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Issue: 72 - Dec 15, 2014
Get Yourself (and Everything around you) Connected
By: Dr. Robert Malinowski
Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA

If you’re like most people out there, you have an assortment of devices that you use to access your information.  This typically includes a smartphone, laptop and tablet.  There are also some exotic devices that are starting to become more main stream.  Connected watches, rings and eyewear (such as Google Glass) are slowly being added to repertoire of items that we carry on our person.

In addition to the stuff that you carry with you, there is a vast assortment of connected devices that you can use to stay linked with other aspects of your life.  This broad genre is often referred to as “the internet of things”.  The idea is to create a network between your devices, rather than just treating your smartphone or laptop as an endpoint “consumer” of data.  The internet is used as the string to tie everything together, regardless of the global location of your devices.  The end result is a more personal network, tailored just for you.

One of the fastest growing areas in the internet of things is home automation.  In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of devices that can connect to or automate many of the systems used in your home.  I’ll admit, some are pretty far-fetched (and too expensive) to serve any real purpose.  I don’t really see a point in having a connected BBQ grill or refrigerator.  However, several others are very reasonably priced and will actually end up saving you a considerable amount of money and headache.

Two of the most popular connected home devices at this time are thermostats and power outlets.  Let’s start with thermostats.  Growing up, my Dad was absolutely obsessed with the thermostat.  This seems to be a very prevalent issue, so it may just be a “dad thing”.  I believe there has been a constant struggle over the control of the home temperature between dads and children since the beginning of time.  Children like to make radical adjustments to the temperature (i.e. I’m a bit chilled so I’ll turn the temperature up by 20 degrees), while dads like to set the thermostat to just above absolute zero in order to reduce energy costs as much as possible.  I didn’t really understand this eternal struggle until I became a homeowner and a dad. My wife and kids have a very different view regarding what an appropriate temperature setting is for our home.  And so the battle continues for the next generation.  Luckily, a lot has changed since my Dad’s time.  Programmable thermostats made it easier to automatically change the thermostat settings at certain key times, or on particular days.  This dramatically reduces the number of adjustments (and re-adjustments) that need to be made.  The newest generation of thermostats is web-accessible.  This means that you can access your thermostat settings using your smartphone (or other devices) from anywhere in the world.  Imagine making an adjustment from your phone the minute you land at the airport.  You arrive at home a couple of hours later to find your home at a perfectly comfortable temperature.  It sure beats keeping your coat on for a few hours while the furnace heats things back up.  There are several devices available including the popular Nest and the new Honeywell Lyric.

It’s now possible to have connected power outlets as well.  Some people look at me like I’m crazy when I mention a smart, internet-connected power outlet.  “Why on earth would anyone need such a thing” is the most common comment.  Well, let me explain.  Having a power outlet you can control from your phone opens up many new possibilities.  In addition to simple on/off functions from your phone, you can also set up complex timers.  In my opinion, there are two great reasons to explore this type of device.  First, it’s a very easy way to set up a schedule to automate turning on (and off) devices.  For me, this includes my aquarium and Christmas lights.  Set it, and forget it.  Or, override the program using your phone from anywhere in the world.  Secondly, building a bit on the first point, is home security.  Plug a floor lamp into one of these smart plugs and you’ll be able to create a randomized schedule that will deter anyone from burglarizing your home while you’re away.  One of the most popular devices is called the WeMo by Belkin.  In addition to a connected power outlet, there is also a smart light switch available.

Connected light bulbs are starting to become more popular as well.  Gone are the days of simple incandescent bulbs.  Blasting beyond CFL and LED, connected bulbs can be linked to your smartphone or other devices and controlled individually or as a group.  Imagine turning on every bulb in your home with one tap on your tablet.  If you want to get a little fancier than a simple on/off, you can also control dimming levels and set up custom lighting schedules.  Belkin WeMo bulbs will suit your basic needs.  The Philips Hue bulb is more advanced and allows for custom lighting colors and other fun options.

Finally, even garage door openers are being pulled into the 21st century.  It’s now possible to connect your opener to your wireless network, which allows you to monitor it from your smartphone and actually open or close it.  This may seem like a trivial issue, but how many times have you gone out of town only to second guess whether you remembered to close the garage door?  A simple addition, such as the Chamberlain MyQ controller, to compatible garage door openers, will keep you connected.

It’s an exciting time in the world of technology as devices are being created to help us better interface with our environment, and keep an eye on things back at home.  While some devices are far beyond necessary (would I ever really need a connected toaster?), many of these items can actually lead to improved efficiency, and peace of mind.  There are still a lot of competing standards out there, and not all of these so-called connected devices will connect to others.