Promising Smarthome Tech That’s Still Too Challenging to Install

A woman controlling her shower by smartphone.
Moen

Smart lights, plugs, and voice assistants are easy to install and use. But some promising tech isn’t ready for the average person, even if it does look great. These smarthome gadgets look fantastic but have too many barriers.

I spend a lot of time looking at smarthome devices. What I have, what I don’t have, what’s available, and what might someday be possible. As a smarthome junky, I default to wanting it all. But better sensibilities (plus my family) keep me in control. Some gadgets, even if they exist right now, aren’t ready for the average smarthome consumer.

And that can be for any number of reasons, whether it’s price, the need for a professional installer, or required alteration of your home and property. It’s one thing to wire in a video doorbell or light switch; it’s another to run power to your shower or lay down wires in your yard.

Smart Water Shut Off Switches Aren’t Granular

A Flo by Moen smart valve, box, and phone showing the app.
Moen

A few companies, like Moen and Phyn, offer smarthome devices that monitor your water usage. With that monitoring comes leak notices, water usage measurements, and even the ability to shut off the water.

You can enable that last feature multiple ways—on a schedule, after a set amount of water usage (to prevent overly long showers), or if the system detects a leak.

But two related issues keep these systems from the mainstream. First, you’ll need to hire a plumber to install the device. And second, the system must be installed on the main water supply to your home. That means when you do shut off the water, you don’t shut it off to a particular shower or sink. The system shuts the water off for the entire home. It’s overkill for most people’s needs.

Smart water assistant devices are expensive too. You can expect to spend between $500 and $700 before the plumber. And if you don’t have power by your main water supply, you’ll need to hire an electrician to take care of that problem too.

Installing Smart Energy Monitors Can Electrocute You

A Sense energy monitor, phone and Computer showing results of monitoring.
Sense

You may have already heard of Sense energy monitor, but that’s not the only smart energy monitor on the market. Smappee (who wins the worst name contest), Neurio, and Emporia all want in on monitoring your energy usage as well.

For the most part, they have a few things in common. Typically the monitors run somewhere around $250, and you have to attach them directly to the wiring in your circuit breaker box. While the clamp system these devices use looks simple, your circuit breaker box is the last place you want to go mucking about without proper training.

The service mains, which the devices need to attach to, are always live, even when you shut off all power in the circuit breaker box. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can electrocute yourself trying to install an energy monitor. To install a smart energy monitor, you need to call a qualified electrician.

And when you call the electrician, it’s probably a good idea to explain what you want to connect to your circuit breaker box. Although it should be easy enough for them, if they aren’t familiar with the devices (which is likely), they’ll want to look everything over first. That’s an extra cost factor. If you don’t have a spare breaker with the proper voltage to power the monitor, you’ll need to have the electrician install that too, adding even more to the cost.

The jury is still out on how well energy monitors work at this point too. Sense and Neurio both attempt to identify your appliances by measuring energy usage and comparing to known data. Of the two monitors, Sense is more granular, with the ability to detect light bulbs, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right.

You may spend hundreds of dollars installing the device and find out it thinks your fridge is a microwave, and your microwave isn’t detected at all.

Smart Shades are Stupidly Expensive

Lutron Serena shades covering three windows.
Lutron

Smart shades seem awesome. You’ve probably seen them featured in a movie or a commercial, especially if the point is to depict someone as very rich. As the person wakes up, they utter a simple command or push a button and all the shades in the room rise. It sounds fantastic, and in practice, it is.

But if you live nearby several homes, take a look around at the windows around you. How many are similar? How many are different? As you move a street away, do you see even more sizes and styles of windows?

Unfortunately, home designs vary pretty drastically, and with them, windows change as well. So generally, smart shade companies custom build units for your home. That adds to the overall cost of the project.

The price of getting a custom standard shade is already high. Adding smart technology only exacerbates the problem. Lutron Serena shades, one of the most popular options on the market, can cost $350 or more to cover a single window. And you still need to buy the $150 Lutron bridge for remote control.

If you think that $350 isn’t that much, take a moment to count your windows and do the math. It adds up extremely quickly. And once again, you may need power near your windows, or you’ll have to opt for a battery-powered solution that’s bulkier and requires recharging.

Smart Showers Need Power

U by Moen installation, showing wires going into the shower wall.
Moen

What sounds nicer than rolling out of bed and telling Alexa to turn on the shower to 95 degrees? By the time you get to the bathroom, the shower is warm. It’s not just the steam that tells you the shower’s ready, the digital readout confirms the temperature. And if you don’t want warm water, after all, you can decrease the temperature with the touch of a button.

Everything about a smart shower sounds great until you realize it needs power. Smart showers, like U by Moen, generally call for a powered thermostatic shower valve. You have to buy both the smart shower device and the thermostatic valve for the system to work. You can place the valve anywhere in your bathroom with some rules. The spot you pick needs power and an access point after the install. You’ll also need to run a data cable from the valve to the shower if you didn’t place it directly behind the showerhead.

In the process of installing the water monitor, you may need to run water pipes to your chosen location, and power too if the spot you chose doesn’t have an outlet. The preferred location for the valve is inside your wall, so you’re talking some construction, too.

If you’re not comfortable with that, you’ll need to hire a plumber and electrician (possibly someone that can do both) to fill in the missing pieces for you. And some smart showers, like U by Moen or KOHLER Konnect, can cost between $300 and $600 (not including the $300 valve) before the install process.

Robot Lawnmowers Want Flat Ground

A Husqvarna AUTOMOWER mowing flat ground.
Husqvarna

Roombas and other robotic vacuums are pretty great, so how hard could a robot lawnmower be? Pretty hard actually. But if robot lawnmowers make you think of a Roomba, you’re on the right track. Picture an oversized Roomba and swap the vacuum for cutting blades. That’s what your average robot lawnmower, like Husqvarna’s Automower or Robomow’s RS630, resembles.

But the similarities end pretty quickly. Most robot vacuums work either by a bump and track system, randomly hitting walls and furniture, or a LIDAR system to map your house. Neither of those methods is enough in an open yard. So in addition to bump and track, most robot lawnmowers require you dig up your yard and install wire boundaries, similar to an invisible dog fence.

Roomba plans to release a robot lawnmower later this year that doesn’t use an invisible fence, but it does require professionally installed beacons in your yard.

Worse yet, manufacturers design robot lawnmowers for flat ground. They have trouble with slopes (and most won’t promise anything beyond a 35-degree tilt), and they get stuck in holes. These lawnmowers work best in a square yard with no trees, bushes, hills, or crevices. That’s a significant restriction for a lawnmower that costs somewhere between $1600 and $2000.

Hope on the Horizon

All of these gadgets show a lot of promise and could be great additions to a smarthome. If you’re willing and able to spend the time and money, you could have your water monitor or shades now.

But for everyone else, the good news is things are getting better. Phyn introduced a much cheaper water monitor that ditches the shutoff features. While losing that ability to cut water flow might seem a significant loss, it means anybody can install the new water assistant. And at half the cost and no need for a plumber, it’s far more affordable.

In the smart shade world, Ikea plans to release its take on the concept. The company’s Fyrtur shades will come in several set sizes, so they may not fit your windows perfectly. But you’ll spend less than $200, which makes them nearly half the cost of other companies.

So you while may not install most of these smart gadgets in your home today, in the future that might change. That time might even come sooner than you think.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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