Internet of Things Branches into Home Security: Smart sensors turn everyday products into home monitoring devices

The Haiku line of SenseMe ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans adjust automatically based on a room's current conditions, like occupancy and temperature.

The Haiku line of SenseMe ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans adjust automatically based on a room's current conditions, like occupancy and temperature.

When most people think of sensors, they envision a home infested with pesky pieces of plastic adhered to doors, windows, ceilings, and walls. They see them as detectors of doom, of technology that triggers ear-piercing sirens. Needless to say, they’re the type of technology people wish they didn’t have to buy. But as the cornerstone of residential security systems, sensors are an essential element of any smart home. It’s a shame they have to look so unappealing and act so obnoxiously. Or do they?

Thanks to new designs and technologies recently implemented by numerous home systems manufacturers, sensors have shaken the stigma of being eyesores and the bearers of bad news (i.e., a break-in or fire). Sensors are now being integrated into common household products like ceiling fans and heating and cooling vents; are being designed to embody a more modern aesthetic for placement on coffee tables, nightstands, and other areas; can be set up to push notifications to your smartphone instead of always triggering a siren; and are being embedded with technology to monitor for conditions besides fire and burglary. “Sensing is how everyday devices get smart and how they are able to shape the home environment,” says Ryan Maley, director of strategic marketing at the ZigBee Alliance.

Here’s a look at some of the most innovative–and imaginative–implementations of sensor technology.

The Smart Vent from Keen Home ensures maximum comfort by opening and closing based on the current room temperature.

The Smart Vent from Keen Home ensures maximum comfort by opening and closing based on the current room temperature.

Fans & Vents
Fused into the design of the Haiku line of SenseME ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans are an array of sensors that enable the fan to react automatically to a variety of different conditions. For example, through its integrated motion sensor, the fan knows when someone enters and leaves a room and responds by turning on and off, accordingly. It’s also able to receive cues from the Nest Learning Thermostat, so that it can adjust its speed and direction to maximize comfort and energy savings. Even cooler (no pun intended) is the fan’s ability to self-regulate its speed and direction based on your sleep patterns, which are sent to it via an UP by Jawbone fitness tracker.

Smart Vent from Keen Home also employs sensors to maximize comfort in the home. The vent, which installs in place of a home’s existing heating a cooling vent, features adjustable louvers that can be opened and closed incrementally, via a control app on your smartphone, to regulate the amount of heated or cooled air that enters a room. For example, in rooms that are infrequently occupied, like a dining room or guest bedroom, the Smart Vent can be closed, allowing the majority of the heated or cooled air to reach the rooms that really need it. This can maximize heating/cooling efficiency. While using an app to control the vents is handy, the product’s built-in temperature sensor enables the vent to adjust automatically based on a room’s current temperature. A pressure sensor, meanwhile, responds if and when there is a build-up of air pressure behind a closed vent. This happens when too many vents are closed and the hot air has nowhere to go. The sensor detects this, and triggers the closed vent to open to alleviate build-up and protect your heating and cooling system from damage. (Keen Home recommends replacing no more than one-third of your home’s vents with Smart Vents to prevent this problem; the pressure sensor is used as an extra precaution.)

Surveillance Cameras
The one and only job of a surveillance camera is to stream and record video, right? Not if you’re planning on buying one of the multitasking cameras that have recently hit the market. Take the Piper NV from iControl Network. In addition to being able to see in the dark (the night vision feature kicks on automatically as a room gets dark) and boasting a 180-degree field of view, the Wi-Fi-enabled camera can be set to detect motion and to integrate with thermostats, lights switches, and other devices. This ability to communicate with other devices means it can activate the lights and adjust the thermostat when it senses motion, for example. The camera can also monitor the temperature, humidity, light level, and sound, and send you a text or email alert.

It’s relatively easy to add an IP-based surveillance camera to your home. It’s also not too difficult to install wireless sensors. But swap out your home’s existing smoke detectors for newer, smarter models? Ummmm … no thank you. Left to their own devices, these essential life-saving products are unable to communicate issues to your smartphone like so many new Web-connected sensors can. It’s a capability that’s been sorely lacking in the world of wireless residential home security–until now.

Bridging this communication gap are companies including Swann and Kidde. Both have developed products that are able to hear smoke alarms going off and react by pushing a text notification to an app-enabled smartphone. In Swann’s case, this listening device comes in the form of the surveillance cameras and hub that comprise its new SwannOne Wi-Fi-based home security kit.

Kidde, meanwhile, builds its listening technology into a simple, block-shape device that plugs into a standard electrical outlet and uses your home’s Wi-Fi network to transmit an alert to your smartphone.

Swann’s products also listen for the unique audio signature of breaking glass and can even distinguish the sound of a crying baby, car alarm, gunshots, and even vocal aggression.

Just Plain Cool Looking
A leader in the “sensors that look nothing like sensors” category is Fibaro. With unique, modern designs that resemble a cat’s eye marble, refrigerator magnet, and a drop of water, its line of wireless sensors is a powerful blend of beauty and brains. In fact, the sensors are so smart that Fibaro calls them “multisensors.” The cat’s eye Motion Sensor, for example, also measures the current ambient temperature, intensity of the lights, and vibrations. The “pupil” of the sensor changes color to indicate movement and temperature, and based on these conditions it can alter the settings of the lights, thermostats, and other devices by communicating with Fibaro’s home control hub. It also pushes notifications of the changing home environment to your smartphone.

Even providers of traditional residential security systems are freshening up their product portfolios with un-sensorlike looking sensors. For example, First Alert’s new Onelink line includes a tabletop sensor that’s about as small as a votive candle and gauges a room environment by monitoring the current temperature, humidity level, and even the slightest hint of carbon monoxide. “Most CO alarm standards are set for average adults,” says First Alert Onelink spokesperson Deb Hanson. “This sensor can detect very small amounts of CO, which can be harmful to children and adults.” An LED ring around the perimeter of the sensor glows bright red to indicate a CO emergency, and Wi-Fi technology provides instant notification to an iOS smartphone or tablet. Temperature shifts turn the ring blue when it’s too cold in the room; amber for too warm, and white for just right.

Implications for Home Automation
When sensors are designed to watch for conditions besides intrusion or fire, they are able to unleash the true power of a home automation system. Instead of touching a button on a keypad, smartphone, or tablet, your home’s multifaceted sensors can tell the thermostats, light switches, and other devices what to do. You’ll enjoy safety and security with all the conveniences and comforts of a smart, well-connected home. EH

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