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You know what you want: Good-looking window coverings that do the job — pretty much by themselves. Whether the governing mechanism is a voice command, an app, Bluetooth or WiFi, you’re poised to enter the land of smart window shades and blinds.
But getting from want it to have it requires a few steps and a fair amount of decision making: There are a lot of options among automated window treatments, from style, material and color to energy efficiency, and ease of installation and operation. Here’s a checklist of questions to keep in mind when you start shopping.
What’s the difference between smart blinds and smart shades?
Basically, it’s the same difference between blinds and shades in general.
Shades are made from one long piece of material and either wrap around rollers or fold up accordion-style. You can choose a material that is sheer or opaque, or somewhere in between. Most shades can be reinforced with blackout material. There are also gauzy solar shades, which are made with a special coated material (usually high-end vinyl) that filters light, UV rays and heat, and reduces glare.
Then there are honeycombs — three-dimensional shades with geometric cellular air pockets. They can be light-filtering or opaque, and because the pockets help insulate the windows, they are a great choice if energy efficiency is high on your list. Roman shades, typically made from a single length of lined fabric, fold in broad pleats instead of rolling up like a yoga mat or shrinking like an accordion.
Whatever the style, the smart function allows you to lower and raise the shades automatically, without tugging at a cord.
Blinds are typically made with hard slats (wood, plastic or another material). You see them sometimes with sheer fabric sandwiching the slats, but slats-only blinds, known as Venetians, are more common.
The big draw of smart blinds is that the slats can be tilted on a schedule or under the watch of a sensor, allowing in controlled amounts of light and air. (The blinds themselves often need to be raised and lowered by hand.)
What’s the best way to automate shades and blinds?
One of the big advantages of smart blinds and shades is the ability to go wireless with the help of an app. The app may allow you to make voice commands, or to set up a schedule, or to change a schedule etc. If you want to control your blinds or shades from the road, go for a mobile app. Bluetooth apps, which operate with a radio frequency, are a fine option if you rule your kingdom from home.
The app works in turn with help from a smart-home hub or some other means of sending signals in the direction of the window. Options for the latter include a networking device called a bridge. Z-Wave and Zigbeeby are networks that don’t require Bluetooth or WiFi, though they do require a receiver.
You can restrict your choices to shades or blinds that are compatible with your existing hub. Many of the leading brands work with popular virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri, but not all work with all of them. And some smart shades require a bridge in any case.
Worried about iffy WiFi? Add a hand-held remote to your toolbox. Just in case.
How do smart shade and blinds work?
Wireless almost always means batteries — 8 to 10 per shade in some cases — to actually power the window treatment’s motors. Some motors come with throwaways, which have to be replaced every year or so depending on use, while others use rechargeable batteries. Either way you’ll need to climb a ladder to replace the batteries or to recharge them by connecting the charger and motor wires. And over time, even rechargeable batteries may need replacement.
Some smart shade and blind motors come with photovoltaic solar panels that can charge batteries or convert sunlight to direct current.
Can you hardwire smart shades and blinds?
Automated shades and blinds can be plugged in, doing away with the need for batteries (see above), but one goal of going smart is going wireless. If you hate dealing with batteries, hardwiring solves that problem. But if you want those wires hidden, you’ll have to open up the wall.
Are you concerned about drafts and light leaks?
Blinds are fairly light-tight when fully closed, but in general shades are better at completely blocking sunlight.
Shades and blinds are usually installed inside the window frame. You can always consider mounting the shade or blind on the wall instead, so it covers the window opening. But if you stick with an inside mount, and the roller or mechanism up top is wider than the shade or blind itself, then yes, even if the material is opaque, light — and cold or hot air — can seep in around the edges.
If light or air seepage is an issue, ask a sales or design pro which options do the best job of narrowing the gap: some brands offer a more precise fit to reduce light creep from the top of the shade, and some styles, such as honeycombs, do a better job of trapping air. Another option is to add curtains and a valence.
How noisy are smart shades and blinds?
Some motors are bulkier or noisier than others. Decibels aren’t typically disclosed, but if you care about quiet, it pays to read consumer reviews or to ask the retailer or manufacturer for a given brand’s motor noise level.
How smart a window system do you want?
Lifting and tilting are only the beginning of what some smart shades and blinds can do.
Let’s say you’re rarely at home when the sun is at its hottest, but you do like your blind slats open during most of the day. (Maybe you want the warmth of the sun to contribute to heating — or you have house plants.) You can put your smart blinds or shades on a schedule to change at certain times; some automatically adjust the schedule as the seasons change.
Or you can opt for a light or temperature sensor that can pick up on changes in the intensity of the sun and heat. For example, a sensor — perhaps integrated with your home hub — can open or close the slats of a blind when the sun is strong or weak or when the temperature in the room swings.
How important is coordinating the windows with the rest of the room?
Shades come in a range of materials, colors and patterns. Gauzy architectural roller shades — especially the solar shade variety — are a modernist icon, but they can complement any style room. With any shade, pay attention to how the motor and hardware are disguised (or not) — unless you are after an industrial-chic look.
Blinds with wooden slats can be stained in various hues, and slats made from other materials come in different colors. Roman shades are relatively new to the smart-home market. There isn’t yet a lot of choice among prefab versions, but custom Roman shades can be made from any number of fabrics.
Keep in mind that operating systems for smart shades and blinds are constantly evolving, and the newer the technology the less choice you may have decor-wise. Also, some manufacturers keep their prices down by restricting color and material choice.