The woes of a blundering first-time smart home owner

Illustration showing a family moving into a new house equipped with smart tech.
Illustration by Adrián Astorgano

I was minding my own business when the piercing shrill of the ADT alarm rang through my house. My Apple Watch gave me a loud noise alert. My cats hid under my desk. I ran down two flights of stairs to the security system control panel. It wanted me to punch in the passcode. I had no idea. I’d been away the week the system had been installed. I cursed myself for not downloading the ADT app earlier. Every second that passed was a second closer to my head exploding. So I did the only thing I could do.

I ran out the front door, called my spouse, and begged them to turn off the alarm from their phone. They were miles away, driving to the store. I had to wait until they could pull over. A few minutes later, blessed silence. When I went back inside the house, the alarm system announced the front door was open. I flipped it the bird.

My entry into the smart home was going swimmingly.

The best-laid plans were no match for ADT

To back it up, I got myself into this mess because I’m a sentimental biddy. To my immigrant parents, home ownership was the American dream. When they died, both my mom and dad were worried about me renting forever, never having a home to call my own. They begged me to work hard, buy a house, and build wealth because they didn’t have much to leave me.

My money went as far as a house with good bones — three beds, 2.5 baths, with a bonus space and garage in Hackensack, New Jersey. It would never be the home of my dreams without a gut renovation, which I couldn’t afford. But maybe I could make it feel like mine by turning it into a “smart” home — a smart thermostat, a smart door lock, some smart lighting. Maybe one day, after some saving, a fancy Japanese toilet.

Front door with Nest x Yale Lock and the Nest Doorbell
The Nest x Yale Lock is probably my favorite thing that I’ve installed. The Nest Doorbell was free.

I slid into the DMs of our resident smart home reviewer, Jennifer Pattison Tuohy. (Lucky for you, you, too, have access to all of Jen’s reviews, buying guides, how-tos, and even Vergecast episodes!) Together, we refined my shopping list into something that would be manageable for a beginner. When all was said and done, I was looking at:

The logic behind each product made sense. I live in a four-floor townhouse. That’s three flights of stairs with exactly 42 steps. Going up and down for every little thing gets old real fast. The smart thermostat meant we wouldn’t have to run down two flights at bedtime to adjust the temperature. A door lock meant we’d be able to let guests in from our phones. The camera would help us find our wily cats faster and double as a pet cam for when we were away. The mesh router would fix our Wi-Fi dead spots. Reviewer privilege meant that Jen could send me these devices in exchange for me agreeing to test them long term. If I had to pay for it all myself, it’d be about $1,020 total. As it is, I only paid for the lights.

For lighting, I decided to go with Govee because I couldn’t justify spending the roughly $535 needed to kit out my entire home with Philips Hue. If my mom in heaven knew I spent $535 on light bulbs, she’d rise from her grave in Korea, fly to my house, and proceed to chase me with her slipper. All the Govee bulbs I needed cost a little under $300. For that price, I think Mom is content to simply roll over in her grave.

It was a good game plan. I told my spouse. They gave me a thumbs-up and a “Whatever you want, honey.” But plans often go awry — especially when the person you live with forgets to tell you their plans.

Close-up of ADT panel
I would like to drop-kick this thing into the fiery pits of hell.

While I was in Las Vegas for work, my spouse had an ADT smart security system installed. I’d intended to wait on that, but our house inspection company offered a free system, installation, and battery-powered Nest Doorbell. Free is good. (At least until you read the fine print and realize ADT’s expensive monthly subscription cancels it all out after a few months.)

To be fair, it was an upgrade over the hole in the wall the previous residents left after ripping out the last security system. Now, I get why. This thing won’t shut up. When I come home, it declares “FRONT DOOR.” When I leave, another “FRONT DOOR.” Say I go get the mail and then move my car from the garage to the driveway, I’d hear, “FRONT DOOR. FRONT DOOR. INTERIOR GARAGE DOOR. FRONT DOOR.” If it’s my forgetful spouse, it sounds a little more like, “FRONT DOOR. FRONT DOOR. FRONT DOOR. INTERIOR GARAGE DOOR. FRONT DOOR. INTERIOR GARAGE DOOR. FRONT DOOR. INTERIOR GARAGE DOOR.”

There must be a way to turn this feature off, but I don’t know how. My spouse accidentally threw out the owner’s manual.

Your house is sometimes the bad guy

Aside from lighting, thermostats are supposed to be a simple “smart” thing to install. Friends, colleagues, and strangers on the internet all assured me this was true, and after the ADT debacle, I could use an easy victory.

The first time I tried installing the Ecobee, I eagerly followed the app’s installation walkthrough. I identified the wires, pulled out my screwdriver, and realized it was the wrong size. Somewhere during the move, we’d lost our tool kit. I had no choice but to buy another tool kit.

In my second attempt, I got as far as taking the thermostat off the wall, only to discover that a previous owner painted the walls a putrid shade of salmon. Without a trim plate to cover it up, I’d have to paint it over and patch up various holes from the old thermostat. I accepted defeat and ordered a trim plate.

Having uninstalled and reinstalled my old thermostat twice, I was confident that the third time would be the charm. I even got to the part where it was time to hook up the Ecobee. That’s when I realized there was no C-wire.

Open HVAC panel with tangle of wires
Sure, Jan. YOU find the thermostat wires. This is beyond me.

A C-wire, or common wire, runs continuous power from your heating system to the thermostat. They’re usually blue but can be other colors. In my defense, I thought we had one. There was a reddish-orange wire going from the battery (aka power source) of the old thermostat, and there was a C under it! There just wasn’t an actual C-wire coming out of the wall.

That’s fine, the Ecobee app said. Just install the power extender kit (PEK) into the HVAC control panel. So down to the HVAC dungeon I went.

What the Ecobee app failed to do was prepare me for the cable salad that awaited me. All the app said to do was “Find thermostat wires.” My brain broke. I cackled a cackle that would make the Joker shudder because if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. I asked my spouse if they could lend me a hand, but when they saw the wiring, they suggested calling a pro.

In a last-ditch effort, I watched several YouTube tutorials on installing the Ecobee PEK. The problem was nobody’s HVAC control panels looked remotely like mine. I started poking around to see if maybe there was another control panel I was missing. For my pains, I was rewarded by stepping on a rusty nail sticking up out of a plank. (Why that was there, ask the previous owners.) My big toe started spurting blood. I yelled for my spouse to get me our first aid kit.

While I sat there bleeding on the HVAC dungeon floor, searching my medical records for when I last got my tetanus shot, I decided my spouse was right and called a professional.

Close-up of Nest Learning Thermostat
The Nest Learning Thermostat doesn’t require a C-wire, which is probably why it works with my house’s screwed-up wiring.

A technician came later that week. He poked, prodded, and ran up and down my stairs for two hours. The Ecobee would not turn on. After further investigation, he found a hidden C-wire in my wall. Both of us nearly wept for joy. Except it still didn’t work. I was told my house had “interesting” wiring, and I’d need a new transformer. We scheduled a follow-up visit.

The second time, my technician arrived with backup. For five hours, I heard two grown men cursing Ecobee from the HVAC dungeon. Occasionally, one of them would run up the stairs to check if the thermostat had turned on, only to slump their shoulders and slink back downstairs. Wiring was checked and rechecked. In the sixth hour, they told me my house and Ecobee were not meant to be. They asked if I was open to trying out a Nest Learning Thermostat instead. They’d encountered issues with Ecobee installation before, but Nest, they said, almost always works, regardless of the house.

One absolutely eye-watering bill later, we now have a Nest thermostat.

The smart lighting cold war

Setting up everything else was less horrible, but there were more mishaps. I got through installing the door lock before realizing it wouldn’t pair with my phone. Jen had sent me a unit she tested, and it was still set up for her home. I had to unscrew it, run up and down a collective 10 flights of stairs to find misplaced parts and tools, battle my crappy Wi-Fi because I hadn’t set up the mesh routers first, stop the kitten from eating screws, and to top it all off, my spouse spent a half-hour shivering in the freezing cold because I forgot to tell them I’d changed the locks.

Despite that, the smart home stuff has mostly worked out. Wi-Fi coverage is much better now that the mesh routers are up. I worry less that my cats somehow escaped the house because I can spy on them from the Nest Cam. Thanks to the door lock, we spend a lot less time running up and down stairs looking for our keys since we can just use an app on our phones. Freedom is also never having to stick a key in your sports bra during a run.

It’s not perfect. There are things we disagree on, but I never thought the thing we’d fight over the most was smart lighting.

Home office swathed in purple light from smart lighting
My spouse’s office. They wanted smart lights because chill lighting helps calm their anxiety.

When you install smart bulbs, your existing light switches are dead to you. The power has to be on all the time or they become regular lights — and I didn’t pay $300 for regular lights.

To me, the easiest solution is to use voice control for everything. You say, “Hey Google, turn bedroom lights to 25 percent.” You set up automations so that your office lights turn on at sunset and shut off at bedtime. I’ve stuck Pixel Tablets and Nest Hubs in common areas so that anyone can futz around with brightness via the Google Home app. All of our rooms are sensibly named. If we want to change the color, it’s not hard to ask Google Assistant to do this.

My spouse would rather shoot a voice assistant into the sun. In their words, commanding robots to turn on lights is stupid when a light switch is right there. Supposedly, I’m making their life — and the lives of anyone who visits us — harder because my carefully named rooms don’t roll off the tongue. They hate having to use two different apps (Govee and Google Home) to control the lights. Do I realize, they ask, that I have become a smart home tyrant?

I think it’s swell to wake up at sunrise to gradually brightening lights. My spouse cusses every morning at Google Assistant to turn the bedroom lights off. We bicker every Monday morning when I come to the living room, expecting my calm purple mood lighting for my 7AM yoga session, only to find that once again, my night owl spouse used the physical switch the previous night on their way up to bed. I’ve explained many times that this is why we need to use voice assistants, that using the light switches screws up all my automations. They always retort that my automations don’t consider their work schedule.

Picture of washi tape over a light switch and a passive-aggressive Post-it note with a bulb drawn on it, pleading people to use Google Assistant.
Would a tyrant draw a cute picture of a light bulb? I don’t think so.

Thankfully, years of therapy have given me the tools to maturely receive feedback and communicate my needs. I’ve put washi tape over the switches and stuck Post-it notes reminding them to use Google Assistant. Maybe I am being a tyrant, but the second my spouse has an alternative solution, I’m all ears.

My smart-ish home

I knew the smart home could get tricky. I knew my spouse and I would bicker. (I didn’t know this house had horrible wiring.) By setting up these gadgets, programming automations, and dueling with the HVAC from hell, I thought I’d feel happier, like I was finally home.

It’s not that simple. You can’t turn a house into a home in two months. You also can’t build a smart home — at least a truly smart one — on your own. It has to be something I do with my spouse through what will likely be several rounds of trial and error. We’re putting together a new list of projects, and going forward, we’ll start ticking them off together, one by one.

Nest Cam Indoors sitting on a shelf
We use this to spy on the cats.

At dinner last night, I went on a rant about how much I hate the ADT system. My spouse shrugged. They confessed the smart lights ended up being the gadget they hated the most. It was surprising, they said, because the lights had been the thing they were most excited about. We sat in silence. They poked at their rigatoni with their fork and cleared their throat. Maybe, they said, we should get wireless remotes for the bulbs.

I added it to our project list.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge