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Smart Home

Are connected ceiling fans the ultimate smart-home splurge?

You can upgrade your home's ceiling fans to app-enabled models packed with powerful sensors -- but they won't come cheap.

Chris Monroe/CNET
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We've spent an awful lot of time fiddling with the thermostats in the CNET Smart Home, and with good reason: climate control is one of the most popular points of focus in today's connected living space.

But thermostats aren't the only things in the house working to keep the climate in check. We've got ceiling fans, too. And while they obviously don't offer whole-home heating and cooling like our HVAC system does, they do offer room-specific cooling at a fraction of the cost. Adding in smarts to help us use them more effectively would seem to make a lot of sense.

Doing so could be as easy as installing smart switches to turn our fans on and off at specific times, or when the temperature rises to a certain level. But how about the all-in-one approach, with sensors and radios built directly into the fan itself? There aren't many options like that, but there are a few -- and they sure don't come cheap.

So, here's the real question: Are they worth it?

Hunter's HomeKit-enabled smart ceiling fan.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

High overhead

If you want a smart ceiling fan, there are two names to know. First is Hunter. Back in January at CES, the company announced two smart ceiling fan models that'll work with Apple HomeKit, the iOS-based smart home platform that lets you control things in your home with Siri commands. Neither one of those fans is commercially available just yet, though.

The second name is Haiku, a division of Kentucky-based manufacturer Big Ass Solutions, a company probably best known for its aptly-named line of "Big Ass Fans" built to cool large industrial spaces.

Its Haiku ceiling fan with built-in "SenseMe" tech is really more of a smart-ass fan, though. First introduced in 2014, those SenseMe smarts pack a Wi-Fi radio into the fan along with motion and climate sensors. That means you can control or schedule both the fan and its built-in LED light from your phone, or set it to automatically adjust as you come and go, or as the temperature rises.

The Haiku isn't compatible with HomeKit like those Hunter fans will be, but it works with the Nest Learning Thermostat, and soon, you'll be able to control it by talking to Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant.

The obvious problem with these smart ceiling fans is that they're all pretty expensive. The Hunter fans should be the cheapest when they hit the market, with the most affordable models expected to sell for less than $400. The most affordable Haiku costs $450, but it moves the motion and climate sensors into a wall switch that sells for another $125, bringing the total cost up to $575.

As for the original Haiku with all of the sensors built in? It retails for just over a thousand dollars.

The Haiku H Series -- a $1,045 smart ceiling fan.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Getting connected

Cost aside, we wanted to give these fancy fans a shot. So, we went with a pair of top-of-the-line Haiku H Series ceiling fans -- one for the family room and a second for the master bedroom. Available in finishes like polished aluminum and cocoa bamboo, they're admittedly pretty gorgeous, and having toured the Big Ass Solutions production facility back in 2014, I can attest to the craftsmanship that goes into building and balancing each one. They're a legitimate luxury -- and at over a thousand dollars a piece, they'd damn well better be.

The technicians from Big Ass Solutions were able to install the two fans in a matter of hours -- from there, I downloaded the Haiku Home app onto my phone and connected with each one.

The app is clean-looking and fairly simple to use, and it separates the fan's features into five tabs. The first offers basic sliders to control the fan speed and the brightness of the light. The second lets you program how the fan should act when it detects motion or when the temperature hits a certain threshold. The third lets you schedule the fan and light to come on or off at specific times. The fourth lets you tell the fan what to do while you're asleep and when you wake up. The fifth lets you turn on a clever feature called "Whoosh" that varies the fan's speed to simulate a breeze.

You'll use the app to teach your fan how to keep you comfortable.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The idea is that you'll use the app to program your fan and teach it how best to keep you comfortable. Do a good enough job, and your fan should be able to anticipate your needs, allowing you to leave your phone in your pocket. And, it's worth mentioning that each Haiku comes with a wireless remote for quick changes from the comfort of your bed or couch.

You can pair each Haiku fan with an optional, doorbell-sized smart switch.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Of course, you'll also be able to control the fan as you normally would, at the switch. However, the fan can't turn itself on automatically if it's switched off, so you'll need to leave that switch up. That's the same inelegant sticking point that you'll find with smart light bulbs.

Haiku's answer is that $125 smart switch I mentioned earlier. Add it to your setup, and the fan will still be able to turn on automatically if you turn it off at the switch. On top of that, the switch has its own set of motion and temperature sensors.

Adding an extra $125 per fan in order to have an ideal setup at the switch definitely stings a little bit, but that's what we did for both fans in the CNET Smart Home. The switch works as promised, though its multi-button configuration takes a little getting used to.

Fans that fit in

Like I said earlier, the Haiku ceiling fans will work with the Nest Learning Thermostat to help you cool your home more efficiently. There's just one problem -- we recently swapped the CNET Smart Home's Nests out for a pair of Ecobee3 smart thermostats.

That's all right, though (and not just because we'll reinstall at least one Nest when we test the Haiku out for its official review). The Ecobee3 uses remote sensors to track the temperature and occupancy in the rooms that matter the most to you, using that data for reference as it runs the HVAC system. That's essentially the same approach to cooling that the Haiku uses.

That means that the Ecobee3 and the Haiku actually play pretty well together, despite the lack of an official integration between the two. For instance, we keep one of the Ecobee remote sensors in the family room, where we also have a Haiku installed. Both of them will work to keep the temperature down where we want it, and with the fan carrying part of the load, the HVAC system doesn't need to work as hard.

Additionally, both the Ecobee3 and the Haiku work with Alexa -- at least, they will once the Haiku Alexa Skill goes live on April 28. That means we'll be able to control the fan using the same sort of voice commands that we already use to control our thermostats (and the entire Smart Home's lighting, for that matter).

The Belkin WeMo Switch can smarten up your existing ceiling fan, and it works with Alexa, too.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Consider the DIY route

I can't blame you one bit if the price of these connected ceiling fans is putting you off, but remember that these are luxury ceiling fans, first and foremost. Even before the Haiku added smart features into the mix in 2014, it cost nearly $900. The smarts are really just an excuse for tech enthusiasts like you and me to ooh and aah over an already ooh-and-aah-worthy ceiling fan.

The good news is that you can add smart ceiling fan control to your connected home setup for a fraction of the cost of a Haiku by keeping your old fan and smartening things up at the switch, instead. The Belkin WeMo Light Switch seems like an especially good candidate for the job -- not only will it let you schedule the fan and turn it on or off remotely, but it works with Alexa, too.

You could take things further by adding a WeMo motion detector to the room for presence detection, or by hooking your fan's smart switch up with a larger smart home platform to sync your fan up with a third-party climate sensor. That'd allow you to teach the fan to turn on automatically when things get too hot.

Still, you won't have nearly as many features at your disposal as you will with an all-in-one unit like the Haiku. You won't even be able to turn the speed up and down.

So, back to my original question -- are smart ceiling fans worth it? Well, if you were already planning on buying a ritzy, thousand-dollar ceiling fan to help tie your living room together, then sure, it's worth it to make that fan a smart fan. There are certainly plenty of Haiku designs that look the part. But for those of us outside of the 1 percent, the $1,045 Haiku we installed in the CNET Smart Home's family room is a fan too far.

That said, Haiku's new $450 L Series model is a big step in the right direction, and those HomeKit-enabled Hunter fans should be even more affordable still. But as long as smart ceiling fans cost so much more than their non-connected counterparts -- and significantly more than high-end smart thermostats, too -- it'll be hard to call the category anything other than prohibitively expensive. That doesn't mean that they aren't damned cool -- it just means that most of us have more important things to spend our money on.