Equip Your Home With the Latest Smart Tech
Save money, water and energy—and even make your home more secure—with these 8 easy-to-use and affordable gadgets.
Smart-home technology has come a long way from The Clapper, a simple electrical switch control that used sound to turn lights on or off.
For years, experts have claimed that smart-home technology would revolutionize our lives, but “it has taken a generation for those innovations” to materialize, says Michelle V. Rafter, a Portland, Oregon-based journalist covering jobs, tech and business.
Modern technology has transformed smart homes from the realm of science fiction to affordable reality, says Diane Cook, Ph.D., a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University who has been applying artificial intelligence in smart-home test homes since 2006.
Current smart-home technologies can help people save money and energy and keep their homes more secure, but the devices have a long way to go overall to becoming user-friendly, Cook says. “Right now, many such technologies require a great deal of effort on the part of the user to set them up, program them, monitor them and adjust them,” she says, but she’s hopeful that as research progresses, smart tech will become simpler to use.
Today’s smart devices can use the Internet—even without our supervision—to interact with each other via our networks.
Here are 10 ways you can cut costs, conserve energy, save water, improve home security and generally make life easier using practical, affordable smart-home devices.
1. Save water with a simple showerhead
Reduce water waste in the shower by switching your showerhead to a Delta 2-Setting Water Efficient Hand Shower with pushbutton controlled Full Body Spray and Pause settings. Its 2.0 gallons-per-minute flow meets the Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense and CALgreen standards.
Cost: $20.17 at Home Depot through NEA Click & Save
2. Block energy vampires
Plug your devices into smart power strips that block "energy vampires," suggests Karen J. Bannan, a New York City-based technology expert and founder of NaturalAsPossibleMom.com, a website dedicated to all things green and healthy. All the devices we leave plugged into outlets—cable boxes, video games, computers—are constantly drawing a little bit of energy, she explains, and "people who leave their computers on all the time are sucking the life out of their energy bills!" Smart power strips automatically turn off the devices for you when you're not using them. Bannan says TrickleStar brand has several tiers in its product line, including a motion sensor power strip.
Cost: $13.99 for their 7 Outlet PowerStrip; $39.95 with Motion Sensor at Amazon
3. Turn the lights on and off automatically
First Alert’s Motion Sensing Light Socket for ceiling-mounted bare bulb lights has a 360-degree motion sensor that turns on lights when you approach and turns them off four minutes after you leave. Use it in laundry rooms, basements, walk-in closets and garages, with either compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs up to 50 watts or incandescents up to 100 watts.
Cost: $21.99 at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save
4. Control lights and fans with a wall switch
Lutron’s Maestro 5-Amp Single Pole/3-Way Occupancy Sensing Switch uses motion detection sensors to switch lights or fans on or off and picks up even minor motions such as typing or reading so lights stay on when the room is occupied. An optional feature detects daylight so lights don't turn on when they're not needed. Timed lights-out settings can be programmed for 1, 5, 15 or 30 minute delays. Works with fans up to 3 amps and any type of light bulb including CFL and LED.
5. Power outlets on or off automatically
Anything you plug into a Belkin WeMo Switch can be controlled from your phone, says Gary Wollenhaupt, editorial director of ProudGreenHome.com. Plug the WeMo into an outlet, then plug the device into the WeMo Switch and use the free WeMo app on your Apple or Android smartphone or tablet to turn TVs, lamps, slow-cookers and other devices on or off, or customize an on-off schedule.
Cost: $39.99 per outlet at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save
5. Monitor your front door remotely
Not at home? Or busy and can’t come to the door? Zmodo Greet, a smart doorbell, lets you answer the door through your smartphone (iOS and Android) with the free Zmodo app. You can see, hear and speak to visitors, delivery people and others as if you were there. Even when the bell hasn't been rung, it automatically records and stores video clips you can view on your smartphone when it detects motion.
Cost: $102.99 at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save.
7. Multi-system management
With a Samsung SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit, you can control thermostats, lights, electronics, portable heaters, fans, small appliances and other devices with your smartphone. Alerts tell you if lights or other devices were left on or if an intruder has been detected. Add a Samsung SmartCam HD Pro camera ($159.99, sold separately) to stream live video and record clips of events, starting 30 seconds before the event and continuing 2 minutes after.
Cost: $149.99 at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save
8. Control your home’s thermostat for comfort and savings
"A smart thermostat is absolutely the first [smart home] thing I would install," says Bannan. She likes the Nest Learning Thermostat that uses sensors to track you while you move around your home and adjust temperatures.
"It's called a 'learning' device because it remembers what you like and adjusts the temperature based on your actions," Bannan explains. "For instance, maybe you turn the heat up when you wake up at 6 a.m. during the week but sleep in until 9 on weekends. The device will figure that out and automatically start turning up the heat so the house is warm, no matter what time you jump out of bed." You can also adjust settings remotely via your smartphone, Bannan adds. A green leaf on the display shows when you've chosen an energy efficient temperature.
Cost: $249 at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save
9. Unlock doors without a key
No need for a key when you install a Kwikset Kevo Touch-to-Open Bluetooth Key and Electronic Smart Door Lock. Use your smartphone to send and manage eKeys, schedule access to let other people enter your home, and receive notifications and usage history. It also works with other smart devices including the Nest thermostat.
Cost: $299 at Best Buy through NEA Click & Save
10. Save cleaning time
Squeeze extra minutes out of your busy day by letting iRobot's Roomba Vacuuming Robots and Braava Mopping Robots clean your floors. Choose the model that best fits your needs. With the newest Roomba 980, you can schedule or monitor cleaning on your iOS or Android smart device with the iRobot HOME App.
If you have a spare or older iOS or Android smartphone or tablet lying around unused, convert it into a free Wi-Fi security camera. Apps like Presence (for iOS and Android) make it simple. Just download the free app and sign into Presence from another device to see what's happening at home in real time. When motion is detected, Presence will alert you with recorded videos. Voila—instant nanny cam or pet cam—for free. Presence also comes in a Pro version, and other free conversion apps are available in iOS and Android app stores.
While internet-connected devices can make our lives easier in many ways, cybersecurity experts warn it may also pose risks.
Smart devices require extra security precautions because anything connected to the internet can be hacked and hijacked. For example, on October 21, 2016, this risk became reality: A massive hacker attack turned "household internet-connected devices like DVRs and video cameras into spam servers," said Lynette Owens, Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. Her ISFK blog post for parents and teachers, Don't Let Your New Fridge Take Down the Internet, recommends these simple protective steps:
- Don't connect a device that doesn't need Internet connection and consider disconnecting the device when not in use.
- Change the default password that came with the device "immediately—and make your new password strong."
- Enable two-factor authentication security features whenever possible "so hackers need more than just your password to get into your account."
- Don't let apps or websites autosave logins. Entering your username and password each time may be less convenient but it's more secure.
- "Keep your devices up-to-date with the latest software to help minimize the risk of security breaches."
NOTE: Information and prices in this article are accurate as of November 22, 2016.