This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Months of social distancing have made outdoor spaces more central to our lives than ever before. So this might be the season to double down on smart home tech designed to make outdoor living and entertaining simpler, easier, and more enjoyable—allowing you to take your playlists to the backyard, tend the grill from afar, and dim the string lights for dinner with a voice command or smartphone app. The best devices give you the same level of control from a lawn chair that you’re used to having from your family room couch.
Using smart home technology outdoors isn’t a novel idea—you’ve probably taken a smart speaker out to the deck to crank up some tunes—but this new gear was designed with outdoor use in mind. That means it comes in a durable, weather- resistant build made to survive the elements, and in many cases with rechargeable batteries that untether you from an outlet. Ideally, the smart devices in a backyard mix are easy to set up and to control with either your phone or the virtual assistant you already use inside. Here are a few of our favorites.
Dinner and a Movie
Not much bigger than a soda can, this portable projector casts a 100-inch picture onto a screen or wall (or, in a pinch, a bedsheet) for open-air movie nights. Stream up to 4 hours of Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu—or download to its internal hard drive when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
Anker Nebula Apollo Projector, $350; Amazon
A refrigerator is a luxury in an outdoor kitchen, but this portable electric cooler might just be more versatile—it can freeze down to −7°F when plugged in. And its 36-liter capacity fits more than you’d expect, since no ice pack is needed. Monitor and set temps from your smartphone.
Dometic CFX3 35 Powered Cooler, $900; Amazon
At one time, low-and-slow barbecue required minding a grill or smoker for hours—even overnight—to regulate the temperature. But once you sync this pellet cooker to your Wi-Fi, making those adjustments, and checking the temp of the food inside, happens from your phone, whether you’re indoors on the sofa or across town.
Traeger Pro 575 Pellet Grill, $800; Amazon
This thermos-size smart speaker works with Alexa and the Google Assistant to control your other connected devices while cranking tunes during dinner. Its rugged, splash-proof body protects against drops, so you won’t have to baby it. Connect through Bluetooth when you’re away from Wi-Fi—say, at the beach.
Bose Portable Smart Speaker, $400 Amazon
Light Up the Night
A touch-sensitive ring on this 8½-inch-tall outdoor-rated lantern controls the brightness and the volume of the built-in Bluetooth speaker. Delivers 15 hours of diffused, warm light and tunes per charge.
Pablo UMA Mini, $299; Pablo Store
This weatherproof outdoor plug turns any standard set of string lights into a smart one that you can control from your phone. It requires Lutron’s Smart Bridge ($80), which uses a low-frequency wireless band to sidestep spotty Wi-Fi; or sync it with a virtual assistant’s app for voice control.
Caséta by Lutron Outdoor Smart Plug, $80; Amazon
Line a path or an outdoor room with these solar-powered LED fixtures for up to 6 hours of soft, white light, using Dusk to Dawn mode. No wiring needed; just pop them in the ground. Connect them to Wi-Fi with a bridge ($50), then turn them on or off, or adjust the brightness, from a smartphone—or ask Alexa to do it.
Ring Solar Pathlight, $35; Ring
Less work, better lawn
Traditional irrigation controllers, with their gaggles of dials and switches, can be confusing to use. This one avoids all that with an intuitive smartphone dashboard. Wiring is DIY-friendly, and the controller uses Wi-Fi to find local weather updates so it won’t waste water if rain is on the way.
Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller, from $230; Amazon
This robotic mower keeps lawns as large as ¼ acre manicured, freeing up your weekends. It’s quiet enough to run at night; schedule it so you wake to freshly cut turf. Onboard controls are easy to use, or operate it via a smartphone through a cellular network—perfect for those remote corners of the yard that Wi-Fi can’t reach.
Stihl iMow RMI 422 PC-L, $1,900; Stihl
TOH Pro Tip
“If your mesh network has satellites, plug one in by your patio or deck, or move it to an interior wall nearby, for better Wi-Fi. Just remember to take the satellite with you when you go inside—they’re not designed to handle rain or harsh sun.” —Ross Trethewey,home technology expert
Blanket Your Yard in Wi-Fi
Even the latest, greatest outdoor smart tech won’t work well if your home’s Wi-Fi network can’t reach it. Sure, moving an indoor satellite to a nearby wall, or even outside, can help. But for complete coverage, add a weather-resistant outdoor satellite extender, like the Orbi Tri-band Mesh WiFi Outdoor Satellite Range Extender ($350; Netgear), which can live outside year-round. Plugged in to an outlet and linked to your main router, it’ll add up to 2,500 square feet of coverage. Remember, a satellite sends out signals in all directions; for the best coverage, be sure to center it in your backyard, or mount it on a wall or fence post.