Do Smart Plugs Work Away From Home?

When talking about the benefits of smart plugs, I usually give the example of being able to turn your slow cooker on from work, so that you come home to a perfect meal. This relies on a key benefit of smart plugs: being able to turn them on and off whilst you’re away from your home. But this feature can’t always be 100% relied on, so I wanted to write this article to cover this feature of smart plugs.

Most smart plugs – especially ones which are Alexa or Google Home enabled – will work when you’re away from the home. However some smart plugs require a separate hub to work, whilst others require that you’re connected to the same WiFi network as your smart plug.

Recap: how smart plugs work

A marketing image of the TP Link's HS105 Kasa Wi-Fi Smart Plug, which leaves the second outlet free for use.
TP Link’s HS105 Kasa
Wi-Fi Smart Plug

Smart plugs often aren’t spoken about with the same hype and enthusiasm as smart assistants and lights, but they offer your home a useful smart upgrade nonetheless. They plug into your wall outlet, and then you plug your electrical devices into the smart plug.

You can then turn the smart plug on or off without touching the plug (e.g. via your phone app) which will ultimately turn your device on/off too. You can also configure the smart plug to go on/off at specific times, or link it to other smart devices in your home via routines (‘if the temperature drops to X, turn on smart plug Y’).

In this way, smart plugs are a decent upgrade over old style mechanical timer switches. However some people expect smart plugs to just work after putting them in a wall outlet – they don’t realize that you can’t always easily control them when you’re away from home, hence I wanted to write this article to cover how you can control smart plugs remotely.

Controlling smart plugs when you’re away from home

Once you’ve plugged your smart plug in, you’ll need to download the accompanying phone app to finish the setup process. At this point, you’ll be able to press “on” and “off” on the smart plug (within the app) to control the plug, and ultimately the device that’s plugged into it.

However if you go out and remember that you left a device on, you might launch your phone app but see that you can’t control the linked smart plug because you’re not connected to the same WiFi network. After all, your phone might be using mobile data, or it’s on public WiFi: but your smart plug will be on your home WiFi network.

This problem can usually be fixed, thankfully, but it depends on the type of smart plug you own.

Solution #1: using Alexa or Google Home

If your smart plug is ‘Alexa enabled’ or ‘supports Google Home’ (or HomeKit, for that matter), then you will be able to go into your Alexa/Google Home app and add your smart plug there. On the Alexa app, this is under ‘Devices’ and then ‘Add’ (the little plus icon in the top right):

Phone screenshot showing the 'Add Device' page of the Alexa app, showing that Amazon Echo, Light, Plug, Switch, Camera, Lock and other smart devices can be added to Alexa.
The ‘Add’ device page of Alexa’s app shows that ‘Plug’ (smart plugs) can be added.

Once you’ve linked this within Alexa (for example), the smart plug will be registered against your linked Amazon account. This means that when you’re out and on another WiFi network, you’ll still be able to control the smart plug from your Alexa app because you’re still logged into your Amazon/Alexa account.

So whilst you still won’t be able to launch your smart plug’s app and control it there, you can use the Alexa app without any issue – wherever you are in the world. Cool!

Solution #2: buy a smart plug that natively supports away-from-home

Some smart plugs natively support away-from-home control (also called ‘remote control’). For example, TP-Link’s Kasa range supports this by getting you to setup a Kasa account.

Your smart plugs (and other Kasa devices) are then registered to this account, and so – like with Alexa and Google Home – you can control the smart plug even when you’re not on the same WiFi network:

Yes, you will be able to control both devices on the different networks. All devices will be bound to the one account, and once the devices are set up in Kasa, remote control is automatically enabled.

Tony, a TP-Link staff member on the TP-Link forums, 8th January 2020

As it happens, Kasa also supports Alexa so you could control your Kasa smart plug when away from your house via the Kasa or Alexa apps which is handy.

Sometimes it takes a bit of Googling to work out whether the smart plug you’re planning on buying supports remote control (without Alexa/Google Home integration), so you can also message their customer service team to double check if you’re not sure.

Using Philips Hue Smart plug away from home

Hue’s smart plug isn’t cheap (it’s often $15-20 more than some of its comparable rivals), but it offers a nice benefit: it doesn’t work over WiFi.

Okay, that doesn’t sound like a nice benefit. But having all your smart devices run off WiFi can start to bog down your router, even causing devices to get dropped by your router at times. Hence smart home enthusiasts like to branch out and buy smart devices that don’t always rely on WiFi.

Hue’s smart lights and plug run off something called ZigBee, which is like WiFi and Bluetooth but it’s more tailored to smart homes because ZigBee supports multiple devices talking to each other in an efficient way.

Hue’s smart plug therefore requires the Hue bridge, a device which connects to your home network (via an Ethernet cable, not WiFi) and it then ‘translates’ the ZigBee requests into actions (such as ‘turn on this light’ or ‘turn off this smart plug’). The reason I’m mentioning all this is that even with the Hue bridge connected to your home network, by default you can’t control the smart plug when you’re out of your house:

A phone screenshot from the Hue app, showing that 'Out of home control' is currently disabled.
‘Out of home control’ is currently disabled in my Hue app.

If you click into this feature, it explains a bit more about it:

Phone screenshot from the Hue app, explaining the 'Out of home control' option and what it does.
The Hue app explaining the ‘Out of home control’ option.

Thankfully it is easy to enable: just click the ‘Enable’ button, which launches a web browser for Hue’s website. Login with your Hue username and password, and it’ll ask if you trust this device/app. Click yes, and it’ll then enable out of home control (by linking your Hue app – and the devices it ultimately controls – with your Hue account).

Once ‘Out of home control’ is enabled, you can control your Hue smart plug via the app whenever you’re away from home and connected to a different mobile internet network.

A final possible reason why you can’t control a device when away from home

Before you run off and buy a smart plug, there’s a fairly important caveat regarding smart plugs that smart plug adverts never seem to mention..!

Whilst a lot of electrical devices come on when they have power (e.g. they are plugged into the wall socket, or the wall socket switch is turned on in the UK), an increasing number of devices don’t have a mechanical switch. They instead have a ‘soft’ electronic switch which you need to press after ensuring that the device has power.

This is usually for energy saving purposes. Think of TVs, coffee machines, computers – and a whole lot more. Simply plugging them in isn’t enough: they’ll just sit in standby. You instead need to click a switch on the device for them to then come on.

This means that smart plugs won’t work for them, whether or not you’re home. You can easily test this out by unplugging the device, waiting a short time, and plugging it back in. If the device doesn’t actually start functioning and instead requires you to press an ‘on’ switch, you won’t be able to control it with a smart plug.

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