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How to prepare your home for emergencies (like the one we’re going through right now)

by Steve Smith

Smart home technology isn’t just about convenience. A smart home can be a safer and more secure home, too. We’ll show you how to leverage both old and new technology to make novel coronavirus-induced stay-at-home orders and social distancing more tolerable and easier to accomplish, now and in the future.

Want to avoid touching surfaces? A smart speaker can help. Need to keep distance from a delivery person? Check out a video camera and smart lock. Can’t visit an emergency room for that nasty cut? You better have a fully stocked first-aid kit on hand.

The good news is that this kind of preparation is instructive for all kinds of catastrophes, be they viral pandemics, natural disasters, or the threat of intruders. We might not be able to cover you for the zombie apocalypse, but these 15 tips will help you prepare for whatever Mother Nature throws at us next.

1. Voice tech reduces the need to touch anything

Every time you say, “Alexa, turn on the light!” is one less time you need to touch a light switch or the pull chain on a lamp. Voice-activated systems like these can be a real boon in households where multiple people are touching everything, especially in high-traffic areas like the living room and kitchen. Fewer touches equal a lower risk of spreading germs—and one less surface you need to remember to clean.

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Voice-activated smart speakers powered by Alexa and Google Assistant readily connect to dozens of smart switches and smart bulbs. With Alexa, just download the appropriate skill, connect it to your smart device’s app, and you can begin using voice commands right away. (You’ll need to place a smart speaker near wherever it is you plan to be speaking, but not necessarily near the devices you’re controlling.) Leviton’s Decora Smart Voice Dimmer combines an Amazon Echo with a light switch, reducing Alexa’s footprint to zero.

Pro tip: Give devices short and easy-to-remember names when you first set them up, group multiple smart devices into virtual rooms, and use routines to automate several devices with shortcuts, like shutting off all lights and arming your security system with “Alexa, good night.”

2. Connected smoke alarms provide peace of mind whether you’re home or away

The days of the $ 10 smoke detector that shrieks every time you cook bacon are numbered. Smart technology has come to the smoke alarm, and it’s arguably proving its worth more clearly here than anywhere else.

For starters, connected alarms such as the Nest Protect—easily the best product in this category—can talk to one another. If the alarm goes off in the kitchen late at night, the alert will also be relayed to the bedroom, so there’s no way you’ll sleep through it. Nest uses its own proprietary network for this, so even if your Wi-Fi goes offline, you’ll still get multi-room alerts.

Secondly, and more importantly, alerts are also sent to your smartphone (though this does require a working Wi-Fi connection). If you’re in the garage, in the car, or just about anywhere else, you’re instantly alerted if smoke or carbon monoxide (CO) are detected. That kind of warning while you’re away can be the difference between a minor issue and massive catastrophe. In the Nest app, you can also program emergency contacts (like your next-door neighbor and your local fire department) to make it easy to call someone to check up on the homestead. You can read our reviews of other smart smoke detectors here.

3. An air quality monitor can inform you when you should open (or shut) windows

California’s recent spate of wildfires left the state choking with smoke—and sent a strong reminder that getting “fresh air” doesn’t always mean cracking a window. It’s not just Californians that have air issues, of course, and it’s not just outdoor air quality that you need to worry about. One study found that 96 percent of homes have at least one indoor air quality issue, and the vast majority probably aren’t aware of it.

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The first step toward cleaning up your air—removing allergens, pollutants, and reducing the threat of airborne pathogens—is to know whether you have a problem. Air quality monitors track both indoor and outdoor air quality to tell you where issues might be lurking. Some can even take action on your behalf by automatically turning on a fan, air purifier, or dehumidifier.

As we’re all spending a lot more time inside these days, having this information can be crucial to ensuring your environment is the best it can be. Our top pick, the Awair Glow C, runs just $ 75. During the winter, when we tend to close our houses up, a device like the Airthings Wave Plus can warn if the naturally occurring gas radon becomes a threat. You can read all our air quality monitor reviews here.

4. Technology can open (and re-lock) doors for delivery people

Combine a security camera and a smart lock (or a smart garage door opener) and you have a system that lets you open your home temporarily for delivery people, and then close it up tight again, all without you ever having to interact with the visitor in person. This is great news for now, during our six-feet-apart mandate, and it can pay dividends down the road, through securing your packages when you’re not at home to receive them and helping you identify whether that knock on the door really is UPS.

Until now, Key by Amazon was the most visible product in this category, but the company has “paused” that service for now. You can cobble together a similar system via any smart doorbell or security camera (preferably one with two-way audio built in) and a smart lock (either Wi-Fi or Z-Wave/Zigbee, with the appropriate bridge). You’ll find our top smart lock picks here.

5. A video doorbell is a perfect intermediary between you and the outside world

An unexpected doorbell ring can raise concerns any time, but in today’s climate the appearance of a sudden visitor can be an even greater cause for alarm. Before you open the door, it’s a good idea to verify who’s there and particularly where they’re standing in relation to the entrance. Yelling through a closed door and peering through the fish-eye lens of the typical peephole, alas, don’t really cut the mustard.

Video doorbells like the Ring Video Doorbell 2 are part security camera, part intercom, and part good old-fashioned doorbell. These systems don’t just alert you if someone has pressed the ring button, they also detect motion, so you’ll know if someone has approached the door and decided to turn back—a potential intruder dissuaded by the built-in camera, or merely a package delivery left on the steps. Two-way audio means you can speak directly to the person without ever having to get off the couch (or anywhere else in the world you might be).

Most security cameras can do the same while covering more area outside your home.You can also save recordings from both types of camera for posterity—or potentially as forensic evidence of a crime, although that entails paying for a subscription with some products in these categories. You can read all our video doorbell reviews here, and our home security camera reviews here.

The Ring Neighbors program had been widely criticized for privacy shortcomings and because some users have used it to engage in racial profiling, but the company has taken the right steps to correct those issues. If you like the idea of a virtual Neighborhood Watch, you can opt in; if it’s not your cup o’ tea, don’t.

6. Stock up on fresh batteries (especially the odd ones)

If your home is anything like mine, you run through AA and AAA batteries with abandon, constantly feeding power-hungry remote controls, flashlights, game controllers, smart devices, and more. While buying standard size batteries—alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable—in bulk is easy (Amazon and Costco have great deals on large quantities, and both retailers deliver). Take stock of your home to consider what additional battery types you should keep on hand.

Automobile car fobs typically require a coin cell such as a CR2025 or CR2032, and many smart devices now use oddball CR2 cells, which can be hard to find. Some smoke detectors use a proprietary multi-cell battery pack that can only be purchased from the manufacturer, and for the Nest Protect, Google even specifies Energizer L91 Lithium AA batteries.

Take inventory of the power needs for all your devices and stock up on spares before they go dead—which will invariably happen at the least convenient time possible. You’d also be smart to keep an inexpensive battery tester on hand, to periodically check that your stored batteries haven’t faded.

7. Keep a USB battery topped up

When the power’s out, your lifeline to the world will likely be your cell phone. But phones use a lot of juice, often forcing desperate folks without an alternative to drive around town, using their car as the most expensive cell phone charger ever made.

A better plan: Connect a USB power bank (or two) to an out-of-the-way power outlet and forget about it, so it will be fully charged and ready to go whenever the need arises. There are dozens of solid external batteries like this on the market; look for one that has plenty of capacity (measured in milliampere-hours, or mAh) and, preferably, enough USB ports to charge multiple devices simultaneously. TechHive’s sister site PCWorld has an exhaustive review of the best power banks for every type of user. For more serious power needs, a system like the $ 300 Goal Zero Yeti 200X can provide hundreds of watts of power and even includes a standard AC outlet. You can read PCWorld’s in-depth review of that device here.

8. Portable solar systems can generate power for lighting and device charging for days

A great USB power bank will probably keep you running for a couple of days, but if you can’t recharge it via wall power, you’re best off looking to renewable energy: the sun. Solar power doesn’t necessarily mean having to spend thousands of dollars on roof-based solar panels and a home battery backup system. Pint-sized solar kits can give you the few watts of power needed to recharge your power banks and/or your devices directly—at least during daylight hours.

Check out the BioLite SolarHome 620, which includes a small solar panel, a radio, and a collection of LED lights that can keep you running—and lit up—indefinitely. Pair one of Goal Zero’s folding solar panels with the company’s Sherpa 100PD power bank and you’ll always be able to keep your mobile devices charged and ready for use even if the electricity is out.

9. Protect infants with a smart baby monitor

Illnesses like COVID-19 impact the respiratory system, so parents with infants aren’t being paranoid if they want to keep tabs on whether junior is breathing properly. Cutting-edge baby monitors don’t just track movement and relay sound, the Nanit Plus system analyzes the movement patterns of a custom swaddle to monitor whether a baby is breathing. Parents can stream live video and audio and get push notifications if anything is amiss.

10. Consider alternative cooking methods

Long-term power outages can mean lots of trouble in the kitchen. While your gas stovetop may work—unless the gas lines have been shut down, too—electric ovens, toasters, microwaves, and other countertop appliances you take for granted will be useless.

You needn’t give up on hot food in an emergency. Solar cooking systems like the GoSun oven can use the sun to cook whatever you can fit in its narrow cooking tube (think hot dogs and cut-up veggies), and the weather doesn’t even have to be all that sunny, thanks to the unit’s targeted focusing mirrors. BioLite’s camp stoves can burn any fuel to provide heat for cooking—and even charge your gadgets via a built in USB port along the way. And of course, you can also still cook the old-fashioned way, with a propane grill or even over a wood-filled fire pit.

11. Place flashlights in strategic locations

If the lights go out after dark, it’s important to have backup lighting options nearby, not in the basement. It’s smart to keep flashlights in each of your most heavily used rooms, especially ones you’re likely to be in at night: bedrooms, living room, and kitchen are the most obvious locations. The myCharge Camping Lantern Power Bank, reviewed here, combines a 500-lumen panel-style flashlight with a 10,000mAh battery with dual USB charging ports, checking off two of our tips with one device.

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If you’re not game to constantly check your flashlights to ensure the batteries are charged, consider a rechargeable model that you leave plugged into an outlet for use when required. Eton’s Blackout Buddy Color even has a motion-activated colored nightlight. Its flashlight automatically turns on when the power from the outlet is cut, making it super easy to find in the dark. Battery-powered headlamps and electric lanterns are also good options to have on hand, letting you work hands-free when needed. You can read our review here.

12. Get critical information via radio, power

When all other media sources are unavailable, chances are good that you’ll still be able to get information via radio. A variety of portable radios don’t even need fresh batteries to work. Devices like the Midland ER310 can give you nearly an hour of running time with just a minute of hand-cranking action, or the system can be charged via the integrated solar panel. A good emergency radio will usually include a flashlight, USB charging ports, and the ability to receive weather alerts from the National Weather Service, which are carried along the 162MHz Public Service band. These alerts are especially crucial for areas subject to extreme and/or abruptly changing weather, such as tornadoes, flash floods, and hurricanes.

13. Keep your first-aid kit up to date

The lowest-tech tip on this list is also one of the most important, and that’s to ensure your first-aid kit is appropriately stocked and that any medications in the kit are still usable and unexpired. An off-the-rack premade kit is probably fine for the typical home where snakebites and nuclear fallout are unlikely, but you can audit your kit and peruse the Red Cross’s checklist to verify you have what you need. If you’re missing a key component, add to it accordingly. Add a recurring note in your calendar to check expiration dates once a year and restock any items that have been used in the interim. Be sure to keep all of your family’s prescription meds stocked up, too.

14. Have spare HVAC filters on hand

If weather conditions are smoky or airborne pathogens are a risk, your ventilation system may be working overtime. Many consumers are terribly forgetful about regularly replacing filters especially when there’s not a crisis, and a great way to get into the habit is to subscribe to a service that sends compatible replacement air filters on a regular schedule, as they’re needed. Ecobee and Second Nature both offer the service.

15. Stock several days of food and water

You don’t need to be a prepper and stock up on 50-pound bags of rice, beans, and flour to play it safe and prepare for sheltering in place. For a typical household of three or four, a couple dozen cans of soups, chilis, pastas, and veggies, some peanut butter, a 12-pack of energy bars, and several gallons of bottled water should be plenty to get you through a short-term sheltering situation until fresh food can be sourced. FEMA has an extensive guide to navigating a disaster and only recommends having a three-day supply of food and water for everyone in the house. Don’t forget your pets!

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