Back to top
Giving My House an Education, Part Five: The End
Dan Ward

Dan Ward

Dan is Co-Founder and President of Detroit Labs. Through the belief that technology is successful when it empowers people, Dan advises clients through ideation, concept, and experience design. His unique ability to blend user experience, technology, and strategy has helped clients from General Motors, Kia, and Volkswagen to Domino’s Pizza, Jimmy John’s, and Kimberly-Clark. Dan serves as a go-to resource for media across the country, including The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the L.A. Times, providing insight into tech trends and issues impacting consumers and businesses alike in the technology space.

In Part Four of this series, I talked about getting to the fun stuff after the hard work of installing (and reinstalling) smart home components – using them in practice, not just imagining how much better they were going to make my life. Dreams are usually better than reality, though. In today’s series conclusion, we’re going to talk about the failures of smart home and setting yourself up for smart home success, from purchase to installation to utilization.

The road to smart home success is long and paved with the good intentions of weekend hardware store commandos, and I am no exception. So in the interest of saving you the pain and suffering of the mistakes I’ve made along the way, these are the most important things to know if you want to create a connected home.

1) Allow yourself enough time.

2) Have the right tools.

3) The internet is your friend.

4) Relax!

Allow yourself enough time

Anything you set out to do, just double your initial time estimate. If you think it will take an hour, it will take you two, maybe three hours. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Have the right tools

Many smart home products come with tools. Some don’t. Usually, the packaging will tell you what tools you need. But having some basic tools around is just common sense. The most important tool I kept with me for this project was a multimeter, which measures current and voltage. This is a key tool for any electrical work, and it’s on me at all times when I do anything in my house.

I also highly recommend following the packaging guidelines about what tool to use. Sometimes when a product comes with a screwdriver, you should use a screwdriver and not a drill. It’s likely there for a reason, and you need to be a little more delicate. I fell into this trap with a lot of projects, deciding it would go faster with a drill and then ending up stripping a screw. Once that’s been done, you have to get a screwdriver, force it in, and try to turn what little bit you can of a stripped screw. Not fun, and now you’ve spent more time than you would have if you’d just used the included screwdriver to begin with.

The internet is your friend

This goes for any home task, but especially for smart home. There’s always someone that has done your project before you and posted about it on YouTube or a forum. Watching or reading somebody else’s advice can help quickly solve your installation woes.

On a related note, these smart home companies are watching social media for mentions. In fact, when Rachio heard about my potential issues, they proactively reached out to me to see if I needed additional assistance.


This one is pretty simple. We talked previously about crippling fear. It’s going to happen to you, and when it does, just remember: anything you break can be fixed. It might cost you more money, or more time, or both, but it can be fixed.

I had my share of failures as I worked to add connected products to my home. When I was attempting to switch from Nest to ecobee, the process of trying to figure out what the heck the C-wire was and that the ecobee won’t run without one was a huge obstacle. It precluded me from actually doing the work for quite some time, and ultimately I needed to get an HVAC person to help me.

But it was the Ring Pro doorbell that was the one that I really gave up on for a while. It’s not that it’s hard to install – it’s actually really easy. But because I didn’t know every single thing about my house, that old crippling fear set in. That’s a constant in any home project because you don’t want to screw something up. In a lot of ways, it stops people from doing true smart home, and it’s why smart bulbs have become too popular, I think – there’s no fear involved with screwing in a light bulb. But opening up a wall to wire a switch, a lot of fear comes with that.


That said, don’t be afraid to contact these companies if you run into trouble. They’re there to help you – if you can’t get their product to work, odds are you’re going to return it and they’re going to lose a sale. They know that they sell a product to amateurs that might be difficult to install, so it’s in their best interest to help you as much as they can.

Now, could I have prepared better to install these components in my home? I think assessing what the current situation is at your house before you start buying things is probably a good move – and it’s something that I failed to do. For instance, I probably should have opened up the electrical panel to see what kind of service I had. I had a fair assumption of what it was going to be, but I should have been certain. Likewise, I should have popped off the deadbolt to see what was going on in the actual door before buying a smart lock. It turned out that my door wasn’t cored properly, and I had to deal with that. I should have spent some time investigating my doorbell situation before actually buying the Ring Pro. The problem is that I spent a lot of money before knowing what my setup was. Preparing even before you buy and understanding what obstacles you might come up against is really, really important, and something I could have done a better job with.

Besides my advice above, my most important pro tip is to always have your phone on you and take a ton of pictures. I take pictures both to remember things for later and also to see hard-to-reach places. For instance, when I was looking at the control panel on my furnace, the actual terminals were right near the ground. Unless I wanted to completely lay down on the ground, it was impossible to see, so I just used my camera. The ability to get your phone into tight places to take a picture both to see and to use for reference later when you look up solutions on YouTube or wherever can’t be understated. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re not going to remember what it is you’re looking at when you try to find a solution. Even the flashlight on your phone can be a huge help.

Are these gadgets useful?

There are devices I question as to whether or not they’re really useful or if they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I do not like my Amazon Echo. I question the relevance of Google Home. I’m not a big believer in these AI voice-controlled assistants in your home. For one thing, I barely want to talk, period, and I certainly don’t want to talk to something that is not a human. If I’m going to talk in my house, it’s going to be with my wife or my kid.

Interacting with Alexa just feels weird – I’d rather pull my phone out and use an app, or walk over physically. You can add skills to the Echo and give it additional functionality. From that standpoint, I think that’s a killer way to do it. They launched a hardware product, and have constantly made it better through software. I love that. I’m on board with that. That was the reason I bought it. But it fails at the simplest level.

Here’s an example. You can go to Alexa and say “ask for a fart” (this “ask for” construction is how you invoke a skill, which I find cumbersome). Then Alexa makes a fart noise. My son loves that! But sometimes when you ask for a fart, Alexa will say “next time, say ‘ask for a fart’.” She’s essentially saying she didn’t understand me, and yet she clearly knows the content of what I just said. So she’s failing to execute the command. This has happened to me many times. It’s so frustrating.

On the other end of the spectrum are my Sonos speakers. These are only marginally smart home components, but they’re one of my favorite pieces of technology that I’ve used in the last few years. They’re fantastic, and I have them throughout my house.

And finally, I do still really love my Lutron Caseta light switches. I’m a big fan, and tell everyone to buy them. I’m lukewarm on my August smart lock, but the light switches are so flawless that they alone have delivered enough value to make the installation effort and learning curve worth it. I also think that the new Home app built into iOS is rock solid, and having it integrated into the operating system versus having to open up an app is a killer feature.

My takeaways

Smart home is still difficult. Even after I’ve learned all these things through trial and error, it still takes a lot of time to figure out what products work with each other, what products work with what platform – it’s just still a bit cumbersome. Even though I know so much now, there are a few other switches I’d like to add in my house and I’m dragging my feet. I’m finding reasons not to do it, because I just don’t want to go turn off the breaker again and install the switch, even though it’s easy and I know how to do it. I love smart home, and I think it’s interesting, but I wish there were more people painting the picture of all the things you can do, things I haven’t thought about, and how smart home connects to other things in your life. Smart home is already complicated – I want somebody simplifying it for me so that I know all the work I’m putting in is worth it for the end result. It’s like when you go to a restaurant with a massive menu and find yourself completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices — and that’s without considering the questionable quality of food items that don’t get ordered much, even though they’re available every day. I’d much rather look at a highly curated menu where I know the chef has carefully selected the ingredients and is totally focused on giving me the best dining experience possible.

As this series draws to a close, I’d love to make my home even smarter. But at the same time, I don’t know if I want the hassle. If I were building a new house, I’d put the switches in every room, and whether I’d use them is irrelevant – I’d have the ability. If my wife and kid were leaving for an entire weekend and I had nothing to do, I’d install more switches. But the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim. My house is about as smart as it’s going to get…at least for now.