As you can probably guess, I am a fan of smart homes. I love the benefits they can provide to people, and how they are often easy to use – even for people who aren’t tech savvy. I mean, saying “Alexa, play classic radio” requires a little bit of initial learning, but then it’s easy to remember and say. It’s certainly easier than trying to find and play a digital radio station on a computer or tablet.
Despite this, smart homes and smart devices do have flaws. Nothing is perfect, and plenty of mainstream smart products have mixed reviews on Amazon. So I have written this list of 19 disadvantages and concerns that I have about smart homes.
I know that a $19 Echo Dot during Black Friday is a bargain, but in general: smart home devices are expensive to buy.
The Ring Doorbell Pro and Nest Hello can frequently cost over $200 – for a doorbell. And one that sometimes only rings you (notifying you of visitors) 10+ seconds after the visitor has clicked the ringer – by which time they’ve walked away.
A smart thermostat can cost over $300 when you factor in installation, compared to a programmable thermostat (which offers very similar improvements to your heating bills) which can be less than $100 including installation.
An Echo Plus will set you back $120 or more (retail price is $150), and if all you do is listen to music on it, you can buy a cheap Bluetooth speaker for $20 and stream music to it: $100+ saved.
A smart spotlight bulb (such as the Philips Hue GU10) costs over $50… per spot. Yes this is for the white and color version (which can be used to create some awesome effects), but if you have 12 in a room, you’ll have to pay $600 to create the effect you want. Whilst a dozen standard (white) spots will cost you $38 total ($18.99 for 6) via the AmazonBasics range.
Yes there’s a difference in features, but is $562 extra per room really worth it to upgrade to smart GU10 lighting?
Whilst smart thermostats claim to save 10-12% on your heating bills (and 15% on cooling costs) – which is naturally good for the environment – the mass manufacture of cheap electric goods is not good for the environment.
Consumerism is practically the enemy of positive environmental change, with everyone needing to cut-back and live more frugally instead of constantly buying the latest gadget.
Whilst the high initial cost of many smart devices (as explored earlier) is a barrier to buying loads of smart home products, when Black Friday comes along and you can get an Echo Dot for $19 or a Ring Doorbell 2 + Echo Show 5 for just $139, there’ll be a spending splurge which results in ever-more manufacturing of smart devices.
Rare earth metals are required within some of the electrical components within many smart home devices (especially those with batteries), along with lots of plastic. The mining of the required raw materials is not good for the environment, nor is assembling all these components into the latest smart gadget and shipping it to your local Amazon distribution centre.
The effect of interest traffic must also be considered. As much as 70% of internet traffic goes through a low-energy zone in Washington DC, with only 3% of that energy being from renewable sources (with Greenpeace calculating that the rest – 97% – comes from coal, gas and nuclear power).
The more we rely on internet-connected smart devices, the more we are demanding coal/gas/nuclear powered energy for the required internet traffic.
The average Echo device uses 2 watts of electric, smart plugs are about the same, Nest cameras use up to 9 watts and a Raspberry Pi (assuming you use this as a smart home hub) will draw around 4 watts.
Okay, this is all fairly small energy use – individually. But if you have:
- an Echo in every room, lets say 8 Echos = 16 watts
- 10 smart plugs = 20 watts
- 3 Nest cameras internally = 27 watts
- 2 external smart cameras/CCTV = 18 watts
- a Raspberry Pi home hub = 4 watts
You have 85 watts of energy use, the equivalent of running a 65″ LED TV all the time. Based on average energy prices, this is 744.6 kWh usage each year costing $89.35.
Luckily this isn’t too bad, but it’s worth considering if you really need to have the equivalent of a 65″ television running all the time. Maybe you decide that you can do without 5 smart cameras (which is where most of the energy use comes from), and this will cut your smart energy use down a fair bit.
Since barely any smart devices use Power over Ethernet (or Ethernet in general), WiFi is mainly used to connect the smart device up to the internet.
Whilst many modern home routers now support hundreds of devices, some older ones only support a handful – as little as 10 or 12. By the time that a couple of TVs and mobile phones are connected, you could easily find yourself running out of ‘WiFi space’ at your router – requiring you to either turn off some smart devices or upgrade your router.
Equally, WiFi originally worked over the 2.4 Ghz band – and hence many original smart devices also only worked over 2.4 Ghz. The problem here is that the 2.4 Ghz band is fairly limited and so it can become congested quite quickly – especially if your neighbor’s are close by and their routers operate on the same band and channel. This can cause your smart devices to experience unreliable connections.
Thankfully 5 Ghz wireless helps solve this problem, but 5 Ghz WiFi has a lower range (it loses a fair amount of signal through walls) and not as many routers and smart devices made 3+ years ago support it.
Finally, your internet speed can limit your smart device’s operation. Whilst many smart home devices only need ‘1 or 2 Mbps’ speed (which pretty much every house has), this doesn’t tell the whole story. For example a Ring Doorbell requires a minimum of “2 Mbps upload/download speed” – the “upload” bit is key.
The upload speed of your internet is often far less than the advertised ‘internet speed’ you see (as this speed is often the download speed) – but uploading (sending data from your house, to the cloud) is mainly what smart devices do.
So if you look at internet speeds in more detail, you will see something like ’24 Mbps download/8 Mbps upload’ (for slower ADSL internet). Whilst 8 Mbps upload is still pretty good, if you have a smart doorbell and 4 smart CCTV cameras, you will probably be maxing out your upload bandwidth.
At best this means that your smart devices will struggle, whilst at worst your whole home’s internet access will be affected (because even surfing the internet requires some upload traffic).
Google chief Rick Osterloh said in 2019 that you should warn visitors that you have a smart home device (like a Google Home or Amazon Echo), since it will be listening unless otherwise muted.
You can see everything that your Echo or Home device has recorded you saying via the app, and whilst it should only record anything after it hears “Ok Google…” or “Alexa…“, sometimes it gets it wrong and randomly records (and stores) a conversation – one that should have stayed private.
Equally smart cameras (and doorbells) can be hacked and these private video feeds can then be viewed by the hacker anywhere in the world – with the greatest benefit (being able to remotely monitor your home) becoming its great weakness.
Also when setting up a Google Home device, you must link it to your Google Account and turn on search and voice history. This means that all your Google searches from your phone and computer (assuming they’re done in a logged-in Chrome session) will also be stored. It’s all-or-nothing: if you later turn off the search history, your Home device is basically unusable.
Following on from general privacy concerns, lets get more specific: your house’s data (i.e. how you use your smart home devices – your heating, your plugs, your voice assistants) is valuable to smart home companies, which means that it’s also valuable for advertisers!
Before Google bought them, Nest reportedly said that they seen a future ‘revenue stream’ in selling heating data collected from their smart thermostats. Google’s Nest terms and conditions still says that they can ‘pass’ your data onto third parties, with your permission.
The NY Times have also reported on Kinsa a few times, a smart thermostat system which took people’s temperatures – and then sold that data to local advertisers.
Whilst there’s no sign of Amazon or Google harvesting and selling your specific data en masse, there’s nothing to say that they aren’t internally mining anonymized (or partially anonymized) versions of your smart home’s data for their own benefit.
Zigbee, Z-Wave, xbee, Iora, IFTTT, Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings, X10 (going back a bit!) and more.
What are all these things? Well, they are different platforms that smart devices can speak to each-other. Sure, some of them (like Alexa and Google Assistant) aren’t specific standards, but the point is that if you have purchased smart devices from multiple manufacturers, you’ll almost certainly find it hard to manage them all in a central place.
This is where Connected Home over IP comes in, which is an attempt by all major smart home producers to finally make devices which ‘speak a common language’ and hence allow for a single ‘control panel’ which can manage them all in the same way.
Until that happens, though, you have to get used to having a dozen different apps and protocols for managing your smart home.
Most smart devices work by you interacting with them (either by voice, or clicking a button on them) and them sending a signal to ‘the cloud’ (an internet service), before they process your request and send a reply. The reply might, of course, be to play a song, change your heating or turn on a light.
So what happens when your internet is off? Well, exactly. In the case of smart/voice assistants, an error appears via a colored ring and you can’t use the device.
Your smart cameras and doorbells won’t upload video, either. And because they don’t contain in-built storage, you will simply lose any recordings made during the internet outage.
Smart thermostats are better (since they can still control your boiler as they are hardwired to it), but nonetheless many smart devices are of limited use when the internet is out.
Many popular smart home devices have only been released in the past 5 years, but what typically happens to old electrical equipment?
Well, think of an old computer. Your Windows 7 install there is no longer supported.
Also think of the iPhone 6, which is no longer supported – and the iPhone 7 isn’t far behind losing its support.
Sonos also lost a lot of fans over its post-Christmas announcement in early January 2020 that it was going to stop supporting many of its ‘older’ speakers. Of course, these expensive items weren’t even that old, so people were rightly frustrated to be told that their expensive purchase from 4+ years ago would eventually stop working.
Okay, so clearly big tech companies aim to stop supporting older models of their products after a number of years. Whilst many smart home devices have been released in the last decade, what will happen when they get older than this?
Will you find that your 1st Gen Echo Dot stops working? Or that your $250 Nest Learning Thermostat from 2011 will soon be disabled?Will you find that your 1st Gen Echo Dot stops working? Or that your $250 Nest Learning Thermostat from 2011 will soon be disabled?
The trust is that we don’t know for sure, but based on Microsoft, Apple, Sonos and other tech companies so far, I personally think that we’ll start to see some common – but old – smart devices turned off over the next few years.
People who have grown up with technology tend to find it easy to use – and get used to. But other people can find it ‘scary’ or hard to use.
Since every smart home device is different and is configured differently, there can be a lot of learning to do – both to get it set up initially, and then in learning how to use the device.
There can be even be hurdles that us techy lot wouldn’t naturally consider. For example I know someone elderly who learnt how to start music/radio on her Echo, but couldn’t remember how to stop it.
“Alexa, turn off“, “Alexa, silence“, “Alexa, shut up” were all tried, but none worked. This person then looked for the stop button on the device itself, but couldn’t find one – and so pulled the plug out. Yes, “Alexa, stop” seems second nature to us – but it’s not to everyone.
And this is a key point, especially if you’re planning on buying a smart device for a relative who isn’t as confident with technology.
Controlling your home devices through your voice or a mobile app is great, other than the fact that sometimes it’s good to stand up and walk – even a little bit.
The World Health Organization found that a massive (and very concerning) 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to a sedentary lifestyle, with around 10% of these in America.
And this is a big hidden (and often unspoken) problem with smart homes: they encourage you to be less active. To move around less.
Naturally smart devices are a great benefit for those with movement-related disabilities, but if you are able to move around, try and do this – even if going up to your Echo to physically change the volume feels a bit weird at times!
WiFi can be unreliable: we’ve all had the case where internet isn’t working on our phone, but it works just fine for everyone else in the house. Or all wireless devices suddenly get kicked off the network.
This is a big problem with smart devices, because the vast majority rely on WiFi (with a much smaller number using Bluetooth and Ethernet).
As explored earlier, 2.4 Ghz wireless can often be congested and your devices might be clashing with other devices (even from your neighbors) on this narrow band. 5 Ghz is better in this regard, but 5 Ghz signal starts to struggle when going through solid objects – such as walls!
Many smart devices are therefore designed to cope very well with patchy internet access, but there’s a limit to what can be done. Nothing beats Ethernet for reliability, but then Ethernet is much less convenient – and increases the prices of items.
Because there’s no mainstream smart home provider who offers all types of smart devices, you will invariably end up with devices from multiple manufacturers.
This could mean that you have to interact with a range of different product support teams if any of your devices break.
For example, you might need to ring Amazon if your Echo has issues, and then Ecobee for your smart thermostat, and finally TP-Link if your Kasa smart plug is playing up.
This compares to Apple where you can buy all Apple products for your phone, laptop and music-listening needs (assuming you have the money, of course!) and then you have a single company to deal with if anything breaks down.
This situation is improving due to Google buying Nest (and integrating Nest), but even Google don’t sell smart plugs or a few other smart products. Amazon have a wider smart product range, but Ring are still effectively a separate company – meaning you have to contact Ring (not Amazon) if your Ring device is having issues.
Whilst Amazon and Google (hopefully) won’t go out of business, smaller smart home companies potentially could.
This is especially a concern when you bring in a smart home solutions company that have a lot of their own proprietary technology and controllers. These companies can provide amazing automated home solutions, allowing you to truly customize all parts of your house.
An example might be if you commission a brand new house, one which is entirely wired-up for smart homes – based on the Niko Home Control. Whilst there is no immediate reason that Niko (or the smart builder you employ) will go out of business, what happens if they do?
Lets say that something happens and the Niko Home Control system is no longer supported, what happens if it breaks 5 years down the line? Your whole smart home will stop working and you might not be able to get someone in to fix it.
This can be a big concern for smart home providers who use proprietary kit to power their smart homes.
Assuming that Connected Home over IP is fully implemented by all the major players, the situation should look better because you can just use any mainstream smart device and easily swap that one part out at a later date. But right now the situation is precarious if you have a massively smart/automated home.
Your Amazon and Ring account will probably be protected by a simple username and password (unless you have specifically enabled two-factor authentication). What happens if someone guesses – or hacks – these details?
You guessed it, the hacker would be able to monitor your smart devices – which can include visitors to your property (via your Ring doorbell) and any internal cameras you have. Ugh, what a scary thought!
ABC news have a piece showing how an ethical hacker was easily able to hack into people’s home/smart networks, even by reading passwords off the flash memory within a smart lightbulb that was thrown out in the trash.
Smart devices are convenient because they allow you to check in on them remotely (over the internet) – but this implicitly means that your smart device is publicly accessible assuming that a username/password is known.
Even if you have a secure password, if you have re-used that password on a site which is hacked, then your smart devices are vulnerable too. So unless you use different passwords for every service, and destroy any smart device you throw out, you could be susceptible to hacking.
My router was recently cutting out intermittently, so my internet service provider sent me out a new one. Great, I thought. Until I realized that I’d have to reconfigure all my smart devices. Doh!
Whilst Google Home and the newer Echo devices aren’t too bad, I’ve always found the first gen Echo Dots to be a PITA when changing the WiFi password (yeah, I’m aware you have to click ‘Yes’ when the ‘no internet’ warning appears during setup – but even then it’s been fairly unreliable for me).
If you have 20 smart home devices (which isn’t too uncommon), perhaps from 6 or 7 different manufacturers, then changing your router (or WiFi password) becomes a military operation.
If you’re the only ‘techy’ person in your home, this process could easily take an hour or more. Which is ironic when a key selling point of smart homes is that they make your life easier!
Getting a smart device setup isn’t always simple – especially since they all seem to have different setup processes!
Configuring an Echo involves the Alexa app creating a fake WiFi network that you connect your phone too, and input your real WiFi details in there. Assuming this works (hint: it doesn’t always), then after a few minutes your Echo will be working.
That is one of the easier devices to setup. A smart thermostat or doorbell is much harder than this to install, because it requires actual electrical cabling.
Then you have smart lightbulbs. Do you connect your Philips Hue bulb to the Hue hub? Or do you use Bluetooth? Wait, my Hue is new and doesn’t need the hub – but sometimes I still need to use it?
For people who enjoy tinkering, smart devices are fun to setup. But for many people, they are a complete pain.
In the past it was recommended that you use a surge protector for any expensive electrical device, especially your TV and any computers.
Many smart devices are expensive to purchase, so surge protecting them all is important. But with a fully fledged smart home, you might have dozens of extra electrical devices – should you go out and buy dozens of extra surge protectors? Or can you ‘daisy chain’ multiple smart devices and surge protectors together?
To be honest, it’s much easier nowadays to just buy a whole house surge protection device and get an electrician to fit this outside, but that’s not always practical.
The marketing of smart devices is great: they ‘just work’. Ask them a question, and they’ll know the answer. Use them to manage your TV, or play music. Or have them manage your heating system, and they’ll ‘just work’.
Except, of course, this isn’t always the case.
Smart thermostats don’t always work well with certain heating systems (such as geothermal), despite claiming that they do.
Whilst if you ask Amazon Echo fairly standard questions, it often won’t know the answer. Yes it’ll probably know the date of birth and height of famous celebrities, but it won’t know when your local shop opens or a more specific question. (Note: Google Home is much better at this, because it uses Google’s search engine to get the answers).
I also can’t get my Echo to properly control my Fire stick, even though I have followed the official Amazon support guide to the letter.
Plus my Echo and Home devices sometimes completely mishear what I ask it – even if I am fairly clear in what I’m saying.
This is frustrating and it shows a clear disconnect between the ‘smart home’ marketing, and the ‘smart home’ reality.