What is a “smart outlet?”

All of a sudden it seems like we really are living in the future. We’d just all gotten used to smartphones and then your entire house goes smart. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Alexa and Hey Google and you have some idea how they work. You ask for some information and you get it back. You can even connect things and control them with your voice. But did you ever stop and wonder how it all happens?

Smart outlets are the key

In order for you to control something with your voice, it needs to be connected somehow to the device you’re talking to. A few things come with this sort of connection built in, but most don’t. Most rely on smart outlets.

A smart outlet is a combination of three things. First, of course, is a plain old regular outlet. Smart outlets take the place of the outlets you already have. If you aren’t much for home improvement, you can get ones that fit over your existing outlet and do the same thing. They work the same but don’t look as slick as a built-in installation.

The second thing is a networking chip. Most smart outlets are connected over Wi-Fi. You set them up with your phone and they connect to your home router. Your Alexa or Google device is also connected to your home router, so everything can see each other and talk to each other. Networking takes power, but that’s ok… you’re literally wired into an outlet.

The third thing is just enough computer smarts to identify the outlet and know what it does. Each smart outlet has a unique name. Two of them, actually. One is the actual device ID, and one is the name you give it so when you say “Alexa, turn on the lights in the living room” it knows you mean that outlet.

How a smart outlet typically works

It’s not really magical. There’s a lot of technology involved, but here’s how it goes down. Say you have a lamp plugged into a smart outlet in the living room. For this example let’s assume everything is set up properly.

  1. You say, “Alexa, turn on the lights in the living room.”
  2. A device like an Echo Dot hears this message. Because you started with the word “Alexa,” it records the message and sends it to very fancy computers to help it understand what you said.
  3. In milliseconds, a computer somewhere else has heard your request and translated it into an instruction it understands: LIVING ROOM OUTLET: SWITCH ON POWER. This message is sent back to the Echo Dot.
  4. The Echo Dot receives the message and sends it back out through your home network.
  5. The smart outlet in your living room is always listening over the wire for a message to go to LIVING ROOM OUTLET. When it hears one, it obeys, instantly.
  6. And suddenly, within a second or two, you have light in the living room. It took millions of dollars in tech and signals traveling thousands of miles, but it happens so fast you don’t even know it.

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About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.