Over the past three decades I've experimented with do-it-yourself home automation systems to control lights and appliances.
But now, instead of a DIY system, I accepted Vivint's offer to lend me a professionally installed system that includes an Internet controllable thermostat, front door lock and doorbell camera along with modules that let me control lights and appliances and even check to see if my garage door is closed. All of these devices can be controlled via an Android or iOS app or from the web at vivintsky.com.
In addition to the apps and website, Vivint customers also get a control panel that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a table that also serves as the wireless hub of their platform.
If someone rings my doorbell, I get a notification on my phone along with a live video feed of my front porch and the ability to talk with that person through the app.
See who's at the door
If I'm home, I can see who's at the door and carry on a two way conversation from the control panel and unlock the door without having to walk to the front of the house. But I can do the same from anywhere in the world via the app. The camera records 30 seconds of activity whenever a person walks on my porch, which I can review at any time. The other day I got a notification that someone was there and was able to see and hear the FedEx guy drop off a package.
The Kwickset lock they installed at my house has a keypad and the Vivint panel lets you set up multiple accounts for family, guests and others who need access and the system records which code was used so you can tell which of your kids just got home or when your cleaning person entered the house. Thanks to the doorbell camera, you can also see when the person leaves. The doorbell camera and unlock notifications are also a way for parents to keep track of their kids. You will know, for example, when a child arrives home from school and can see if they leave through the front door.
The system supports the Nest thermostat as well as Vivint's own thermostat for heating and air conditioning. Like most smart thermostats you can set different temperatures depending on the time of day, but this one is a lot easier to program from the app or from the Vivint panel.
The Vivint technician also installed sensors on all the doors that lead to the outside and the system can be programmed to sound an alarm if any are open while the house is "armed." If the house is armed, you have time to disarm via the app or by entering your passcode on the control panel. Otherwise the system calls Vivint's home monitoring service, which will try to reach you and, if you don't say all is well, will call the police. The system also has smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that will notify the fire department if they are triggered and no one is home to indicate it's a false alarm.
In addition to its own proprietary devices, like its doorbell camera, Vivint supports most Z-Wave compatible home automation products, which includes all sorts of devices including lighting and appliance modules, motion sensors, energy meters, irrigation controllers and even window shade controllers.
Vivint is compatible with Amazon Echo -- the voice controlled audio player. With it, you can use your voice to control lights, arm your alarm system, adjust the thermostat and do most things that you can do from the app or panel. For security reasons, you can't use voice commands to disarm the alarm or unlock doors. But you can use your voice to lock doors or close the garage door.
You can also create rules. My porch light is on at 20 percent brightness from dusk to dawn and goes to 100 percent brightness if someone approaches the front door. Opening the door to my garage will turn on a light for 10 minutes. My front door locks itself at 11 p.m. if it's not already locked.
Vivint's business model is to charge a monthly fee, which includes a 24/7 home monitoring service. Fees range from about $50 to $70 a month, depending on what equipment you have and what services you use and what you pay upfront. Some packages include free equipment and installation. There is a 42-month contract and only 3 days to back out if you're not happy. I made three anonymous calls to their sales department. I was told by one commissioned sales person that there is a $149 activation fee. Another said it was $99, but as I was about to hang up, he offered to see if his manager would waive the fee if I signed up today.
There are less expensive products and services out there, including do it yourself options with no monthly fees. For example, the $200 Ring Video Doorbell uses motion detection to activate when someone is at the door and lets you see and speak to that person through your phone. The $179 Canary security camera sits inside your house and will alert you, show you video and let you sound an alarm if someone triggers it, but neither the Canary nor the Ring will automatically notify a call center to send help.
My only complaint is that the smartphone app makes it too easy to unlock a door or open a garage door. The if you simply touch the unlock icon (below) it will carry out the action without your having to confirm it. I had it happen a couple of times by accident -- I'm guessing it's a form of "pocket dialing," but I can't confirm that. I would like to see Vivint give users the option of having an "are you sure" confirmation before any doors are opened or unlocked. In the meantime, my strategy is to close the app before putting the phone in my pocket or turning off the screen to avoid the possibility of accidentally triggering that command
There are plenty of smart locks on the market, including the easy-to-install $200 August Smartlock that lets you remotely lock and unlock your door and create "virtual keys" for guests from an iOS or Android phone. SmartThings, from Samsung, offers several home monitoring and automation gadgets, including a $249 home monitoring kit that includes a hub that can control locks and modules that support the Z-Wave and ZigBee protocols. Xfinity is one of several companies that offer a variety of security and automation products and services, so -- as always -- it makes sense to shop around.
This post is adapted from an article that first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News