Smart appliances offer voice control, smartphone apps, and powerful automations. But why spend hundreds of dollars on the latest models? With some inexpensive smart plugs, you can give your dumb devices the same features for a fraction of the cost.
Dumb Devices Are Best
Smart plugs work on a pretty simple principle. You insert one into an outlet and plug in something. It cuts power to turn off devices and restores it to turn them back on. If you control any outlets in your home with a light switch, the principle is essentially the same. But that same principle also limits the types of appliances a smart plug can control.
Appliances and fixtures either have a mechanical or electronic switch. A mechanical switch physically cuts power. An electronic switch stores the current state and toggles to the opposite state when you push the power button.
The latter presents a problem because the “current state” is stored using power. If you lose power in your home, the device defaults to “off” with the next toggle set to “on.”
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Mechanical switches tend to be a toggle or rocker switch, while electronic switches tend to be a soft push button. If you aren’t sure if your fixture has a mechanical or electrical switch, you can test it in just a few seconds. First, turn the device on, and then unplug it. Count to five, and then plug it back in. If the fixture turns on, it’s compatible with a smart plug. If you had to press a button to turn it on after plugging it in, a smart plug won’t work with that device.
Smart plugs are an excellent option for some window or portable A/C units, fans and heaters, curling irons and straighteners, Christmas lights, lamps, humidifiers and dehumidifiers, and more.
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What You’ll Need
To get started, you need a smart plug. They come in many shapes and sizes, and prices vary. Some have extra features, like energy monitoring, but most offer compatibility with Alexa, Google Home, or both. Unless you have a specific need for energy monitoring, you can skip that feature and save money.
Smart plugs come in Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and even Bluetooth formats. We don’t recommend Bluetooth because of range issues, though. If you own a smart hub, a Z-Wave or ZigBee plug is a good choice because they offer faster local control. Otherwise, Wi-Fi smart plugs are the most accessible option.
Belkin makes a relatively inexpensive Wi-Fi smart plug for around $20. If you’re willing to wait, Wyze is releasing a Wi-Fi smart plug two-pack for $15 later this year (September 2019). Our sister site, Review Geek, has several other recommendations you might want to consider.
Unfortunately, Europeans have far fewer options. Ikea might be the most reliable, well-known European supplier of smart plugs; they offer a version for France and Great Britain. But you’ll need to buy additional items, like a hub.
If you own an Echo or Google Home device, make sure the smart plug you buy is compatible with it (most work with at least one, if not both). If a smart plug doesn’t work with a voice assistant, you should skip it.
You also need a smartphone or tablet and an app to set up your smart plug. Depending on which plug you chose, you need a way to connect it. For Wi-Fi smart plugs, you need a Wi-Fi router, and for Z-Wave or ZigBee plugs, you need a smart hub.
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How to Set It Up
To get your smart plug up and running, plug it into an outlet. If it’s brand new, it should enter pairing mode immediately. If not (or you need to repair), most smart plugs have a physical button you press and hold to enter pairing mode. Typically, smart plugs also include an LED that indicates when it’s on, off, or pairing.
When the smart plug is in pairing mode, open the related app on your smartphone or tablet and look for “add device” or a similar option. When the device is paired, give it a memorable name. It’s usually a good idea to name it after whatever it controls, like “curling iron” or “lamp.” If you choose good names for your smart plugs, it helps with voice control.
Now, plug in whatever you want the smart plug to control, and test it to make sure everything works.
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How to Control Smart Plugs with Your Voice and Smartphone
Most smart plugs include voice control with either Alexa, Google Home, or both. If you want voice control, you need to add the device to your voice assistant.
For Alexa, open the app, tap the hamburger menu in the top left, and then tap Add Device. Choose the plug category. Select its manufacturer, and then follow the prompts to link your accounts.
The process is similar with Google Home. Open the Home app and tap the add button. Tap “set up device,” and then tap “Works with Google.” The Google Home app presents you with a list of manufacturers. Find the right one and follow the linking process.
After you connect your smart plug to Google or Alexa, add it to a Google room or Alexa group. Voice control works best when you group your devices properly.
If you’re not using a voice assistant, your smart plug’s app is the best way to control it. You’ll find on, off, and other features in the app. If you use a voice assistant, you should control your device with the Google Home or Alexa app.
Both apps have similar on and off options. If you use Google Home or Alexa as your single app instead of the smart plug’s app, you can also control other smart devices easily (even smart plugs from other manufacturers). This also means you won’t have to try to remember which app controls what.
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How to Configure Schedules and Automations
You can now set up your smart plug to perform actions automatically. For example, you can set it to turn on an old, non-smart lamp at sunset or run a dehumidifier for specific hours each day.
If you don’t own a Google Home or Echo device, you can create schedules in the smart plug app, or your Hub app if it’s Z-Wave or ZigBee. Every app is a little different but just look for a feature called timer, routine, or schedule. Typically, you can add one or more plugs to a routine. You specify a “turn on” and “turn off” time, and which days to run the routine. You can also set a smart plug to turn off but not on, and vice versa.
You should create your routines in the Google or Alexa app if you do own a Google Home or Echo device. Again, you select which plug(s) you want to create a routine for, and then choose an “on” time, an “off” time, and which days to run the routine.
When you create your routines in the Google or Alexa app instead of the plug app, it allows you to include other smart things in your routines. For example, you can create a schedule that turns off all the smart plugs and smart lights, and locks the door every day at 10:30 p.m. Unless you use a smart hub, your smart plug app can’t do all that.
If you use a single app to control everything, it also makes it much easier to remember where to go when you need to adjust something or change a routine.
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