The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your smart home can be dumb. Here’s how to do it the right way.

Just say no to the internet-connected toilet. But yes to the smart thermostat.

A person on a couch uses their phone to turn on a light that is behind them.
(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

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Columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler and I are colleagues and buddies, but we live in technologically opposite homes.

You can learn from our bickering over who’s right.

In Geoff’s house in San Francisco, the thermostat, light switches, smoke alarms, doorbell, speakers, baby monitor, garage door, air pollution monitor, sprinkler controllers, meat thermometer, clock, TV and an electric bicycle are connected and can be controlled with an app or his voice.

In my New York City apartment, I flip on lights, adjust air conditioning and test meat temperature on devices that don’t touch the internet and that I operate with my human hands.

I think Geoff lives in a nerd paradise with pointless garbage gadgets. He thinks I’m a crusty old lady muttering about why anyone needs luxuries like iceboxes.

I hope that our friendly disagreement gives you a glimpse at the promise and the pitfalls of how technology could change your home life.

Smart-home devices can make your living spaces more comfortable and convenient — or frustrate you, compromise your privacy and turn us into sloths and paranoiacs.

Geoff has tested oodles of smart-home gadgets, scrutinized their privacy policies, and learned the hard way what is worthwhile, what isn’t and how you can tell the difference.

This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Shira: Seriously, WHY do you have so many smart home thingies? What’s useful about trading the simplicity of a light switch or a clock for supposedly smart versions?

Geoff: The magic of these devices is automating tasks and leaving me fewer things to think about. My Lutron Caseta light switches turn themselves off at certain times or when no one is home. That cuts my energy bill and it’s convenient.

My current favorite smart home use: I say “wind down” in my baby’s room and the lights slowly ramp down to give my munchkin the visual cue that it’s bedtime.

I also love the Weber iGrill thermometer for my smoker. The Bluetooth thermometer pings my phone when the meat reaches my target temperature so I don’t need to keep peeking.

Shira: I admit, that sounds handy. But is this stuff worth the complexity and the complications? Are you locked out of your house when your internet conks out? And what’s wrong with low-tech automation? I have a light with a simple sensor that flips on when it gets dark.

Geoff: The best of my home products make life simpler. Remember thermostats with those clunky little tabs you pushed? The Nest came along and just figured out when you did and didn’t need heat. If you wanted more you just turned a giant iPod-like dial.

But not all of these products are an improvement. Connected color-changing lightbulbs sound groovy, but smart bulbs tend not to work unless the wall switch is flipped on all the time. They annoyed my family members and house guests.

Shira: Okay, what’s your advice to make sure we’re buying actually helpful smart-home gadgets?

Geoff: I would have fun making a techie home improvement show. If I did “Extreme Nerd Home Makeover,” I’d have a few golden rules:

1) Don’t fall in the app trap! Be wary of installing any critical home feature that only works with an app. You need to be able to unlock your door or turn on lights the old fashioned way as a backup. This is why I stopped using Philips Hue bulbs, even though I know they have many fans.

2) Build your smart home in Switzerland … metaphorically. Many of these products limit your options. For example, Amazon’s smart plugs only work with Alexa. You might love Alexa today, but you don’t know what voice AI, smartphone or face computer you might be using in five years. If you can, pick products that say they work with Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomeKit and a new smart home standard called Matter.

(Note: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

3) Look out for spies. Some companies collect and store a suspiciously large amount of data. I’m looking at you, Amazon. In some cases, you can adjust settings to tell them to collect less information — our Privacy Reset guide can help. But the best products don’t live in the cloud and collect as little data as possible, like ones made by the brand Eve.

4) Security is your responsibility. You need a different password and two-factor authentication for every home product, or you’re inviting hackers into your home. Shira, I can tell you’re about to say, “This is why a dumb home is good!” But if you get this basic right, you’ll be fine.

Shira: Help me feel smug about my smart home skepticism. What smart devices are NOT worth it?

Geoff: I’ve tested or investigated many, many home gadgets that I didn’t want to keep around.

The smart toilet is one. Just no. I also haven’t been convinced that refrigerators, washing machines and microwaves get much better by adding a screen and an internet connection.

I don’t have a smart door lock, in part because it kept failing on my old door. Nothing as essential as a lock should be subject to random gadget fails.

I don’t have a robot vacuum cleaner, either, because they suck at suction, you need one for each floor of your home, and they tend to chew on cords and rugs.

And more from CES in Las Vegas: Here’s what we saw that was intriguing or weird.


One tiny win

You’re probably already getting emergency alerts to your phone for major weather disasters, missing children or other threats near you.

It’s also worth signing up for notifications from your local governments with more frequent and detailed alerts.

Text alerts aren’t available everywhere in the United States, but you can try to add yourself to the list by texting your Zip code to 888777.

Also Google the name of your state or county and “emergency alerts” for more options, which might include notifications about road and transit problems or earthquake warnings. (In New York, where I live, you can even receive emergency alerts by fax. For some reason.)

Read more from Heather Kelly: How to never miss an emergency alert from shootings to wildfires

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

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