8 September, 2021   By: Ruth Callaghan

A future where your appliances can ‘talk’ to each other to make life easier is already here.

Does your dog get lonely during the day? It might need a dog-friendly camera that lets your pup see you and hear your voice, and that you can trigger to throw treats across the room via your phone.

Or maybe next door’s cat is sneaking in and causing trouble? Keep it out of your kitchen by changing your cat flap to one with kitty recognition technology, scanning the microchip of the cat entering, locking the door and sending you a notification if a cat that’s not yours tries to enter.

Or do you need an internet sensor that tracks the acidic levels in your fish tank?

And those are just the smart home gadgets for pets.

The smart home revolution is here, with weird and wonderful ways to connect the things in your house, so they can be watched, measured, moved, operated and automated for more control.

From door handles to doorbells, fridges to kettles, and every conceivable appliance in between, the use of connected technology at home is beginning to change even the most basic way we live our lives.

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High-tech door handle

How does a smart home work?

Smart homes are underpinned by the technology behind the so-called Internet of Things or IoT. This describes the ability of objects and sensors to send messages to each other, rather than needing to be directly communicated to and controlled by us.

At their simplest, the sensors allow objects to be turned off and on - ask Amazon’s Alexa and she can switch the light on in the kitchen while your hands are carrying the shopping. But more frequently, sensors are being bundled together to do different things.

There’s the fridge that alerts you when your milk is close to expiring and sends a snap to your phone so you can see at a glance what you need while at the shop.

There are air conditioners that raise or lower the temperature in rooms where no motion has been detected for a period of time.

There are smart beds that track your sleep, robot mops that can be deployed by voice, even WiFi-enabled barbecue tools that let you measure the temperature of the steak from your phone.

Robot vacuum cleaner

Some of these tools are designed to work on their own, so by downloading an app for that appliance, you can adjust its performance from your phone.

But with the growing number of connected devices in a given household, many people prefer to control them all from a single platform known as a hub.

A smart home hub can help your different devices talk to each other or create routines where different things happen at once — automatically putting on restful music and dimming the lights at 10pm each night, for example.

Hubs with speakers attached, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, add voice functionality, so you can issue instructions without having to touch a screen.

Google Home sitting on bench

What makes a smart home a clever idea?

Given there’s little effort required to turn on a light, it might seem that getting a digital device to do the work is unnecessary, but there is more to smart home systems than saving time.

The convenience comes in being able to tailor exactly what you want, when you want it, whether you are in the room or not.

So it’s possible to have your lights set at their brightest in the early evening, when you’re helping the kids with homework or preparing dinner, then have them dim as the evening wears on.

You can organise your air conditioning to cool your house an hour or more before you arrive home on a summer’s afternoon, or have the coffee machine warmed up and ready when you wake up.

For some, the real convenience might come from peace of mind: being able to ask your phone if the garage door was left open by mistake and close it without rushing home.

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A second key driver is cost-savings.

In WA, heating and cooling together represent about 18 per cent of most power bills, so having an internet-enabled thermostat that can turn off the air conditioner when not required is a sensible step.

Audio visual equipment is equally energy-hungry, so it can help to switch off appliances when no one is in the room and to be able to track your power use to find areas for savings.

Synergy also has a smart home electricity plan that can reduce bills if you run appliances at off-peak times of the day.

While you could stay up to 11pm to turn on your dishwasher each night, it's much more convenient if you can set and forget via a smart home hub.

The third key driver is security. Security cameras can be operated remotely, your doorbell can record activity taking place by your front door and even your door lock can be made smarter — so you can unlock it for the dog walker without having to hand over a key.

Smart tech for protection and prevention

While much of the focus on smart home technology to date has been on what the devices can do, there’s growing interest in what they can prevent as well.

They can detect gas leaks, tell if a window or door has been opened, provide a constant reading on humidity, sense smoke or carbon monoxide and ‘hear’ the sound of breaking glass.

These sensors can send an alert wherever you are, allowing for a quick intervention. The same goes for sensors in appliances that could malfunction, triggering an in-home disaster.

Person using their phone

Water-detecting sensors can let you know if the washing machine hose has sprung a leak, while many whitegoods alert technicians to changes in performance before they malfunction, capturing problems early and making them easier to resolve.

And just as these preventative sensors can detect early issues with appliances or the physical environment, health tech sensors can do the same for humans.

COVID-19 accelerated the desire for health-related smart home devices such as oxygen monitors, thermal imaging cameras to monitor family temperatures — even IoT toothbrushes that tell you where you have missed a spot.

These early-warning systems, present the opportunity to reduce a variety of risks in your home by monitoring changes and catching problems before they develop.

From toilets to toasters - no slowing for smart devices

When a smart toilet with automated cleaning was first featured on home renovation show The Block in 2018, plumbing chain Reece reported it immediately sold out.

The reception for a $300 smart toaster unveiled last year was less positive. PC Mag declared that its toast was pretty good “but some kitchen gadgets just don’t need touch screens.”

So, where are the limits of IoT or will everything in your home eventually carry a screen, voice assistant or internet connection?

Well, it’s possible but there are still issues to resolve before every device and home becomes smart.

One key challenge for smart home adoption remains the complexity. It’s not easy to buy exactly what you want off the shelf and most systems evolve as homeowners add to them over time.

That also means each home has a slightly different system, making it harder to troubleshoot something if the connectivity goes wrong.

The most common issue remains that devices don’t talk well to each other, using different protocols to communicate. But energy supply can also be an issue.

Energy demand for battery-operated devices is significant, particularly if they are searching regularly for a WIFI signal, and they can go flat just when you need them.

Even devices that are wired-in can face issues if the power fails and your device has no ‘manual override’ switch. However, most important devices like smart locks should have a failsafe option to let you in or out without the power running.

For those who love the convenience and efficiencies all of this technology can bring, it will be worth identifying the gadgets that you really need and weigh them up against the ‘toys’ that are nice to have but might not last the distance.

Purchases should be made with the connectivity issues and obsolescence challenges in mind. Before you invest in smart home set up, do your homework, weigh up all of the options and make sure you seek out expert advice.

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Disclaimer: Issued by RAC Insurance Pty Limited. Check the PDS & TMD at rac.com.au.