Adding Home Automation to a Vacation Rental – Hands-on ReviewBy - 12/07/2018
While I would be happy to discuss the topic of home automation in a vacation home in generalities, this article is going to get product-specific.
A few years ago, I began the process of turning a friend’s vacation home into a smarter vacation home using four technology-based products. I’ve been dabbling in smart homes for several years, own dozens of products, have a broad knowledge base of what products can and cannot do, and even I struggled through this journey. In the end, I created a solution that works and adds value. And if you want to keep an eye on your investment, these five products will do the trick.
#1 The Smart Lock
|Schlage Connect||RemoteLock 7i WiFi Smart Lock||August Smart Lock Pro + Connect|
|Wireless Connection||Connects to Z-Wave Hub||Connects to WiFi Router||Bluetooth and Wi-Fi via Connect Bridge|
|Works When Internet is Down|
|Ability to Generate Codes Remotely:|
|Integrates with Airbnb and HomeAway:|
|Keyed Entry Possible:|
|Low Battery Warning:|
|ANSI||Grade 1||Grade 2||Depends On Your Existing Lock|
I installed four products but recommend five. We will get to that in a minute.
If you only buy one of the recommended devices, I recommend the smart lock. Not only will it improve your property’s security, but it will also improve security for your renters, make the check-in process easier, eliminate unapproved late check-outs, and help you keep track of who comes and goes.
The first two years I worked on this project, my friend used a management company that provided a keyless lock system. This year, she has gone straight VRBO which meant that I had the opportunity to go hands-on with three lock options.
We will start with August. (You can read my hands-on August review here.) August is not really a smart lock. It’s more of a smart deadbolt which means that the exterior side of your lock will remain unchanged. Unless you buy the optional keypad accessory, your guests will need to download the August app to access your home. What turned me away from using August for this particular project is battery life.
August runs on four AA non-rechargeable standard alkaline batteries. In testing August, my batteries lasted about 15 weeks, and while the app did provide a low battery notification four weeks before the batteries failed, there is no way to check the lock’s battery status from the app.
Next up, ResortLock. Companies like ResortLock specialize in, well, resort locks, eliminating a lot of the trickiness. ResortLocks aren’t cheap, but they are also not dependent on a hub. Other pros include:
- The base model is not dependent on WiFi, eliminating a potential point of failure.
- Guest codes activate at check-in and automatically expire upon check-out.
- Low or No Monthly Fees
- Audit Trail
- Works with Airbnb Host Assist and VRBO’s HomeAway
I ended up buying the $479.00 RemoteLock 7i for the condo. I installed the lock and used it for three days. It was inconsistent, often failing. It was so bad that I gladly paid the 15% ($71.85) restocking fee to send it back.
Finally, I decided to try a hub-reliant option: Schlage Connect. Connect is a Z-Wave lock which means that you will need a Z-Wave hub to control it from anywhere.
I used Connect in my friend’s rental for two months before updating this article. It’s been fantastic. It’s highly weather-resistant, the battery life can last as long as a year, and I was able to set up automated code creation based on my friend’s HomeAway iCal. The con? It’s not a simple solution, but it’s also not terribly difficult to set up. I reviewed the process of using the lock and everything you need to know and do to make it work here.
In short, you will need a hub (I recommend SmartThings which I will discuss more below), the lock itself, a Z-Wave Repeater, and a software-based plug-in called ‘Rental Lock Automator’. The total solution runs around $371. There are no monthly fees.
|Hardware & Software Required||Estimated Price||Buy Now|
|Rental Lock Automater||$99.00||Visit Site|
#2 Smart Thermostats For Vacation Homes
While there are a few smart thermostat options, the primary contenders in this category are Nest and ecobee. For my friend’s condo, which I will from here on out call “my” condo, I selected the 2nd generation ecobee3. Its primary goal is to achieve the user’s preferred temperature in the most efficient manner possible, where the Nest learning thermostat’s primary goal is saving energy. Your guest may not appreciate a thermostat that doesn’t do what they want it to do in the name of energy savings and so having a thermostat that listens to the user is ideal in a vacation home. Beyond listening, there are other features that make ecobee a good choice for a vacation rental, including the ability to set ranges, set a hold, and access control.
Set Heat and Cool Point Ranges
While you can lock the thermostat’s schedule, you can also allow your renters some flexibility over the temperature in your home. If you don’t want them to go crazy, you can set heat and cool point ranges. In “my” home, I have it set to allow the renters to keep the condo as cool as 68 degrees when the thermostat is in cooling mode or as high as 80 degrees when in heating mode. (For those who want to go with Nest, they offer a similar feature.)
Set a Hold Action
If you allow your renters to adjust the temperature (changing your preset schedule), you can decide what happens next by creating a rule for any “hold action.” When your renters change the temperature, you can decide if the temperature should stay as they’ve requested for 2 hours, 4 hours, until your next scheduled activity, or until they manually change it. Or, if you’re feeling generous, you can let your guests decide what should happen next on a case-by-case basis. The onscreen display will prompt them to choose the next course of action when they adjust the temperature.
Without a doubt, my favorite feature for vacation homeowners is ecobee’s access control. Multiple settings can be changed from the thermostat – things you probably don’t want someone else to control. In response to this, you can create an access code and decide what areas should or should not be password protected. You can choose to require a passcode to change the temperature, change your schedule, and you can even password protect the ability to turn on vacation mode.
Finally, there is a lot of practicality in a smart thermostat for a remote property. Ecobee can monitor humidity levels and cool the house down if things get too muggy. You can also save energy by making sure your HVAC isn’t running too much during vacancies. Finally, the thermostat can remind you when it’s time for maintenance or when it’s time to change your air filters. And yes, you can control a lot of settings, like your home’s temperature, from anywhere.
Gotchas with ecobee in a Vacation Home
Of course, ecobee isn’t perfect. It isn’t 100% set up for a VRBO situation. Is it set up for a second home? Yes. Is it completely set up for a vacation rental? No. There are many things they didn’t consider, things I wouldn’t have considered nor did I until I tried to put my plan into action. Things that made my head spin and had it spinning for days.
It’s Not That Easy
For one, ecobee is not immediately user-friendly. It may be difficult for some renters to figure out how to use the thermostat, which may result in more calls to you. To overcome this, I left a user manual in the condo. After almost a year, we haven’t had a single call.
Access Control Is Limiting
While access control is one of my favorite features, it is also limiting. There are only a few things you can passcode protect, and those few things are jammed full of features. For example, if you want your renters to be able to swap the temperature from heat mode to cool, you will need to open up access control to system settings. Doing this will give them access to everything. Your alternative is to monitor the weather and to decide when the system should be in heat mode vs. cooling mode. Unfortunately, this same setting password protects the user’s ability to turn your HVAC on or off. Essentially, if they don’t want the AC to run, they will need to crank the temperature up high enough that it doesn’t kick on.
And to That Point
Three, if you think about it, that also eliminates your ability to use auto mode. Ecobee is cable of automatically swapping between your AC and heater as needed, but this is useless if you’ve locked down the ability to turn your HVAC system on or off. For example, let’s say your renters don’t want the AC to run, so they raise the indoor temperature to 85 degrees. Now your heater will work to meet that target temp. No bueno.
Is It Even Working?
Finally, it lacks offline notifications. After I had left the condo, I had issues with things staying connected. For one, the bedroom sensors kept disconnecting from the main thermostat. When this would happen, I would receive a notification, but from so far away there was nothing I could do to troubleshoot. Perhaps more troubling, the thermostat itself fell offline twice.
The first time, ecobee remained offline for a full 12 hours for no apparent reason. Fortunately for me, this problem self-resolved. Unfortunately for me, there was no notification to let me know a problem existed; I just happened to check. On a second occasion, ecobee went offline and stayed offline for over 24 hours due to a WiFi issue. But again, no notification. The good news is that the thermostat continues to function as a normal thermostat when offline, the bad news is that there is no way to troubleshoot the device remotely. Also, when the thermostat is offline, you can’t access historical information and reporting.
You can read my full review of ecobee here.
In the smart home world, sensors make the world go ’round. They do a lot of things, including trigger reactions based on actions. In “my” condo, there is a beautiful screened-in porch with doors that swing completely open to create an indoor/outdoor living space. The problem? Renters like to keep the doors open and the air conditioning running. And in Florida, this is no good. Sensors can eliminate this problem and other problems.
My goal was simple. I wanted to add a sensor to the back door that would tell ecobee to turn off the AC if the door was left open for more than five minutes. I initially installed a Scout Alarm System to control this step, but it didn’t work as I needed it to work. Scout can only turn off ecobee if the door is opened. Period. Obviously, the back door is going to open from time-to-time and turning off the HVAC every time the door is opened will do more harm than good.
So, I hopped on Amazon and had them overnight a SmartThings Hub and a Multi-Sensor. SmartThings can connect to ecobee directly, but I decided to create a “flow” using Stringify. (I tried IFTTT, and it also wasn’t capable of doing what I wanted). Using SmartThings and Stringify, I was able to create a rule to stop ecobee from running WHEN the back door is left open for longer than 3 minutes and back on when the door is closed again. You can learn more about the process here.
Second, I added a sensor to automate the bathroom fan, which you can read about here.
While I didn’t expand beyond two sensors, there is a lot more you can do with SmartThings to add value to a smart vacation home. You can add motion sensors to help ecobee detect occupancy, install a siren for added home security, or even connect flood and freeze sensors to help monitor your property’s condition. Just promise me you won’t add an indoor video camera. Not only would that be creepy, I’m pretty sure it’s a no-no in almost every state.
#4 Point Device
Point is a device that promised the ability to monitor for high noise volumes, air quality issues such as cigarette smoke, as well as the ability to listen for smoke and CO alarms. Essentially, I should have been able to receive a notification if someone smoked in “my” condo or if the fire alarm sounded. The short of it is, Point didn’t deliver a device that works as promised. In its current state, it is capable of monitoring for humidity and temperature, something that both the SmartThings Multi-Sensor and ecobee can do, and also listening for smoke alarms. However, I’m still hopeful that the team behind Point can push an update and make this thing work as promised. For now, I’m leaving it in the condo as a wall decoration, and I will update this review if things change.
You can read my hands-on review of Point here.
#5 Google Wifi
Placing Google Wifi last on this list is intentional. Though nice, it’s far from necessary. In fact, this is the device I didn’t install in the condo, but I do use it in my home.
Google Wifi is a router. It improves internet speeds and stability which will help your smart home devices stay connected. From a VRBO perspective, it has other benefits as well.
- It allows you to remotely manage your internet and a guest network from anywhere using a mobile app.
- You can control which devices are allowed online.
- Using the app, you can create a password for your guest network which you can change after each guest.
- Control which devices are available to guests.
- Allow your guests to control Philips Hue lights.
- Setup notifications to let you know when devices are offline via IFTTT
If your guests want to interact with the devices you’ve allowed them access to, they simply visit on.here from any internet connected device. This includes a direct integration to Philips Hue via a feature called Home Control. Your guests can turn your Philips Hue lights on, off, or even change colors using their phone.
You can read my hands-on review of Google Wifi here.
In regards to building out a smart vacation home, I don’t think you need to go overboard. Even with five devices, I feel confident that “my” condo can take care of itself. It can let guests in, keep track of who comes and goes, adjust the temperature if it gets too humid, save money and save the condenser by kicking off the AC if the door is left open too long, let me know if the smoke alarm is sounding, and hopefully soon, it will even let me know if someone smokes. Total cost? Under $750.
To review, you can purchase a lock for around $170, software for the lock for $99, a Z-Wave repeater for $38, a SmartThings hub and multi-sensor for under $90, and an ecobee thermostat for under $200.
Though not necessary, you can also purchase Google Wifi for $129.00.
If you want a Point device, head here, but I don’t recommend you buy one.
So what do you think? What products are you considering to watch over your investment property?
*I originally wrote this article in 2016. It has been updated along the way to reflect updates in technology.