Geofencing can level up your smart home if you set it up properly

Your smart gadgets can detect when you come home—but only if you change the right settings.

I dream of a truly smart home. But I don’t just want light bulbs I can turn on with my phone—I want a fully automated, Tony Stark-style robot house that talks to me and anticipates my every need before I even ask.

Consumer technology is still far from this fantasy, but with geofencing you’ll be one step closer to it. Many smart devices today contain this kind of features, which allow you to set up a virtual perimeter around your home, and trigger certain actions when you enter or exit that area. For example, you can set your gadgets to unlock your door, change the thermostat, or turn on the lights as soon as they detect you’ve arrived. But unless you tweak some settings on your phone first, these functionalities don’t always work as intended.

Here’s the problem: your device can often mess up your geofencing setup with power-saving modes or other settings meant to improve your privacy. Your phone will put the apps you need to sleep, or block them from getting your location, and they’ll never realize you’ve left your home. These features are well-intentioned, but make geofencing a bit more complicated to use, especially on Android (thanks to some clunky, confusing menus).

But after years of decking out my house with tech and reviewing dozens of smart devices, I’ve learned a few troubleshooting steps that can help you with your geofencing problems—whether you’re trying to fix your thermostat, lights, or something else entirely.

Know your radius

Every smart device implements its geofencing radius a little differently. Some will mark you as “away from home” if you’re 250 feet away from the house, while others might need you to travel a few miles before it considers you out and about. If your devices don’t seem to be flipping into “Away” mode, make sure it’s actually designed to do so at the distance you’re traveling.

You may have to google your device to find out what its radius is, but if you’re lucky, it’ll say so right in the app’s settings. And if you’re really lucky, you may even be able to adjust the radius directly from those settings. This will come in handy if you often head over to your neighbor’s and want to make sure the door unlocks when you come back.

Start with just one phone

In general, these geofencing features take into account the location of everyone in your household to function correctly. So if you, your spouse, and your kid all have the same smart home app on your phones, all with geofencing turned on, it’ll only put your lights and locks into “Away” mode when all three of you are out of the house. This can cause quirks, so try setting it up on one smartphone before you bring in other people.

In addition, one person using multiple devices might complicate things. For example, you and your phone might be away from home, but if you have an iPad you always leave in the bedroom, it might keep your status set to “Home”. Narrow down the problem by removing the app on other devices while you test your setup, and if you have an old phone still registered with the service, go into your account and remove it. Even if you’ve long wiped and sold it, its presence in your account could be throwing things off.

Tweak your location settings

Two people lost in the woods checking phone for directions
You may not know where you are exactly, but your home does: not home. Kamaji Ogino / Pexels

Both Android and iOS have improved privacy controls over the past few years—after all, you don’t want to give every app on your phone free reign to collect location data. But when you actually want an app to know your precise whereabouts for the purposes of home automation, your phone’s protections may be a bit overzealous.

On Android, long-press the icon for your smart home app and choose *App Info. Tap the *Permissions menu, choose *Location, and set the location access to *Allow All the Time. If this wasn’t already selected, there’s a good chance this permission was keeping the app from knowing when you left the house. You also need to make sure your GPS and mobile data are turned on in your phone’s settings, as Airplane Mode will automatically turn off location services.

If you have an iPhone, open the Settings app and scroll down to your smart home app. From there, you should see a *Location option—tap that and change location access to *Always. You may also need to turn on *Precise Location if it isn’t already.

Adjust power saving features

Smartphone technology has come a long way, but battery life is still at a premium on most devices. That’s why manufacturers have included a host of battery-saving features that keep apps from running needlessly in the background.

But like the privacy improvements, this can be a hindrance for those apps you want running in the background, such as geofencing smart home apps. As you’d expect, tweaking both of these options will drain your phone’s battery faster, so you’ll have to decide whether that’s a worthy tradeoff.

On Android, long-press the app’s icon and go to *App Info again. This time, choose *Battery—you may need to expand the *Advanced options for the battery settings to appear. Make sure *Background Activity is allowed, and if it isn’t, flip the switch. If you still have problems, you can also try tapping *Optimize Battery Usage here. This will take you to a new screen where you’ll have to tap *Not Optimized at the top, show all apps, and then turn optimization off for the smart home app in question.

Finally, if you use any task killers, you’ll want to exempt the smart home app from them as well—though really, you shouldn’t use task killers at all, as they often do more harm than good.

On the iPhone, most apps should already be able to use battery in the background, but you can double check by choosing your app in *Settings and ensuring *Background App Refresh is enabled. In addition, the app may need to actually be open on your phone to work. This doesn’t mean on-screen, though—you just may need to launch the app and then go back to the home screen so it’s running in the background. Make sure you don’t close the app from the App Switcher—in fact, you probably never want to do this unless the app is having problems.

When all else fails, email support or try another solution

If you still can’t get your smart devices reacting to your location, it may be worth an email to the support team of your device’s manufacturer, as they may be able to help you find other factors at play in your setup. In some cases, the app will have a bug that causes problems with the feature on certain phones. If the company’s support team is half decent, they’ll be able to figure out a solution for you.

If you can’t seem to get an app’s built-in geofencing to work, you have other options. iOS users might try registering the device with HomeKit and using its built-in geofencing instead. Or, if the device works with IFTTT, you can try setting up location-based automations through that instead.

And if geofencing is a total bust, other automations can serve similar purposes—motion sensors are a good alternative, and if you always come home at the same time, time-based schedules may also do the trick. A little creativity will certainly help you find something that works well enough for you.