Smart home gadgets aren't foolproof, even if you skip the installation

A shiny new home with a Nest thermostat and a Rachio sprinkler system! What could go wrong?

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read

Getting this baby connected, and deciding on a water schedule, took more than a few tries.

Kent German/CNET

In April my husband and I moved into a new house. It was big step for both us: our first place after moving back to the US from London and our first "suburban" home with a yard on a quiet street.

The previous owners had fixed it up nicely with new kitchen appliances and a few bits of smart home technology including a Nest Learning Thermostat, two Nest Protect smoke detectors and a Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controller. It's not CNET's house of the future, but it's the most grownup place I've ever lived.

I'd thought about making our previous two homes more connected, but never followed through either because we were renting (that said, a smart rental is possible!) or I was just too lazy. Though I'm moderately handy around the house, this time I savored the idea of moving into a place with gadgets that were already set up. As I saw it, we had only to unpack and add Wi-Fi. Easy, right?

Well, not completely. I was able to skip installing the equipment -- the process for setting up the thermostat is intimidating -- but learning to use them brought its own set of challenges.


Sprinkler type? Soil type? I'm supposed to know these things?

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Watering with the Rachio

After hooking up Wi-Fi (a drama in itself, which I'll conveniently blame Comcast for), I started with the Rachio to save our browning lawn. As the controller was already there, I figured I had only to create an account, download the Rachio app and activate the controller using my phone. At least that's what Rachio's website directed me to do.

The first two steps went fine, but I was unable to finish because the controller couldn't find a Wi-Fi connection. At first, I thought the problem was that the signal in our basement laundry room was too weak (I was down to one bar one my phone) so I bought a Wi-Fi extender. That boosted the signal nicely, but still I was fumbling in the dark. Grrr.

Keep calm and give your glitchy smart home a factory reset

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I tried a few more times but had no luck. I was just at the point of calling Rachio's customer support when it finally hit me -- the controller was automatically searching for the previous network, which (of course) it would never find. OK, fine, maybe I was being a tad dense at this point, but the minimalist design of both the app and the controller (unlike Nest's thermostat, it doesn't have a display) make it difficult to work out exactly what's wrong. Outside of a series of status lights, there are no clear messages to guide your troubleshooting.

Once I performed a factory reset, I was ready to water. It's just that now I had to figure out what to do with the Rachio -- an even bigger challenge when you don't have a green thumb. Fortunately, the sellers had left a list of the sprinkler zones. But if they hadn't been so helpful, there would have been no way to find where the zones covered outside of starting a test run and going outside to watch. With a normal sprinkler that would be easy. But with a buried drip line (see below)? Not so much.

What's more, there was a still a lot of information I didn't know because I hadn't set up the zones. In one, for example, I had to dig to confirm that it was watered by a buried drip line. Then as I explored the app further, it asked me a bunch of other variables like soil type (surprisingly, "dirt" isn't an option), root depth and sprinkler nozzles per inch. Seriously… who knows? And what the hell does crop coefficient mean?

I wasn't just being nitpicky: Rachio suggests watering schedules according to some of those factors. How much water a sprinkler gets, for example, is quite different from a mister. I could make a guess, but in drought-prone California I didn't want to waste water. Nor did I want to kill plants unnecessarily by drying them out. So I chose the easier option. I asked my gardener and followed her advice. By the way, does anyone want to buy an inexpensive Wi-Fi extender?


Nest's thermostat isn't just useful, it's also pretty.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Nesting with a Nest

Bringing the thermostat online was much easier, but like with the Rachio, I was then faced with the question of, "OK, what now?" When we're home and awake, it's simple: I can adjust the temperature according to how I feel and Nest will learn my habits. But when we're not there? Well… it's wonderful that I can use my the app to make remote adjustments and set heating schedules, as long as I know I want them to be.

Suddenly I was asking my myself and husband all sorts of questions, most of which he had no opinion on. How cold should I let it get at night? 55 degrees? 50 degrees? And how long before we wake up  should I turn on the heat? When we're not home, should I set a schedule or use the Eco Mode and let Nest do all the work? And what about the weekend when our schedule constantly changes?


Sometimes, like with the Nest app, you're give too much choice.

Kent German/CNET

Traditional thermostats had never given me that kind of control and, frankly, so much choice was somewhat overwhelming. In the end, I was probably overthinking it because I've barely had to make an adjustment since we moved in. We live in the Bay Area where temperature extremes are rare and microclimates rule. Even in Oakland, which avoids much of San Francisco's summer fog, we don't have air conditioning. Winter may bring another story, but for now I've learned to relax and let the Nest take care of itself.

Three months after unpacking, and waiting for some of our things to arrive on a ship from England, the house feels like home. The lawn is green and I love that I'll know if the smoke detector goes off when I'm not at home. I don't think that I'll ever be keen on owning a smart speaker, but I'm enjoying my new, smarter home. But using these gadgets isn't always a breeze, even when you don't have to install them yourself.

Watch this: Smart home garden tech buying guide

So what have we learned?

Things to consider when you move into a smart home (or a version of it):

  • Don't be like me and overthink things.
  • If possible, ask the previous owners for any details (like a Rachio's sprinkler zones) that are critical for using the equipment properly. It's not always easy to find that information on your own.
  • As with any internet-connected device, make sure that you have a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout the house.
  • Perform a factory reset on your equipment to remove any settings connected to the previous owners that may prevent it from working properly. It's also safer for you just in case they happen to still have access to the equipment via a mobile app.
  • Don't be afraid to seek the advice of a pro. Though Rachio will suggest how much to water your lawn, your gardener may know better.

Can technology grow a better garden? We test the latest gardening tech at the Smart Home.

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