How I Prepare My Smart Home for a Hurricane

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Tuohy and Xfinity Home
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As a resident of South Carolina, my fall pastime these last few years has become evacuating for hurricanes. In 2016, it was Matthew, then came Irma, and this year, as the wrath of Hurricane Florence barreled towards the Carolinas, I packed up my family once again and headed for safety.

The hardest part about evacuating is leaving your home and all your possessions behind to an unknown fate. But I have a “smart home.” It’s in these times of emergency that the connected technology I’ve installed throughout my home has really proven its worth — beyond the everyday conveniences, added security, and fun features these Internet-of-Things devices already offered us.

In fact, smart home technology can help in many ways before, during and after any natural disaster. Chief among these is to provide peace of mind, or, if the worse does happen, the ability to know about and act on a problem even if you’re hundreds of miles away.

With a connected home, you can check in remotely from wherever you are. During an event like a hurricane, as long as the power stays up (and in some cases even when it’s out), you can get notified if there’s fire, smoke, water, carbon monoxide or other dangerous pollutants swirling around in your home, keep an eye on your property and neighborhood, and even give someone access to the house if there is an emergency. Plus, you can know what that problem is while there’s still time to mitigate it, not weeks later when the damage could be catastrophic.

Today, part of my pre-evacuation checklist includes prepping my smart home to make sure it can keep me connected and informed during and after the disaster. Here’s what I did prior to Florence’s arrival.

Set My Smart Thermostat to Eco Mode

Smart thermostats can be controlled remotely, but before I leave, I manually set my thermostat to “eco mode” — which keeps the home’s climate within two set points (62 and 84 degrees). This saves money on the power bill, and it also helps keep pressure off the electrical grid, which can be strained in times of disaster.

I also have an air-quality monitor, which alerts me if the humidity is going above a certain level and automatically turns the system back on to deal with it, helping keep the air in my home healthy and mold-free. It also alerts me if there are high levels of pollutants in the air, so we can mitigate these before ever stepping foot in the house.

Check My Security System

I have a smart security system installed in my home with a motion sensor and two door and window sensors to alert me on my smartphone if someone enters. It’s plugged into the power most of the time, but I changed out the backup batteries in the system’s hub before I left to make sure it continued to work if the power went out. It has built-in cellular backup so will still alert me to any intruders even if my WiFi router went down.

I also have a camera installed in my backyard that’s connected to the security system. It is battery powered, so to make sure it stayed charged for however long we would be gone I set up a solar panel to power it.

Prep the WiFi

A smart home runs on WiFi. If it goes down, it wouldn’t matter how many battery backups I have, most devices will no longer be able to communicate with me if I’m not in the house. The best solution is to connect a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) to the router and to the smart home hub I use to control many of the devices. These will only give me a few extra hours of “uptime,” but it’s worth it.

Check the Smoke Alarms

I have two smart smoke detectors in my home that send an alert to my phone if it detects fire, smoke or carbon monoxide. Before leaving, I also installed smart batteries in my remaining non-connected alarms. Interestingly, these smart batteries also have weather alerts built-in, and I received one telling me about the storm.

Switch the Smart Lighting to Vacation Mode

I use a smart home hub to control my connected lighting, and before I left the house (although I could do it once I’d left if I needed to — that’s the beauty of a smart home!), I turned on the three “vacation” routines I have created. These turn the lights on and off at different times of day on different days, helping give the impression the home is occupied.

Position the Leak Sensors

I have ZigBee-enabled leak detectors connected to my smart home hub to tell me if there is any water where it shouldn’t be. Before we left, I placed them in strategic locations around the house where water from flooding might intrude and near any appliances that could spring a leak.

Monitor the Sprinkler System

Have you ever seen someone’s sprinklers running during a hurricane? I have. In order not to look foolish or waste water, I set my smart sprinkler system into standby mode. However, it already knew a storm was coming and had turned off so it wouldn’t water for the following seven days. I also added a wireless flow meter to the system. This monitors water flow and shuts down the system if too much water is running through it.

Check the WiFi Cameras

In addition to the security camera in the backyard, I have three cameras watching over my home. A video doorbell, an outdoor camera and an indoor camera. Before leaving I repositioned the indoor camera to look out our back door, so I could monitor the whole perimeter of the house from afar.

Putting It All to Use

The beauty of a connected home is that you don’t need to constantly monitor it — if there’s a problem, it will tell me. If a smoke alarm goes off, I’ll get a notification. If the leak detector senses water, I’ll know about it. If someone approaches my front door — I’ll see live video of the event, even if they don’t press the doorbell.

In theory, I could just sit back and relax on my Hurri-cation in Florida, but in reality, we were all glued to The Weather Channel, and I was checking on my cameras every hour or so, especially when the storm arrived, which thankfully just grazed us.

When we got home a week later, we counted our blessings that we had been spared, packed up all the extra canned food, batteries and other supplies we had bought before the storm, and sent them a few miles up the coast to where they were now desperately needed.

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and editor covering the intersection of sustainability and technology for Xfinity Home. She writes about the Smart home, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazine and online publications.

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