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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Rebuilding my smart home: Sensors active

Being able to control your lights from your devices or enjoy audio in every room are great goals for a smart home, but smart tech isn’t just about the things you can do, but what your smart home can do for you.

That’s one reason I’ve been experimenting with smart home sensors over the last few years. At the moment, my setup is still pretty limited—I haven’t yet delved into water leak sensors or door sensors—but I have invested pretty heavily in temperature sensors, which I’ve deployed in several places in the house. More often than not, this is just for my own edification, but there are also a few instances where there are specific usage cases.

ecobee3 lite

First off, when I installed a new furnace in the house last year, I had an ecobee3 lite smart thermostat put in too. It’s a huge upgrade over my old apartment’s thermostat, which was nothing more than a temperature dial with a few opaque buttons on it and could only be programmed (in a rather complex fashion) from the furnace unit itself.

The ecobee, by comparison, has a great display that lets you see and adjust the temperature, features a powerful app, and plays nicely with HomeKit. But it doesn’t surmount all challenges. For example, our thermostat is located in our dining room, which is not a place that we spend a lot of time. It’s also a room with a lot of exterior wall (which probably isn’t very well insulated, given the age of the house) and several windows.

As a result, using that room as a proxy for measuring the temperature throughout the house is less than ideal. There’s nothing new there; it’s an age-old problem of thermostats. Fortunately, the ecobee system has the option to extend its reach with satellite SmartSensors1 that you can place in other rooms in your home. I bought a pack of two these little battery-powered gadgets, which not only measure temperature but can also detect whether or not a room is occupied. One has been placed in our bedroom, to help adjust the temperature at night, and another in my office, which is where I spend a lot of the day where I’m at home. Using the ecobee app, you can configure which sensors it listens to at which times of day. So, for example, I can tell it to only look at our bedroom sensor past 10pm, and to not fire up the heat based on the dining room.

Ecobee SmartSensor
The ecobee SmartSensor (and some friends).

In addition to a SmartSensor, the bedroom also has an Eve Degree, which I mainly like because it allows me to quickly see the temperature at a glance, without having to check my phone, and also because it logs historical data, so I can look up what the temperature was overnight—handy if I want to tweak the thermostat behavior.2

Eve Degree
The Eve Degree acutally shows you the temperature (or humidity).

We also keep an Eve Degree in our basement, which has proved to be a bit on the damper side. While I don’t specifically have it hooked up to our dehumidifier (which has its own internal sensor), it’s again useful at a glance to tell what the current humidity of the basement is, and to log it over time.

Neatmo Indoor module
Netatmo’s indoor module is out of the way in our living room.

In addition, I’ve got my Netatmo weather sensor, which I’ve written about before. Its indoor unit lives in our living room, helping monitor not only temperature and humidity but also air quality as well. (However, it only measures CO2 and uses that as a proxy for overall quality based on its assessment of ventilation, which is possibly helpful, but certainly incomplete.) Meanwhile, its outdoor unit hangs on the shed in the backyard, where it measures temperature and humidity.3

Finally, I have an older Philips Hue Motion sensor in our upstairs hall, which can also track temperature and light level. I haven’t figured out a great usage for this yet—originally I wanted to use it to activate a smart bulb in the nearby sconce if someone has to get up at night, but that proved to be more complex than simply buying a cheap light-sensing nightlight that plugs in to the wall.

There are a few other sensors on my horizon: I’d like to sub out one of the Eve Degrees for the Eve Room module, which measures indoor air quality (and actually can check levels of things like VOCs), and I’m intrigued about the Eve Weather, which is basically the successor to the Degree, but with Thread built in as well.

As interesting as I found all of the information that my sensors gather, at the moment it feels more academic than actionable. The Home app has gotten better about surfacing these details, and I do appreciate being able to ask Siri what temperature it is in specific rooms, but it would be cool if Home could provide some more insights, like, say, generating a real-time heat map of my home using all this combined information. But for the moment, I suppose I’ll have to be okay with this merely satisfying my curiosity and desire for data.


  1. Usually $100 for a pack of two, but I managed to snag a deal for two at $50, which was well worth it. 
  2. In theory I could use this in a HomeKit automation to control the thermostat, but I prefer staying in the ecobee ecosystem, for simplicity’s sake. 
  3. While I appreciate having the temperature in the backyard show up in the Home app’s summary, I wish it gave an option not to have the outdoor tempearture included in the overview of the entire home. (Or was smart enough to separate it out, realizing that it’s not in the house.) 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]


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