Why are smart homes so dumb?
Innovation to stop water damage is changing the future of Smart Home technology

Innovation to stop water damage is changing the future of Smart Home technology

In today’s home technology driven market, there are hundreds of companies, websites, and automation gurus talking about the “Smart Home.” From thermostats you can control with your phone, to refrigerators that tell you when you’re running low on milk, our homes are being equipped with a larger and larger collection of gadgets. But do these products actually make homes smart, or is that term just marketing spin?  

The good news is that there are real Smart Home products out there, and it’s possible to measure how smartthe device actually is. 

What makes a Smart Home... Smart?

The answer is “Utility.” Utility for devices is the measure of value that these products deliver, and this is measured by the size of the problems they solve for the home or building owner. Consumers do well to remember that just because something is marketed as a smart home product does not mean it has utility.

At the lowest end of the Smart Home utility scale is convenience. Although many products claim to make your home smarter, the reality is that most only provide convenience. A light that can be controlled via the Internet or your phone isn’t any smarter than a light that is controlled by a switch. All that’s really changed is the way the switch is flipped.   Similarly, a “smart” thermostat might be adjustable with convenient phone apps when you’re on vacation, but a simple and inexpensive programmable thermostat does almost just as good of a job keeping your energy bills down as the expensive “smart” one.

The highest value of utility is the ability to solve problems automatically. They must not only inform the user of the problem, but stop a problem from occurring and help the homeowner solve it. Problem-solving devices have high utility value or “smartness” because they can solve large and costly problems for home and building owners.  These types of devices are considered to be true “Smart Home” products and devices. In short, the smart device must identify when there is a problem, notify the user, and solve the problem itself.  Smartness is determined by the device being able to do all of the work and give you complete peace of mind.

Few Smart Home products on the market provide real utility value to users, as typically the extent of their ability is to notify the user that there is a problem - NOT fix that problem without input.   There are many   products today that may be elegant and convenient, but rarely are effective in more serious situations, when swift and decisive action is required.

The measure of “Smartness” for home products

Utility value, or “Smartness,” for home products can be measured and compared across three values:

  • The size of the problem
  • The level of convenience
  • The extent to which the device solves the problem

The size of the problem is related to how often or likely the problem is to occur as well as how costly the problem is to fix. Devices such as the common smoke detector or fire alarm, which really only alert you to a smoke problem, have low convenience and utility.  They often give false alarms, you must be home to hear it and it does nothing to solve the problem of an actual fire in your home. Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors provide even less utility because the probability of a CO problem is very low (less than 0.0017%) and you haveto be home to even know it has happened. These are all good safety products to have in your home and they can save lives, but are they really considered smart?

Devices such as programmable thermostats and wireless thermostats are very convenient, but they have no real utility other than minor cost savings and notification.  One of the popular companies is now marketing a smoke detector as “smart” because it doesn’t react to a hot shower.  First of all: Who has their smoke alarm in the bathroom? And second: Just because it doesn’t give false alarms does that make it smart?  This has cool factor but not a lot of problem solving.  Once security and fire systems get connected to a central monitoring station or CMS, they begin to have value in utility beyond convenience.  However they do not solve the problem automatically, thus lowering their utility.  Additionally, they still are low utility because the likelihood of the occurrence of fire or theft is low compared to other home problems, such as water damage from water leaks and plumbing failures. [1]  Only once a Fire alarm system has both CMS and fire suppression does it begin to have better utility. 

Water leak detection systems with shut off valves and water leak control systems with repair capability have the highest value of utility, or “Smartness”, because home and building owners are 10 times more likely to experience water damage than a fire or theft.  The cost of water damage is also significantly higher on average than that of fire or theft according to the insurance industry.  Therefore devices or systems that can not only detect a water leak and immediately shut off the water in the event of a leak have the highest convenience AND utility rating while solving one of the biggest problems for home owners. The value of these devices is so great, many most insurance companies will reimburse home owners who purchase a leak detection system with a shut off AND will give the home owner a 7% discount on their property insurance.

Jim McLaughlin