The Almost Saved Vacation: How My Smart Home Became My Unexpected Hero

They often say that the worst part about coming home from a vacation is, well, coming home. While I do agree with this sentiment to some extent, as I do love the comfort of my own bed and the company of my beloved pets, my recent homecoming was almost a complete disaster. Thankfully, my smart home came to the rescue and gave me a heads-up about the problems I would be facing.

It all started when I landed at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport after a long nine-hour flight from London. As soon as I switched on my phone, I was bombarded with notifications. Among them was an alert from my Ecobee SmartThermostat, informing me of a cooling problem. I tapped on the alert to find out that the thermostat had been calling for cool air for the past four hours, but the room temperature had increased by 8.6F instead. The Ecobee app confirmed that both thermostats in my two-zone system were reading temperatures between 88 and 91 degrees, even though they were set to 78. This was only a few degrees cooler than the scorching temperatures outside in South Carolina.

This alert made me aware that there was an issue with my HVAC system. So, I decided to check the outdoor unit using my Google Nest floodlight camera. You see, in my years of living in a smart home, I’ve learned the importance of verification. Just because an app tells you that your garage door is closed doesn’t necessarily mean it is. I learned this the hard way when I found out my garage door had been open all night because the sensor had fallen off. That’s why I recommend having a camera in your garage if you plan on remotely controlling the door.

Before panicking too much about the rising temperatures in my home, I decided to check the other temperature sensors throughout the house. I also took a look at my bedroom’s Mitsubishi mini split unit, which is connected to a Sensibo Air smart controller. The readings from these sensors confirmed that every room in my home, except for my bedroom, was hovering between 86 and 92 degrees. It was clear that something was wrong. The Climate tab in the Apple Home app provided a comprehensive view of the temperature readings from various devices in my home, including Apple HomePods, Hue motion sensors, and the Ecobee thermostat.

Thankfully, my bedroom and my bunny rabbit were in a comfortable 78 degrees, thanks to the working mini split unit. I double-checked on my bunny using a camera near her hutch. With this information, I confirmed that the issue was with my main HVAC unit, which was about nine years old and had been struggling with the heatwave all week. While I was relieved to know there was no harm to my bunny, I wished that my smart home could do more than just alert me of the problem.

Using my Google Nest floodlight camera, I could hear that the AC condenser was still running. The Ecobee app also confirmed that the system was actively trying to cool. However, it couldn’t offer any further information or troubleshooting options for me to take remotely. It was frustrating, considering I was stuck on an airport runway 300 miles away from home at 8:30 PM. I had to decide whether to call the HVAC company’s emergency line and have a technician go to my empty house at a significant cost or deal with it when I got home. I chose to wait since I was only a few hours away from home. Needless to say, walking into a house that felt like an oven was not a pleasant homecoming experience, but at least I was mentally prepared for it.

The next morning, I called the HVAC company, and they sent a technician to my house sweating 24 hours later. Luckily, the technician quickly diagnosed the problem: a fried capacitor. Within five minutes, he fixed it, but it cost me $300. While I considered this a success story for my smart home, it made me realize that the current state of connected homes is focused more on notifications than taking action. We can have all the data about our homes, but we can’t do much to fix issues remotely.

A truly smart home would not only alert us to problems but also identify and offer solutions. It would even take action with our consent. Just like cars have become self-diagnosing computers, our homes have the potential to do the same. Some proactive solutions exist today but often require expensive technology and proprietary systems. For example, Moen has a smart water system that can detect leaks and adjust water flow to prevent freezing. However, this system relies on all-Moen hardware and can be quite costly.

On the other hand, the Ecobee SmartThermostat can monitor temperature and send alerts for any irregularities or problems with heating or cooling. It’s a step in the right direction. I discussed the issue with the HVAC technician, and he mentioned that he had seen several capacitors fail that week due to the extreme temperatures. With more connected homes, the company could use this data to address issues more quickly, possibly even before they happen if they have enough historical data about our systems.

Of course, this smarter solution would require tighter integration between thermostats, HVAC systems, and service providers. Imagine having a fully integrated smart thermostat that could detect a faulty capacitor, order the replacement part, and send a technician to install it before you even land at the airport. It’s an exciting concept that is entirely feasible. Human intervention would still be necessary, both physically and digitally, to grant the HVAC company access to our homes. It could be similar to how home security monitoring services work today.

I had a similar experience with my Samsung Family Hub smart fridge a few months ago. It alerted me about temperature issues through the SmartThings app, and after contacting Samsung, they remotely diagnosed and fixed the problem by sending a technician with the necessary part. It saved me from potentially having to deal with two expensive visits.

This level of connectivity-powered service is what makes the idea of a smart home so enticing. However, it also requires a significant amount of trust. While I would have loved to arrive at a cool house after a long journey, I’m not entirely comfortable with sacrificing privacy and personal data to make that happen.

The main obstacle to realizing the full potential of a smart home lies in finding a balance between the convenience we desire and the data and access required to achieve it. I appreciated knowing about the possible boiling bunny scenario in my home, but I want my house to be smart enough to take action. The path to achieving this balance is still a puzzle that needs solving.

[Photos and screenshots by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge]



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