“Smart home technology is cool, but is it actually worth it?” That’s the question we asked ourselves for years as we cautiously watched the trend grow. And how I’d answer that question right now is: it’s definitely not a necessity – it’s a want, not a need. But boy do a few of these systems make life at home easier. And some even make our house more energy efficient and save us money by cutting down on our water usage or our heating and cooling costs for example.
We’re by no means early adopters (Sherry likes to brag that we’re “consistently behind the trends”), but our gradual dip into in the smart home waters seemed to accelerate last fall when I got an Amazon Echo for my birthday. Now we have several smart devices in our home – many of which I’ve talked about on our podcast. But we’ve had a lot of requests from people for a post all about exactly what we have & how we ACTUALLY use it in our day-to-day life. So ask Alexa to fasten your safety belts, because here we go.
The Smart Home Devices We Own
These days there seems to be a smart version of just about everything – vacuums, refrigerators, garage door openers, the works! – but most of what we’ve purchased is centered around lighting and energy efficiency. Here’s a quick overview of what we have, but throughout this post I’ll explain in more detail how we put them to use.
1. Echo / 2. Echo Dot / 3. Plug / 4. Mini Plug / 5. Light Switch / 6. Light Bulb / 7. Thermostat / 8. Irrigation Controller
All of these devices have been made better by having a voice-assistant / smart home hub (which in our case is our Echo, with Alexa always at the ready). So even though it wasn’t our first smart home purchase, I would recommend that anyone starting down this road should begin with something like an Amazon Echo or a Google Home.
Why? Because it’s helpful to make sure whatever other technologies you add are compatible with your chosen hub. Fortunately, both the Echo and Google Home play nice with most other smart home devices out there, but not all of them. We chose the Echo because my brief Internet research concluded that the devices were neck-and-neck, but Echo had better sound quality for playing music, whereas Google was better at answering questions. Music was the priority for us, so I used a birthday gift card last November to get an Echo during a Black Friday sale.
As the holiday deals continued last December, I later snagged 3 Echo Dots (the smaller, more affordable, less sound-rich version of the Echo) so that we could invoke Alexa – and therefore control our smart devices – from elsewhere in the house. We got one for our home office downstairs, and two for each side of our second floor – one in our bedroom, the other in our bonus room. The Echo in the kitchen is close enough to hear us in the living room, so we don’t need one in there. Stay tuned for the best thing about having them in these additional rooms… most people don’t know about an extremely helpful function called “Drop In.”
The other central devices in our home are the smart plugs and lights – namely this smart plug and the mini version of it. I also got some smart light bulbs, specifically this Philips Hue White starter pack, for Christmas (I explain more about the smart bulbs and the difference between the various options in this post, btw). I’ve developed a slight preference for smart plugs over smart bulbs, since the plugs allow you to also control non-lighting devices (like a fan or a coffee maker) as well as fixtures with multiple or non-standard bulbs (like a Christmas tree). It was actually the “magic trick” of smart-ifying our Christmas tree that pretty much got Sherry on board with all of this stuff.
But before buying any of this stuff, I suggest you ask yourself: what am I trying to make better in my house? We found that by identifying specific sticking points in the efficiency or convenience of our house helped us buy the right smart things for our home, rather than just collecting gadgets that do cool things… that we actually don’t need or care about. So to give you some ideas, here are the 10 Ways We Use Smart Home Devices To Make Life At Home Better.
#1: Resolving Annoying Switch Situations
You know that room in your house where the light switch doesn’t control what you want it to? That’s our living room. The main light switch is (1) inconveniently located by the back door – not where you enter the room from the kitchen and (2) it controls nearly all of the outlets in the room, so using it to turn off the lights also turns off our modem and TV. We’ve had so many babysitters and guests accidentally turn that “light” off (thereby killing the entire house’s internet and TV functionality), that we’ve taken to writing “DO NOT TURN OFF” in Sharpie on a piece of tape that sits directly on the toggle switch. We’re classy like that.
And day-to-day it meant we had to turn each of the three lights in the room on and off individually at the lamp base. I know that’s totally #firstworldproblems, but sometimes doing that lap around the living room and reaching under each lamp shade felt like an extra annoying task at the end of the day. Why wouldn’t our switches just control what we wanted them to control – and not kill the modem and the tv!? Picture me shaking my fist at the light switch and screaming “whyyyyyyy?!”
Now we’ve got all three of the lamps in the room (the two couch lamps and one floor lamp) connected to smart plugs so a simple “Alexa, turn on the Living Room” will do the trick and illuminate them all. We can still control them individually (“Alexa, turn on the floor lamp”) but we mostly rely on the Group that we set up in our Alexa app that takes care of them all at once by saying “Alexa, turn on the living room.” And before bed we just tell her to turn them off. Hosta la vista late-night-living-room-lap-and-giving-side-eye-to-that-useless-wall-switch.
#2: Streamlining Bedtime
No, it doesn’t put the kids to bed (not yet at least!) but in addition to setting up Groups of smart devices in the Alexa app, we also love creating Routines. These are sequences of events that you can program Alexa to perform after giving her a single command that you designate – like turning on or off devices, playing music, reading you the news or weather, or speaking pre-set phrases (like when we say “Alexa, we’re home” she turns on the living room lights, Sherry’s favorite salt lamp goes on, and Alexa says “I’m happy you’re back. The dog is too.“)
But by far my favorite Routine in our house is “Alexa, Good Night.” Those three simple words mean she will turn off all of the connected living room lights (and the salt lamp) downstairs and turn ON our bedside lamps upstairs (which have smart bulbs in them). Meaning as we head up to bed, we don’t have to stumble towards a dark bedroom anymore. Sure, it’s a small perk, but it’s one that we use EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. And it just feels nice. Like a mini version of hotel turn-down service, but with lights.
#3: Saving Us Laps Around The Office
Another lighting inconvenience in our house was in our office. We get great natural light in that room, so on most days we work happily with no lights on at all. But we regularly hit that moment in the day where the sun is setting or storm clouds are rolling in, and we want to click on the overhead light… but the light switch is across the room. I know it sounds extremely lazy, but when we’re both in our work groove, it’s really nice to get to keep working away.
The only hitch was that the ceiling light in the office is obviously hardwired (so a smart plug doesn’t apply) and it has two bulbs in it, so it felt wasteful to buy two smart bulbs for one fixture (it’s not like we’d need to control them individually). So I got a smart light switch instead. It installs much like a normal light switch, just make sure you have a neutral wire (typically white) in there because the smart switch requires it. I’ll also warn you that it’s bulkier than a regular switch, so you may have trouble cramming it into any shallow or crowded junction boxes, but ours fits just fine.
Now we can turn it on and off by voice (“Alexa, turn on the Office”) and by hand – yep, it still works like a normal switch too. As since we have paddle switches throughout our house anyway, it blends right in. I actually would love to add smart switches to our kitchen, but the switches in there are 3-way switches. They do sell a 3-way version, but one of the 3-ways in our kitchen is a special size so it wouldn’t fit.
#4: Controlling Items With Inconvenient Controls
The first item we ever plugged into a smart plug was our Christmas Tree last year. I had grown tired of climbing around the back of the tree and squatting down with my face in the needles to plug it into the wall each morning (and then doing the same dance every night before bed). If you’re getting the sense that I’m very lazy at the end of the day, it’s because I am. We loved being able to control it with Alexa so much that we got a second plug for the smaller tree up in our bonus room too, so at the end of the night we could turn them both off at the same time with a simple voice command.
Now that the Christmas season is over, we moved both of those switches to Sherry’s salt lamps (one’s in the living room, and one is in the office). Typically they each turn on/off using a dial switch halfway down their cords, which meant every time Sherry wanted them on, she had to fish the cord out from behind the furniture piece that they each sat on and scroll the little wheely dial. Again, not intensely difficult stuff, but inconvenient enough that she found herself not doing it as often as she’d like. Now both go on and off along with the Living Room and the Office lighting groups, as well as their own Salt Lamps group – in case we don’t want the lights on, but still want to get whatever mystical powers the salt lamps promise us.
#5: Minimizing Yelling (Easiest Intercom System You Ever Installed)
We laughed at the old broken 1980s intercoms that we originally had throughout our house (we just removed the last of ’em this year and patched the giant holes they left behind) so it’s kinda funny that one smart home function we’re using a lot these days is the Echo’s intercom feature (called Drop In). If you’ve got more than one Echo device, you can say: “Alexa, Drop In On The Bonus Room” and it will allow you to speak to and hear from that other room. So by having either a Dot or an Echo in the kitchen, bonus room, office, and our bedroom – we have essentially created an intercom system to talk to each other – just by plugging them in (and no giant holes in the walls!). We mainly use this to call the kids down from upstairs when dinner is ready, or just to check in on them without having to yell “EVERYTHING OKAY UP THERE??? I HEARD A LOUD CRASH!!!”
This feature can also work with any friends and family who have an Echo device in their homes, although we tried it once with my sister in New York City and the connection / sound quality was like a bad conference call. So I’ll probably stick to normal phone calls or FaceTime for now. But down the line it might be an awesome option for free hands-free phone calls to anyone in your contact list with a smart home hub. And don’t worry that your friends are suddenly going to be listening in through your Echo without your permission – you have to give them access through the Alexa app first, and even then it still asks you to accept a Drop In every time it pings you.
#6: Cutting Down Our Heating & Cooling Bill
The OG smart home devices in our home are our Nest Learning Thermostats, which we’ve had for almost 5 years. We’ve loved them so much that we bought the more affordable (non-learning) Nest Thermostat E for the beach house too. There are lots of reasons we’ve loved them – they’re easy to set-up, fun to control, good to look at, etc – but probably our favorite feature is the auto-away mode which automatically turns your system to away mode when it doesn’t detect motion for a while. This might mean dropping it 5 degrees in the winter or letting it creep up 5 degrees in the summer. And that’s not just when we’re on vacation or at the beach for the weekend. Even when we’re out for a walk or just running quick errands, the Nest helps us save on our energy use. It’s pretty awesome to have that running in the background without having to think about it.
For anyone who is especially stat driven, according to this research, on average the Nest Thermostat saves people 10% to 12% on heating and 15% on cooling. Based on typical energy costs, that’s an average savings of $131 to $145 a year. That means the Nest Thermostat pays for itself in under two years (again, we’ve had ours for five with no sign of them having any trouble).
And now the Nest products are controllable by Alexa, so we’re frequently saying things like “Alexa, turn downstairs down 1 degree” or “Alexa, what’s the current temperature upstairs?” It just made one of our favorite smart home devices even easier and hands free.
#7: Keeping Our Yard Happy (& Saving Water)
When we installed our own sprinkler system last year, I got a smart irrigation controller by Racchio. It has several advantages over a standard controller and it’s not hard to upgrade an old system. It’s all controlled via a phone app so there are tons of options for programming and scheduling, and it’s compatible with Alexa so I can say things like “Alexa, tell Racchio to run Zone 1 for 10 minutes” (but truthfully, I’ve only used this once since I mostly just rely on scheduled runs). The truly smart part of the Racchio controller is that it watches the weather for you, not only to know when to skip scheduled waterings because of rain (or forecasted rain) but also adjusting your watering times and durations throughout the year as conditions get drier or hotter. Definitely makes us happy that we’re not the ones with the sprinkler system on in the rain.
#8: Creating The Illusion We’re Not Away
Although our current (very complex) alarm system doesn’t integrate into Alexa, we’re still able to rely on some of these smart devices to make our home feel more secure while we’re away. Although I’m not gonna give away all of our secrets here (sorry!), one that I love is through the KASA app, which is what all of our smart plugs and switches run through. It has an “Away” function that allows you to set your controlled devices to randomly turn on and off during scheduled times. This feels like an upgrade to old-school timer switches that only switch lamps on and off at the same times each day (which always reminds me of that scene in Home Alone when the Wet Bandits are watching all of the empty homes light up on schedule). My only gripe is that I haven’t found a way to do this through Alexa yet, which seems like a shortcoming. I’d love to be able to say “Alexa, go into Away mode” and activate all of the lights like this – but for now I just do it manually in the app.
#9: Setting Timers & Getting Questions Answered
We’ve found that getting information out of Alexa isn’t always perfect (not that she mishears, she just isn’t very thorough – this may be where Google Home flexes its muscles). I’d still call her 90% more helpful than Siri (“Wait I’m Looking That Up For You” and then providing a ton of links I could just google IS NOT AN ANSWER SIRI). We also find ourselves using some of her more basic features like setting timers or alarms all the time. I often use the kitchen one when I need an extra cooking timer and our daughter uses it in instances when her homework is to read for 20 minutes after school or something like that. It’s really cute to hear a kid say “Alexa, please set a timer for 20 minutes. Thank you so much Alexa we love you – wait Alexa now tell me a joke please.”
Alexa is also great for basic, simple information like “What day is Father’s Day this year?,” “How late is Belle Greek Restaurant open?,” “How much is 8 times 12” or “How do you spell prosciutto?” (just used Alexa to double-check that sentence!). I’m sure we haven’t unlocked all of the ways she could help us yet, but I’m finding this function more helpful than I expected it.
#10: Having Fun
Truth is, a lot of how we use Alexa is just for fun. It’s not necessary or useful, it’s just cool and makes life at home more enjoyable. Mostly I’m talking about music. We play music through our Echos every day (even through the Dots) because it connects to our Spotify account, meaning we can request specific songs, playlists, or artists. I’m currently doing this in the office while I type this. But there are other “skills” and gimmicks that we all enjoy too. The kids like to ask it to tell jokes or to “open the magic door” or “open a box of kittens” (try these, I won’t spoil them for you). And I personally end just about every night with “Alexa, play Jeopardy” where I get six daily questions as well as Alexa telling me what percentage of people got as many right as I did. Why? Because I’m a nerd, even up until the last few minutes of the day.
So I started this post asking “is smart home stuff really worth it?” You’ll have to be the judge of that for yourself, your home, and whatever issues you’re trying to solve. We’ve been very happy with the little bit of smart home technology we’ve introduced so far, and I’m watching some other devices with great interest… but they haven’t quite yet risen to the level of “worth it” to me. Emphasis on yet.
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