They ain’t pretty, but these sensors helped me feel safe in my smart apartment

Strips by Sensative
Strips by Sensative
Smart-home devices sometimes require complicated installation that just doesn’t make sense for renters. Plus, apartments have different needs than single-family homes. That’s why we decided to outfit a whole condo with smart devices that don’t require rewiring or permanent installation. Each week, we’ll tackle a different category and look at various products, then explain how we made our selections. At the end of the series, we’ll examine the smart apartment as an ecosystem, and how all these devices — or do not — work together.

There’s no easy way to say this: Sensors are ugly. From SmartThings’ to Elgato to GoControl, they all look very similar: White plastic doohickeys that you have stick around your house if you want to get a full picture of what’s going on with your home. Some help you maintain the house, and others help you monitor or secure it.

Though you can hide your hub amongst the dozens of other small electronic boxes you probably have on your entertainment center, if you’re going to outfit your house with motion sensors and door and window sensors, they’re going to stick out. There is one exception for window/door sensors, Strips from Sensitive, which are thin enough to hide pretty easily. Your water leak sensor will likely carry some bulk, though.

Still, sensors are a good way to smarten up your home. If you live in an apartment, you’ll appreciate the portability (moving them usually only involves getting some new 3M adhesive strips) and peace of mind they provide.

Will your security sensors connect?

Right now, I have the Wink Hub 2 controlling my smart home. There aren’t many options when it comes to sensors that work with it or the SmartThings hub. Does that matter? It depends. You could easily have a security system with its own hub with a built-in alarm that may also come with a camera, and there are lots of options for that. SimpliSafe and iSmartAlarm both fall into that category.

Canary
Canary
Canary

If you live in a studio, you might be able to get everything you need from something like the Canary, a camera with motion detection, night vision, and an alarm. (In a future installment, we’ll take a more in-depth look at security cameras.)

Should you go DIY, or not?

The great thing about DIY security systems is that you don’t have to pay a monthly monitoring fee that can cost twice as much as an HBO Go account. The bad thing is that the responsibility is all on you. If you’re at the movies and an alarm goes off, you won’t know until you’re leaving the theater, unless you like annoying everyone in the seats behind you. And if someone breaks in while you’re home, you’re also going to need the wherewithal to take some steps to actually contact the police.

Sensors are all about giving you peace of mind.

Most DIY systems let you give permission to family members and friends, so they can disarm your alarm or notify police if it continues to go off and you don’t seem to be responding. That may give you a greater sense of security, but what are the chances that your neighbor will be awake to get the notification that your alarm is going off at 1 a.m.? They might just hear the siren, though. These alarms can be as loud as 110db, though some have volume control. Some people might feel most comfortable with a service like Smart Home, which says it will monitor your DIY system for $9 a month.

This is the security sensor kit I picked

Here’s what I want from my motion, door, and window sensors: to trigger an audible alarm, maybe flash some lights, and send me an alert. What I don’t want: another separate bridge to tie everything together. That’s why I went with GoControl. There is a $49 kit that comes with two door/window sensors and a motion detector, but for me it makes way more sense to go with the $99 kit, which includes an extra door/window sensor and a siren.

Right now, the sensor on my front door has a robot set up through Wink (a ‘robot’ is Wink’s word for an IFTTT sequence, or a way to tie two services together) to turn on my hallway lights, by communicating with the Lutron Caséta dimmer switch via the Wink Hub, between sunset and sunrise. That way I never have to fumble for the lights when I come home. A second robot turns off the light two minutes after the door closes — something I realized needed to happen for when I left the house instead of arrived home.

The door sensor is also set to trigger the alarm, turn all my Hue and Lifx bulbs red, and send me a notification if the door opens in the middle of the night. All the door/window sensors have performed flawlessly, but the motion detector that came with the kit is constantly offline and is definitely not earning its keep.

Water, water everywhere

There’s more to sensors than security, and if you want that, you might have to go looking for individual sensors. For those who don’t have a water heater or laundry machines in their apartment, a water sensor might be unnecessary. But if you have a leaky roof or forgetful roommate who leaves the bathtub to overflow, there are few options, though many require a hub and some need to be plugged into an outlet.

Not everyone will feel comfortable with a DIY security system.

For the Wink Hub 2, for example, there’s the LeakSmart Sensor, which will alert you if your toilet starts overflowing. At $69, it’s very pricey. The SmartThings version is $30. Both of those require hubs, but the D-Link Wi-Fi Water Sensor ($60) does not. This may not be as crucial to those without basements (or who don’t live in a basement apartment), but it may still be something to consider if you have an out-of-the-way water heater.

For HomeKit, there’s Elgato Eve sensors. I found the window/door sensors worked well, and the Room gave me accurate temperature, humidity, and air quality data. And while all that might be nice to know, at $78 it’s a lot to pay for something that isn’t going to communicate with a thermostat to change the temperature. It’s capable of doing that, but most apartment dwellers might find installing a Nest or Ecobee a step too far.

Does this make sense?

There are a few things that make sensors an attractive option for renters: They’re all about peace of mind, they’re small, and they’re portable. Depending on the size of your apartment, you might be able to get away with a standard kit when it comes to outfitting your windows and doors.

Keep in mind that security sensors can take some time to get used to; you might come home from a late night, only to forget you have them set to trigger the piercing alarm if your door is opened after midnight. Considering how close your neighbors might be, let’s hope you don’t become the neighbor whose false alarms cried wolf.

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