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Home Smart Home

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
April, 2017 Issue

Michael E. Duffy
All articles by columnist
Columnist's Blog


As it turns out, our homes aren’t really very smart.

Growing up, my folks would manually turn down the thermostat at night to save on heating bills during the winter. Now I have a programmable thermostat that lets me set the times when the heat is on or off (actually, two thermostats, since we have two furnaces in our house). I could take the next step, and buy a Nest “learning” thermostat ( for $250. The Nest learns your home’s daily temperature schedule by watching how you set temperatures over the course of a week. Then it takes over. It also “knows” (via sensors and phone location) when the house is empty and acts accordingly. In my two-zone home, I would need two Nest thermostats, each one learning a schedule for “their” part of the house. It’s not clear how long it would take to pay back the $500 investment, given that we already have (much less expensive) programmable thermostats. But it might be nice to control my home’s temperature from my phone, and see the energy-usage data that Nest provides.

But my home still isn’t smart. I’ve just got a smarter thermostat inside my dumb house. For example, my home can’t tell me how much water and electricity we use every day, something that I would expect a smart one would do as a matter of course. On the electrical front, I could buy a Sense home energy monitor ( for $300. The Sense is installed inside your home’s electrical panel with current sensors placed on the electric mains. By analyzing data from the current sensors, Sense can identify the “signature” of specific types of home appliance, and categorize electrical use by device. This is a pretty cool feature if you’re trying to understand how to reduce your electricity consumption.

Another home energy monitoring system, Curb (, places a sensor on each circuit breaker in your electrical panel, rather than relying on software identification of electrical signatures like the Sense. This make the Curb potentially much more accurate, but it also ups the installation effort (one current sensor per breaker, each with two wires that must be routed back and connected to the wireless Curb device inside the panel). But Curb, with more sensors, is also more expensive at $399. Both Sense and Curb suggest you have their devices installed by a licensed electrician, although having read the installation instructions for both, I’m pretty sure a savvy homeowner could install the Sense without electrocuting themselves.

For water usage, I can add a Fluid “learning” water meter to my home ( Unlike electrical devices, faucets, and toilet don’t have distinctive individual usage signatures, so figuring out which faucet leaks or toilet runs continuously might be tricky. But there’s no monitoring of how hot the water is, or how much pressure there is, which are both useful to know about my home’s water supply. Nest also has smart smoke/CO2 detectors I can add, as well as smart security cameras. There are smart light bulbs, smart door locks, smart everything, all of which I can control from apps on my phone or from my browser.

But my home still isn’t smart. With Nest, Sense, and Fluid, I’m still the one who has to make sense of the total picture. I want a home that tells me when there is a problem. For example, my house should notice if propane is being used when the furnace is off, the drier is off, and no one is home to use the stove (we just recently discovered a minor propane leak, thanks to our pool guy’s sensitive nose). And it would be great if my house would remind me to change the furnace filters (right after ordering them from Amazon).

Right now, you can buy smart devices to optimize one aspect of your home’s operation, but your home isn’t smart. Wireless connectivity makes it easy for devices to talk to your home, and Nest created a “works with Nest” standard ( to allow devices to exchange information in useful ways (Nest notices house is empty, turns off unneeded Nest-compatible light bulbs). Google Home (which I wrote about last month) works with Nest, so you can even talk to your home about devices.

We know technology becomes ubiquitous as it gets cheaper and more capable: someday, all new homes will be smart homes. Today, homes are dumb, but smart home devices abound. These devices will help decide what a smart home really must do to be useful to a majority of people, and the Apple of smart homes will emerge.





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