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Giving My New House an Education, Part Two: Installation
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 One of this series, I introduced my adventures in homeownership as I planned to outfit my 1940s-era house with the latest in smart home technology. Today, I’m going to tell you about my installation experience – and the number one challenge to installing any connected home hardware.

The Handyman

The first question you need to ask yourself when making the smart home switch is how handy you actually are. I’ll be honest: I am not a handy person. If I had to rate myself from 1 to 10, I’m probably a 4 or a 5. I think you naturally get better the longer you own a home, and going into this my understanding of anything electrical was rudimentary at best. After going through the process, I now know a little bit more about everything I worked on, from my HVAC system to my deadbolts.

It started slowly and painfully, but what was interesting was that I ended up gaining a solid base-level understanding that would help me throughout the process. I’ve been able to give colleagues in similar situations feedback based on what I’ve learned. What it comes down to is is this: for smart home to be successful, you don’t need to be an expert. It’s all about being handy with basic knowledge – and more importantly, being open to learning more, because you will mess it up at some point during this process.

Smart Home Obstacles
Which brings me to the biggest obstacle to smart home installation. You might think it’s time, or money, or patience, or knowledge. It isn’t! The biggest obstacle to smart home installation is, without a doubt, fear.

Smart home renovation fear comes in three flavors:

  • Fear that you will mess up your project and never get it done
  • Fear that you will hurt yourself (after all, you’re playing with electricity)
  • Fear that you will hurt something in the house that cannot be fixed before your family gets home

That last one is huge – if I screw up the front door to my house before my wife and kids come home, and the door isn’t going to lock, I’m in trouble. I’m going to have to wait for my child to go to bed and stay up the rest of the night trying to solve the problem I created, because I can’t go to bed with a door that doesn’t lock. Or I need to have backup on call in the event that I have a problem of this magnitude – a professional that I have to pay overtime rates, or a handy friend that I now have to put in the awkward position of fixing my mistakes.

Once you get over that fear, though – or at least make your peace with it – you can progress to the longest part of the installation progress: trial and error. The instructions included in the box were relatively clear for all of the things I installed. The biggest thing with an older home is you start to question whether those instructions are relevant to you. I found myself doing that a lot, where I’d say, “Okay, it says to do this, but my setup is slightly different. Is it going to work in my setup?” I encountered that fear thing again because I didn’t want to screw something up and I wanted to make sure it was done before my family got home. I found myself going to YouTube, going to forums, making sure that I understood exactly what I was doing and exactly what could happen if I screwed up.

Rachio Sprinklers

Here’s an example: I wanted to install the Rachio controller. It works similarly to the Nest where you pull the old one out, you look at the wires, you take pictures and make sure they map into the right connections, and you hook it all back up. It seemed like it was going to be really easy…and then I went downstairs. When I pulled the old controller off, I discovered that it was a mechanical one, not digital. A mechanical one has a wiring harness, so the wires aren’t individually put into terminals – they’re wire-nutted onto a harness which is then plugged into the mechanical controller. I had to take a bunch of detailed pictures of the harness, trace every wire on the harness back to the source wire to try to figure out what zone it’s in, and then I actually realized that I had an older system that had a primary valve. I had two wires running and the documentation only showed one.

So I wired it up, looked online, tested it, AND… it didn’t work. I went back down to my basement and tried to run two wires on one terminal. That didn’t work either. I jumped the wires together with a wire nut, and finally that ended up working, but I couldn’t find any of that information anywhere. At that point I had gained enough knowledge from converting light switches throughout the house to smart switches that I knew, “Okay, I can run this into here and it’ll be good.” Also, the sprinkler system only runs 24 volts, so at worst I’d just get a little shock. Doing that with something that runs 120 volts is a lot scarier.

Full disclosure: I don’t want to work on anything more complex than this. I don’t mind tinkering as much when it’s the 24-volt stuff, but I don’t want to know more when it’s 120 volts. At that point, it’s time to call the professionals.

Ring Pro Doorbell

Another example: my doorbell. This one is a lot sillier, but represents a pretty typical roadblock to any home project on which you might embark. Most smart doorbells on the market will only work with a mechanical chime. They won’t work with systems that have a digital chime. For some reason, I thought I had a digital chime for the longest time. I saw a box plugged into my wall somewhere that was a digital chime, and it was in the kitchen. When I rang the bell, it sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. Makes sense, right? For the Ring Pro I needed to wire in a separate power pack between the transformer and the chime, and pass extra voltage to the front doorbell. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the mechanical chime. Sheepishly, I had a Ring Pro sitting at my house for two months that I did not know how to install. I looked all over the internet for ways to make it work with a digital chime, to no avail.

Surprise! A fear of breaking something kept me from continuing. It wasn’t until I had the whole front door replaced that I asked the guys that were there to help me figure it out. I told them I had these wires with a digital chime, and they said that wasn’t possible. We tapped the wires together to figure out where the chime was coming from, and it turns out it was over on the other side of my kitchen from where I thought it was…and it turns out it was a mechanical chime up on top of the cabinets, hidden away. Wonderful. It’s up there because the kitchen was redone years ago and they just laid the chime up on top. So I had this Ring Pro sitting around forever simply because I couldn’t identify the system I had at home. The thing I thought was the digital chime? I have no idea what it is or what it does.

Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat

Last example: I moved from a Nest thermostat to an ecobee3, which requires a c-wire for constant power. Most older homes don’t have a c-wire, because back in the day mercury thermostats didn’t need power. Even some of the earliest digital thermostats have a replaceable battery, so they don’t need constant power either, but the new stuff coming out does. Nest gets around that a little bit because it has a built-in battery. When I went to pull the Nest off to install the ecobee3, I thought, “Oh, this will take two minutes.” Then I noticed that I didn’t have a c-wire.

And that’s when I quickly researched what the hell a c-wire is, if the ecobee3 would run without one, and how to install the included power extender kit on my furnace control panel. When I went downstairs to inspect the control panel, I found I had two things already jumped onto the c terminal. According to my terrifically extensive research, it is only okay to jump two wires to a c terminal, not three. Some HVAC professionals will do three, but in general from what I found, this is a bad idea.

This is where the fear came in again. I went from a very simple thermostat install to potentially blowing up the control panel on my furnace and overloading the terminal. The best case: it shorts out. Worst case: it causes a fire. With that in mind, I decided to call an HVAC professional to take a look. If they’re willing to jump it and put a third one on there, they’re insured, so I’d rather them do it than me.

Ease of Installation

In terms of installation, Nest is by far the easiest smart home item to install. But I would say that a close second is the August smart lock. In fact, in a lot of ways I would rank August above Nest because you don’t have to shut off a breaker. Anytime you include a breaker in an installation, just add an extra layer of stress to your work, unless you have a brand new home and everything is perfectly labelled. Otherwise, forget it – in a 1940s home like mine, if you turn the breaker for the dishwasher off you also turn the patio light off. Who knows what’s connected to what? So add 30 minutes of breaker testing time right off the bat.

There’s a lot of time and money involved with turning a regular home into a smart home. I knew that going in. For me, part of the whole purpose of doing this was to install these things because it’s cool and convenient to be able to control my house from my phone. But I also look at it as an important professional learning experience. We work with clients on IoT applications, and it’s crucial that we understand how all these things connect and play with each other – even if the learning process has me working into the wee hours of the night making sure I can lock my house, turn on the heat, and turn off the lights.

Coming soon: Part Three, where I’ll explore the importance of smart home usability.