Smart Homes – dumb devices and people in between

I am a technology geek, always been. I had IT in school when I was 11 and I am not talking about using some device, I mean real IT. We wrote programmes. I hacked school servers (in a friendly way) back in high school. School staff did not have much of a clue those days, they were hobbyists. I was actually to study IT at uni, however I was not smart enough for math so failed my studies within the first semester. I was bored in IT classes and overly challenged in math classes. Anyway, this is how I ended up studying architecture and becoming an architect. Still use a lot of IT every day.

Back in the good old days, everything was tied to cables, there was no wireless and no one had a cell phone. Now almost everything is wireless – cell phones, tables, computers. Telephones too, bluetooth mice and keyboards, bluetooth speakers and the list goes on. Everyone is operating a wireless home network. And so do councils for the public or various mobile service providers aka spark, vodafone, …

The amount of wireless networks

Screenshot of wireless networks in Albany VillageThis is a screenshot of what radiates around you and, more importantly, through you. The list is not complete and only shows the first couple of the strongest networks. There’s a lot about setting up wireless networks that the common Joe Bloggs does not know. Everyone just assumes that you set a wireless modem router up and that’s it. And correctly so, it will work out of the box, however not necessarily at healthy levels. More later.

The issue with the not so receivers

Have you come accross the advice to keep some distance from wireless routers as they radiate? Well, yes, they do and so do all your wireless devices, ie your tablets, mobiles, iPods, chromecasts, XBoxes, Playstations, etc. That is because they are all not only receivers of wireless signals, but Transceivers, ie they receive and send. Of course they send data, as they have to send requests to the router and acknowledge receipt of data packets. That’s how networks work.

So can you possibly imagine the amount of radiation that is going on in a classroom where 20 children sit on their devices? The distance from the router may not be your biggest problem. Now comes the funny bit: The signal strength, ie intensity is actually adjusted by the device to reach the router, up to the maximum possible. If you are too far away, the signal strength is not enough and your reception will get worse. If you are actually sitting close to a router, your device will reduce it’s power output to a sufficient strength and since radiation goes in all directions, you could be better off. The router will usually not adjust it’s signal output.

Setting up your router

Your router however could come with a lot of functionality to set up a wireless network much better than it comes out of the box. Our home router is set up to switch off between midnight and 6am (The wife is a long night worker and I am up early). So at least at night we can sleep without being radiated. Some other routers may come with settings to actually adjust the maximum power output and to set it up to automatically scale down. It all depend on the model. You can ask the shop assistant but don’t be surprised if they have no clue about what you are talking.

In the perfect world, the wireless should switch off at night when you are in bed (and you could just use a time switch) and the signal strength should be adjusted so that there is still acceptable reception (maybe a bit slower than perfect) at the furthest point away from the router. It should not go past your boundary. This is not only to protect your neighbour and the people in the street, but also for your own safety, not being radiated unnecessarily much but also for preventing others from possibly tapping into your network. Of course you have secured it, still.

If all the networks were set up properly, then situations like in the picture above would not happen.

The flood of devices

Smart homes is all the hype. Smart homes were big when I studied architecture and was called EIB (European installation Bus), a smart network in your home but at this point in time it was all via cable. Nothing much in terms of home automation really happened in those 20+ years, it is still expensive to do properly. Doing it cheaply is promising all the various wireless devices that you can buy and plug in, some can do more, some less, some are cheaper than others. The issue with all those smart plugin-devices is exactly as per above, most are not smart at all but constantly send wireless signals to your router, slowly frying you and charging you up. They usually do not adjust their signal strength and have hardly any interface to set up and adjust anything other than the most critical things, the things they were designed for. And some of them can even be highjacked by hackers.

Need vs. want

So when we are talking about smart homes, we are really mostly (not always) talking about a collection of dumb little and dangerous devices that perform mostly unnecessary tasks at the end of the day while constantly sucking power, radiating you and potentially exposing your network. I have made a decision for me that those comfort gadgets are not worth the money and risk. However that decision is up you you to make for yourself.

Some additional fun reading: If You Can’t Stand the Coding, Stay Out of the Kitchen: Three Chapters in the History of Home Automation

PS: While I am covering the wireless 2.5 and 5GHz version predominantly, similar issues apply to RF versions or mains-power versions. The only better alternative is separate data cables.