When a Smart Home is Too Smart for its Own Good



At his home in New York, hotelier and real-estate developer Ian Schrager has a “smart-home” system that allows him to remotely control the lighting, window shades, entertainment and even the temperature of the swimming pool. It drives him nuts.

The system breaks so often—about five times a year, he estimates—that he has installed a second system, with a hard-wired electrical switch to override it.

Mr. Schrager decided not to include a smart-home package at his company’s new luxury-condo development in the Bowery district of Manhattan, and hasn’t included one in any of his previous projects.

“It can be a lot of bells and whistles that people don’t like,” says Mr. Schrager, who recently returned from a hotel in Italy where the minibar lights automatically went on when he walked past it to the bathroom in the middle of the night, waking up his wife.

By the end of this year, some 20 million households in the U.S. will have some form of smart-home device, double the number in 2012, according to a Strategy Analytics Inc., a global technology market-research firm based in Newton, Mass. Apple, Google and Samsung are rolling out rapidly evolving platforms for a range of home-automation products. Home builders are increasingly including preprogrammed systems and apps so that owners can remotely control lighting, blinds, music, door locks, security cameras and appliances. Even some rental apartments are coming outfitted with smart-home systems now.

More people can now unlock the front door as they drive home from work, keep an eye on the landscapers from afar and command the coffee maker to turn on when sensors pick up they’ve stepped out of bed.

But some homeowners find themselves frustrated by the proliferation of smart home technology. They complain of complex systems for once-simple tasks like turning on the light, “learning algorithms” that get their preferences wrong and systems that simply go on the fritz too often. As a result, they’re being more selective about what technological amenities they’re installing.

Paul Wright is no techno-dummy. And he cares about saving energy. As the director of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute and a professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, his research includes smart materials, intelligent objects and the design of wireless sensor systems.

But last year, when Mr. Wright, 68, received as a birthday present a Nest “learning thermostat” that programs itself, sends an alert if the house is too hot or too cool and can be controlled from a smartphone, he put it away on a shelf, where it still sits, uninstalled, today. “It isn’t worth the fiddle factor,” he says.

Mike Fitzpatrick, a 53-year-old furniture maker and home renovation contractor in West Borough, Mass., estimates that he has spent $60,000 over the past few years—as well as hundreds of hours of angst—on a system by the home-automation and smart-home control company Control4 that is supposed to let him control the lights, audio/video systems, temperature and security at his 5,000-square-foot house.

“I’m a pretty handy guy, but even I can’t figure out what to do when it goes wrong,” he says. Lights constantly flicker, the doorbell shuts off and the controllers don’t work. Now, when he renovates a house, he advises his clients to avoid such automated systems.

A spokesman for Control4, which is used by home-building giant Toll Brothers for its home-automation systems, says that the company’s surveys show customer satisfaction and its dealer network is well trained in customer support. The spokesman adds that Mr. Fitzpatrick had uncommon lighting fixtures that were not compatible with the type of Control4 dimmers installed; he says Control4 remedied the issue.

The key to smart home success is reducing the number of steps it takes to get something done, says Therese Peffer, who has been studying thermostats for over a decade as a researcher at the California Institute for Energy and Environment at Berkeley. In a study she wrote on the use of smart and traditional thermostats, Ms. Peffer found the more decisions, the more users got lost. Participants had particularly little tolerance when so-called smart appliances, using learning algorithms, incorrectly changed applications based on a subject’s behavior patterns because they learned something wrong (for example, if someone came home early one day, that became a new “pattern” for the appliance).

Some homeowners say what really matters is support. Don Stanutz, a 64-year-old chemical engineer, hired a local smart-home installation company called IGS Homeworks to install a smart-home system that lets him control all the lights in his 7,000-square-foot home. He says the 24/7 monitoring has saved him a number of times when things have gone wrong. “I just want to turn it on and off. That’s as much as I want to be involved,” he says.

Others have found unexpected upsides to their smart-home systems. Michael and Suzanne Wastvedt love the Nexia smart home system that came with the new Lennar home that they bought in San Diego last year. Mrs. Wastvedt, 45, an interior designer, set the system up herself and Mr. Wastvedt, 45, an accountant, quickly figured out how to make it fit his needs: Now when he calls his kids for dinner and they don’t come down, he remotely cuts off the X-Box and TV; they both monitor the progress of their contractors and landscapers using the video camera. “We make sure they are actually there—and not just doing a little bit and then leaving early,” says Mrs. Wastvedt.

Mike Hoffman, who also lives in San Diego, found another unusual application for his Nexia smart home system. The 53-year-old engineer noticed that something was causing his expensive hot tub cover to sag in the middle. The prime suspect: Gus, his 90-pound yellow lab, who Mr. Hoffman speculated was sitting on the cover. Gus never sat there when Mr. Hoffman was at home. So Mr. Hoffman hooked up his cameras, motion sensors and the sprinkler to his wireless Nexia smart-technology system, allowing him to control them all remotely.

Pointing the sprinkler and one of his security cameras at the hot tub, he went to work and monitored events on his computer. Sure enough, Gus sat on the hot tub cover, and Mr. Hoffman activated the sprinkler. “You have to discipline them in the act,” he explains.

By: Nancy Keats