Renters: The Forgotten User of Smart Home Tech

Renters_ The Forgotten User of Smart Home Tech (1)

Smart home technology has finally become mainstream. Connected devices like the Nest thermostat and Amazon Echo are hot items around the holidays. The US smart home market is expected to reach over $31 billion by the end of 2018 and well over $50 billion by 2022.

And yet, IoT device manufacturers seem to have forgotten about a massive segment of the smart home market: renters.

Today, 37% of households are renting, the highest percentage in the US since 1965. That amounts to over 46 million households.

The problem is, smart home devices are still not designed for multifamily use cases. Even as we move into the age of hyperconnected smart apartments, property managers and community management platforms are forced to MacGyver a solution for their buildings. This makes it difficult for smart apartments platforms to fully integrate IoT devices and offer all the potential benefits to residents and property managers.

So, what would it look like if IoT device manufacturers did design with smart apartments in mind?

The Vision of Smart Apartments

Smart apartments promise us instant connectivity and “Living as a Service” in the same way companies like Uber and Lyft provide mobility as a service.

Imagine your work clothes need dry cleaning but don’t have time to drop them off. In a smart apartment, you could schedule your dry cleaning to be picked up while you’re away. There’s no need to leave your door open; thanks to your smart lock, the dry cleaner will have one-time access to your apartment to grab your clothes and go. Smart sensors will know if the person overstayed their welcome and the front desk will be alerted.

A more essential use case is saving energy. Lights automatically dim when they sense sunlight in the room. AC systems alert maintenance staff when they’re performing below peak efficiency. Units are placed on energy-saving mode when they are vacant. Each small improvement can result in billions of dollars of savings.

To make this vision of smart apartments a reality, smart home devices need to work seamlessly with a connected building and community management platform that ties everything together. That’s where the problems begin.

Smart Apartments Need Smarter Devices

Smart apartments are obviously full of smart home devices: Smart lights, voice assistants, smart locks, and smart thermostats. The most challenging devices to configure for multifamily buildings are the last two: locks and thermostats.

Unlike lights and voice assistants, locks and thermostats require high amounts of interaction from both residents and property managers. Therefore, it’s important that there is seamless integration with the community management platform.  

Almost all smart locks and thermostats are designed for single home use. This causes big issues in the multi-family environment. User permissions and fleet management are extremely complicated when dealing with dozens of devices that don’t want to work together.

To reach the next level of smart apartment adoption, smart home device manufacturers need to start designing their devices with multi-family in mind. However, the changes don’t need to be difficult or expensive. In fact, the most beneficial changes a device manufacturer can make is to its software, not the hardware.

3 Ways IoT Device Manufacturers Can Design for Multi-Family

At Homebase, it’s our job to integrate various smart devices onto a single platform for multi-family buildings. We’re trying to create a better smart apartment experience for residents and property managers.

We think IoT manufacturers could help us improve the smart apartment experience by making a few simple changes to their devices.

Like I mentioned before, these are not expensive hardware changes. In fact, most of the problems would go away with a new API redesigned for multi-family use. 3rd party vendors like Homebase would use this API to better integrate devices with the building platform.

1. Customizable User Permissions

Smart home devices aren’t designed for the complex user permission structures needed in the multi-family space. In a single family home, the resident is also the owner of the smart lock. In multi-family buildings, the property manager is the owner of the lock, but the resident still needs access. Then there are maintenance staff, emergency workers, and one-time users (e.g. dry cleaning pickup) that might need access. Not to mention residents turn over every 1 or 2 years, which means permissions must be changed frequently.

Currently, most device manufacturers offer 2-3 basic user permission settings. This might work for some multi-family buildings, but certainly not all. Customizable user permissions would solve most of the compatibility problems we see today.  

Device manufacturers should also consider time-based user permissions. This would ensure that residents are removed from both the building platform and the device platform when they move out. With time-based permissions, a resident could have access only for the length of their lease.

Smart device manufacturers can look to access control systems for guidance here. These companies understand the importance of customizable user permissions for large buildings and have been doing it for a while now.

2. Feature-Rich APIs for 3rd Party Integrations

Smart devices like Nest thermostats come with their own user apps. However, when Nests are connected to a community management platform like Homebase, the resident uses the Homebase app to control their thermostat. This creates a seamless, integrated experience for the resident. Unfortunately, community management platforms cannot provide all the features of the native app. The problem is limited functionality of the APIs for smart devices like the Nest thermostat.

Simply put, APIs allow one application (e.g. Homebase) to request and receive information from another application (e.g. Nest). When a Nest thermostat is connected to the Homebase platform, Homebase sends a request to Nest to control the thermostat. Nest sends back access to control the thermostat, but not complete access. Nest sends basic controls, like changing the temperature and turning on AC, but not advanced features like scheduling temperature changes.

One major benefit of smart apartments is the ability to control everything from a single dashboard. This isn’t possible when device manufacturers offer only limited control through their APIs. If APIs included all the functionality of the native apps, residents would have full access to their device’s capabilities.  

3. Fleet Management Functionality

IoT has come a long way in the last few years. When Homebase was founded in late 2015, the Nest thermostat only allowed one thermostat per account. Today it’s common to see homes and buildings with multiple nests, one for each floor or large room. As the use cases for smart devices evolved, so has the way we control them.

You can register up to 3 homes on a single Nest account (e.g. vacation home or office). Clearly, this still isn’t enough for most multi-family buildings. With a limit of 3 homes per account, this means the manager of a 30-unit building needs 10 different nests accounts to manage them all. Imagine when that number jumps to 100, or even 300 units? Management of all devices becomes a nightmare for the property manager.

This is one reason why community management platforms exist in the first place: to allow property managers to manage all devices from one account.

But the smart apartment management would be even easier if IoT device manufacturers designed features for fleet management. For property managers, new devices could be automatically added to the property management platform. For the community management platforms like Homebase, that would be one less complicated configuration to figure out. We could focus on providing more beneficial features to residents and building managers.

Luckily, some smart home companies are starting to figure this out. Ecobee recently announced a new product for smart buildings that gives fleet management features to property managers.

Other device manufacturers don’t have to go as far as building out a new product like Ecobee has done. Simply removing the device limitation from the API is all 3rd party services would need.

Accelerating the Smart Apartment Revolution

Smart apartments are already changing the way we live. With the help of IoT device manufacturers, we could speed up the adoption of smart apartment tech even more.

Smart lock and thermostat makers don’t need to make expensive changes to their existing products. They simply need to give 3rd party vendors like Homebase the access we need to integrate their products into apartments. It’s a win-win-win for the industry: Residents are happy, property managers are relieved, and device manufacturers sell more devices.

Another solution is for device manufacturers to become more platform-driven, inviting developers to create experiences via their devices. As a platform, manufacturers open up new revenue streams while letting the community create the use cases they most want to see.

This is a call to action to device manufacturers: Let’s work together to develop better experiences for residents. We want to help you design the smart apartment devices of the future. With a few simple changes, we could start creating those smart apartments today. What are we waiting for?

Chris Piggott

Author Chris Piggott

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