Creating a smart home can be both personally and financially rewarding. There is something magical when devices in a home seem to anticipate the occupants’ needs and automatically take actions to fulfill them. And, there is no arguing with the satisfaction gained when your utility bills are reduced. Unfortunately, creating a smart home can be a minefield of potential mistakes that can be both costly and lead to frustration.
Here are my top 13 smart home mistakes to avoid:
1) Not starting with a plan
Creating a smart home is more similar to a major technology upgrade that a corporation might take on than a home improvement project. As such, it benefits from a much more formal planning process.
Start by documenting the goals for the smart home. Are you trying to save energy, improve the safety and security of the home or just make it a more convenient place to live?
Next start planning out how you will implement the smart home with a plan that traces back to, and helps achieve, one of the goals that you have documented. For example, if one of your goals is to save energy, then installing a smart thermostat that includes an automated setback feature makes perfect sense. On the other hand, installing Sonos speakers around a residence shouldn’t be in your plan if your only goal is to improve the safety and security of the home’s occupants. Without a well thought out plan, you will probably spend more money on the smart home than you had planned and still won’t achieve your goals.
This isn’t to say that there can’t be a phase two of your smart home plan where you expand your goals to include, for example, Sonos speakers. However, when you set goals and put a plan in place, you need to show discipline and keep on track.
2) Not starting with a robust and secure network
The smart home products that you install are going to rely on the home’s network to operate. While many smart home products use Z-Wave and Zigbee to communicate with each other wirelessly, they still are going to communicate with a hub that sits on a home network. Unless you have a robust and secure network, you are going have more system reliability challenges. The latest version of Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6E) includes new capabilities designed for smart homes that help it handle more concurrently operating devices that are typical of a smart home.
In addition to having a network that is robust enough to handle all the smart home devices you plan to install the network must be secure. First the username/password of the router must be changed from any defaults provided by the manufacturer to a very strong one. The first thing a hacker will do is try to break into a router using common, default usernames and passwords. Second, choose a router with a strong firewall from a reliable manufacturer. Buying a cheap, used router on eBay or Craig’s List is simply not a good idea. Your computer network is the foundation of your smart home, so investing in high-quality network hardware makes sense.
3) Not starting small
There is a natural tendency to jump in and automate everything right from the start. Unfortunately, this approach will be a painful one. There is a lot to learn about smart home technology that can’t be gained from reading. The best approach is to start small and learn by doing. You might, for example, find that the light switch you chose doesn’t work as well as you thought, and another brand would better fulfill your needs. If you started your project by purchasing 20 smart light switches, then you have wasted a lot of money. But, if you just started your project by purchasing two smart switches, then it isn’t a big deal to change to another brand.
4) Not choosing devices that work together
Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of smart home technologies that don’t communicate with each other. Unless you research each product that you choose for a home carefully, you may find that, for example, the smart light bulbs you chose won’t communicate with your hub, and you can’t control them. There is a lack of standards that would let all smart devices communicate with each other, so it is up to the homeowner, or integrator, to make sure that all the products that are chosen for a smart home system are compatible.
5) Choosing products from companies that go out of business
If the company that manufactured a chair you bought goes out of business, it isn’t a big deal. On the other hand, many smart home products leverage computer programming running on cloud servers. If the company goes out of business, these cloud servers go away and your smart home device turns into a brick.
For this reason, that cool, new light switch being sold on Kickstarter by a startup company comes with significant risk. That company could become the next Google or Facebook. On the other hand, the company may never survive the process of developing their product and you could lose your investment. It is important to not only research the products you use in your smart home to make sure they fulfill your requirements but to also research the manufacturers to make sure they are going to continue operating and provide ongoing support for the products you purchase from them.
6) Not focusing on keeping your smart home devices secure
Just like your router, the default usernames and passwords on all of your smart home devices need to be changed to very strong ones when you install them. In 2016, hackers installed malware in countless IoT devices whose owners hadn’t bothered to change the default username and passwords. This “botnet” of infected devices was then used for a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) that took down large portions of the internet.
These days, most manufacturers don’t include default usernames and passwords, instead requiring the owner to enter their own to start with. But, this isn’t a universal practice, and it is up to homeowners to choose usernames and passwords that can’t be easily guessed. For example, choosing “admin” for the username and “password” for the password is a bad idea.
In addition, every smart home device is a small computer and, just like your laptop, it needs updates to patch vulnerabilities. If you don’t want the video from your security cameras being displayed around the internet, then you need to make sure that the firmware is kept up to date.
Some devices are intelligent enough to automatically update themselves. However, many devices don’t include this feature and require the homeowner to do this manually. Personally, I keep a list of all the devices in my smart home that require manual updates. Once a month I check every device to see if there is a firmware update available. If there is, then I perform the update. This is a bit of a hassle but it lets me sleep better knowing that some smart teenager with too much free time isn’t going to start flashing the lights in my home at 2am… or worse.
7) Focusing on price over quality
Don’t get me wrong. There are bargains to be found when shopping for smart home devices. However, you always need to make sure that you are buying quality components from a manufacturer that will continue to support their devices over time. There is nothing worse than having problems with a smart home device, calling the manufacturer for support, getting someone on the phone in a call center somewhere who isn’t helpful at all. At that point you really have little choice but to replace the device, spending even more money than you would have if you bought a higher quality component in the first place.
8) Not planning for inevitable problems
At some point in time you are going to have problems and require assistance. This is true for things throughout your home, including appliances, your furnace, and your plumbing. In the past, it was pretty easy to figure out where to go for help when something in your home wasn’t working. If you have a water leak, then you called a plumber. If you don’t have power, you called an electrician. When you have created a smart home system by integrating components from a large number of different manufacturers and something doesn’t work it can be a very challenging problem. If you have:
- Alexa smart speakers for voice control
- Samsung SmartThings hub
- GE Z-Wave light switches
When you suddenly can’t get voice commands to control your lights, who do you call for help? While integration of products from multiple manufacturers is inevitable (not every manufacturer makes every type of device you may want in a smart home), trying to keep the number of manufacturers to a minimum makes sense from a maintainability and support perspective.
9) Not planning for change
Smart home technology is rapidly evolving. You need to understand that change is inevitable. Parts of your system will become outdated over time, and you will want to replace them. Because of this, you want to choose products that can easily be replaced. An example of a product that doesn’t fit this goal is a smart refrigerator with a built-in smart home hub.
The average lifespan of a refrigerator is 17 years. In that timeframe, the smart home hub built into it will have become a dinosaur. In addition, today a refrigerator with a smart home hub is considered a premium product with a premium price tag. You are much better off spending less money on a more conventional refrigerator and place an inexpensive tablet in your kitchen for smart home control.
10) Not understanding the difference between automation and control
The ultimate goal of a smart home is for it to understand your needs and to automatically take actions to help you. For example, when you enter your home carrying armfuls of groceries after a trip to the store, if it is nighttime, your smart home should turn on pathway lights for safety and convenience. If your smart home only provides for control then while struggling not to drop any of your groceries you are left yelling “Alexa, turn on the hall light!” and “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen light!” Voice control is not true automation. It is just a substitute for reaching out and manually turning on a light switch.
Today, it isn’t easy to provide true automation, but that should be the goal if you are truly interested in what a smart home can provide.
11) Using confusing names
The names you choose for lights, other devices, and groups that will be part of a smart home need to be carefully chosen. Voice assistants will pick up on these names, so assigning, for example, a new light switch, the first name that comes to mind, will lead to a smart home that both difficult, and frustrating, to operate. For example, nobody, possibly besides yourself, will ever be able to remember that you named the living room floor lamp, the torchiere.
12) Skimping on control points
Different smart home platforms use different types of devices for controlling the smart devices in a home. Professionally installed smart home systems can be controlled through proprietary wall-mounted keypads and touch panels, a smart phone app, and voice commands using Alexa or Google Assistant smart speakers. While your chosen platform may not support all of these options, it is important to make sure that it is very convenient for everyone in the family to control the smart home. If the family uses voice commands to control their home, then you need to spread smart speakers around the house, so family members don’t have to walk to the other side of the house to adjust the thermostat. If the smart home system doesn’t support voice commands, then spreading tablets that run the smart home app around the home is a good alternative. Just make sure your system is convenient to operate.
13) Not focusing on who will be using the system
If you are single, live on your own, and developing a smart home where you will be the only user then you can skip this one. However, whether you are a professional integrator designing smart homes for other people or you are a hobbyist with a family or roommates, there will be other people using what you design. If you design your smart home without involving them, then you will inevitably run into problems. These other people are going to be as much users of the system as you are and if they find it confusing and difficult to operate you are going to have problems. To avoid having family members or clients reject what you have installed, the best approach is to involve all the people who are going to use the system in its design. It may slow things down as you have to educate everyone on your goals, what approach you are taking to accomplish those goals, and to some extent the technology you will use. However, the time you spend up front will pay off in the end.
Hopefully, being aware of the potential mistakes you can make when building a smart home will help you avoid them.