Maximal Opus: Why Some People Invest So Much Into Their Smart Homes

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Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

For Andrew Baldwin, it started innocuously enough. Baldwin, a 33-year-old from Virginia with a background in residential real estate, was renovating his first house several years ago when he figured: Why just update the home’s aesthetic appeal when you could also improve it?

“I was already going to replace all the light bulbs that were normal incandescent bulbs. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll put LEDs in,’” he recalls. “And then at that point I said, ‘Well, here are these smart bulbs — let’s figure out what they can do.’”

After the bulbs came the switches. Then came the motion sensors, and the humidity sensors, and the sensors for detecting water leaks, and the funny home project where he made the light behind his television change color based on what the temperature was outside. Baldwin, his wife, and their toddler have moved since that first home renovation. But while Baldwin’s background settings have changed, the devices that control the minutiae of his daily life have only grown more numerous. To date, his house contains more than 70 smart-home devices and counting.

Gareth Jones has a similar tale to tell. First his partner bought him an Amazon Echo Dot, and then, two years ago, he bought a Samsung SmartThings hub, one of many hubs on the market that acts as a brain for the smart home — it connects to a home router via Ethernet cable, sending out a signal that smart-home devices respond to.

“That’s really what opened up the Pandora’s box of just how many different devices I could look at purchasing and the integrations I could make with them,” says Jones, a 35-year-old who lives outside Manchester, England, creates health data for the National Health Service, and has about 70 individual smart-home devices in his rented home.

I found Jones while trawling through the community forum for Samsung SmartThings. A running, three-year-old thread entitled “My Home Automation Addiction” is like an alpha consumer’s internet diary, and includes tales from people who claim to have garages full of gadgets they haven’t yet installed and remarks about the thousands of dollars spent — $13,000, according to one member — on home-automation devices. “I’m not typical. I have 185 connected devices, today. I can’t say what that number will be tomorrow,” wrote a member known as Jason “The Enabler.” He left that message last month; just three years ago, he only had 35 connected devices.

Yet another member reports spending about $750 each month on smart-home devices, adding: “I’ve only been at this for a few months and am hardcore addicted. My girlfriend feels she never spends time with me because I’m always installing new devices and automations and looking for deals … I have to get control of myself. It just feels so good when I get that package in the mail!!!”

Jones and Baldwin are just two nodes of a wider network of smart-home devotees, the sort of people who begin with a simple smart-home setup that quickly balloons to include dozens of devices — the sort of people who share and swap information inside that SmartThings community thread on their personal smart-home setups, what new devices they’re buying, and which products and brands they prefer. “My wife is a psychiatrist and all I see in this thread is a big pool of potential clients” was the comment left by one member in November 2015.

The typical smart-home customer has fewer than 15 devices in their house, according to Vivint, a Utah-based company that sets up and maintains smart homes. Baldwin, Jones, and their smart-home-loving compatriots represent the 6 percent of homes that have and use more than 15 connected devices every day.

For them, transforming a humble abode into a grand automated accommodation is like a persistent problem to solve. The mere act of building a supersize smart home is part of the enjoyment: Each new item added to an ever-evolving suite of devices enables some new feature. And gathering smart-home devices, and actually using them, is a way to tackle a challenge or make a mundane task more interesting.

“It would be just as easy to get up and turn the light on as it would be to tell Alexa to turn it on,” Jones says. “But there’s nothing cool about walking over to a light switch.”

The Rise of the Connected Home

Smart homes aren’t exactly new. The overall concept of a house that automates life’s daily drudgeries for its inhabitants dates back decades, and the sort of technology that enabled home automation appeared as early as the 1970s, when the X10 protocol used a home’s electrical wiring to do the things that smart bulbs and switches now do. But early smart-home technology was difficult to install and operate, with little value for mainstream consumers. Early adopters were folks who had the passion, time, and investment to figure out what devices to get, what to tweak, and what to program, and saw a weekend getting their smart house in order as an idea of a good time.

Over the last decade or so, that version of the smart home has changed, and the number of smart homes in the U.S. has changed with it. According to a study by the firm McKinsey, there were 29 million connected homes in 2017, a figure expected to grow by one-third this year. The use cases are straightforward enough for the average consumer: Why set a timer for the chicken in the oven when you can just “Okay, Google” for a time of 20 minutes? Thanks to smartphones and tablets, the technology has become simpler and more accessible. And it’s never been easier to buy smart-home products (hello, Amazon). Even the most technologically noobish among us can get going with a $99 SmartThings hub and some lights and motion sensors.

“Now a lot more people are saying I can get 50 devices around my home and know what’s going on,” says Vivint CTO Jeremy Warren.

But the number of people who actually do get 50 smart-home devices, let alone half that amount, is a different story.

From One to Hundreds

After buying his SmartThings hub, Jones added smart bulbs (he has 23 now), and then some motion sensors and smart radiator valves, a way for him to control the temperature in individual rooms. In the last month, Jones has made several more purchases. He bought a couple of strip lights and compatible converters to make the lights themselves voice-controlled. Before then, he bought a voice-controlled aromatherapy oil diffuser. (Because who wants to light their own scented candle?) Before that, he bought several new smart bulbs for the overhead lights in the shower — his 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter like to change the color of the lights while they’re in the bathroom.

Buying some type of upgraded or smart lighting is a classic entryway into the wider world of home automation. (As one member of the SmartThings community wrote: “[My addiction] started with binge-buying ordinary LED bulbs.”) Since first installing smart lighting, Baldwin estimates he’s spent about $8,000 over the last three years on smart-home stuff, which is the subject of a pet project he does on the side as a blogger for his own website, AverageJoeSmartHome.com.

“Once you do one thing, you start to think, Okay, now how does this integrate with something else? And you start to add more devices,” says Baldwin. “I don’t want to call it an addiction. But it kind of can be.”

Obsession might be a more correct term. For most people, collecting of any kind is often a form of meaning-making: You make sense of your surroundings through some process in which you’ve engrossed yourself. For me, as a kid on the recess yard, that was Pokémon cards. Searching for someone with a holographic Zapdos was not only a means to add to a growing binder of cards, but also a small way to organize a corner of the world.

“In a nutshell, collectors are governed by the hunt. They’re looking for the next thing,” says Michael Shutty, an avid coin collector and clinical psychologist who distills the collector’s motivation in his book One Coin Is Never Enough.

Explaining this sort of fanaticism for smart-home devices is something of a conundrum. “They’re clearly obsessed,” Shutty says. But home-automation obsessives could be considered a fringe element of the typical collecting class. Traditional collectors want to possess something instead of use it. So when does an intense interest in electronics become a collection? Electronics collectors might be collectors, but not for the sake of gathering every brand of smart light bulb out on the market.

“I don’t think of it as collecting devices as much as I’m thinking of it as improving the house in one way or another,” says Baldwin.

Instead, Baldwin and Jones could be considered maximizers more akin to hobbyists who work on classic cars than as people who collect, say, coins or stamps. It doesn’t matter how many times my father-in-law works on his 1969 Chevy Camaro — if there’s warm weather on a Saturday, he will be out in the garage, tweaking yet another element under the hood.

“Maximizers are always looking for the best thing. The problem is, you can get stuck and start spinning your wheels,” Shutty says. “You’re always trying to get the best combination of features, and in this day and age, that’s a never-ending process.”

One member of the “My Home Automation Addiction” thread encapsulated the idea just last month: “My biggest problem is I think I have everything I need, then I obsess on what else I can do. Then once I have an idea, I am like a hungry scavenger, I can’t stop until it is done.”

Listing everything that makes up their smart homes is a common topic for members in the thread. There is more than one post where someone itemizes their smart-home devices. “This hobby is worse than car stuff or BMX bikes,” writes one member whose Philips Hue Bridge controls 48 lights.

As was the case with both Jones and Baldwin, there was a time when members in the thread had only one light, or one sensor, or one voice assistant. “I thought I would start small in 2 months I have over 99 devices,” wrote one member in August 2016. About 50 folks have posted in the thread, and for many it seems their path to automation preoccupation began with something like the Amazon Echo or a string of smart bulbs. “As a professional [home automation] addict, I can tell you (because I’ve heard it here before) light bulbs are the gateway tool to HA addiction,” said member Dawn Fairbro in 2015.

The thread is more a tongue-in-cheek longing for community than a serious plea for intervention. The prevailing sentiment is a constant curiosity into various smart-home devices and how they might be incorporated into their own homes. “[F]or me, tinkering and setting up devices is half the fun,” wrote Jimxenus, the thread’s originator, in October 2015.

This is what separates the typical smart-home consumer with their 15 or fewer devices and smart-home obsessives like Jones and Baldwin. Indeed, Jones talks about shaping his smart home like it’s a geek’s ultimate puzzle, a way to figure out how to link various devices together, control them through the eight different apps on his smartphone, and use the data various sensors generate, or keep track of, to continuously automate benign tasks or make his home a literally smarter consumer of energy. (He says his electricity usage is down about 14 percent for the year, thanks in part to those smart radiator valves.)

“It very much is about the challenge,” Jones says. “I can start making something that I already thought was quite clever and make it even more clever and have it do more things than I originally considered.”

In other words, it isn’t about the latest smart-home technology that comes out and the rush to upgrade it in the same way an iPhone user wants the next new phone. Instead, it’s about searching for a digital device that serves as an upgrade with a particular purpose in mind. Baldwin, for instance, breaks down his purchases by category: money-saving products, fun, security, and peace of mind.

“I’m not going to add a device if it doesn’t make sense,” he says.

That hasn’t stopped his wife from sometimes wondering what’s in the latest box on the front porch, although his home-automation obsession hasn’t turned her off to any of the benefits.

One night, when Baldwin and his wife were lying in bed, she was finishing up some reading and getting ready to turn out the bedside lamp when she remembered that she hadn’t turned off the downstairs lights. Without Baldwin’s incessant upgrading, she would have had to get out of bed, head down the steps, and switch off each light — a first-world problem, admittedly. Instead she called for Siri.

“She says, ‘Hey, Siri, turn off downstairs,’ and all the lights downstairs turned off,” Baldwin says. “She rolled over to me and said, ‘Okay, that was pretty cool.’”

Meet the Home-Automation Obsessives