Blog: Smart Home Assembly — PhD Required?

Article By : Rebecca Day

The smart home is such a great idea. Unfortunately, it seems that only a genius can set up smart home gadgets and maintain them...

I’m all for the smart home … in theory. When it works, it’s great. When there are hiccups, you want to pull your hair out.

I think of how far it’s come, and I’m amazed at what’s possible today. Early on, home automation divided into two camps: expensive, custom-programmed systems for the rich and famous and then hobbyists of more modest means who somehow navigated the quirky X10 communication protocol to put lights on timers and control appliances.

I dabbled in X10, once, many years ago. I don’t remember what I was trying to program, but when my audio system blared unexpectedly at 2 a.m. — waking up everybody within earshot. I attributed the malfunction, fairly or not, to X10 interference on the powerline and aborted that project.

smart home, future homeI did later use a simple X10 timer to set a living room light to come on at dark, but it was tedious to program: I rarely reprogrammed it to mesh with changing sunset times. It’s hard to imagine doing much of anything without an app these days.

For me, the best part of smart home automation is managing light. I don’t need to preheat my oven from my phone, but I love that when I come home, I hit a button and the lights come on to preset settings. When I go to bed, one button turns out all the lights in the apartment.

My years-old wireless Lutron system communicates using proprietary RF technology. It still works beautifully after well over a decade, and I know I’ve saved money on power bills and bulb life thanks to the dimmed lighting scenes it created.

But lighting technology has moved on, and my system wasn’t designed to. As I’ve transitioned some of my lights to LED bulbs, there have been incompatibilities between the dimmer switches and the new bulbs. In the kitchen, after turning on the LED lights to a preset level, I have to manually dim them to get rid of flickering.

If I want to change the dimmer switch to minimize flicker, then the kitchen lights will no longer be part of the programmed scenes; they won’t turn off when I hit the “all off” mode at bedtime. I would need a professional programmer schooled in the legacy system to add and program a new dimmer switch. My lighting system still works the way it was designed to, but technology passed it by.

Apps for do-it-yourself smart lighting systems today — including Lutron’s — give users full control from their phones. You can set dimming levels, add a light to the system, tie in with thermostats and ceiling fans — even smart speakers. You can control the lights through Alexa and Google Home, change bulb colors and set geofencing so the lights go on when you pull into the driveway. And you don’t have to be rich or famous.

Of course, new systems bring their own headaches — a lot of them — which a scan of product FAQs and e-commerce reviews show. I commiserate with reviews from frustrated users like fifty50 on Amazon: “I stayed up until 4:30 am trying to figure out how to work this new lightbulb with my new Echo Dot 3.”

Stymied again… 

This smart light review from Allison hit a chord, who was so frustrated she went back and downgraded her review from two stars to one. Allison captured the classic love-hate relationship with tech: “Huge waste of money. Way too difficult to set up and then even after finally getting them set up, they stopped responding to my Google Home Mini after about a week. Disconnected them to try and reset, now they won’t connect again. Probably going to send them back. Way more trouble than they’re worth. That being said, the week they worked was pretty cool. Nice and bright at full blast but also dimmable … I liked being able to control it with my voice and set the ‘gentle wake’ mode that slowly increased the brightness in the morning before my alarm. If only they had worked for more than a week.”

The newest tech in my smart home also has to do with controlling light, natural light. Blinding late afternoon sun comes in through our 16th floor windows, making it impossible to see a screen or anything else. We went with a company called Screen Innovations, which used its smarts as a projection screen company, applied it to window shades and added a motor from Somfy, which supplies many of the motors for automated shades. A custom electronics installer specified and installed the shades — and gave us a trio of control option: Alexa voice control, an app, and a standard remote control. Life was good!

Life is still good, but we lost the smart part of our smart shades. The shades still work with the dedicated remote, but the motor’s app, called myLink, worked over Radio Technology Somfy (RTS), an RF-based control platform that operates over Wi-Fi. When we changed internet providers last fall and got a new router, MyLink went the way of our old Wi-Fi network. The app wasn’t able to connect with the new Wi-Fi network, and that has something to do with a network bridge between the shades’ motors and the router.

We can easily raise and lower the shades by remote, but we lost the ability to put them on a timer. We had programmed the shades to come down automatically at 4:30 p.m. when the sun begins its assault; that was cool. Alexa worked through RTS, too, so we lost voice control as well. That’s not as much a loss. We had fun at first with the parlor trick, telling Alexa to raise the shades. But we had to say it just the right way: “Alexa, tell MyLink to raise the west shade.” Awkward.

We would like to have app control back. Preliminary research has indicated it won’t be a quick and easy fix to get the bridge, router and app to play nicely together, so I’ve been putting it off. When I do tackle it, I picture myself like poor fifty50 above who was up until 4:30 a.m. trying to get her light bulb to work with her Echo. What I really want to say is: “Alexa, tell MyLink to talk to the router.”

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