ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.
Three years ago, a pipe burst in Alex Hawkinson’s family vacation home when he was away.
“We found it totally destroyed by moisture,” he told me in an interview earlier this year. “The electricity went out, and the pipes froze and burst. The electricity came back on, and the water ran through the walls, ceilings and floors.”
The thing that drove him crazy: The water damage could have been prevented. If he’d known, he would have called a handyman immediately.
Any number of disasters can happen to our homes when we’re out of town—which is an unnerving scenario, considering the three-day Labor Day weekend coming up. It’s equally worrying whether you’re thinking about the place you’re going to stay, or the home you’re leaving behind.
In my parents’ day, people would ask friends and neighbors to look in on their abodes. Now, with smart-home systems and connected devices, our houses can practically watch themselves.
Guarding Against Random Acts Of Plumbing
Everyone loves long weekends and lengthy vacations, but there’s always something unsettling about leaving our homes unattended.
There’s good reason for the concern: Burst pipes and other sources of water damage are among the most common and expensive disasters affecting residences across the United States, costing homeowners and renters billions every year, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Hawkinson knows this first-hand. That’s why he founded SmartThings, the smart-home company he just sold to Samsung that connects sensors, lights, locks and other gadgets to the Internet. With this and systems like it—including Revolv, Insteon, Staples Connect, Lowe’s Iris, ADT, and packages from cable and broadband providers—people can keep tabs on their homes while they are down the street or across the country.
Moisture sensors, motion detectors and cameras make easy work of this. Any sign of trouble, like a burst pipe or electrical fire, and an alert pops up on your smartphone. From there, the display can offer more information or, in some cases, even a live feed of what’s happening inside the dwelling.
Functionality like this used to be expensive, back when architects and contractors had to install them. Now, there are plenty of do-it-yourself kits and individual devices that cost $100 to $200. If you’re scrappy, you can set your home up for even less.
These aggressive price points could help make smart homes more mainstream. While they’re not there yet, it could just be a matter of time. By 2020, Markets and Markets predicts, equipping smart homes will become a $22.4 billion-dollar business in the Americas.
Something else that could help: Google and Apple are getting in the game. The former scooped up two popular smart-home startups this year—the Nest learning thermostat and Dropcam camera. And just two months ago, Apple announced HomeKit, its ambitious initiative to let its iPhone and iPad connect and control various systems and smart-home products.
It seems the market is just getting started, which means consumers will see plenty more home devices go on sale before long.
New contenders will join a crowded marketplace that includes Nest and Honeywell smart thermostats; Dropcam, Piper and Canary connected cameras; Yale and Kwikset connected locks; and numerous other products covering smart lights, speaker systems and more.
Which means there will be more ways to monitor our homes for acts of God—and man.
Taking A Byte Out Of Crime
When I was little, my parents used to leave our living-room lights on when we went away, to suggest to onlookers that someone was staying there. Now, my husband and I can turn on a Philips Hue lightbulb remotely, to discourage would-be burglars. We can doublecheck that the Yale or Kwikset doorlocks are bolted shut, even when we’re at the airport. We can even set a Sonos speaker to loudly bark if an intruder enters the house.
Our connected cameras are smart enough to tell us when they detect strange movement, so we can look in and see what’s happening. (Bonus: We also use them to look in on our kitties when we’re at work.)
While we’re protecting ourselves from real-world burglars, are we exposing ourselves to hackers? The benefits of smart-home systems seem to outweigh these vague threats.
True, smart-home systems may not be totally locked down, but at this point, you’re far more likely to be a victim of real home break-ins than virtual ones.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting Program, an estimated 8,975,438 property crimes occurred in 2012, including residential burglaries, larceny-thefts, car thefts and arsons.
Some police departments recognize that connected devices could discourage such criminal activity. So they’re not waiting for people to hook up their houses on their own—they’re offering to do it for them.
Recognizing the growing problem of break-ins when people go out of town, the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) launched a program called “While You’re Away—Electronic Home Surveillance Program” last September. With this initiative, people going on vacation can sign up to get a Bluetooth tracking device. Residents attach the gadget to a high-value item in their home, like a laptop or other home electronics, and if a burglar steals it, the police know immediately and can respond quickly.
“This program is being replicated now throughout the nation,” Redlands police officer Lt. Travis Martinez told me over the phone. He cited the recent example of the southern California town of Rialto, whose police force announced in March that it too would deploy motion-sensing devices to vacationing residents.
Lt. Martinez himself is no stranger to smart-home devices. At his own residence, he uses a Honeywell Internet-connected thermostat.
“Anything you can control over your phone makes it easier for you to use,” he said.
The police officer also sees how such devices help in his line of work. “With [connected] cameras, we’ve had some occasions where people have called, saying, ‘Hey, we see them at our location right now,’ so we’re able to respond.”
In the old days, it might have been a concerned neighbor who called the cops. Now your home can do it for you.
Vacation and pipe photos courtesy of Shutterstock; Dropcam photo courtesy of Dropcam