch uses Wi-Fi (yay) but doesn’t dim (boo). That’s why I went with Lutron.
But smart switches require a neutral wire (old homes may not have this) and some comfort with electricity. I’ve replaced switches, and it does take a bit of know-how and a few cheap tools. However, it’s not as scary as it may seem. If you want to get started, I recommend a pair of needle nose pliers, a pair of wire strippers, and a voltage meter if you are nervous about the power being turned off.
Thus, unless it’s for an individual lamp or I need multiple colors, I’m veering more toward smart switches. And so far, my switch of choice is a Lutron, which I then connect through the Wink hub to my Echo. You could also connect it to the Lutron hub ($79.95) and talk to those switches using Siri.
Just remember to turn of the power before you wire something, and you’ll be fine.