Date:11 October 2013
Smartphone apps for home improvement
For today’s handy homeowner, a well-designed smartphone app can be as essential as a hammer and a box of nails. Still, like hand tools, some apps are total clunkers that waste more time than they save. I dug into more than 50 applications created to help DIYers design, renovate, automate and maintain their homes and gardens. After all the testing was complete, I deleted the duds. Here are the ones that I kept on my phone. By David Agrell
If you’re planning to remodel, it’s not enough to have a vague idea of how you want the results to look. You need concrete examples to crystallise your plans and communicate your ideas. Before renovating our home, my wife and I relied on the Houzz Interior Design Ideas app (iPhone/Android, free) for tips. It features more than 1,5 million images of swanky interiors, all curated by design professionals, editors and savvy homeowners. It’s like having access to a massive scrapbook. Its true power, though, comes from the roughly 10 million monthly users, who tag photos with descriptions, comments and questions to create a highly searchable index. Want to know how a dark-coloured hardwood floor looks against stark white cabinets? Simply search those terms and then browse hundreds of real-life examples. Clip images you like to a custom album, called an Ideabook. Thanks to Houzz’s social integration, my wife and I could join conversations about countertop materials and tap designs.
Pick a colour
Choosing a paint colour can be a terrifying experience. What’s described as Summer Cornfield on a sample chip can look more like Toddler’s Vomit once the paint dries. Luckily, an app such as Plascon’s InspireMe helps homeowners select the right shade – and smartphones add extra functionality, thanks to their ability to process images. Take a picture of a colour you like, whether it’s a painted wall in a neighbour’s house or a rug in a department store and load it for analysis. After you’ve pinpointed the exact hue, the app not only matches it to something in the manufacturer’s palette, but also suggests complementary and adjacent colours. You’ll get guidelines on how much to use, how to clean equipment and what tools are best. There’s also advice on handling common paint problems such as moisture, cracks and mildew.
Forget something? Constant trips to the hardware store kill productivity. Although the Home Depot app (iPhone/Android, free) is US-specific, it is more than just a typical shopping app and has several additional features that could be found useful by any homemaker. Home Depot’s handy Toolbox, includes a unit converter, a nut-and-bolt finder, and a utility for determining the correct amount of drywall, flooring, insulation or paint for your project. That almost makes up for lacking the ability, in South Africa, to use its accurate voice recognition to add items to a shopping list, scan the bar code of a product you have but need to replace (such as an empty can of spray paint), or prepay for your order and have it ready when you arrive.
Become a timberyard expert
There are literally hundreds of species of wood, each with unique colours, textures and physical properties. If you’re building a pergola, what’s the best choice? For trips to the timberyard, I use the Woodshop Widget (iPhone/Android, about R40), a suite of simple but powerful utilities. The board-specific calculator lets me accurately price hardwood and I can also compare different woods based on hardness and how much they’re likely to shrink and distort in my climate – key info if a project requires stability over appearance. The app lacks a visual wood identifier, though. For that I use ID Wood (iPhone/Android, R50), which is loaded with more than 200 images.
How accurate is a colour-matching app?
We uploaded an image of a DeWalt grinder to three paint manufacturers’ apps to see their interpretations of the tool’s iconic yellow body.
Need advice? You installed a new bathroom tap, and now it’s leaking profusely into the cabinet below. To figure out what you did wrong, grab your smartphone and head to YouTube. Chances are someone, somewhere, had the same problem with the same tap and has posted a video explaining how to fix it. Plus, a typical smartphone is small enough for comfortable viewing in cramped spaces, such as under a bathroom basin.
Stay in charge
If you’re remodelling and find yourself without power, charge your phone via the 12V socket on Bosch’s GML 50 Professional construction site radio. Capable of charging all Bosch 14,4 and 18 V power tool batteries, thanks to its internal lithium-ion battery it can operate independently from mains power.
Measure twice, cut once
I’m sceptical of apps that promise measuring tapes, protractors, levels and plumb bobs. They rely chiefly on your phone’s built-in accelerometer, meaning they need to be calibrated first. Additionally, the small size of a typical smartphone limits its accuracy. If you must have a quick-and-dirty app to handle these tasks, iHandy Carpenter (iPhone/Android, R20) has the most complete set of tools. Otherwise, take approximate measurements by eyeballing them or employing anthropometric standards. For accurate, usable numbers, grab a tape measure and a torpedo level. Smartphones are, however, well-suited for complex calculations. Many free apps offer fraction calculators or unit converters. For serious projects, the Construction Master Pro (iPhone/ Android, R200) is loaded with all the features of the ubiquitous hardware version, but for one-quarter of the cost. It handles conversions and fractions, as well as trigonometry, roofing, stair-building and other layout functions.
All modern home automation and security systems have a dedicated – and usually free – app that allows you to control lights, monitor video feeds, adjust room climates, water the lawn, and even unlock doors, in real time, from anywhere in the world. For the DIYer, the Insteon app (iPhone/Android, free) is part of a plug-and-play system that grows with the homeowner’s needs. Add outlets, thermostats, sensors, lightbulbs and video cameras as required, and then control them remotely with the app. You can also automate everything on a schedule. If you have a spare video-equipped iPhone lying around, turn it into a security camera with the Presence app (iPhone, free). As the father of an infant, I plan to repurpose my iPhone 3GS into a low-profile nanny cam that I can monitor from my desk.
Design before digging
It can take a few seasons to know whether your garden is a success. Eden Garden (iPhone, about R20), however, can eliminate some of the guesswork. Begin by uploading an image of your yard, and scale it to size. Then search for decorative plants by name, height, hardiness zone, colour, blooming season, sun exposure or type, and place them in your virtual landscape. You can even toggle through the seasons to find out exactly when your azalea’s blooms will clash with those of your bird’s-eye primrose.
Get chores done
Our home has three owners, and we all help maintain it. That means everything from servicing the heating system to inspecting the roof for leaks. To track who has done what, we use POJO’s Home Maintenance app (iPhone, R50). It seems overpriced considering its bare-bones interface and routine functionality, but it’s worth the cost of a sandwich knowing we’ll avoid a catastrophe, such as a rotten roof deck. The app archives what’s been serviced and alerts us when a task is due. We can also upload photos of recent repairs and store the contact information of the service professionals we hired. To keep us all on the same page, we synchronise our data over Wi-Fi.