These days it seems like there’s almost nothing that can’t connect to your Wi-Fi network. Smart fridges, smart lights, smart toilets, smart — I dunno — shelves? All of this smart stuff comprises what is known as the Internet of Things, the product sector that adds online compatibility to any traditional product.
The appeal of the Internet of Things is that you can automate a lot of what you might otherwise have to do manually. Maybe set your lights to turn on when your alarm goes off, or use a webcam to check in on your pets, or yell at your smart speaker to start playing music on your stereo.
But the Internet of Things has downsides too. For one, it’s a privacy nightmare because of how closely it ties into “the cloud.” Most conventional smart devices process requests remotely. For instance, let’s say you turn on a lamp using an app on your phone. You tap the switch on your phone and that request gets sent not to your lamp, but to a remote server run by the light bulb’s manufacturer, and then they tell the lamp to turn on. A company could theoretically track your schedule based on data like this.
Smart devices are often delicate and more prone to failure than their analog counterparts. If you have a smart lock and your Wi-Fi gets knocked out, you might find yourself locked out of your house.
On top of that, many devices hooked up to the Internet of Things have poor security, making them ripe for hackers to take advantage of. In 2016, the Mirai botnet caused widespread internet outages after it infected thousands of IoT devices. Shortly afterward, cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier wrote, “If we cannot secure complex systems to the level required by their real-world capabilities, then we must not build a world where everything is computerized and interconnected.” Just because our coffee makers can have wireless capabilities doesn’t mean they should.
The good news is that, theoretically, you can build a smart home without using the internet. Instead of asking a third party to turn on a light for you, you can just ask the light bulb yourself. An internet outage won’t break your entire dwelling, and you’ll have fewer privacy concerns and more peace of mind. The bad news is that it’s kind of annoying to set up, and you’ll probably have to disappear into a confusing mist of Google search results and tech jargon to figure out what works best.
Genereally speaking, you need a hub. The hub is the relay through which your smart devices will run. It’s what will process the commands you send. The hub should support a wireless protocol known as Z-Wave or one known as Zigbee. That’s what all of your smart devices need to be compatible with. Most large manufacturers make Z-Wave and Zigbee hubs, and things like the Hubitat are designed to function locally. If you really want to take your smart home offline, you can set up your own hub by installing open-source software Home Assistant on a computer and plugging in a Z-Wave USB stick as a controller. The nice thing about devices that use either protocol is that they form a mesh network and can act as repeaters to get signals to the correct device.
Once you have that hub set up, you can easily find compatible devices online that suit your needs — bulbs, locks, switches, and plugs that all function without needing to contact some remote server on the mothership somewhere. The one thing your internet-less smart home won’t be able to do is be spoken to. Tools that process voice commands, like the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, need to send that request over the internet. Unfortunately you’ll be stuck using a smartphone app. On the flip side, you won’t be responsible for the global armageddon that happens once someone re-creates Skynet over the Internet of Things.