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Is the smart home market leaving apartments behind?

Smart devices can save time, energy and even money — but necessarily not for everyone

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As the smart device market balloons — with smart lights that glow gently on their own in the morning, and locks that let the plumber in when you can't be home — they may be leaving those who live in high-rise buildings and rentals feeling disconnected and out in the cold.

Sure some products like multi-hued light bulbs and Amazon Alexa speakers can be used in any space. But thermostats that can lower the temperature when you're on vacation, or security cameras that capture who is at your front door have a much more limited pool. Your landlord may not like you drilling into the door to put in a smart doorbell — and you may not have access to wires needed to install a smart thermostat.

Still it's not as if renters don't want smart products — they do, even more than a swimming pool. (And that's saying a lot.) So says a recent study from property management software firm Entrata which puts smart features like keyless entry and smart thermostats even higher on the want list for renters than on site child care or, yes, a swimming pool.

Renters may not need a smart outdoor sprinkler from the 20th floor of a Manhattan high rise. But they might want to cool down an apartment on a warm day for their cats, while they're still stuck at work. Smart home brands are paying attention.

"We think there is tremendous growth in the MDU (multiple-dwelling units) space," says Comcast's Dennis Mathew, vice president of Xfinity Home. "But we think it's early in that space and there's a lot of work to do."

Smart thermostats, which can help people save money on their heating costs, are a device that many renters and high-rise apartment dwellers can't install.iStock

Ground up

Locking the doors, turning on lights, running the vacuum cleaner and even watering the garden from a touchscreen phone is pretty great. So too is a gadget that can make these decisions all by themselves because they know you've walked through the door. There's no question that linking up the things we use everyday to the internet has, in some ways, simplified our lives — and likely saved us a lot of time.

If you live in an apartment instead of a house, however, your experience with these new smart products is almost certainly going to different. Some companies like Comcast and also Honeywell want to remove any limitations by getting into multiple dwelling units long before the first brick is laid by working with developers to installing wiring as buildings are constructed.

"The No. 1 struggle may be that [renters] don't have clearance to permanently modify their dwelling," says Chris Heintzelman, Honeywell's senior product marketing manager for environment solutions, who recently moved into an apartment of his own. "I'm not able to permanently modify anything."

Of all smart devices, connected thermostats are some of the more complicated to install. People need to have access to their home's wiring, and there also has to be the right kind of wires in a space in order to install a connected thermostat controller.

Honeywell wants to make that pain point disappear, working with developers to install their thermostats into high-rise spaces so people can just snap on a new thermostat front to the already pre-wired back — and even take that thermostat with them when they leave.

Indoor Wi-Fi security cameras are small, portable and often the first smart device people buy.iStock

Gateway products

Another smart home favorite is the security camera: it doesn't need special wiring, can be easy installed and also unplugged and ported to the next location. You can watch the baby sleeping, the dog (probably sleeping) or get a glimpse of anyone entering your home. Plus, if used inside, security cameras really don't need special permission from a landlord or a co-op board.

"New security systems are very popular," said Heintzelman. "They are not permanently affixed to the walls, they are plug and play, and their transportable."

On the flip side, lights bulbs, easy to transport and pack are, conversely, usually not something people wrap in bubble wrap before a move. You can take them with you, but why? They're too cheap — you can pick up a pack of four for about $10. Smart bulbs, however, are a different story.

Even though smart light bulbs still sit at the least expensive end of the smart home spectrum, they are something people consider bringing with them when they vacate a space.

"When it comes to smart lighting and controls, for us it doesn't mean if it's a house or an apartment, you can take it with you," says Phillips Hue's US product marketing lead Mike Deschamps. "That's very different then options like smart switches. Renters cannot replace switches in the walls or even change a thermostat. But the nice thing with Hue is it lends itself to apartments."

Comcast too is starting to take a look at how it can woo apartment dwellers. Long-known as an internet provider, the company also want to manage how smart home products interact with each other through Xfinity Home. (Check out The GearBrain, our smart home compatibility checker to see the other compatible products that works with Comcast's Xfinity Home X1 Platform.)

Connected sprinklers are fantastic for home owners, but less so for those who rent.iStock

For example, a connected security camera is in the works for the second half of this year, says Comcast. And while the company knows that people who live in apartment buildings and condos often have security built-in to their buildings (think security guards or buzzers at the street level), some still want to keep tabs on who is coming into their actual space, so they have peace of mind."

"So you'll know when people are coming and going, if the landlord is going in, or someone from maintenance," says Comcast's Mathew. "Are the people you expect coming in — and are the people you don't expect going to be there."

Smart home devices have the opportunity to bring that control. Today those options are certainly more present for home-owners, than for renters and those living in city space. But with the smart home market a potential $107 billion opportunity in just five years, brands are hardly going to leave any dwelling — and potential customer living inside — behind.

"It's critical for us to design something that can go with the person so the experience they configure can be easily moved from one location to another," says Mathew. "So don't have to start from scratch."

You can check out GearBrain's 7 IoT devices for the smallest of apartments to get an update on the latest devices every apartment should have today.


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