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Run your home from your phone

Are smart appliances and app-enabled locks ready for prime time?

Published: May 2014

You know the feeling. You’re on your way to work or the airport, and you can’t remember whether you turned off the lights and turned on the security system or locked the door. Do you go back home? Continue on your way and hope for the best? Or do you simply pull out your smart phone, open an app or two, and make sure everything is OK? Convenience, control, and peace of mind are the powerful combination that the newest smart products are selling.

With mainstream corporations such as Amazon, AT&T, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Staples, and Verizon introducing smart products and services that let you run your home from your phone (and other devices), this might actually be the year that home automation catches on in a big way—or at least becomes difficult to ignore, given those companies’ fat advertising budgets.

Product selection is growing, with 37 billion smart products expected on the market by the year 2020, says network-­hardware maker Cisco. Already there: Ranges and ovens from Dacor and GE can be set to preheat during your drive home, so you can get dinner on the table faster. A side-by-side refrigerator from Whirlpool texts you if a door is ajar, helping you save energy and prevent food from spoiling. Certain dryers can tell you if your dryer exhaust duct is clogged, which prolongs drying time, wastes energy, and is a fire hazard. ­Appliances from Kenmore and LG can self-diagnose problems via your smart phone, potentially saving on repair costs or time waiting for the service technician.

The public is definitely intrigued. Almost 20 percent of Consumer Reports subscribers already use their phone or tablet to remotely control some of their home, and almost 70 percent of those who don’t voiced interest in doing so in the future, according to our latest survey. Thermostats, security systems, blinds, lighting, and door locks are the home items readers most want to manage remotely.

Picks and pans from our tests

At Consumer Reports, we put our experts in the labs and our investigative reporters to work to see which products can make your life easier, which fail at their basic function, and which may leave you vulnerable. Our picks and pans are based on months of testing, and analysis of benefits, payback time, up-front and ongoing costs, and other concerns. Here are our findings:

Your Wi-Fi network is vulnerable. Even if the security settings on your home’s router limit access to devices you’ve authorized, you need to be just as careful about the security settings of each device you add to the network, whether it’s a whole-house suite of products controlling lighting, ­security, and smoke/CO alarms, or just an Internet-enabled fork. Otherwise the ­device could allow hackers—and whomever they sell your data to—access to other connected products in your home, such as the computers on your home network. In one cyber­attack, about 100,000 products, such as routers, TVs, and at least one connected refrigerator, sent out more than 750,000 phishing e-mails over two weeks, according to security consulting firm Proofpoint. The blame: weaknesses in their basic protections or setup. Proofpoint would not disclose the model of refrigerator, suspecting the user hadn’t changed the default password, but not every smart device is ­even designed for high security.

Privacy can be a problem. An unconnected “dumb” gadget shares no information that you might prefer to keep to yourself, such as when your home is empty. But a smart thermostat might be less discreet, alerting hackers when it’s in vacation mode. Or the history log of a smart-lock app might let thieves learn when you usually get home from work without having to stake out your house.

You could bet on the wrong horse. Connectivity is still in its infancy, with no clear winner among competing technologies. So you can control a product via its app on your phone, but you’ll need multiple apps to control your household, which isn’t all that convenient. The alternative, a suite of products from a single brand or that run on the same wireless standard, such as ZigBee or Z-Wave, leaves you vulnerable to ­potentially buying into the ­Betamax of smart products. And based on our testing, some product designs need refinement, unless you like being an ­unpaid beta tester.

Though certain connected products ­deliver, so far the promise of an easy, centrally controlled smart home has yet to catch up with reality.

What's available now

The possibilities seem endless, judging from what’s available and the increased bundling by top-name companies of multiple products with one controller—and, of course, monthly fees. Home size and construction, plus the distance between devices, make a difference. Drywall and plywood should do fine, but nonporous materials such as plaster, brick, and stone could slow down or block signals.

1. Burglar alarm. Major providers offer multidevice systems that you can monitor from afar.

2. Generator. Lets you know whether the generator is working and can e-mail or text you and a service technician if there’s a problem.

3. Thermostat. Senses patterns in human presence and controls equipment accordingly.

4. Lighting. Lets you control lights from an app and set vacation schedules.

5. Smoke/CO detector. Can notify you and prompt the same-brand thermostat to shut off fuel-burning appliances.

6. Refrigerator. Alerts you if power is out and even if a door is left ajar.

7. Range. Lets you preheat the oven, set the timer, and check cooking status without being in the room.

8. Electronic door locks. Let you remotely lock or unlock and change who’s authorized to enter.

9. Water alarm or shutoff. Can text you when water is spilling from a pipe or an appliance; shutoffs can cut off your water main to minimize flooding.

10. Washer and dryer. Lets you start cycles and monitor progress, and alerts youif your dryer duct is clogged.

Smart product or dumb choice?

Internet-enabled products often cost more than their low-tech siblings. To tell whether they’re worth it, we test their “life improving” claims and their primary function. We also determine how easy these smart features are to set up and use. Here are several products, most of which we’ve tested, and whether we’d pay for them.

Connected by TCP

Worth buying

Connected by TCP light system, $50
Hate the idea of coming home to a dark house? Unlike a standard timer, this system can be used to program multiple lights to come on before you pull into the driveway, schedule morning wake-ups in your kid’s room, or change settings remotely. The kit includes two LEDs and a controller. In our tests, setting up the hardware and app were easy. So was remote control, which let us turn lights on and off and dim them. The app lets you group certain bulbs to switch on with one press of a button for settings such as a romantic dinner. And you can set a bulb’s brightness at the point of switching on. The 12-watt LEDs were as bright and warm as 60-watt incandescents in our tests.

Generac Mobile Link, $280
Just having a stationary generator doesn’t guarantee you’ll have power. You still need to regularly check the LCD screen on the unit to ensure that it’s working right and isn’t displaying any service-needed messages. But you can’t always be home to do that. Mobile Link is one of a few products that can e-mail or text you or a servicing dealer if a problem arises during the generator’s periodic self-check. Service after the first year is $12.50 per month or $100 per year. Among stationary generators it works with are two that we recommend: the 7-kilowatt Generac 6237, a CR Best Buy at $2,250, and the 13-kW Generac 6241, $3,500.

FortrezZ Wireless Z-Wave water valve, $485 to $565
Whether it’s for a flood-prone basement or an appliance on a higher level—think washing machine, toilets—you want to know whenever anything springs a water leak before it damages flooring, wiring, or furniture below. Water shut-off valves directed by water-alarm sensors aren’t new, but this one can e-mail, text, or call you if water is where it shouldn’t be. So you don’t have to be home to know there’s a problem. The kit includes the valve, its power adapter, and a monitoring probe. We haven’t tested the FortrezZ but find it promising. It’s costly once you add water sensors, about $60 each, and installation.

Nest Learning Thermostat

Never mind

Nest Learning Thermostat, $250
Programming a thermostat can be a pain, so one that programs itself and adapts to your schedule sounds great. And you can ­remotely change the Nest’s setting using its app if your routine changes. But the initial setup wasn’t as intuitive as other digital or smart thermostats we tested. The Nest thermostat is also connected online via Wi-Fi, so it automatically updates its software. But there’s the rub: User reviews have complained of Nests shutting down the heating system ­after updates, with a few ­reports of frozen and burst pipes as a result.

Nest Protect, $130
This combination smoke and carbon-­monoxide detector was impressive as a CO alarm and was top-notch at detecting smoldering fires. It also can tell the Nest Learning Thermostat to shut off the furnace or boiler if the detector senses CO. But the Nest Protect lacks an ionization sensor, available on dual-­sensor smoke alarms. So it’s poor at detecting a fast, flaming fire. And as we went to press, Nest had temporarily halted sales because of a feature that lets you silence nuisance alarms with the wave of a hand but could, the company found, be unintentionally activated and delay the alarm in case of a fire.

GE Profile PT9050SFSS wall oven, $2,600, with free Brillion app
Dacor Discovery iQ 30” wall oven, $4,300 (single), $7,400 (double)
Dacor Discovery iQ dual-fuel range, $12,000
Save time by preheating your oven while you’re driving home. Change cooking temperature from another room. The Brillion app lets you do those things, and the GE Profile oven offered fine baking and broiling, though it wasn’t the best in our tests. The two Dacor products, not tested, also let you control cooking from the built-in wireless tablet or a smart device. We like being able to check on a meal’s cooking status while relaxing in another room. But we don’t recommend turning on your oven, even to preheat, from anywhere other than your home.

Lixil Satis smart toilet, $5,685
The toilet will open at your approach, play music (“Ring of Fire,” anybody?), flush automatically, close its lid, and clean up using deodorizers and even a built-in air purifier. But software-security firm Trustwave hacked the toilet’s Android app. How? The app uses “0000” as its permanent PIN, so a hacker could cause the toilet to repeatedly flush or spray its bidet into the air. If designed with similar disregard for security, other connected toilets could face similar mischief. Repeated flushing could prove costly and messy. As for connected toilets in general, we’d rather not go there.

Philips Hue Connected LED system

The jury’s out

Philips Hue Connected LED system, $200
The system lets you dim or switch the color of the LED bulbs to almost any other color using an app. The set has three LEDs and a device that plugs into your router. Setup and operation were easy in our tests, and the bulbs provided instant light. Still, there were trade-offs in addition to the high price. When the color temperature of the light was warm, the rendering accuracy was great, but the light was only a bit brighter than a 40-watt bulb.

Belkin WeMo light switch, $50
This switch replaces regular switches and lets you control your lights from home or afar using an app and your home’s Wi-Fi system. You can program a lighting schedule or check whether you left the lights on. It worked well once installed, sending e-mail alerts indicating whether lights were on or off. But installation isn’t quite the snap the company claims it is. Only serious do-it-yourselfers should try it because the WeMo is taller, deeper, and wider than the typical light switch.

Samsung WF457ARGSGR, $1,550, and Samsung DV457EVGS[GR], $1,550
Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU, $1,500, and WhirlpoolDuet WEL98HEBU, $1,500

Sometimes you don’t feel like running up or down stairs to see whether your clothes are done. These matching washer and dryer pairs have apps that let you track your laundry’s progress while you’re playing with your kids and even turn your machine on or off. The dryers are also among those with a duct-blockage indicator, which the manufacturers say improves lagging performance and efficiency—though clogged exhaust vents cause thousands of fires a year. All are among our picks, but you can get great performance for hundreds less if you forgo the smart feature and regularly check the vent. The indicators told us of a full blockage, but we’d prefer to know before dust buildup has become a fire hazard.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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