Gadgets for a carefree -- and smart -- vacation

While you're away, is everything at home OK?

As vacation season kicks into gear, many of us struggle with managing the homestead from afar. Is everything safe? Did the neighbor feed the cat? Did that delivery arrive?

Thankfully, there are a variety of smart home devices to make your vacation more carefree. Many can be installed in few minutes by anyone who's ever wielded a screwdriver, and then they can be managed on a smartphone. So you don't have to buy a new refrigerator or washing machine to take advantage of smart home intelligence. I've tested scores of remote sensors, locks, cameras and switches, and these are some of the best:

Eye on Your Property

Video cameras are best way to monitor the home when you're away. And while there are dozens of so-called nanny cams available, a relative newcomer, Dropcam, has garnered considerable attention — especially after its $555 million acquisition last month by Nest. Why the exorbitant price tag? Because of one feature: simplicity. Companies such as Panasonic have made high-quality cameras for many years, but Dropcam came into the market with the goal of making it easier for consumers, and it has succeeded. The $199 Dropcam Pro Wi-Fi camera's picture can be viewed online at any time, and it will send messages and pictures when sound or motion is detected. In my tests, it's also reliable. When the home network reboots and other devices fail to come back online, Dropcam always returns after an outage. If you want to keep recordings online, seven days’ worth of recordings start at $99 a year.

Open Sesame

Sometimes when you're away, you may want someone to get into your house. Friends can water the plants, take in the mail, check on the fish. But arranging for keys and relying on just one person can be a hassle. With an Internet-connected door lock, you can open it from anywhere, whenever you want. You can assign particular codes to particular people to gain access, or you can issue a temporary code for, say, a delivery person to drop off a package. Schlage's $199 Schlage Camelot Residential Electronic Door Lever offers all these features, and its programmable keypad lock installs easily, replacing most standard home front door locks. To get the remote control features — and notices whenever the door is opened — it works with either the Lowe’s Iris Smart Home or the Nexia Home Intelligence system using the Z-Wave wireless format. The only downside is that monthly fees, starting at $10, apply for the full complement of features.

Car Concerns

As smart locks become more common, so will remote access garage door openers. Chamberlain's MyQ Garage system works with openers from Chamberlain and LiftMaster and allows you to open and close a garage door using an Apple or Android smartphone. The $130 package includes a controller that communicates with the door opener and a home Wi-Fi network. Also included is a door position sensor that sticks to the inside top panel of the garage door. Once the straightforward installation is done (it took me less than 20 minutes), whenever the door is opened or closed, the owner receives an e-mail or text message. It's ideal for parents who want to know if their teenagers back home have “borrowed” the car — or for when you need to give someone access to the garage but not the rest of the house.

Keeping it Cool

When you're away, there's no point in wasting energy to keep the house cool. The advantage of smart, programmable thermostats is that you not only save money by cutting electrical and fuel usage when you're away, but you can also begin cooling your home before you return. Google-owned Nest is one of the most noteworthy smart thermostats, primarily for its easy installation and operation. It can run without batteries or a separate power connection (it uses a trickle charge from the existing HVAC line), and in my tests the $249 device was able to make a wireless connection to a home network when others failed because of a weak signal. Joining Nest is Honeywell's new $279 Lyric thermostat. Its round countenance and color LCD display mimic the Nest design, but Honeywell has added a geofencing feature: When you and your smartphone leave home, the thermostat can automatically turn down the air conditioning (or the heat). When you return, the system automatically goes back to your preferred settings.

While all these device can be controlled with a smartphone or tablet app, what they lack is an industry standard to allow you to control everything — from any manufacturer — using a single coordinated program. It would be ideal to have a single controller that turns the lights on at night, turns down the AC and confirms that all doors and windows are secure. You can buy complete systems, but then you're limited to specific devices. Apple's forthcoming HomeKit software promises to solve that problem, and Google is also working on a system. Whether one or both of them can enforce a smart home standard — countless others have failed — remains to be seen. In the meantime, there's no reason to wait to boost your home's IQ all by yourself.