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Disaster-proofing the CNET Smart Home

How a few gadgets can save your home from floods, fire and more.

If you live in Chicago, you don't have to worry about earthquakes. If you're in San Francisco, hurricanes probably aren't your biggest concern. Hailstorms, tsunamis, forest fires: all of these are regional, and if you live in a state where you have to worry about them, you likely already know it.

When we started to prep the CNET Smart Home for natural disasters, we decided to aim smaller -- to address the disasters people run into all the time, no matter where they live.

These are events that can cause thousands of dollars of damage in minutes, but can be prevented given the right home technology.

Flooding

Home flooding has two primary sources: environment and plumbing. While nothing will save you from an environmental flood as well as sandbags and a sump pump, as anyone who lives in a floodplain can affirm, burst pipes are tougher to anticipate. Plus, they often result in just as much damage as seasonal basement floods.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

To take on plumbing floods, the first device we needed was a basic flood detector. I've worked with quite of few of these gadgets, but I wanted one that worked with our SmartThings Hub. It also needed to monitor temperature, since freezing is a common cause for burst pipes. This left me with two final contenders for the flood sensors: the SmartThings Water Leak Sensor and the Fibaro Flood Sensor.

In the end, I decided on the Fibaro. Although it's a little pricier, its design versatility means that, for future installations, I could connect it directly to alarms, external power sources or even cameras. To me, it's cool to know I can keep adding to a smart-home security setup, even after I've achieved base functionality.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Flood detectors only do so much, though. If your basement is filling up with water during the night, for instance, a push alert on your phone might not wake you up. Not to mention, in the time it takes you to check the situation and find the proper ball valve to shut off the water to the broken pipe, the damage and costs just rise with the waterline.

So the next device I wanted to look at was a Z-Wave water valve. A gadget like this would connect with our SmartThings hub, and integrate with our Fibaro Flood Sensors to shut off the water main in emergency situations. Although various valves are on the market, I was particularly intrigued by the FortrezZ Wireless Z-Wave Water Valve. I haven't formally reviewed the device, and for logistical reasons, I couldn't install it in the house (for now), but I decided to take a closer look at what exactly it could do.

The FortrezZ Valve is a cool gadget, but it definitely has some drawbacks: first it will set customers back a whopping $400. Second, it will probably take a plumber or someone with real plumbing know-how to install it. It interested me for two reasons. It works with SmartThings, and it doesn't just retrofit to existing ball valves like the the Intermatic Valve Actuator -- it installs directly into your piping. Plus, its hardware is solidly designed and built. For me, emergency hardware of this sort needs to be as schematically reliable as possible, and the FortrezZ seemed like a great option.

In this final setup, the Fibaro Sensors we placed under pipes would send their alerts to the FortrezZ Valve, which would immediately shut off the water source if a pipe broke. Essentially, technology like this can minimize damage to your home even if you're asleep or out of town. We hope to review the FortrezZ Valve in the coming months, but to see the valve and flood sensor in action together now, check out the video below.

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Flood prevention tech might also save money on bills in the future. I called the major insurance companies to see if smart-home flood prevention setups could affect premiums. Representatives from Nationwide, Allstate, State Farm, Progressive, and Liberty Mutual all expressed willingness to negotiate deals, but none of the companies had structures in place for such negotiations. So at this point, though changes might come in the future, a smart flood-prevention setup won't change your home insurance bill. Of course, though monitoring temperature and keeping your home heated when you're traveling are effective precautions, all pipes age and eventually give way -- so the setup can still offer tremendous peace of mind.

Fires and carbon monoxide leaks

Fires and CO leaks are often first to come to mind when people think about domestic disasters, and homes usually have some preventative measures built in already. Generic fire alarms are effective enough, but also pretty simplistic. Many beep when they're sensing only steam, are annoyingly difficult to shut off, and don't include CO detectors.

After some research, I chose the Nest Protect for the CNET Smart Home's setup. Not only is the interface intuitive (one button on the detector to silence it, and an app to control it further), but its safety features are impressive. The Protect is a dual detector (smoke and CO), and its protocols differ given unique situations. According to Nest, the Protect can distinguish between slow-burning fires and quick-burning ones, and communicate that information with you.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Nest Protect is also surprisingly thoughtful in keeping users comfortable. If you put one in your hallway, it will provide a gentle nightlight when you're walking under it. It quietly tests its alarms everyday at a time you decide, so it won't interrupt a movie or meal. And of course it also works with the Nest Learning Thermostat we installed at the house, so if a fire breaks out, the Thermostat will shut off our HVAC system to avoid fueling the blaze.

Finally, I like how the Nest Protect integrates with Philips Hue bulbs. You can use the Protect to trigger bulb responses when a fire is detected -- so they flash, for example. Although in the future I'd love to see smart-home tech that directs you toward safe exits, the Nest Protect makes me feel much safer than the old generic smoke detectors I grew up with.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

One note for potential buyers: at $100, Nest Protects aren't cheap -- especially if you have a bigger home and need a few smoke detectors. One alternative is the $35 Roost Smart Battery, a 9-volt that fits into your generic smoke detectors and imbues them with some smarts. Although we didn't go with the Roost for the Smart Home, it's a solid and much more affordable alternative to the Nest Protect.

Power outages

Most people, myself included, usually shrug off the idea of power outages, thinking of them as little more than unwanted but brief intermissions to a Netflix binge. But for those who live in less moderate climates, power outages can be dangerous.

For the CNET Smart Home, we decided to prepare mostly for short-term power outages -- the ones that annoy inhabitants without endangering them. Although smart lighting can improve home safety in all sorts of creative ways, the I needed a bulb specifically that wouldn't require electricity. You might think that's a tall order, but the BeOn Bulb Starter Pack does exactly that.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The appeal of BeOn bulbs is multilayered: they learn your lighting patterns, so even when you're away from home for the evening, it looks like someone is walking around inside. They can learn to respond to auditory stimuli, like a doorbell or fire alarm, reacting however you want in any given situation. But the feature I like most is their built-in battery pack.

Even when the power goes out, you can turn your lamps on and they'll stay on for hours (though the time they last is predicated on the brightness level you use). I placed each of the bulbs in central areas of the three levels of the CNET Smart Home. In essence, though the brightness isn't perfect, they provide the necessary lighting for safe navigation around the home when the electricity goes out.

I also decided to use the i-Bright Surge Protector. Although many power outages are harmless, some can damage your electrical equipment. Outages that result from accidents, like a downed power line, often cause a surge that can damage and destroy expensive electronics. For the TV and any video game systems, I like the i-Bright Protector. It's one of the strongest consumer surge protectors on the market, plus you can monitor energy usage, control devices remotely, and set timed schedules, all with the app.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I put the i-Bright behind the TV, where it could keep expensive entertainment equipment safe. I considered a second i-Bright to protect our routers, hubs, and other connected devices, but since these always stay on, a more basic surge protector is sufficient. Although a lot of surge protectors can keep your gear safe, the i-Bright adds functionality that you can use daily, as well as assurance for emergency situations.

When it comes to extended and, if you live in extreme climates, more dangerous power outages, smart home tech still has a long way to go. At present, the two best precautions are alternative energy sources, and as the Red Cross recommends, a safety kit (including clean water, non-perishable food, batteries, and other tools).

The CNET Smart Home came with a generator already installed -- one that will kick on automatically if the power goes out, and will switch off when power is restored. It's a great device, but generators like those, factoring in installation costs, aren't cheap. In the future, we hope to come back to the issue of alternative energy -- especially in light of recent and developing advances to electrical energy storage and home solar energy devices. For now, though, long-term power outage looks to be the Achilles' heel of the smart home.

Conclusion

The CNET Smart Home isn't just about showing off cool gadgets (although that's one of the elements I enjoy most about it). It's a testing ground for what smart tech can do when the rubber hits the road -- when a pipe bursts, a fire catches or a city power grid goes down.

And for now, I think the Smart Home has some pretty good answers, especially to the first two, but I also look forward to seeing whether industry leaders can continue to leverage technological advances to increase safety and disaster preparedness.