Home Tech Living with the ghost of a smart home’s past

Living with the ghost of a smart home’s past

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Living with the ghost of a smart home’s past

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My brother and his wife got a house. He mentioned it appeared to have a lot of tech installed by the last owner. I told him that was an exciting mystery for the two of us. Whatever speakers and weird smart home junk had been set up, we’d be able to repurpose. But then he moved in. Slowly, over weeks of tech support calls and hours digging through shockingly deep coat closets, we learned that while the old owner was gone, his digital ghost remained. It was lurking in the home’s lights and shades and thermostat, turning what should have been a smart home into a very haunted one.

I didn’t think I’d have to be the IT equivalent of a Ghostbuster when my brother first texted me about it. I’ve set up multiple smart homes, worked in IT, and currently am surrounded by some of the smartest tech journalists around. As smart home troubleshooting resources go, I have more than the average person.

It was no problem walking him through maximizing the performance of the Google Nest Wifi system still in place (including a full factory reset). But then… the trouble started. There were the window shades that always opened at 8AM and always closed at sundown. My brother disconnected everything that looked like a hub, and still, operating on some inaccessible internal clock, the shades carried on as they were once programmed to do.

The Nest Thermostat was the same. It refused to be connected to their Nest account alongside the cameras also left behind, which meant that every night at midnight, the heat would turn on, eager to roast a long-gone homeowner and send my sister-in-law down three flights of stairs to fix it.

There were complex-looking buttons in nearly every room that claimed to control the lights and shades and sometimes even fans — only it was a guess which buttons would work and which would simply flicker, sending signals to devices that could not receive them.

We figured my brother needed a few inexpensive hubs to make things work better, so I sent him an old Samsung SmartThings hub, which had Zigbee and Z-Wave built in. It got the lights all working properly, but the shades continued to operate on a schedule set by a long-gone owner.

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Sometimes you wake up to tastefully lit photos of weird electronics.
Photo by Peter Cranz

Sending a slew of photos to Verge smart home reviewer Jennifer Pattison Tuohy led to more understanding. (Especially after she raised the smart home bat signal on social media.) Apparently, my brother’s smart home system had largely been structured around the now-defunct Insteon. The company had once been popular for building out cool and complex smart homes around an internet connected hub — think a step above your homes running on Alexa or Home Assistant — only Insteon closed down in 2021, shutting down the servers its hubs required to run.

But there was good news. In 2022, fans bought Insteon and resurrected it, releasing a new hub that would work with more modern devices while also letting the old devices keep on trucking and powering the servers back on. Naturally, there was a catch. To get things working — not necessarily seamlessly, but potentially better than its current state — my brother had two options. Option one was to keep the busted hub and attempt to use an old Java-based desktop app to do some scripting. The silence over the phone line when I informed him of this option suggested that wouldn’t fly (and also axed my plan for getting him on Home Assistant).

Option two, suggested by smart home consultant Richard Gunther through Jen, was to spend $99.95 on that new hub and then pay a monthly subscription. That suggestion went over about as well as the one involving the phrase “Java-based.”

This is the state of home ownership in 2024! People have been making their homes smart with off-the-shelf parts for well over a decade now. Sometimes they sell those homes, and the new homeowners find themselves mired in troubleshooting when they should be trying to pick out wall colors.

Some former homeowners will provide onboarding to the home’s smart home system, but most do as the guy who used to own my brother’s house did. They walk away and leave it as an adventure for the next person. I know because I’ve now done it twice myself. I really hope the new renters of my old Brooklyn walk-up appreciate all the 2014 Philips Hue lights I left installed in the basement.

There’s a calculus you make as you’re moving. It’s a hectic time, and there’s a lot to be done. Do you want to spend half the day freeing all those Hue bulbs from their obnoxious and broken recessed light housings, or do you want to leave a potential gift for the next homeowner and get started on nesting in your new place?

I, and a lot of other people, opted for the second option. Sometimes it means a person gets eight ancient but perfectly functional Hue light bulbs. Sometimes they get the ghost of Insteon’s past.

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