The idea of “smart homes” - houses that automatically control heating, cooling, lighting and appliances - has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. Now it’s rapidly becoming a reality, offering homeowners comfort, cost savings and peace of mind while away from home. While it’s easy to find individual pieces of home automation technology, tying them together remains a bit more of a challenge.
Smart technologies and tools
Getting started in upgrading your house to “smart” is easy, with a variety of tools and technologies that allow you to control different parts of your home via Wi-Fi and a PC or wireless device such as a smartphone.
Smart thermostats: Next-generation thermostats like Google’s Nest allow you to adjust temperature settings from your phone or PC. But that’s just the beginning. These tools can learn the ins and outs of your daily schedule and adjust automatically; some even have sensors you can place in multiple rooms to tell when no one’s home and it’s okay to turn down the heat or up the cool air.
Even if you don’t buy the latest and greatest smart thermostat, chances are your existing thermostat is at least semi-smart (in other words, programmable). While many people have neither the instructions nor the patience to learn the complex steps to do so, never fear. Search YouTube for “programming thermostat” to see a host of videos that can walk you through the steps. (To make things even easier, add the brand of your thermostat to the search terms.) Even simple adjustments based on your daily schedule can cut 10 percent of heating and cooling costs.
Smart lighting: Wi-Fi- enabled lightbulbs such as Philips Hue not only allow you to dim lights from your smartphone, but also to adjust the color for instant mood lighting, and they are LED which can cut energy costs and last for years. A broad range of styles are available — everything from standard lightbulbs and table lamps to floodlights and portable lighting.
Smart doorbells and deadbolts: Did your spouse forget the key again? With smart locks including Schlage Sense, you can lock and unlock the door remotely from your smartphone, and you can create and remove security codes for guests at will. In similar fashion, smart doorbells can alert your wireless device when someone rings the doorbell, and even allow you to have conversations with would-be visitors from halfway around the globe.
Smart safety: Home security systems and surveillance cameras can now be controlled remotely — or programmed to alert you when they’re triggered by motion or other signs of trouble. And Nest Protect and other smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can alert you from afar, or allow you to silence false alarms without getting on a chair and stabbing at a button.
Smart plugs: Pretty much anything else that can be plugged in — existing lighting, appliances, outdoor sprinklers and the like — can be controlled by “smart plugs,” Wi-Fi-enabled outlets or switches that allow the power to be turned on and off from a smartphone app.
Networking home automation
Connecting all of these smart systems to a single hub or system remains more challenging. Networking home automation technology has been possible since the 1970s, when controllers sent signals through the existing electrical wiring in the absence of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Many systems remain proprietary and difficult to connect to each other — and obsolescence is always a concern. But open standards and new systems are beginning to make the dream of a fully smart home a reality, and consumer technology companies are battling to be the first to create one hub to rule them all.
Both Amazon and Google’s speaker-like personal assistants — Amazon’s Echo and Google’s forthcoming Home — will allow homeowners to control lights, thermostats and other smart systems simply by speaking. Apple has also created what it calls HomeKit to help smart home manufacturers tie different technologies together and allow it to be controlled by Siri, its own voice-controlled assistant.
Yesterday’s science fiction dreams of smart homes that listen and talk back could become reality in months, not years.
Other factors to consider when installing smart house technology
Buying more energy-efficient products may be worth the extra money. But there may be additional benefits when you have the smart home technology installed and operating in your home. Check with your insurance company to see if you would be eligible for a discount on your home, condo or renter’s insurance.