Smart Stuff

I’m not an early adopter. I wasn’t on the iPhone bandwagon. I had a Windows Phone. Maybe that says everything you need to know about me.

In the past couple years, I tried out some smart Internet-of-Things stuff (IoT) in my house. My conclusion is meh. I’m sure this says something about my age, but it also says something about the IoT stuff.

If you are lucky enough to have a new home and build it from the ground up with smart switches, you can probably have a good experience. If you are retrofitting an already built house, it will probably be unsatisfying.

One of the first things I tried was a smart speaker. I saw plenty of people using Google speakers and Alexa speakers in their homes with some success. A Bluetooth speaker and your phone are a must on vacation.

You have probably tried the resident assistants: Siri, Cortana, or Google (what? I just say Hey, Google?). They all work. And you probably have had some big time fails with voice recognition that resulted in hilarity.

If you have a newer car with Bluetooth, you have probably seen the benefit of greater hands-free operation with the assistant in the phone.

We got an Alexa in our house. Then, we got another, and then another. And the single best part of the Alexa is the ability to play music wherever you are. Playing music however works best when you stick within the system. That is, you can’t easily play your Google music or even Spotify on your Alexa with voice commands. But you can play your Amazon stuff quite easily. I should have seen this as a sign.

What happens if you extrapolate this out? You end up with Nest thermostat, some plugs that looked like a good Amazon deal, a security camera or entire system from Ring or whoever, and an attempt to install some smart light switches in your house. Each one of these Smart Things has its own app you need on your phone. If you want to control that from your Alexa, you need some “skill” installed. None of it really works well together.

The smart light switch was the inflection point for me. We have a 3-gang switch in our foyer. Two of the switches control lights outside. Wouldn’t it be nice if they came on automatically? Could the switches be on a vacation schedule when you are away? Yes, I thought and tried to install one. I was, shall we say, unsuccessful.

Here is a normal switch and the smart switch. I got the smart switch at Best Buy. It was not expensive. I’m sure it is a reasonable switch.

two light switches

The smart switch is the huge one on the left.

If you have ever seen a real electrician work, it is amazing. Like most people in the trades, they are quite good at what they do. The ability of an electrician to get a crazy junction of wires in a box, mount all the switches or plugs and then pretty it up with a plate is like a magic trick. I am not an electrician. But this work box has at least 7 if not more common (white) wires wire-nutted together. That is not unusual. It is completely up to code too.

Here is the 3-gang box with one of the switches removed. I have one bundle of common wires unbundled.

open electical box

I did connect the smart switch. This picture shows my installation. What is hard to see is that the switch is sticking out at least ¾ of an inch. I was never going to get decorative plate back on.

three gang light work box

The final straw was my inability to actually get it to work. I was testing it with the plate off. I once again installed yet another app on my phone. I once again set up yet another sub-net on my network for all switches from BrandX Smart Switches (not the real name – it is not the switches fault. Plus, I don’t remember).

This was never going to be a satisfying experience. I bailed. I put all the original stuff back in the work box. I performed an amateurish version of stuffing the wires back in the box and I got the plate on.

I also began undoing all the smart stuff in my home. It just isn’t ready. I frankly don’t see how it will ever work unless you start today and use only smart stuff from one brand. Why isn’t electrical stuff more modular yet?

I don’t know. I do know this: I will now stick to mainly one brand smart stuff. I don’t want 5 sub-networks. I don’t want 5 or more apps on my phone just to make the lights in the room come on. And truth be told, the promise doesn’t meet the hype yet. If you want a smart home, you might need to hire an architect. That’s fine. My home suits the home dwellers just fine.

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