What Is a Smart Plug? (and How It Can Make Your Home Awesome)

Written by | Updated December 20, 2018
smart power strip

Smart plugs are all you need to add remote control to lights and other appliances.

Didn’t think you had the money or know-how to turn your abode into a smart home? We show you how to do it with one little gadget—a smart plug. These innovative devices transform any outlet into a smart one. Find out how remote control, energy monitoring, and voice commands can change your life.

So What Is a Smart Plug, Anyway?

A smart plug is a device that you can plug into any wall outlet in your home. Once it’s plugged in, voilà! You have a smart outlet! What makes it smart is a connection to a mobile app that lets you control the outlet from your phone. Once the outlet is smart, any appliance you plug into it becomes smart. This means that you can turn off a lamp or start the slow cooker with a swipe of your finger—no matter where you are. And if you don’t even want to do that much work, just set up a schedule, and let the devices connected to your smart plug take care of themselves.

To keep it simple, here are the only things you really need to know:  

  • Smart plugs are also known as smart outlets or smart switches.
  • You don’t need to do anything mechanical to use a smart plug.
  • Smart plugs work in any standard outlet.
  • Devices you plug into a smart outlet don’t have to be smart.
  • Smart plugs use apps for remote control and scheduling.
  • You can pick up a smart plug for under $30.

And Why Would I Want a Smart Plug?

Whether you’ve been pining for a smart home or have been a little intimidated at the prospect, a smart plug is the easiest, cheapest way to get started. Let’s see if any of these scenarios appeal to you:

  • Do you want your flat iron hot and ready to go when you are?
  • Would you like to turn on the lights for your pets from across town?
  • How about turning off the kids’ TV at bedtime (even when you’re out for date night)?

But What Else Can a Smart Plug Do?

There’s more to smart plugs than convenience and ruining your babysitter’s plans to let the kids stay up late. There are real, practical applications that can save you worry and money.

Smart Plugs Provide Extra Security

You can use smart plugs to incorporate lights and other devices into your home security plan. We all know that leaving one light on in our house the whole time we’re away on vacation is like rolling out a welcome mat to burglars. But smart plugs make it possible to randomly turn the lights, TV, and stereo on and off—whether you’re on a chairlift or lounging at the beach. Or you can set a timer to schedule your devices to turn on and off automatically so you can sit back and enjoy your downtime.

Smart plugs designed for outdoor use can help you light walkways, the porch, and other outdoor entryways. You won’t have to come home to a dark house ever again. Plus, you can remotely turn on the lights for kids and visitors as needed. This provides safe passage into your home and acts as an extra burglar deterrent.

Smart Plugs Help with Energy Management

Our Pick: WeMo
wemo insight smart plug

The WeMo Insight Smart Plug comes with built-in energy management tools to help you cut down on waste and lower those monthly power bills.

  • Get real-time energy usage reports
  • Monitor usage by device or room
  • Use WeMo app to set “Home” and “Away” schedules

Smart plugs that track energy usage let you identify (and eliminate) power guzzlers. They can help you cut down on energy waste, which can result in lower power bills. Some smart plugs come with smart meters that track energy usage. These meters tell you (in real time) how much energy each device uses. You can finally find out whether it’s that tangle of hair styling tools or the Xbox that’s gobbling up electricity.

On top of rooting out active energy wasters, you can also cut down on latent energy use. When devices are plugged in, they leach energy—even if they’re turned off. Smart plugs give you the ability to restrict or prevent dormant energy consumption from appliances that you keep plugged in all the time.

Smart Plugs Give Your Voice More Power

You can tell your coffee pot to shut down or holler for the DVR to pause if the smart plug you use is compatible with smart assistants like Amazon Alexa. If this feature is at the top of your list, make sure you pick a smart plug that works with voice control. And be prepared to spend a little bit extra. Some smart plugs require a hub or bridge for voice control.

Smart Plugs Support Family Time

It’s a tale as old as . . . well, the twenty-first century. But the parental quest to get kids unplugged and focused on faces instead of screens can use all the help it can get. When you plug a TV, game console, or computer into a smart plug, you give yourself superpowers. Whether it’s dinner time or family game night, smart plugs let you turn off distractions remotely. You can power off the TV manually or set a schedule if you want it shut down every night before dinner or bedtime. Now if we could only make it work for smartphones! (Actually, we have a solution for that too—check out our parental control software guide.)

Go Ahead and Get Your Own Smart Plug

There are a lot of options to choose from, so we picked out some smart plugs that we think are great to get you started. All of these smart plugs are under $35 and have strong customer reviews.

samsung smartthings outlet wemo mini smart plug ihome smart plug outdoor
Product Samsung SmartThings Outlet WeMo Mini Smart Plug iHome Smart Plug (Outdoor)
Best For Smart home integration Fooling burglars when you’re away Controlling holiday lights
Pros
  • Reports power consumption
  • Sends alert if there’s a power outage
  • Helps smart hub connect with other devices
  • Small enough to fit two in one outlet
  • Equipped with “Away Mode” that randomizes lights
  • Compatible with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit
  • Affordable
  • Rain and weather resistant
  • Compatible with most home automation platforms
Cons
  • Requires SmartThings hub
  • Blocks second outlet (depending on model)
  • Limited to Wi-Fi connectivity only
  • Known for firmware problems
  • Short power cord (6″)
  • Mixed reviews for the app
  • Wi-Fi connectivity issues
Price Check Price on Amazon Check Price on Amazon Check Price on Amazon

Beyond the Smart Plug

Here are some products to augment and enhance your smart plug life.

  teckin smart power strip lifx smart led bulb
Product TECKIN Smart Power Strip Smart Strip Energy Saving Surge Protector LIFX Wi-Fi Smart LED Light Bulb
Best For Plugging in multiple devices Managing energy usage Lighting up your life
Pros
  • Comes with 4 outlets
  • Acts as a surge protector
  • Works with IFTTT, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant
  • Provides 10 widely-spaced outlets
  • Auto-switches devices on and off
  • Uses less than 1 watt of power
  • No hub required
  • Compatibility with Amazon Alexa
  • Remote control through app
  • Millions of dimmable color options
Cons
  • Struggles with higher amp appliances
  • Goes offline occasionally
  • Auto-switch feature not compatible with all devices
  • Doesn’t have a reset button
  • High price
  • Network connectivity issues
Price Check Price on Amazon Check Price on Amazon Check Price on Amazon

Smart Plug FAQs

Can I use a smart plug outside?

SafeWise Recommends
iclever outdoor smart plug

iClever Outdoor Smart Plug

Yes. There are smart plugs explicitly designed to stand up to weather, humidity, and extreme temperatures. Outdoor smart plugs are an excellent option to control holiday lights and other outdoor devices.

Will a smart plug work with any appliance?

Not necessarily. Some devices work better than others. To control an appliance using an app and a smart plug, the appliance needs to be left on at all times. This is where you can run into problems. The type of power switch the device uses determines how compatible it will be with a smart plug. Appliances with a mechanical switch (one you physically toggle back and forth to turn on and off) are a better match for a smart plug. When you turn a device on and off with an app, it’s the same as unplugging the device. This works best when the device has a mechanical switch that will still be in the “on” position until you physically change it. Most lamps and fans have mechanical switches, which makes them ideal candidates for smart plug use.

Electronic switches (or power buttons) always revert to “off” after being unplugged, which means you can’t always use the smart plug app to control an appliance with a power button. You’d have to physically push the button to turn it on again. This defeats the purpose of using a smart plug. I tried it with my coffee maker, and it was only good for turning it off. If you have a specific item in mind that you want to control with a smart plug, make sure it will do what you want it to before making your purchase.

Can a smart plug help me lower my power bill?

Yes. Smart plugs can help you use less power, which will lower your monthly power bill. Because you can control smart plugs remotely, or set up schedules to turn devices on and off, you limit latent energy use that occurs from leaving appliances plugged in all the time. Smart plugs equipped with smart meters can identify energy guzzlers so you can better manage them.

Do I need a smart home hub to use a smart plug?

Maybe. Some smart plugs that are part of bigger systems, like SmartThings, require a hub to work. And if you want to use voice control with a smart plug, you’ll need a voice assistant hub like Amazon Echo or Google Home. But there are plenty others out there (like WeMo Mini) that work with nothing more than a Wi-Fi network and a smartphone or tablet.

Are smart plugs dangerous?

Not usually. Smart plugs pass the same standard safety guidelines as any other device you plug into the wall. As with any electrical device, you should be safe as long as you don’t overload the outlet. The biggest concern that people have had about smart plugs is vulnerability to hacking. This issue was more prevalent a few years ago when smart plugs first hit the scene. A few plugs were found to be vulnerable, making it possible for a hacker to access login information. This could give a hacker control of the device, which might make it a conduit for a malware attack on your home Wi-Fi network. But manufacturers have responded and worked to make smart plugs more secure.  

Written by Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca has honed her safety and security skills as both a single mom and a college director. Being responsible for the well-being of others helped her learn how to minimize risk and create safe environments. Learn more

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