Common Smart Home Mistakes to Watch Out For
19 December 2021
When Debbie and I started our smart home journey 5 years ago we had no idea where it’d lead. But my working in the tech industry it seems like it was inevitable now. My initial motivation was all about efficiency and simplifying things at home. We started with smart light bulbs — an inexpensive entry into smart home and a way to learn about the technology. I didn’t have any grand expectations about cutting my electric bills or saving myself hours of flipping light switches. But there is something magical when devices in a home seem to anticipate the occupants’ needs and automata actions to support them. And, I have yet to experience the satisfaction gained when your utility bills are significantly reduced. The one main thing I’ve learned through this process so far is there are a lot of smart home choices — vendors, technologies, integrations, etc. So when the playing field is that wide open it’s easy to make mistakes that can be both costly and lead to frustration.
As there are a lot of considerations for your smart home, here are a few things to keep in mind to avoid making mistakes as you start or continue your smart home development.
Not starting with a plan
I’ve seen creating a smart home is more similar to a major technology upgrade at a sports team in my career than a home improvement project. From my past experience, success and dealing with issues along the way (which you should expect) was always more manageable by first investing time in a formal planning process.
Start by documenting the goals for your 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 end up spending more money than you thought it would/should and still won’t achieve your goals.
This isn’t to say that there can’t be subsequent phases of your smart home plan where you expand your goals to include things like Sonos speakers. However, when you’ve figured out your goals and put a plan together that aligns to accomplish them, you need to stick to your plan and work through it.
Not starting small
There is a natural tendency to jump in and want to automate everything right from the start. This approach will be overwhelming at best. 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. As I mentioned above, I started with smart light bulbs. I learned the procs and cons to the ones I started with which led me to others with different features and/or integrations that aligned with my larger plan. You may choose something that doesn’t work as well as you thought, and another brand would better fulfill your needs. If you started your project by over-purchasing, then you have wasted a lot of money. But, if you just started your project smaller, then it isn’t a big deal to change to another brand.
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 will still communicate with a hub that sits on a home network. Unless you have a robust and secure network, you are going to have system reliability issues. The latest version of Wifi (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 in your plan it must also 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, second hand gear 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.
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 you to choose usernames and passwords that can’t be easily guessed.
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 you to do this manually. I regularly check our devices to see if there is a firmware update available. If there is, then I perform the update. This may seem like a bit of a hassle but better than the alternative of someone speaking to your kids through a camera disabling your garage door opener.
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 currently a lack of standards that would let all smart devices communicate with each other, so it is up to you to make sure that all the products that are chosen for a smart home system are compatible. Many products carry messaging on their packaging to let you know about integration options but nothing should replace doing your own good old fashioned homework.
Choosing products from companies that go out of business
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. Nobody wants that. But there are a lot of startup scale companies out there producing smart home technology. This has lead to many of the integration issues described above as well.
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.
Focusing on price over quality
There are certainly bargains to be found when shopping for smart home devices, especially lately as we face the Holidays. 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.
Not planning for inevitable problems
At some point in time you are going to have problems and require assistance. This is true for all kinds of things throughout your home — appliances, water heater, air conditioner, plumbing, etc. 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’ve created a smart home system by integrating components from a variety of different manufacturers and something doesn’t work it can be a very challenging problem.
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 — because 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. It makes sense to standardize on manufacturers where you can.
Not planning for change
Smart home technology evolves every day. It ‘s just the nature of technology in general. You need to understand that change is inevitable. Parts of your system will become outdated over time, and you though you may not want to replace them, you’ll have to. 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 outdated many times over.
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, 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.
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. And manufacturers are working toward that every day.
Using confusing names
The names you choose for your devices, groups and scenes, that will be part of a smart home need to be carefully chosen. Voice assistants will rely on these names, so assigning, a new light switch, the first name that comes to mind, will lead to a smart home that’s both difficult and frustrating to operate.
And unless you live alone and never have visitors, your naming needs to be simple and logical. In our example, I manage our smart home and the planning for our new house, but have to keep in mind that Debbie isn’t as technical and we’ll frequently have guests, including grandkids. So random naming isn’t an option and designing the naming convention for change, additions and upgrades is important.
A good rule of thumb, especially for voice assistant control, is considering location, smart technology type and activity. An example would be turning on a dimmed lamp in the Great Room by asking Alexa: Turn on the Great Room East Lamp to 50%. Or using an app in a similar fashion.
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 like Control4 or Savant, a smart phone app, and voice commands using Amazon 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 another room 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.
Not focusing on who will be using the system
As I alluded to regarding naming things, developing a smart home where you will be the only user then you can skip this section. However, if you are designing your smart home for other people or 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. As I’m a huge believer in ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life,’ I’ve involved Debbie in all of the aspects of our smart home planning, especially around operating our home. Always keep in mind that other people are going to be as much users of the system as you are and if they find it confusing or difficult to operate you are going to have problems. To avoid having family members 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, the approach to accomplish those goals, and the technology you will use. However, the time you spend up front will pay off in the end. If it helps, just remember Abraham Lincoln’s quote “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Hopefully, sharing these potential mistakes you can make when building a smart home will help you avoid them. I’ve certainly made a few along the way and you will too if you build out any significant technology in your home. But look at it as a learning experience instead of a setback. Like I said, smart home tech changes every day so the key is stay flexible.
I’d be curious what your smart home roadmap looks like. What are your goals? What technologies or manufacturers are you focusing on? What mistakes have you made (or willing to share)? Let us know in the comments, DMs and emails as always.
Debbie and I wish all of you that are following our smart home journey a safe and happy Holiday season. We’re taking a break from the blog next week for a little holiday rest and relaxation with family and friends. We’ll be back the week of December 27.
In full disclosure, I’m not an affiliate marketer with links to any online retailer on my website. When people read what I’ve written about a particular product and then click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn nothing from the retailer. The links are strictly a convenience for my readers.