In the world of travelers who are on the road a lot, home automation may seem a little weird – but the ability to stay in control of your home, no matter where you are is something that can put your mind at ease, and help keep your home running smoothly, even when you are 3000 miles away.
Home automation is nothing new – products like X10 have been around for well over a decade, and basic products like the Clapper found their way into millions of homes. But in this day and age where the “Internet of Things” is becoming a reality, being able to have full control over your home is no longer science fiction. There are quite a lot of products on the market – most of them offer the same basic features; turn lights on or off no matter where you are. Sadly, a lot of these products promise a lot, and under-deliver. Whether it is an expensive monthly subscription, lack of support for products, or even something as simple as the lack of a reliable mobile app – finding the perfect solution has never been easy.
This is where our review can help – SmartThings, a new entrant into the home automation market launched on Kickstarter last year with some pretty lofty promises. What makes this product worthy of our attention is that for the first time ever, the promise of easy to use, subscription-free home automation is a reality.
At the heart of the SmartThings system is their hub. The hub is a simple little plastic box that requires nothing more than power and Ethernet (from your router or cable modem). Once plugged in, you activate the system using their mobile app, and you are up and running. Inside the SmartThings hub is support for the two most important home automation systems on the market – ZigBee and Z-Wave. With these two systems, you’ll be able to use the vast majority of all current home control products available. This includes basic things like light switches and motion sensors, but also more complex products like water valves, sirens and even circuit boards that let you build your own home automation product. SmartThings also has support for several existing systems like Philips Hue, Sonos speakers and Dropbox cameras.
The system is very open – as long as the product you buy supports Z-Wave or ZigBee,chances are it will work just fine. I’ve combined switches, sensors, locks and more from over 10 different brands, and everything just works. SmartThings is sold in several packages – you can purchase their hub for just $99 and add your own “things”, or you can hit the ground running with one of several starter kits. In most cases, you’ll start with the hub, add a couple of light switches and some motion/door sensors. Once installed, you’ll have access to some pretty simple stuff – use the app to turn some lights on or off, ask a motion sensor to turn your lights off when you leave, or have lights turn on when you open a door.
But this is where the fun begins – most people who start with home automation get hooked pretty quickly, and it is quite unlikely that you’ll settle for just one or two modules. In my case, my starter kit quickly evolved into a 31 “thing” setup, and I spent an entire weekend replacing all of my light switches with smart Z-Wave switches. With all of these “things”, the sky is pretty much the limit as to what you can do. In my case, my lights all turn off when everyone has left the house, and it automatically locks all of my doors if they have been closed for more than 2 minutes (and I forget to lock them myself). My hallway lights turn on automatically when I arrive back home and it is dark outside. I can also get email or text alerts when doors that normally do not open are opened.
If water leaks from my dishwasher, washing machine or water heater, the leak will trigger a siren and SMS alert, and once I get a plumber to install a Z-Wave water valve, any leaks will immediately shut off my water mains. Mobile phones and the optional $30 presence sensor allow SmartThings to know who is home, and can trigger actions based off this. Lights turn on when you pull up in your driveway, and everything turns off when nobody is at home.
Home security is also a strong part of SmartThings, but it is up to you whether you want to rely on their system to alert you as a courtesy, or whether you want to invest in a “real” alarm with monitoring. With a few simple sensors, you can have a siren go off, trigger all of your lights to turn on AND have a home theater system play the sound of barking dogs. And best of all – you do not need to be a scientist to program this. Many of the SmartThings “Smart Apps” are based off daily situations – there are even apps for the elderly if you want to install a setup in the home of a loved one.
Now, back to how this system can help travelers – if you (like most people will) decide to go all out and automate most of your home, you can be at 36,000 feet and make sure the lights are off, or check your porch for packages. Got pets? Keep an eye on them using a Dropcam, adjust the temperature, and make sure the maid or pet sitter locks your doors when they leave. Left on a rush? Let SmartThings lower the temperature when you’ve been gone for a couple of hours and save on your energy bill. And best of all – you can do all of this with nothing more than an Internet connection – which means you can also connect using Gogo on your next flight. It doesn’t take a diehard nerd to appreciate the fun of controlling lights when you are halfway across the country flying at 36,000 feet.
The system isn’t without its (small) flaws – the app is constantly evolving, and some of its features are still a little confusing, but the SmartThings community is very lively, and the company provides immediate support. In fact, SmartThings has such a promising future that Samsung recently purchased them for a whopping $200 million. With this, the future of this little hub and home automation look very bright.
Even though the hub on its own is just $99, expect to pay around $500 to automate most of your home, or up to $1000 if you (like me) decide to replace most of your lights, add some colorful Philips Hue bulbs and an Internet connected thermostat, but after that initial investment, you’ll have the comfort of a reliably automated home.