Solved! What Is a Smart Plug?

If you’re considering moving your home toward an automated future, a smart plug is a great place to start. But what are these devices, and how do they work?
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what is a smart plug

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Q: Our family is going on vacation and we don’t want the house to look vacant. A friend suggested we buy some smart plugs so it looks like someone is home, but I don’t know the first thing about these gadgets. How do I use them, and are they safe to leave on while we are away?

A: That is some solid advice from your friend. With a few smart plugs scattered throughout your home, you can create the appearance of someone being inside from the convenience of your phone. But if you’re new to home automation, smart plugs might seem intimidating.

Don’t fret, though. Smart plugs are safe and very easy to use. If you can download an app, you can use a smart plug. But what is a WiFi smart plug? And what is a smart plug used for? Most important, what is the benefit of a smart plug? Keep reading to find out.

How do smart plugs work?

Smart plugs are handy little devices. They install between the plug of an appliance and an existing outlet, throttling the power on and off to the device at the user’s behest. There are many brands of smart plugs, including Wemo, Eve, Samsung, TP Link, Ring, Amazon, WYZE, Teckin, and more. And, these devices work with their own proprietary apps, as well as Google Assistant, Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and more, in some cases. (There are also specialty outdoor smart plugs, which are sturdily built and often weatherproof.)

Essentially, a smart plug is a plug-in switch that operates much like a typical light switch. The main difference between a smart plug and a light switch is that instead of a physical toggle or button, an app controls the smart plug (though most do also have buttons). Users can flip smart plugs on and off with their phones, their voice, or a preprogrammed schedule.

what is a smart plug
Photo: Amazon

Do smart plugs need to be connected to WiFi to work properly?

The answer to that question is complicated. Most smart plugs require WiFi to access all of their features, though it’s possible for some models to operate without it.

If the internet drops, the physical button on the side of most smart plugs is still operational, which allows the user to turn the plug on and off. However, most devices will not respond to voice commands and adjustments made via mobile apps.

But there are devices that use radio signals instead of WiFi. These systems have a smart hub (which does communicate with the user via WiFi). In many cases, preprogrammed features and scenes will still work, though the user might not have access until the WiFi returns.

To offer a definitive answer to the question: Yes, WiFi is essential for the full operation of most smart plugs.

What are some of the best ways to use smart plugs around the house?

If you’re wondering, “What is the benefit of a smart plug?” the answer varies. There are many ways to use smart plugs around the home, and the best uses are truly on a case-by-case basis.

Many utilize smart plugs for security when they’re out of town. With a lamp or two plugged into smart plugs throughout the home, the user can set scenes to automatically turn on at certain times or turn them on at random from their app.

So, other than security, what is a smart plug used for? Others might utilize a smart plug for holiday lighting, allowing them to turn on string lights and decorations with their voice or set a schedule.

Another popular use for smart plugs is limiting parasitic electricity draw on appliances. Devices with “standby modes” never really power down, consuming energy even while they’re off. A smart plug can cut the power to the appliance. While it’s true that the smart plug will also exhibit parasitic draw, it’s usually less than a household appliance.

When shopping for smart plugs, what characteristics or brands should I look for?

This is a critical question, as many smart plugs look alike and claim to offer the same features. But there are some things to know first.

The first thing to check for is the device’s compatibility with your chosen digital assistant and mobile device. Few smart plugs will operate on both Android and iOS systems, so you need to choose the right one for your phone. Also, some smart plugs will only operate with two or three digital assistants, so check to make sure yours is one of them.

Also, brand names do matter. Many companies now make smart plugs, but they’re just as likely to disconnect from the internet or challenge users’ savvy as they are to work properly. Brands like Wemo, Ring, Amazon, Eve, Kasa, WYZE, Samsung, Philips, and other established names are less frustrating to use.

If the idea is to make the most of home automation, shop for multi-packs. Many smart plugs come in kits of three or four, allowing users to save a bit of money while automating more outlets. There are even smart power strips and multi-port plugs, which allow users to get the most from their smart plugs.

what is a smart plug

What else do I need to know about my new smart plug?

There are a few things to understand about these devices, like that most of them will not operate on 5GHz WiFi networks. Instead, they need 2.4GHz, which most WiFi routers do have. If your smart plug isn’t working, make sure it’s connected to 2.4GHz.

Also, smart plugs will only work for on-off devices, such as lamps, fans, some radios, and some coffee pots. If you leave these devices in the “on” position, the smart plug can turn them on and off according to your liking. If the devices utilize standby mode, the smart plug can turn it off and save on parasitic draw, but it cannot turn it back on.