What Are Smart Plugs? How They Work and The Best Ways to Use Them

Smart plugs are compact devices that plug into traditional wall outlets to bring smart home functionality to your appliances and devices. 

Smart plugs connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network, allowing you to control the connected devices remotely through a smartphone app or through voice commands when paired with a compatible smart home hub or assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple’s HomeKit.

These devices can turn just about any regular appliance into a smart one, as long as it has an on/off switch. Devices like TVs can be a little tricky when they don’t turn on automatically when power is applied.

For example, you can plug a lamp, a fan, or a coffee maker into a smart plug and control it remotely, set schedules for it to turn on or off, or even monitor energy usage depending on the features of the smart plug.

Smart plugs are a key component of a smart home, providing convenience, energy efficiency, and an added layer of security. They are easy to install and use, making them a popular choice for those beginning to explore smart home technology.

Smart Plugs

Brief History and Evolution Of Smart Plugs

The concept of home automation has been around for several decades, but it wasn’t until the advent of the internet and advancements in wireless technology that it truly began to take shape like we see today.

It’s evident that home automation is worth it. 

Smart plugs, as we know them today, are a relatively recent development in the field of home automation.

The first smart plugs began to appear on the market in the early 2010s. These early models were quite basic and primarily allowed users to turn devices on and off remotely. 

Does anyone remember the Ecobee smart plug? It required adding a Zigbee module.

Smart plugs were often expensive and required a separate hub to connect to the internet, which made them less accessible to the average consumer.

In 2013, Belkin introduced the WeMo Switch, one of the first smart plugs that didn’t require a separate hub. This was a significant step forward, as it made smart plugs more affordable and easier to use. 

The WeMo Switch also integrated with IFTTT (If This Then That), a web-based service that allows users to create chains of simple conditional statements, which opened up a whole new range of possibilities for automation.

Over the next few years, other companies began to enter the market, and smart plugs became increasingly sophisticated. 

They started to include features like energy monitoring, which allows users to track the power consumption of their devices and integration with voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Today, smart plugs are a staple of the smart home industry. They’re more affordable, reliable, and feature-packed than ever before. They’re compatible with a wide range of devices and platforms, and they continue to evolve as technology advances. 

Some of the latest models support advanced automation features, have built-in USB ports, or are designed to work outdoors.

Despite their relatively short history, smart plugs have had a significant impact on home automation, making it more accessible and user-friendly. 

They’ve transformed ordinary homes into smart homes, and there’s no doubt that they’ll continue to play a crucial role in the evolution of home automation in the years to come.

What Do Smart Plugs Do?

Smart plugs transform regular appliances into smart devices. They allow remote control of devices via an app or voice commands, enable scheduling, monitor energy usage, and integrate with home automation systems.

They work by plugging into a standard electrical outlet, and then you plug the device you want to control into the smart plug.

Once set up, smart plugs allow you to do several things:

Remote Control: You can control the connected devices remotely through a smartphone app. This means you can turn devices on or off from anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection.

Scheduling: Smart plugs allow you to schedule when your devices turn on or off. For example, you can program lights to turn on at sunset or a coffee maker to start brewing at a specific time in the morning.

Energy Monitoring: Some smart plugs come with energy monitoring capabilities. They can provide information about how much energy the connected device is using, which can help you manage your energy consumption and potentially save on your electricity bill.

Integration with Other Smart Devices: Smart plugs can often be integrated with other smart home devices. For example, you can set up your smart plug to turn on a lamp when your smart doorbell detects motion.

Voice Control: When paired with a voice-controlled smart speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home, you can control the devices plugged into your smart plug using voice commands.

Smart plugs add a level of convenience and control to your home, allowing you to automate and monitor devices that would otherwise be manually operated.

Want even more ideas? Here are 78 Cool, Creative Uses For a Smart Plug.

How Does a Smart Plug Work?

A smart plug works by connecting to your home’s Wi-Fi network and acting as a bridge between the electrical outlet and the device you want to control. 

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how a smart plug works:

  1. Installation: First, you plug the smart plug into an electrical outlet. Then, you plug the device you want to control (like a lamp or a fan) into the smart plug.
  1. Connection: Using a smartphone app provided by the smart plug manufacturer, you connect the smart plug to your home’s Wi-Fi network. This usually involves entering your Wi-Fi password into the app and allowing it to find and connect to the smart plug.
  1. Control: Once the smart plug is connected to your Wi-Fi network, you can control it using the smartphone app. This can involve turning the device on or off, setting a schedule for when the device should turn on or off, or even monitoring energy usage, depending on the features of the smart plug.
  1. Integration: Many smart plugs also integrate with smart home ecosystems like Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple’s HomeKit. This allows you to control the smart plug using voice commands or to set up more complex automation routines involving multiple devices.

A smart plug works by giving you remote control over the devices plugged into it. This is achieved through a combination of Wi-Fi connectivity, smartphone apps, and integration with broader smart home systems.

The Role of Wi-Fi in Smart Plug Operation

The most common communication type that smart plugs use is Wi-Fi. It serves as the bridge between the smart plug and the controlling device, making it “smart.” 

When you send a command through the app on your smartphone, the command is transmitted over your Wi-Fi network to the smart plug. The smart plug then executes the command, such as turning on or off the power to the device plugged into it.

Wi-Fi’s widespread availability and high data transfer rates make it ideal for smart home devices. It allows for real-time control and monitoring, and it can support multiple devices simultaneously. 

Since Wi-Fi networks typically cover the entire home, you can control your smart plugs from anywhere in your house.

That said, Wi-Fi isn’t the only option.

Different Protocols Used for Communication with Smart Plugs

While Wi-Fi is the most common, smart plugs can use several different protocols for communication. The choice of protocol can affect the plug’s compatibility, range, power consumption, and performance. 

Here are some of the most common protocols:

Wi-Fi

As mentioned, Wi-Fi is widely used due to its high speed and broad coverage. It allows for direct connection to your home network without the need for a separate hub. However, it consumes more power than other protocols, which is a consideration for battery-powered devices.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth,  or more specifically Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE),  is another common protocol that allows for direct control without a hub. It’s lower power than Wi-Fi, but it also has a much shorter range, typically around 30 feet (10 meters). This makes it less suitable for larger homes or devices that are far from your controlling device.

Zigbee and Z-Wave

These are two low-power protocols that are popular in smart home devices. They both create a mesh network where each device can relay signals to other devices. This can extend the range and improve reliability, especially in larger homes. However, they typically require a separate hub to connect to your home network and the internet.

Each of these protocols has its strengths and weaknesses, and the best one for you depends on your specific needs and setup. Some smart plugs even support multiple protocols for increased flexibility and compatibility.

The Benefits of Using Smart Plugs

Smart plugs offer a variety of benefits that can enhance convenience, improve energy efficiency, and even increase the security of your home. 

Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Remote Control: You can control your devices from anywhere with smart plugs. Whether you’re in bed and don’t want to get up to turn off a light or away from home and want to turn on a device, smart plugs give you that control.
  • Scheduling: Smart plugs often come with the ability to schedule your devices. This means you can set your coffee maker to turn on in the morning before you wake up. I often use it for turning lights on in the evening before I get home.
  • Energy Efficiency: By using smart plugs, you can monitor the energy usage of your devices. This can help you understand which devices are using the most energy and adjust their usage accordingly. Some smart plugs can even turn off devices that are in standby mode but still consuming power, further saving energy.
  • Integration with Smart Home Ecosystems: Smart plugs can often be integrated with other smart home devices through platforms like Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple HomeKit. This allows for more complex automations and voice control.
  • Increased Security: By scheduling lights or a radio to turn on and off at certain times, you can make it appear like someone is home, even when the house is empty. This can deter potential thieves. I find this useful when I’m on vacation.
  • Ease of Use and Installation: Smart plugs are generally straightforward to install and use. Simply plug them into an existing outlet, connect them to your Wi-Fi network, and start controlling your devices.
  • Affordability: Compared to other smart home devices, smart plugs are relatively affordable. This makes them a great starting point for anyone looking to explore smart home technology without making a significant investment.

Best Uses For Smart Plugs

Smart plugs can be used in a variety of ways to make your home more convenient, efficient, and secure. Here are some of the best uses for smart plugs:

Automating Morning Routines: You can use smart plugs to automate your morning routine. For example, you can schedule your coffee maker to start brewing coffee at a certain time, or your electric kettle to start heating water for your morning tea.

Controlling Lighting: Smart plugs can be used to control lighting in your home. You can schedule lights to turn on and off at certain times, or even control them remotely. This can be particularly useful for creating the illusion that someone is home when you’re away, potentially deterring burglars.

Managing Energy Use: Smart plugs often come with energy monitoring features, allowing you to track the energy usage of different devices. This can help you identify which devices are consuming the most energy and adjust their usage to save on your energy bills.

Controlling Non-Smart Devices: Smart plugs can turn “dumb” devices into smart ones. For example, you can use a smart plug to control an old air conditioner or heater, allowing you to turn it on and off remotely or schedule it to run at certain times.

Scheduling Electronics: You can use smart plugs to schedule electronics to turn off at a certain time. For example, you can schedule your kids’ gaming console or TV to turn off at bedtime to ensure they’re not staying up too late.

Automating Holiday Decorations: Smart plugs can make managing holiday decorations easier. You can schedule your holiday lights to turn on and off at certain times, saving you the hassle of having to do it manually.

Controlling Small Appliances: You can use smart plugs to control small appliances like slow cookers, rice cookers, or electric grills. This allows you to start cooking even when you’re not home, so you can come home to a hot meal.

The uses for smart plugs will depend on your specific needs and lifestyle. By considering how you can benefit from the convenience, efficiency, and security of smart plugs, you can find the best uses in your home.

Can a Smart Plug Be Plugged Into a Power Strip?

A smart plug can be plugged into a power strip. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Space: Smart plugs are often larger than regular plugs, so they may take up more than one slot on your power strip. Make sure there’s enough space for the smart plug and other devices you want to plug into the strip.
  1. Power Capacity: Ensure that the total power draw of all devices plugged into the power strip (including the smart plug and its connected device) doesn’t exceed the power strip’s capacity. Overloading can cause overheating and potentially lead to a fire.
  1. Control Limitation: Remember that if you plug a smart plug into a power strip, you’ll only be able to control the device that’s plugged into the smart plug, not the entire power strip (unless the power strip itself is a smart power strip).
  1. Wi-Fi Interference: I’ve never experienced this issue, but some people have had Wi-Fi interference issues when plugging a smart plug into a power strip. If you experience connectivity issues, consider plugging the smart plug directly into a wall outlet.

Smart Power Strips

Smart power strips are a more advanced version of traditional power strips, offering the same functionality but with added smart features. 

They are essentially a series of smart plugs combined into one device, with each outlet being independently controllable. 

This means you can turn on or off each device plugged into the strip individually, using an app on your smartphone or through voice commands if the strip is compatible with a virtual assistant like Alexa or Google Home.

I would personally recommend the TP-Link Kasa Smart Power Strip HS300.

TP-Link Kasa Smart Power Strip HS300

Key Features of Smart Power Strips

In addition to the features provided by smart plugs, smart power strips also have these added benefits:

Individual Outlet Control: Each outlet in a smart power strip can be controlled independently. This allows you to turn on or off specific devices without affecting others plugged into the same strip.

Surge Protection: Many smart power strips also include built-in surge protection to safeguard your devices from power surges and voltage spikes.

Smart power strips offer a convenient way to control multiple devices at once, monitor energy usage, and integrate your devices into your smart home ecosystem. They can be particularly useful in areas where you have multiple devices plugged in, like entertainment centers, home offices, or kitchens.

Choosing the Right Smart Plug

When it comes to choosing the right smart plug for your needs, there are several factors to consider:

Compatibility: The first thing to consider is compatibility. You’ll want to ensure that the smart plug you choose is compatible with your existing smart home ecosystem. For instance, if you use Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple HomeKit for voice control, you’ll want to make sure the smart plug you choose works with your system.

Brand Reputation: It’s also important to consider the reputation of the brand. Look for brands that are known for their quality, reliability, and customer service. Reading reviews from other customers can give you a good idea of what to expect from a particular brand.

A brand that cares about it’s reputation will continue to support the products ist makes, meaning your smart plug will continue to be supported even after newer models are released.

Features: Different smart plugs come with different features. Some offer energy monitoring, which allows you to track your energy usage and potentially save on your energy bills. Others offer advanced scheduling features or the ability to control the plug remotely from your smartphone. Consider what features are most important to you when choosing a smart plug.

Price: Price is another important factor to consider. While smart plugs are generally quite affordable, some models and brands are more expensive than others. Consider your budget and what you’re willing to spend.

Popular Smart Plug Brands

There are many brands of smart plugs available on the market, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few popular ones:

  • TP-Link Kasa: This is my personal preference and what I most commonly use around the house. TP-Link’s Kasa smart plugs are well-regarded for their reliability and ease of use. They offer models that include energy monitoring and are compatible with a wide range of smart home systems.
    Here’s how to connect a Kasa smart plug to Alexa.
  • Belkin Wemo: Belkin’s Wemo smart plugs are another popular choice. They offer a sleek design and are compatible with a wide range of smart home systems. Some models also include energy monitoring.
  • Amazon Smart Plug: Designed to work seamlessly with Alexa, the Amazon Smart Plug is a good choice for those heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem, which continues to grow as they buy more and more companies (Ring and Blink for example). It’s easy to set up and use, though it lacks some of the more advanced features found in other smart plugs.
  • Gosund: Gosund smart plugs are a budget-friendly option that still offers a good range of features, including energy monitoring and compatibility with a wide range of smart home systems.

Setting Up and Using Your Smart Plug

Setting up a smart plug is generally a straightforward process, but the exact steps can vary depending on the brand and model of the smart plug. 

Here’s a general setup flow that should apply to most smart plugs:

Step 1: Plug in the Smart Plug

First, plug the smart plug into an electrical outlet. Make sure the outlet is near your Wi-Fi router for the initial setup.

Step 2: Download the App

Most smart plugs are controlled via a smartphone app. This app is usually provided by the manufacturer of the smart plug. Go to the App Store or Google Play Store on your smartphone and download the appropriate app. Some common ones include Kasa (for TP-Link plugs), Wemo (for Belkin plugs), and Gosund (for Gosund plugs).

Step 3: Create an Account

After you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll usually need to create an account. This typically involves providing an email address and creating a password.

Step 4: Add the Smart Plug to the App

Open the app and look for an option to add a new device. This is often represented by a “+” symbol. You’ll then select the type of device you’re adding (in this case, a smart plug).

Step 5: Connect the Smart Plug to Wi-Fi

The app will guide you through the process of connecting the smart plug to your Wi-Fi network. This usually involves entering your Wi-Fi password and pressing a button on the smart plug itself.

Step 6: Name Your Smart Plug

Once the smart plug is connected to Wi-Fi, you can give it a name. This can be anything you like, but it’s helpful to name it based on the device or appliance it will be controlling (e.g., “Living Room Lamp”).

Step 7: Control the Smart Plug

Now that your smart plug is set up, you can use the app to turn the plug on and off, set schedules, and more. If your smart plug is compatible with a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant, you can also set this up through the app.

These are general steps. The exact process will vary depending on the brand and model of your smart plug. 

Here’s a guide for connecting a smart plug to Alexa.

Smart Plug Tips

Here are some tips for the optimal use of your smart plugs so that you can get the most out of them:

  1. Understand Your Needs: Before purchasing a smart plug, understand what you need it for. Are you looking to automate or dim lights, control non-smart appliances, or monitor energy usage? Knowing your needs will help you choose the right smart plug.
  1. Check Compatibility: Ensure that the smart plug is compatible with your existing smart home ecosystem. If you use Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple HomeKit, your smart plug should work seamlessly with these systems.
  1. Use Schedules and Timers: One of the best features of smart plugs is the ability to set schedules and timers. You can program the smart plug to turn on and off at specific times. This is great for creating the illusion of someone being home when you’re away, or starting your coffee maker in the morning before you wake up.
  1. Don’t Overload: Smart plugs have a maximum load capacity. Overloading them can cause them to malfunction or even pose a fire risk. Always check the power requirements of the device you’re plugging into the smart plug and ensure it doesn’t exceed the plug’s capacity.
  1. Use for Energy Monitoring: Some smart plugs come with energy monitoring features. These can provide valuable insights into your energy usage and help you identify ways to save on your electricity bill.
  1. Group Plugs by Room: If you have multiple smart plugs, grouping them by room in your smart home app can be helpful. This allows you to control all the plugs in a specific room at once, which can be particularly useful for turning off all devices when you leave the room or go to bed.
  1. Use with Non-Smart Devices: Smart plugs make non-smart devices a bit smarter. For example, you can plug a regular lamp into a smart plug to gain the ability to control it from your phone or set a schedule.
  1. Regularly Update Your Smart Plug: Manufacturers often release firmware updates for their smart plugs that can improve functionality, safety, and security. The app will usually let you know, but make sure to check for and install these updates regularly.
  1. Secure Your Smart Plugs: Like any device connected to the internet, smart plugs can be vulnerable to hacking. Use strong, unique passwords for your smart home accounts, and consider setting up two-factor authentication if it’s available.
  1. Experiment and Have Fun: The joy of smart plugs is in their versatility. Feel free to experiment with different uses and settings to find what works best for you.

Energy Consumption and Savings with Smart Plugs

While smart plugs themselves consume a small amount of power, they can lead to significant energy savings by giving you more control over when and how your devices use power.

Do Smart Plugs Use Electricity When Off?

Smart plugs do use a small amount of electricity when they’re off, as they’re still communicating with the network to receive commands. This is often called “vampire power” or “phantom load.” However, the amount of electricity used is typically minimal, usually less than 1 watt.

Do Smart Plugs Save Energy?

Smart plugs can save energy by allowing you to remotely turn off devices that consume power in standby mode. They also provide energy usage data to help manage consumption better.

Check out this study performed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory about how much energy various smart devices can save.

Here is a more detailed look at ways smart plugs can help save energy:

  • Scheduled On/Off Times: You can program smart plugs to turn off at certain times, ensuring devices aren’t left on unnecessarily. This can be particularly useful for devices that consume power, like game consoles or TVs, even when not in active use.
  • Remote Control: With a smart plug, you can turn off devices remotely if you forget to do so before leaving home.
  • Energy Monitoring: Some smart plugs come with energy monitoring features, allowing you to track the energy usage of the devices plugged into them. This can provide valuable insights into which devices are consuming the most energy and help you make more energy-efficient choices.
  • Standby Elimination: Many devices consume power even when they’re not in use, simply because they’re plugged in. Smart plugs can eliminate this standby power consumption by completely cutting off power when the device is not in use.

Troubleshooting Common Smart Plug Issues

Here are some common issues that people run into with smart plugs. 

Smart Plug Not Connecting to Wi-Fi

  • Check Wi-Fi Connection: Ensure your Wi-Fi network is working properly. You can check this by seeing if other devices are able to connect to the network. The same logic applies to Zig-Bee and Z-Wave devices.
  • Check Compatibility: Most smart plugs only work with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, not 5GHz networks. Make sure your Wi-Fi network is compatible with your smart plug.
  • Move Closer to Router: If your smart plug is too far from your Wi-Fi router, it may not be able to connect. Try moving the smart plug closer to the router.
  • Reset the Smart Plug: If all else fails, try resetting the smart plug to its factory settings and then attempt to connect it to your Wi-Fi network again.

How to Reset a Smart Plug

The process for resetting a smart plug varies by brand and model, but it generally involves pressing and holding a button on the plug for a certain amount of time. Many smart plugs can be reset by holding down the power button for 10 seconds.

After resetting the smart plug, you’ll need to set it up again as if it were new. This includes connecting it to your Wi-Fi network and linking it with your smart home system. 

I found that it’s helpful to delete the old one from the app before setting up the new plug. Apps can sometimes get confused by having two plugs with the same serial number.

Smart Plug Not Responding to Voice Commands

  • Check Device Name: If your smart plug isn’t responding to voice commands, make sure you’re using the correct name for the device. The name you use in voice commands should match the name you gave the smart plug during setup.
  • Check Smart Home System: Make sure your smart home system (like Alexa or Google Home) is set up properly and connected to the smart plug.
  • Check Internet Connection: Both your smart home system and your smart plug need an internet connection to function properly. Make sure both devices are connected to the internet.

Smart Plugs and the Future of Home Automation

Smart plugs play a significant role in the broader context of home automation. They serve as an accessible entry point for those looking to dip their toes into the world of smart home technology. 

With their easy installation and user-friendly operation, smart plugs can turn any home into a smart home without the need for extensive renovations or technical know-how.

Smart plugs are also a key component in creating a fully integrated smart home system. They can work in conjunction with other smart devices, such as thermostats, lights, and security systems, to create a cohesive and automated home environment. 

A smart plug can be programmed to turn on a lamp when your smart security camera detects motion, or to switch off your heater when your smart thermostat indicates that your home has reached the desired temperature.

Looking ahead, the future of smart plug technology is promising. Here are a few trends I think we can expect to see:

Increased Energy Efficiency: As energy conservation becomes more critical, future smart plugs will likely offer more advanced energy monitoring and management features. This could include real-time energy usage reports, predictive analytics to suggest optimal usage times, and integration with renewable energy sources.

I think this is an area where AI will come into play to help with predictive analytics.

Enhanced Compatibility: As the smart home market grows, ensuring that different devices can communicate with each other will become increasingly important. Future smart plugs will likely offer improved compatibility with a wider range of devices and smart home systems.

Advanced Automation Capabilities: Future smart plugs could offer more sophisticated automation features. For example, they might use machine learning algorithms to learn your daily routines and automatically adjust your home appliances’ operation to match.

Improved Security Features: As smart homes become more prevalent, so do concerns about cybersecurity. Future smart plugs will likely include advanced security features to protect against hacking and unauthorized access.

Integration with 5G: The rollout of 5G could have significant implications for smart plug technology. Faster, more reliable connections enable more advanced features and improve the responsiveness and reliability of smart plugs.

Final Thoughts

Smart plugs have a lot of potential. These devices not only offer the convenience of remote control but also provide insights into energy consumption, potentially leading to savings. They seamlessly integrate with home automation systems, enhancing the overall smart home experience. 

As we’ve seen, the benefits of smart plugs extend beyond mere convenience. They represent a step forward in our journey towards more efficient and intelligent homes. If you haven’t yet, it’s a great time to explore the world of smart plugs and experience the benefits they bring to the table.

Josh

Hey, I’m Josh! Welcome to Expert Home Automation. Tech is what I do for a living and as a hobby. You can learn more about me here.

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