Smart Home automation has grown exponentially in recent years with both its capability and accessibility on the market. I have been using Lowes Iris for the past 2+ years with mixed results which I'll share, in detail, below.
Before we get into what Smart Home automation IS today, let's take a look at what it COULD BE.
Imagine a home with roof-mounted solar panels, an underground rainwater storage tank, small wind turbine, and battery bank capable of storing 1-2 days worth of the home's peak load. Each circuit in the home is measured and automated. There is an automated outside air intake vent that modulates based the indoor desired temperature and humidity so that natural cooling and heating can be used. If the CO alarm goes off, the horn will sound, strobes will blink, and this same air intake will open up as the ductwork fan switches to high-speed to provide maximum indoor ventilation. When the rainwater storage tank hits its capacity, irrigation pumps are turned on overnight. When the battery bank storage level (voltage) goes below a certain level; non-emergency loads are shut off and the grid charging source is switched on. When the electric car is parked at the home charging station, the home battery bank includes this added capacity and balances capacity with charging need. When energy prices are peaking due to demand, the battery bank will be used to reduce the load on the grid. And so on...
The technology exists for all of this to be put into place TODAY, but the off-the-shelf systems and the software needed to turn all of this data into actionable information...well, it's just not there yet. For our Smart Home automation, we use Lowes Iris. There are several pros & cons to this system:
Expandable: The system has a growing list of devices that are compatible with it from several different vendors. It can use both Z-wave and Zigbee products. There are even OSRAM LED light bulbs that can be turned off and on; dimmed; or even change color through Lowes Iris.
Multiple Device Control: Iris allows you to create 'scenes' of multiple events that can occur together. For example, at sunset lights several can be turned on. Overnight, doors can be locked, heating/cooling set points can be reduced, and alarms can be activated.
Reasonably Priced: The cost of entry for this system is rather low ($100-$200) for a starter kit. There is no monthly fee for the basic plan, but you'll likely want many of the features that come with the premium plan ($9.99/month), such as camera use and enacting of scenes and rules.
Device Capability: Each smart plug is capable of switching on and off, on-command or on-schedule. In addition, the smart plugs measure energy use. These data points can be used to enact rules (i.e. the coffee maker is drawing 800 watts after 10am; turn it off). Door & window sensors and motion detectors record continual temperatures, giving you additional data about your home's temperature which can be used to enact rules.
Reliable: I've had a love/hate relationship with Lowes Iris for the past 2-3 years, but it has been reliable. Devices are turned on and off; heating and cooling schedules are run for occupied and unoccupied modes; and our safety and security have been closely monitored. As an example, I got a text message that our smoke detector was activated and called home to make sure that everything was ok (Burnt cookies!).
Customer Service: Lowes Iris has a toll-free number where it's actually easy to reach a technically-competent HUMAN! Despite the many frustrations as I'll list below (under CONS), Lowes has done a very good job with accessible and knowledgeable customer service. They have helped me several times with device connectivity, scheduling, and even a few embarrassing 'operator errors'!
User Interface: The first generation of Lowes Iris had a nice layout for the user interface - bright screen & colors; moveable tiles; intuitive and quick scheduling capability. For some reason, Lowes changed it?! I have begrudgingly gotten used to the new app, but it's a step backwards. The new app is more cumbersome and complicated. For example, you can look at a device on several different screens, but can only see and modify the schedule for this device on one of these screens. When the 2nd generation hub came out, many of the Iris 'plank holders' abandoned ship and switched to Samsumg SmartThings. I've held on for now...
Water & Energy Management: Since I purchased Lowes Iris, they have announced that the future capability of measuring energy and water use was "coming soon". It's been over 2 years of waiting... Ideally, the AEON Lab CT clamp device (or similar) will be compatible with Iris soon. There are several sonic flow meters for home water lines available, but none are compatible with Iris, yet. It would also be ideal for a compatible DC measurement device that would allow for solar power energy management. The ability to measure a home's electricity and water use for a home to truly be SMART is essential. Please hurry, Lowes.
Rules: Right now, there is a limited menu of rules to chose from. The list today (January 2017) is almost identical to the available list from May of 2014. There is SO much more capability out there that new rules could address. For example, if one smart plug's electricity usage is above a certain level, you don't have the option to turn on/off another device other than that smart plug, itself. It would also be nice, if there was the ability to have the multi-color LED bulb be used as an alarm strobe - allow your lamp that's normally used as a warm white light to flash red & blue under an alarm condition.
Device Connectivity Issues: When Lowes upgraded the Hub, the user felt like we were getting a bonus. We were mailed a 2nd generation hub for free. As time went on, users found that this new hub was fraught with problems to include connectivity issues of older devices and a more limited range. Lowes has said that the 2nd generation smart plug will act as a repeater for these 1st generation Z-wave devices, but unfortunately I still have several devices that intermittently go "offline" and miss their schedules. Very frustrating.
In summary, Lowes Iris had a great start and stalled. I'm hopeful that it will regain its momentum with expanded capability and devices; improved user interface; and the addition of water and electricity monitoring. Lowes is a good company and an ideal platform for a successful smart home automation vendor, but competitors' products may soon surpass them. Time will tell.
Here's a summary of smart home devices that you should consider when looking at smart home automation packages:
Smart Plug: These devices, pictured below, not only can control power to a device, but they can also record electricity use. This data can be helpful in managing your home's electricity use. The next "leap" in smart home technology will hopefully take all of this data and turn into actionable information (i.e. graphs of usage as compared to occupancy).
Smoke and CO Detectors: This device is probably the one that I value the most. It not only alarms locally, at the device, but it also notifies our emergency contacts and can be used to initiate other actions.
Door and Window Contact Sensors: Although most people use these as security devices, these can be very useful from a smart home automation perspective for energy use. For example, wouldn't you like to be notified if you're paying to air condition a home that has door or windows open?! These devices also have temperature sensors and can help identify areas in the home that may be too cold or warm, and allow you to automatically adjust air flow.
Automated Air Vents: I have not yet had the opportunity test one of these devices, but would like to do so in the near future. The ability to direct air flow away from the unoccupied areas of the house to the occupants would help make a home more efficient. I'd like to also figure out a way to convert one of these devices to become an outside air intake and help ventilate the house during cool nights or CO alarm events.
Smart Thermostat: Most thermostats today have the capability of scheduling, this thermostat does too. It also has the ability measure humidity levels, outside air levels, filter life, and fan speed. The Lowes Iris "rules" have not fully caught up to take care of all of these setting variations, yet.
Motion Detector: Like the door and window sensor, these devices are usually purchased with security in mind, however they can also be used to monitor occupancy and temperature. Ideally, the Lowes Iris "rules" will someday allow for multiple 'triggers' to put the system into unoccupied mode. For example, if several devices have not sensed motion in a certain period of time AND all contact sensors have been closed for a certain period of time (during a scheduled period, Mon-Fri 8am-5pm), then run home in unoccupied mode. This could initiate devices being turned off (i.e. lamps, coffee maker, etc...), and thermostats being adjusted during unoccupied times. In my opinion, this is a MUST for smart home automation.
Leak Detector: I have had a few occasions where my sump pump failed or a toilet overflowed, and I discovered this several hours later. These devices would notify you immediately if your hot water heater fails, a toilet overflows, a sump pump fails, rainwater enters the basement, etc... This can save your sanity and help avoid thousands of dollars in repairs.
Audible Alarm: Having a device that can wake you up in the middle of the night, or is loud enough to alert your neighbors of distress is also a critical device to make part of your smart home automation. The alarm pictured below has a piercing 90-100 db alarm and should be able to wake up even the most comatose!
Cameras: Smart home
automation packages should also have the ability for video
monitoring. This can serve as a security
tool, but also has other functions.
Let's say that you want to remotely unlock the door for someone -
wouldn't it be nice to verify that it's someone you trust by seeing a real-time
video of them on the doorstep? Or what
if you'd like to check up on your cat or dog?
Cameras can be very useful. Lowes
Iris incorporates their use pretty well. Their cameras are equipped with IR night vision which provides clear footage in minimal light.
Door Locks: There are several manufacturers that have made compatible door hardware with Lowes Iris. These devices can be locked and unlocked with on-site keypad; remotely as needed (i.e. when you see your child on the doorstep); or remotely under certain conditions (i.e. Kid's smart fob is detected, then unlock back door; Smoke detector alarms, then unlock front door; etc...).
In summary, smart home automation has arrived, and Lowes Iris is postured to potentially take advantage of their home improvement store platform to capitalize on this new market. The current capabilities are impressive, and the possibilities of what the system could be is hopefully in the near future.