Owners can control home from afar
Jan 20, 2013 (The Columbus Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
You don't need to be home to appreciate the home of the future.
Now, from 1,000 miles away, homeowners can lower the blinds, adjust the refrigerator's temperature and turn on the television.
And then there are the more practical applications of home automation: checking your phone to make sure your garage door is closed, lowering the temperature on the thermostat because you'll be out of the house longer than expected, unlocking the front door from afar to allow a repair crew into the home.
"It's just endless what you could do. It's just whether you want to," said Rick Hopkin, a former computer programmer who runs EZ-Integration in Dublin with his sons, Wes and Chris. "If you can plug it in, you can control it from a phone."
That simple sentence suggests the opportunity and perhaps the frustrations for consumers interested in adding some technological savvy to their home.
Appliance makers, technology firms, security companies, retailers and cable firms have all entered the smart-home ring, eager to grab a share of what is estimated to be a $2.5 billion market during the next few years.
Although the industry is certain to grow as homeowners seek to control more of their home's functions from a computer, it remains a checkered landscape of products, services and technologies surrounding a big unanswered question: What do homeowners really need to do from a computer screen
Wireless sensors can be installed on almost any outlet or switch -- or door lock, appliance, electric blind, camera or window -- but now those sensors operate on a variety of technologies. Linking the competing technologies will be the industry's prime challenge in the coming years.
Jim and Deborah Blackston started with a simple goal: update the security system at their Northwest Side home to allow the retired couple to check on the home while they were away and to shed the monthly fee they were paying a security firm.
Working with Hopkin, the couple installed security cameras in the house and sensors on doors and windows. When the doors or windows are open, the sensors send signals to a central receiver that, in turn, alerts Jim Blackston with a text message.
While out shopping one day last year, Blackston found the service useful when he received a text that his front door was open. By looking at the security cameras through his phone, Blackston confirmed that no one was in the house and concluded that wind had simply blown the door open.
He called a neighbor, who closed the door.
Blackston can also control several lights from his phone, along with a home theater. He might add a water-monitoring device in his basement along with a valve that would allow him to turn off all the water to the house from his phone if water is detected on the basement floor.
Beyond that, he's not sure what else he needs to automate.
"That's the problem with this stuff," Blackston said with a laugh. "It never ends."
If home automation seems overwhelming now, just wait.
At the Consumer Electronics Show this month, company after company launched new or updated home-automation gear and services.
Appliance maker Haier used the show to roll out a line of "smart" appliances that can be controlled remotely; AT&T unveiled its home-automation system Digital Life; and ADT launched its Pulse system.
Philips introduced the Hue lighting system, which can be controlled from a mobile phone; Nexia added several features to its Home Intelligence service; and Schlage lock company exhibited its LINK door lock that can be controlled from afar.
Even big-box stores are in the mix, with Lowe's promoting its Iris home-automation system.
(Bosch took an opposite approach by announcing that it was delaying the development of its smart appliances until the industry settles on a unifying technology.)
Many home-automation systems, such as Lowe's Iris, include monthly service fees on top of the charges to install sensors in the home. The Iris costs $9.99 a month, but some services can cost $40 or $50 a month.
Consumers need to understand such ongoing costs before committing to a home-automation system, said Daniel DiClerico, the senior home editor for Consumer Reports.
"All this technology is incredibly exciting, and the whole notion of a smart home has a lot of value, but you do need to be aware of the added costs that come with it," DiClerico said.
Hopkin's firm specializes in walking clients through the technology -- to the point of having them install it if they want -- with the goal of a Web-based system that requires no monthly fee. He reduced his clients' desires to five main interests:
--Security, such as installing sensors to alert homeowners when a door or window is open.
--Safety, including motion-sensor lights on a patio or cameras placed in and outside homes that can be monitored from afar.
--Comfort, such as allowing thermostats and humidifiers to be monitored and adjusted from a keypad.
--Lifestyle and convenience, such as adding motion-sensor lights in hallways or allowing music to be controlled from a phone.
--Financial savings from monitoring and controlling electric and gas use.
Hopkin's services can run from as little as $300 to control a thermostat or some lights from a computer to tens of thousands of dollars for a fully automated home.
Chris Yerington, an anesthesiologist, contacted Hopkin because he wanted to save on utilities in his Upper Arlington home.
He improved the insulation of his home, bought high-efficiency furnaces, installed LED light bulbs and began controlling the thermostat from his laptop. The result: Utility bills dropped from an average of $532 a month to $221.
Yerington's quest led him to install switches and outlets throughout his home that can be controlled from his laptop, tablet or smartphone.
"My wife and I always talked about being able to be virtually at home because, as anesthesiologists, we might be working at any given time," Yerington said.
He knows such tools have their limits. In demonstrating how the system can control a ceiling fan recently, Yerington logged onto the computer, logged into his home-automation program, searched dozens of menu items for the fan, clicked on that menu item to call up the controls, and, after the controls failed, reached over and flipped the fan's wall switch to allow the controls to function.
Yerington's demonstration inadvertently showed that it can be a lot easier to flip a switch than to log into an operating system.
Still, Yerington isn't deterred. He has plans to further automate his house with technology such as GPS chips on his cats' collars that will allow them to be located by computer.
His wife, Lori, has a more practical desire. She wants to be able to use her phone to check whether the garage door is closed.
That gets to the heart of the home-automation dilemma.
"Not everybody wants to be checking the temperature at home from their office," said Consumer Reports' DiClerico. "It gets into the perils of being connected while on vacation. Not everyone wants to be connected 24/7."
Still, DiClerico understands the appeal of some simple home-automation services.
"We've all walked away from the house and thought, 'Oh, shoot, did I lock the door '"
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