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Home automation and The Internet of Things (IoT)

Imagine your whole home controlled with just a few swipes on your phone – that’s the grand promise of the ‘smart’ or connected home. From heating that warms the house before you get home and adapts according to the weather forecast, to front-door locks, lights and security cameras that you can control and check from afar.

Everyday household gadgets are being made ‘smart’, usually by using your wi-fi to connect to an app on your smartphone or tablet, allowing you to control them remotely.

Many items around the home, from lighting to heating, are now being built with smart capabilities. This includes:

  • Appliances, such as ovens, washing machines and fridge freezers
  • Energy and lighting, such as thermostats, radiator valves, and light bulbs and switches
  • Security measures, such as cameras, motion sensors and alarms
  • Health products, including fitness trackers, bathroom scales and air purifiers

New smart gadgets launch almost daily, but sifting out those that we may find genuinely useful from those that sound exciting, but are probably over-priced and will ultimately turn out to have little or no use for us can be tricky.

There’s a lot of competition in this relatively young market, which can mean a rocky ride for the customer. Buy too early and you may end up with an expensive toy with a short shelf life.

Here, we wish to share a few insights into the jargon and descriptions, along with our observations on some of the smart home products out there, including their potential benefits and drawbacks, which will hopefully help you decide which ones could work for you and be worth your hard earned cash.

What is the difference between a smart home and a connected home?
Many products that are sold as smart products aren’t actually ‘smart’. A truly smart product is one that learns as it is used, developing an understanding of such things as your behaviours or the layout of your home, and adapting accordingly. For example, a smart thermostat, such as the Nest Smart Learning thermostat, will learn when you want your heating on and the temperature you set it at each day, and so will start to set this automatically. Also, a robot vacuum cleaner, such as the Miele Scout RX1, will use a camera to map out the layout of your home so it can clean in a methodical pattern each time, whereas some of the lower priced robot vacuums only know when to change direction after they bump into objects around your home. It’s therefore worth keeping in mind that many gadgets referred to as ‘smart’ simply have the ability to connect to your phone or each other, rather than being capable of learning and adapting.

Are smart gadgets worth buying?
In principle, smart gadgets sound brilliant – they claim to create a more seamless home life controlled at the swipe of a finger and, in some cases, save you money. However, with the ever-growing number of new products available, from light bulbs to motion sensors, it can be incredibly confusing. Also, they don’t always ‘play nicely’ together, which can leave you stuck with an administrative headache. Some products stand alone, while others connect to paired devices, either from the same company or from partnered brands. In addition, continuous development means that, as well as products being regularly superseded, they also frequently expand their role, for example a smart heating control may develop into home security. The result – more confusion.  The good news is that the industry recognises that these issues are creating barriers to a seamless smart experience, and a move towards more compatible, secure and simple smart home systems is the prevailing trend. After all, the original point of the smart home is lost if you spend hours switching between various apps on your phone to control different products. With all of this in mind, it might be worth being cautious and waiting a while before jumping on the smart band wagon.

How much do smart gadgets cost?
Many smart home ‘starter kits’, which tend to include a main smart hub and around four or five connected items – be it motion sensors, smart lights, cameras, radiator valves or smart plugs – cost between £100 and £200. That seems reasonable enough, but the risk is the escalating costs as you acquire additional elements to get all that you need. For example, you might buy a security starter kit with three motion sensors and a camera for anything between £130 and £300. But will three sensors be enough to cover your whole home? At around £30 a pop for additional sensors and nearer £100 (or a lot more) for a camera, the expense can soon mount up. Then there are the ongoing costs to consider. Many home hubs and gadgets are free to use so you only have the initial purchase cost. But others, such as wireless security cameras, offer a subscription service at an additional fee – something you’ll probably need in order to store or access footage. For example, at the time of writing, with the SwannOne alarm notifications are capped without additional costs, but with a fee of around £7.50 per month you will get unlimited notifications, energy management and remote lock control. So you need to work out your potential requirements carefully before taking the plunge.

What are the Amazon Echo and Google Home?
These rival smart home speakers are essentially hubs – they work as a central point to connect different appliances and gadgets to each other and your phone. Their main attraction is that anything you connect up can be controlled by using voice commands, as an alternative to swiping on your phone. They’re promoted as ‘your very own live-in assistant’, doing everything from playing your favourite music, dimming lights or adjusting your heating at your command.

It is worth noting that, like other smart hubs, they will only connect up with compatible gadgets, so there will be limits to what you can do. It will also mean costs could spiral as you need to buy more to connect with them.

Can smart gadgets save you money?
Some smart home products claim to actually save you money and pay for themselves with the savings. For example, Smart thermostat manufacturers claim that enabling you to control your heating all the time, means you will use less energy to heat your home and therefore save money. However, the claimed saving amounts of around 30% they advertise are often based on unrealistically high energy usage in the first place, so with any products that offer potential financial savings it is always worth checking through all of the figures and ensuring you compare their calculations to your normal usage.

How easy is it to install smart home gadgets?
Most smart home gadgets are designed to be installed easily, without the need for technical support. You will need to have a wi-fi connection and ideally the stronger it is and the nearer you are to it when you set up, the better. Each device is slightly different, but generally the process involves downloading an app and then following the (usually) simple instruction to connect up the device; But, invariably, technology is rarely as straightforward as we would like it to be, especially if you have a few devices you need to connect together. Many manufacturers offer support services to guide you through any problems or issues. And the benefit of a smart product is that it can often tell you what’s gone wrong. However, with new technology coming onto the market all the time, new gadgets may not easily marry with your current ones, and if your phone is relatively old, you may find that some app features don’t work.

How simple is it to use a smart home system?
Using a smart product should be simple – once you’ve installed the app this should control it or monitor your home. But because this is all so new, there are some teething issues, including a lack of ongoing support when a start-up company suddenly folds or is bought by a larger one.  This can lead to incompatible devices or, much worse, security breaches.

What happens to my data and is it secure?
Because smart home devices are connected to the internet, the vast majority will be collecting data, be it about your energy usage, your health information or even video footage of your family. Many will also store this data on a cloud-based system, i.e. remotely online. How that data is used and whether it is safe is difficult to ascertain and certainly we recommend asking for a clear statement on their terms and conditions from the operating company. Investigations into smart TVs, smart thermostats and more in the past, have found that some companies need to do better in protecting your data, but regulations are being tightened requiring greater clarity and compliance.  So weigh up the potential benefits of any system, against the risks and consequences of the ‘worst case scenario’ before taking the plunge.

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