Simply Brilliant

July 13, 2012

Text by Sydney Schuster


Home automation certainly isn’t a new concept, ­although most agree there was little progress between the Harappans inventing flush toilets in 2600 BCE and Hotpoint introducing electric toasters in 1905. In 1957 Monsanto and MIT raised the bar somewhat with the House of the Future (the future being 1986). Their Jetsonian edifice in Disneyland boasted centralized push-button controls for climate, entertainment, lighting and CCTV (so you could see who was ringing your doorbell from the WC). The attraction was deemed obsolete in 1967 and replaced with a giant planter.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, where smart home technologies offer endless conveniences. The modern twist? Buyer reticence. A 2011 study by the German company GfK Retail and Technology concluded consumers are wary of smart homes, because they’re “afraid of being overwhelmed by technical demands [and] worry about high costs.”

Savvy vendors know this. That’s why they’ve stepped up to the plate with affordable packages that are ridiculously easy to use.

How easy? Their smartphone and tablet interfaces display idiot-proof icons labeled “lights,” “climate,” “security,” and so on. Not ready for touch screens yet? Alternative controllers include PCs, Macs, TV-type handheld devices, Bluetooth headsets (for voice-activated apps) and even House of the ­Future–style push-button wall panels.

“We use Apple iPhones and iPads to control our clients’ houses,” says Jeff Binette, president of SmartHome Solutions in Kennebunk, Maine. “They can look through their security cameras, at audio/video distribution, lights and thermostats with this system.” The system Binette is talking about is manufactured by Savant Systems of Osterville, Massachusetts. Besides being dead simple to use, the product is both modular and scalable.

Most of today’s home automation installations involve entertainment, HVAC and lighting, but the menu’s growing and the price is dropping, fast.

Jim Slane, president of Smart Home Tech in Newburyport, Massachusetts, says his most popular install is the g! Entertainment and Control System from Elan Home Systems. “Five years ago, for a good-sized home you were looking at a cost of six figures,” Slane says. “Today it’s one-tenth that.” The reason? “The systems get easier to program, because most devices involved are now Internet-ready.”

That also means remote-ready—sometimes very remote. Slane says, “We have clients with summer homes here who live in England, and they use their iPhone to check temperatures or turn on the security system.”

Imagine using your phone or laptop to unlock a door for someone, turn on your heat and lights before you get home, or fire up your spa. And if a pipe bursts while you’re away, you’ll no longer be the last to know.

Your lawn can be just as smart as your house, too. David Ducharme, owner of Total Home Technology in Salem, Massachusetts, installs weather-detecting irrigation systems using technology by Crestron. “A little weather station at the house is tied into a Web interface, so the owners, wherever they are, can see what the weather’s like and turn their sprinklers on and off. We can tie that into a water conservation app, so you water the lawn less when the weather’s not too hot or too dry.”

And check this out: Paul Jung, co-owner of NexSense in Boxford, Massachusetts, a vendor of Control4 systems, installs home monitoring for the elderly. “Say you have a parent living at home alone,” says Jung. “We can install motion sensors and contact sensors on doors and furniture so you’ll know that they got out of bed or that they walked out the door when they shouldn’t. You can program the system to text or e-mail a caregiver, saying, ‘It’s 11 a.m. and Mom didn’t get out of bed yet; please give her a call.’”

About the only thing you can’t do with today’s systems is modify them yourself, beyond basic functionality (thermostat settings, on/off times for appliances). That’s because all Apple devices and most smart home systems use proprietary programming. John Bray Sr., a consultant with Maverick Integration in Bedford, New Hampshire, says, “If you don’t like the way Apple interfaces work, don’t buy them. They can’t be modified. Some of our control systems are completely custom tailored, so we can modify the interface. The only downside is that you’re married to the integrator.”

In short, home automation customers can’t tackle their own system modifications or change vendors easily. But the sheer happiness factor (not to mention economies of energy and budget) can significantly offset the disadvantages. “When the shades go up and down automatically, and it’s just part of what the house does by itself, people love that,” says Evan Struhl, CEO of Cutting Edge Systems in Westford, Massachusetts.

Cutting Edge offers systems that shut down your house at night, so you don’t have to. Struhl says, “You can have a button that will turn down the heat, turn off all your lights, music, TVs, all the things the kids left on—all from your bedside.”

Like the flush toilet, sometimes it’s little things that count the most. Take the Airplay app. “You can use it to stream audio and video wirelessly to your TV or stereo from your iPad, iPod or iPhone,” says Struhl. “All you do is push a button. The quality isn’t audiophile, but it’s listenable.”

That’s a small price to pay for glorious freedom from your soon-to-be-obsolete docks and DVD players.

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