Updated May 8, 2019: As fun as it is to switch on lights with your voice, schedule your robotic vacuum cleaner and talk to the postman through a video doorbell, smart home technology has a more serious side. It can save you money, lower your carbon footprint and even help prevent a disastrous flood.
Devices like learning thermostats and smart garden sprinkler systems can lower your utility bills, while leak detectors can alert you and even shut off the water supply before a dripping pipe turns into a collapsed ceiling.
Here is a selection of smart home products that can save you money:
Smart thermostats can save money on your heating bills by learning how you like to heat and cool your home, then doing so in the most efficient way possible. Manufacturers of smart thermostats include Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell and Hive, plus Tado is a further option for European readers.
Nest Learning Thermostat (third generation) - $249
Arguably the most well-known smart thermostat, the Nest learns from your interactions with it to create a custom schedule for heating and cooling your home. For the first few days, adjusting the dial to keep the temperature how you want it will teach the Nest, which then starts to work autonomously.
The Nest connects to a wide range of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, comes in four colors to suit your decor, and can be operated remotely via a smartphone and tablet app. Geofencing means the thermostat will lower the heating when you leave the house, and switch off the hot water when you are on holiday.
Because Nest thermostats have an internet connection, they can adjust your heating and cooling based on the local weather forecast - so the heating won't come on during an unseasonably warm day, saving you money. In total, Nest believes US customers can save between $131 and $145 per year on their heating bill, meaning the Nest could pay for itself in two years.
New for 2018, Nest's Temperature Sensor lets the thermostat know the temperature of each room, rather than the Nest only knowing the temperature of its location, which is often the hallway. Sensors cost $39 each, or a set of three costs $99.
Do note that support for IFTTT (and likely Alexa too) will be terminated by Google on August 31, 2019. The company said on May 7 2019 it will be closing its Works with Nest platform, ending interactions between all Nest devices and systems like IFTTT. Automation will instead be handled by Google's own new Works with Google Assistant program. Nest buyers now also have to create their own Google account, if they do not already have one.
Nest Thermostat E - $169
A simpler and cheaper smart thermostat, the Nest Thermostat E has slightly fewer options than the larger Nest and a lower resolution display. It also has a simpler, cleaner design which readers with a minimalist decor might prefer.
Instead of beginning with a blank slate like the regular Nest, the Thermostat E comes with a pre-set schedule for you to adjust to your tastes; doing so teaches the device to learn just like the regular Nest. As we mentioned above, Nest — now brought back in house with Google — is no longer going to work with IFTTT. The thermostat also doesn't work with HomeKit, worth noting.
Honeywell Smart Wi-Fi Thermostat - $179
More attractively priced than the Nest Learning Thermostat, GearBrain reviewed Honeywell's offering in early 2018 and found it easy to use — even for those who aren't particularly tech-savvy. The Honeywell's large touch screen gives quick access to controlling the climate of up to 12 zones across your home, making it easy to only keep warm the rooms you want to use.
Honeywell claims its system can help you save up to 40 percent on your heating bill, and of course the thermostat can be controlled via Alexa, Google Assistant and IFTTT (If This, Then That).
Ecobee 4 - $249
The Ecobee 4 smart thermostat works in a similar way to the Nest products mentioned above, but in addition to managing your climate, the Ecobee has Alexa integrated.
This means you can speak to your thermostat in the same way you'd talk to an Amazon Echo or Sonos One smart speaker. You can ask it to play music (preferably through a set of wireless speakers connected to the same Wi-Fi network), set timers and alarms, switch on smart lights, and add things to your to-do list. Basically, everything you already use Alexa for, plus you can of course use her to control your heating.
Ecobee's other big feature is its ability to know when each room of your home is occupied. One sensor comes in the box, but a further 31 can be added. The sensors tell the thermostat the temperature of each room, and if they are occupied - so only the rooms people are in will be heated. If no one is home, the temperature in every room will automatically be lowered.
Ecobee claims its system can reduce your annual heating and cooling costs by 23 percent.
Smart garden sprinkler
Smart sprinkler systems save you money by only using the water your garden needs, when they need it. They do this by knowing what soil type is in each area of your plot, and what plants grow there. Smart sprinklers also keep an eye on the weather forecast, so will hold back on the watering when rain is falling.
Rachio 3 - $229.99
Shipping from mid-May 2018, the third-generation sprinkler system from Rachio promises simple installation, extended Wi-Fi coverage, and the ability to water in up to 16 different zones across your garden.
Rachio sprinklers can be controlled by their own app, or via Alexa, Google Assistant, Samsung SmartThings, IFTTT, and your Nest thermostat if you have one. The app lets you programme a schedule for watering each zone, while "hyperlocal" adjustments will be made to this timetable based on the weather forecast. Rachio claims it can pinpoint the weather to within a 36-foot radius of your home.
GearBrain reviewed the Rachio 2 and gave it 9 (out of 10) stars. We particularly liked Rachio's customer service, the system's EPA certification, and how it integrates with other devices. However, we found installation wasn't quite as easy as you'd think. As for cost savings, a friend of GearBrain who has used a Rachio system for a year says he saved over 29,000 gallons of water in 12 months, which is around $43 based on average US water prices.
Orbit B-hyve Smart WI-Fi Sprinkler Timer - from $99
Similar to the Rachio, the Orbit B-hyve is a smart garden watering system with Alexa integration, a scheduling system and a smartphone app for telling the device about your plants and soil type.
The Orbit app takes into account your soil and plant types, sprinkler type and quantity, sun exposure and shade. Notifications to your smartphone let you know when watering has finished, when it has been delayed by rain, and temperatures fall below freezing.
As with the Rachio, this system takes local weather forecasts into account and will delay watering if rain is headed to your location in the coming hours.
While saving a few dollars on your heating and water bills is of course welcome — along with the environmental benefits both products bring - flood detection and prevention technology has the potential to save you a fortune (and even your possessions) if the worst should happen.
At their simplest, flood detectors sit on the floor and alert you when they get wet. More expensive systems constantly monitor the flow of your water system, alerting you to changes in pressure and letting you shut off the supply if a leak is detected.
Fibaro Flood Sensor - from $35
This device is designed to be placed anywhere, but locating it close to your water pipes (in the bathroom, under the kitchen sink or under the boiler) would be a good place to start.
When water is detected, the Fibaro (which can be powered by battery or wall outlet) sounds an alarm and alerts you via your smartphone. The device can also be used to monitor the temperature of your floors - that way, you can have it communicate with your thermostat and adjust the temperature of any under-floor heating you might have installed.
Phyn - $850 plus installation
At the other end of the scale, Phyn is a newly launched water monitoring system which fits to your pipes and constantly measures the water flow. If there is an unexpected change, or if a tap has been left running for a long time, you will be alerted via your smartphone. Like Nest thermostats, the Phyn learns about your water flow, figuring out the difference between regular daily usage and an unexpected event which could be a leak.
Because the majority of water damage occurs while you aren't home, Phyn's most important feature is the ability to remotely switch off your water supply from the smartphone app.
It's an expensive system for sure, but when the cost of repairing water damage can quickly spill into the thousands of dollars - not to mention the loss of possessions - it could be a price worth paying for peace-of-mind.
Timers, motion deterctors and geofencing features mean smart lights can lower your electricity bill by switching themselves off when you or your family forget. And being LED bulbs, these lights use less energy than the fluorescent bulbs you might still have installed across your home.
Philips Hue - from $40 (motion sensor)
The simplest of Philips Hue light kits comes with bulbs and the hub, which connects to your router. Through the free Hue app you can set schedules for every Hue bulb or light strip you buy, making sure they all switch off at night, for example. The app also makes it easy to manually switch any or all lights off with a tap, and from anywhere in the world.
Add a $40 motion sensor to your Hue system and lights can be configured to switch on and off when movement is detected. Put a motion sensor in your child's bedroom, and the light will always switch off after they leave and inevitably forget to hit the switch themselves.
Similarly, geofencing can be setup with If This, Then That (IFFF). That way, you can set some or all lights to switch off when you leave the home. No more upstairs light being left on by accident.
LIFX smart lights work in a similar way to Philips Hue, but are controlled directly over Wi-Fi rather than requiring their own hub. Although the company does not sell a motion sensor like Philips, an IFTTT applet like this one can be created to control the lights via a D-Link motion sensor.
Just as above, you can use this applet to have your LIFX lights switch off when you leave the room. IFTTT can also give these lights geofencing features.
Wiz Smart Lights - from $30 (white smart bulb)
When we reviewed a set of Wiz smart lights in February 2018 we were impressed by the breadth of IFTTT applets available. This is key to energy-saving, as the applets can be configured to automatically switch the lights off when they aren't needed - like when you leave the house.
Because these bulbs are also LED, Wiz claims they offer an 80 percent energy saving over the traditional bulbs you might still be using. One particularly neat feature of Wiz is vacation mode, which switches your lights on and off at certain times of day to make it look like someone is home.
In a similar fashion to smart lights, smart plugs can save you money by switching devices off on a timer, or letting you switch them off when away from home. Fit the smart plug to your mains outlet, then plug any product into the smart plug. Now, you have remote control of that device.
This means you can remotely make sure devices like irons and hair straighteners are switched off if you think you forgot before leaving home. For other devices you can set timers - for making sure lamps and plug-in heaters don't stay on all night, for example - or to stop your children leaving devices on standby when they could be switched off at the wall to save energy and money.
WeMo Mini Wi-Fi - $30
There's no need for a connected hub like those from Samsung SmartThings and Harmony to use the WeMo Mini. Instead, the plug talks directly to your router and smartphone — or to a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, or even your Nest thermostat.
Oittm Wi-Fi Smart Plug - $20
As with the WeMo, you don't need a smart home hub to get full functionality from the Oittm. It also has Alexa and Google Assistant support for voice controls, and the app offers deep levels of customization to make your devices switch on and off exactly when you want.
TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug - $23
As with the others here, no hub is required - however, TP-Link does produce its own hub, which can be used to control other smart home devices, like lights and switches. The plug has Alexa and Google Assistant control, plus options to group multiple devices together (like all of those in the same room) and create scenes with the Kasa app.