Iris Smart Kit: A basic and affordable introduction to home automation
At a Glance
In the second installment of our “Easy Home Automation Projects for the Weekend Warrior” series, we’ll consider Lowes’ new DIY system, Iris. The big-box retailer offers three very affordable do-it-yourself kits that let you connect via the cloud to monitor, control, and (to a lesser extent) secure your home. This is one of the better efforts I’ve seen to bring this technology into the mainstream.
All three kits include the Iris Hub, which taps your broadband connection via your router (and which must be hardwired to it). The Hub runs on AC power, but it has a battery backup, too. The Safe & Secure Kit ($179) adds two door/window sensors, a motion sensor, and a wireless keypad. The Comfort & Control Kit (also $179) supplies a plug-in lighting-control module and a programmable thermostat, but none of the security features. The $299 Smart Kit—reviewed here—contains all of the components from the other two kits, along with a range extender.
All three systems are controllable from a PC, a smartphone, or a tablet; and free apps for Android and iOS operating systems are available. No matter which kit you start with, you can expand the system by adding sensors, plug-in and in-wall lighting controls, appliance modules, IP cameras, and more. Unfortunately, the current lack of support for keyless entry locks leaves a big hole in the Iris system. (A Lowes spokesperson told me that the company plans to add support for entry locks “within the coming weeks.” I’ll update this story when they do.) Iris doesn’t support smoke or CO2 detectors, either, though those devices are on the product roadmap.
The ‘Optional’ Service Plan
Iris comes with a free service plan that’s pretty much useless. I wouldn’t recommend buying the system unless you intend to add the optional $10-per-month Premium service plan. Lowes provides a 60-day trial subscription to the Premium service with every kit, giving you plenty of time to discover how essential it is. Still, even with the paid plan, Iris doesn’t provide central office monitoring of the Iris system’s security components. You can program Iris to send alerts to a contact list in the event of a break-in, but that’s all. Services that provide central-office monitoring can dispatch emergency responders—police, fire, or ambulance, as appropriate.
To be fair, home-control service providers that offer central-office monitoring—ADT, FrontPoint Security, and Vivint, for instance—charge much more per month ($50 or more) than Lowes does. And as Lowes points out in its advertising, some emergency responders assess fines for responding to false alarms (check with your local police and fire departments to determine their policy on this matter). On the other hand, the three companies I mentioned will call people on your contact list and ask them for instructions on how to proceed before calling a dispatcher (but they will call a dispatcher if they can’t reach anyone on your contact list).
As its name implies, the Hub lies at the heart of the Iris system. It runs on AC power, but it also has a battery backup. A female voice emanating from the Hub will inform you of system events, such as a detected intrusion or a power failure. You must enroll each Iris module in the Hub via the cloud-based user interface. Lowes says that this process should take about an hour for the Smart Kit (a fairly accurate estimate, in my experience). Most of the system’s how-to instructions are accessible online, and they include an instructional video for each step. Toll-free telephone tech support is available if you need it.
If you purchase a kit that contains security elements—or if you add such features later—you’ll receive a battery-operated keypad for arming and disarming the system. This module, which you can mount on a wall or leave on a countertop, is equipped with a weak siren that goes off in response to an intrusion alert (in addition to triggering the female voice in the Hub). Either the door/window sensors or the motion sensor can trigger an alarm event.
The keypad has two arming states: “On” arms the door/window sensors and the motion sensors (use this setting when you leave the house); “Partial” arms the motion sensors, but leaves the motion detector turned off (use this setting if you intend to remain at home and you want the alarm to sound if a door or window opens). You can program an optional entry delay to give you time to enter the house and disarm the system before it sounds an alarm. Alternatively, you can use your smartphone (free apps re available for Android and iOS devices), or you can purchase a $20 keychain remote.
Door and Window Sensors
The door and window sensors are white and fairly small and unobtrusive, but I prefer sensors that mount inside the door and doorframe, and are completely invisible when the door is closed (you can’t use these in windows or French doors, however, because of the glass). Lowes designed the Iris sensors to attach to the frame and to the door or window with strong two-sided adhesive tape; there’s no provision for mounting them with screws.
The sensors form a magnetic field when the door or window is closed. Opening the door or window breaks the field, triggering the sensor to send a message to a central control panel (in the Iris system, that’s the Hub). If the system is armed, an alarm will sound at the keypad and at the Hub, and the Hub can send you an email message and/or your phone a text message. The free plan limits you to 12 text messages and 50 email messages per month; on the paid plan, the limits increase to 240 alert messages per year via text or email.
If you exceed the free plan’s limit, Lowes will give you seven days’ notice to upgrade to the paid plan. If you exceed the paid plan’s limit, Lowes will give you seven days’ notice to upgrade to a Premium Service Level Extension, which costs an extra $5 per month, but doubles both your messaging limit and your remote-camera access hours.
Like most other devices of its kind, the plug-in lighting-control module is big and bulky—think of a wall wart on steroids. If you don’t mind performing some electrical work (or paying an electrician to do it), you can replace your existing in-wall receptacles, switches, and dimmers with Z-Wave models. Lowes sells only GE devices, but its prices are quite reasonable ($35 for each switch and receptacle, $40 for each dimmer, and $45 for each three-way switch).
Lowes doesn’t offer three-way dimmers, though GE does manufacture them, nor does it support Z-Wave scene and zone controllers. (Scene controllers can use various controlled lighting sources to create mood lighting. Zone controllers can manage multiple controlled light sources from a single location.)
Lowes recommends that Iris customers look for a “Works With Iris” label on other brands of wireless lighting controls. A company spokesperson told me that “while other devices may pair with the Iris Hub, all of their capabilities may not function properly and Iris cannot support them at this time.”
You can control the programmable touchscreen thermostat that comes with the Comfort & Control and Smart Kit packages (and that you can add to any other Iris system) from your computer, smartphone, or tablet. You can set four temperature targets—morning, day, evening, and night—independently for each day of the week.
Most of the Iris system is based on Z-Wave technology, which relies on a low-power mesh data network. A low-power network is less likely to interfere with neighboring networks, but each device on the network has very short range. That’s where the mesh topology comes into play.
When the Iris Hub sends a command over the network—to turn on a light in the kitchen, for example—the Hub broadcasts a message addressed to that specific device in every direction to every Z-Wave device (or node) in its range. Like a digital bucket brigade, each Z-Wave device repeats the command that it receives, broadcasting it in every direction to every node within its range, until the message reaches its intended recipient and the command is executed. Z-Wave devices can also report their status back to the central controller (the Hub, in this case).
The Iris range extender included in the Smart Kit (and available as an addition to any other Iris system) is basically a bridge that extends the network’s reach, so you can locate the thermostat, lighting-control module, or other device outside the Hub’s normal range. You can accomplish the same result by installing more Z-Wave lighting controls around your home. The more Z-Wave devices you deploy, the better your network’s range will be.
Iris can inform you of the status of its door and window sensors (open or closed); and unlike some Z-Wave networks I’ve tested, it can also report the status of lights (on or off). If you inform Iris of your electric utility company’s billing rate per kilowatt hour, the service will provide an estimate of how much you’re spending on electricity to power that device. Lowes also offers an add-on meter reader ($150) to track electricity consumption for your entire house.
Although the device isn’t included in any of its three Iris packages, Lowes sent along one of its $129 IP network cameras to test with the system. This reasonably priced, full-featured model has a built-in motion sensor and infrared lighting that provides a degree of night vision. With a free Iris account, you can stream up to 2 minutes of live video per session (with a daily limit of 30 minutes), but to record video—a feature you’ll want to have in the event of a break in—you must sign up for a paid account.
A paid account lets you stream up to 10 minutes of live or recorded video per session (with a daily limit of 3 hours), and you can store up to 1GB of recorded video online. You can delete selected videos to gain more online storage space, but you can’t download videos, meaning that you can’t provide a copy to law enforcement. The Lowes spokesperson told me that the company is planning to add this feature at some point.
Iris maintains a skimpy history of events; the history is limited to the dates and times when the alarm system was turned on or off and when intrusion or panic alerts were triggered. It will also identify whether the alert was triggered from the keypad, the website, the door/window sensor, or the motion sensor. Iris keeps track of the number of text messages and email messages that it sends each month, too; but the history doesn’t record when door/window sensors are opened and closed, when the motion sensor gets tripped, when the camera records video, when the thermostat’s programming gets changed or overridden, or which users have logged into the system from the Web. If you use the Basic (free) service plan, the history will log only the three most recent events.
Free vs. Premium
With the free plan, you can enroll only one user—the account holder—into the system, and only the account holder will receive notifications of alarm events. You can turn devices on and off remotely, via the Web interface, but you can’t program devices according to a schedule. More importantly, you can’t link control of one device to the status of another. Without this ability, you won’t be able to program lights to turn on, and you won’t be able to set a camera to begin recording when the door/window or motion sensor triggers an intruder alert.
With the paid plan, you can have the system send alerts to six people (from an address book of 20 contacts), and you can arrange for different people to receive alerts in connection with different events. You can program devices—such as lights—to turn on and off according to a schedule (so you can make sure that your porch light is lit when you arrive home after dark, and you can give your house a “somebody’s home” look when you’re away). You can also link events to device status: When you open the front door, for example, you can have the light in your foyer turn on for 5 minutes and then turn off.
With the paid plan, you can program the entire system according to four modes: Home, Night, Away, and Vacation (this option isn’t available with the free plan). You might program Away mode to adjust the thermostat so that you won’t be heating or cooling an empty house, so that the all of the lights remain off during daylight hours, and so that selected lights automatically turn on at night so you don’t have to come home to a darkened house.
The free plan prevents Iris from offering this level of programmability and device interconnectedness. The paid plan has a couple of serious flaws, too. For one thing, the system fails to take enough conditions into account. In the foyer scenario I described earlier, Iris will turn on the light whether it’s day or night, because the rule doesn’t allow you to specify a timeframe during which it should be in effect.
Iris should also be able to alert you when events don’t happen within an expected timeframe. If you have a latchkey child who should be home at 3 p.m. each weekday, for example, the system should generate an alert if the alarm system isn’t disarmed by, say, 3:15 on those days, indicating that someone has entered the home.
Weak Security Features
As a security system, Iris costs far less per month than FrontPoint Security’s DIY system, but its upfront costs are considerably higher (because FrontPoint subsidizes the cost of your equipment if you opt for a three-year service contract). Iris is a weak security system by comparison, for several reasons.
First, it’s not monitored by a central office that can dispatch local emergency services. At best, Iris will notify you of an intrusion by text message or email; but if you receive the alert while you’re away from home, you can’t call 911 to summon the police to your house (911 is set up to dispatch emergency services to your current location).
Second, Iris relies solely on your broadband Internet connection. If a burglar cuts your phone or cable TV line, Iris won’t be able to notify you of the intrusion if you’re away from home. Better security systems—including FrontPoint’s—use GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) modules as either a primary or a backup communications link. The only way to sever that link is to destroy the GSM module before it sends the alert.
Third, if you’re at home when a break-in occurs, Iris’s weak siren will do little to deter a determined interloper. It might not even wake you up, unless it’s in the same room that you’re sleeping in.
The Bottom Line
Iris is a slightly flawed home-automation system, even if you pay for the Premium service plan, and it’s a weak home-security system. Still, if you’re interested in dabbling in home automation, Iris is a good place to start. You can use software updates to fix many of the usability problems I encountered; and since Iris relies on de facto standards (Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and to a lesser extent, ZigBee), you should be able to switch most of its components—aside from the Hub and perhaps the keypad—to a more sophisticated controller if you eventually outgrow Iris.