I walk into my office, and the light should just turn on. But it doesn’t. The same goes for my other “automated rooms.” I could fix them. Again. But they’ll break again. And lately, I just don’t care when my smart home doesn’t work. It’s a sad state of affairs for the once-promising future.
I’ve written extensively on setting up the perfect smart homes. I know how to name my devices, rooms, and groups to get the perfect voice controls. I’m an old hat at automation. And while I’ve owned lots of hubs, I’d advocate you don’t actually need one (but I understand those who disagree). My smart home journey even involves traveling the world to cover and write about upcoming smart home innovations. But after going “there and back again,” I can come to an unavoidable conclusion. Smart homes may never live up to the promise they once held. And we can either live with it or abandon it.
Every Room in My House Has Some Problem
I went all in on smart home tech. I have a video doorbell, smart locks, smart bulbs, smart light switches, motion sensors, water sensors, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and more. You can speak to a voice assistant in nearly every room of my home, and even those that don’t have a smart speaker in it have one close enough in a nearby room you can shout a command if need be.
When it all works, it’s pretty great. I can control my lights by voice, change the temperature of the house from my phone, and unlock my doors without a key. It’s nothing anyone “needs” to have, but they are nice creature comforts you grow used to. Who hasn’t suffered through a cold night because the thermostat is too far away? Or wanted to turn the lights off for better TV viewing but didn’t feel like getting up from the couch? Again, nothing this provides is life-changing or an absolute necessity. But it sure is nice.
Except that most of it isn’t quite working anymore. In my living room, if I yell the command to turn off the lights, my Nest Hub informs me that it can’t contact three of the six lights. That’s on me; those lights are in a lamp that’s (once again) switched off physically. Over in my son’s bedroom, the situation is the same: ask the nearest Nest Mini to turn on his lights, and one out of four can respond. The others are Nanoleaf lights, and we long ago unplugged them due to instability issues.
My bedroom is a completely different annoyance. Both smart lights work in the room, but a workaround to get the fan light going presents frustrating issues. The fan itself isn’t smart, and I’ve found most smart fans to be fairly terrible. So I have a device from Bond (seen above) that can control the fan using infrared signals; it basically fakes being the fan’s controller. That works great—except when it doesn’t. Frequently I’ll ask my Nest Mini to turn on or off the light, and while Google will “chime” that the command went through, nothing will happen.
But even when it does work, there’s still a problem. With most lights, like the smart light on my nightstand, Google (or your smart home hub) can keep track of its on and off state. But with an IR-controlled fan light, that’s not possible. The same signal to send “on” is used to send “off.” So if I tell Google to turn off the lights in my room and my fan light happens to be off, Google will turn that one on. Most of most rooms are grouped for simple commands like, “turn off the lights.” That’s helpful, especially where my nightstand light would answer to the name “Hue Iris,” a thing I’m not likely to remember when I’m ready to go to sleep.
My basement presents similar challenges. I have a combination of smart lights and smart plugs in various groupings. Ask Google to turn on the basement lights, and the correct lights fire. Ask Alexa, which has the same connections, and it can’t find any of the basement lights. Ask Google to “turn on LEGO,” and it only turns on the lights in the LEGO group, but not the plugs. That worked just a few months ago. Ask Alexa to turn on LEGO, and everything works correctly. What’s the difference? I’m not even sure.
Motions Sensors Aren’t Much Better, Either
I’ve long argued that the best smart homes aren’t reactive but proactive. When you tell your smart home what to do, whether by voice or app, it’s reacting to your desires. But when a smart home anticipates your needs and works without needing you to tell it what to do, that’s proactive. You can accomplish some of that with motion sensors.
In my office and dining room, for instance, motion sensors should turn on the lights when I enter the room and then turn them back off when I leave. I even added complications to that feature by limiting what time of day or night the routine fires off. During the bright day when the smart shades are open, I don’t need my lights to turn on in my dining room, for instance. And as my office is near my young son’s bedroom, I don’t necessarily want the automations to fire after he’s gone to sleep.
When it works, it’s pretty marvelous. My shades open at set times, and lights turn on and off for me without needing to flip a switch, get out my phone, or yell a command. But it often doesn’t work as I want. When I’m working in my office, I apparently don’t move enough for the motion sensors to detect. So the lights would turn themselves off even though I was still in the room. And that’s when it’s working at all.
I have motion sensors from multiple companies, and for one reason or another, they’re all not working at the moment. My office sensor relies on a rechargeable battery, and despite “year-long” charge claims, I find I have to plug it in every other month or so. And frustratingly, after I charge it, it usually takes opening the app and re-pairing the device to get it working again. My dining room sensors just disconnect frequently. One day they’re working fine; the next day, they aren’t. And I have to open the related app and fiddle with them until they start working again.
Nothing Really Works Right, and I Can’t Be Bothered
The list of problems goes on, too. I have smart plugs that don’t respond anymore. I have a smart doorbell that calls out the wrong person as often as it correctly identifies someone. Last night I needed to disable a timed routine from turning off a working smart plug every night, and it took me ten minutes to find where that routine existed (instead of my usual routine location, it was in a different app under my wife’s account). And I have dozens of smart devices in the system I’ve long ago abandoned but still show up in the system when I try to control a room. Yes, Google, you couldn’t contact that Z-Wave bulb that died three years ago, I know.
All of these are problems that could be fixed. I could clear out incorrect familiar faces in my doorbell app. I could completely uninstall my entire smart home and reinstall each working device one by one to clear out all the abandoned stuff. I could charge that motion sensor again and re-pair it again. I could reconnect all my Nanoleaf lights that are in an unresponsive state. And maybe I should even do that last one, as Nanoleaf released an update it promised would fix stability issues.
But I just can’t bring myself to do it. The whole point of smart homes is that it’s supposed to make my day-to-day life more convenient and less of a hassle. As someone who works from home, that’s pretty compelling. All of these things are “first-world problems,” and no one “needs” a smart home. Which means that when the effort to troubleshoot the whole thing is greater than the effort it saves me in the first place, I just stop caring.
I had hoped Matter, the “smart home standard to rule them all,” would fix all of this. But in these early days, it’s not looking like that will happen anytime soon. If ever. And that leaves me with a sad recommendation: if you’re thinking about getting into smart home tech but don’t love fiddling and troubleshooting—don’t do it. You’ll thank me for saving you the trouble.