Home automation not quite ‘The Jetsons,’ but getting closer


I dream of living in “The Jetsons” home of the future. The 1960s cartoon promised me that soon my home would get me dressed and fed with the push of a button. And, of course, I would have my own personal Rosie the robot.

In today’s Your Home, we look at where we’ve come in home automation and what’s in the near future.

Living the dream

There’s a lot that can be done to put your home on one remote control (often a smartphone or a tablet), but it will cost you. You can spend as little as $5,000 for a customizable system to $100,000 or more. Bill Blaylock, the owner of Concept Electronics, connects anything in the house, from heating and air conditioning to TV, lighting, window shades, doors, garage doors and alarm systems, to one app through either the Apple-based Savant program or the non-Apple-based Crestron system.

“If a customer can dream it, we can achieve it,” Blaylock says. Most of his customers want to control their TV and music system, security system, lights, shades and the garage door. Some have pools and hot tubs hooked up. Some of this has been possible for about 15 years, Blaylock says, but in the past eight years there have been significant improvements in what can be done.

Now Blaylock can install Hue lights that can change their color based on the artwork you have on the wall or based on the time of day. He can set specific automations for each person in the house, including guests. Automations can be as complex as the user wants them to be. Your home can lock itself, turn off the lights and raise the thermometer when it senses through Bluetooth that you (and your phone) are away, or turn everything back on when you come home.

The caveat of a custom system like what Blaylock provides is that every time you want to add a feature, you need to call your installer to hook it up to the system.

The DIY-er

Installing your own home automation system is possible, but it’s not for everyone. Stacey Higginbotham, a senior writer for technology blog and research site Gigaom, covers home automation and tries out new devices in her own home in Austin.

Home automation devices and the hubs that control them are really for people who like to tinker, she says. “Those are for the person who would buy an automatic weather station, that doesn’t mind spending an hour or two with a new toy.”

It’s not there for “normal people,” she says, but it could be in as little as eight months. That’s when Apple is set to launch its HomeKit, which is expected to pull together a lot of devices. Google also entered this platform when it bought Nest, a smart thermostat that is now working to control other home automation devices.

You can go to a lot of big-box stores, including Home Depot, Staples and Lowe’s, and buy a hub to control automated light switches, door locks, cameras and thermostats. Most hubs speak one of two languages, either Z-Wave or ZigBee, that allow it to connect to devices that speak that language.

“A lot of home automation is really piecemeal,” says Lindsay Kirchhausen, the marketing manager for Nexia Home Intelligence, which is one such hub or bridge. Through Nexia’s bridge, which sells for about $60 on Amazon.com, you can connect any of about 200 Z-Wave-speaking devices. More are being added all the time. “The best thing about Nexia is it’s very DIY, it’s very customizable,” she says.

Using Nexia’s app, you can detect a device it recognizes and customize the settings. You can tell it to change the thermostat by touching the screen of your smartphone or tablet or automate it to change temperatures when a set of certain circumstances happen. Nexia charges a $9.99 a month subscription fee for you to run the software.

When you’re a DIY-er installing these kind of devices and hubs, many are as easy as changing out locks or installing an Internet router. For others, like light switches and especially thermostats, an electrician should be called in.

Not a DIY-er, not a millionaire

Home security companies and traditional cable companies have entered the home automation market in a big way. Many of them are using platforms created by the Austin-based unit of Icontrol Networks. Most will offer a $99 installation fee for the basic package and a monthly fee of between $30-$50, but as you add more items, your installation costs will go up, as will your monthly fees. You can get into spending several hundred to a couple thousand in installation costs depending on what you add. The only way to comparison shop is to know what you want going in.

Decide whether you want these items:

  • Automated security alarm
  • Cameras and how many
  • Overhead light switches
  • Lamps
  • Door locks or just door sensors
  • Window sensors
  • Window shades and blinds
  • Thermostat control
  • Voice control
  • Garage door opener
  • High-voltage items such as a pool pump or hot tub
  • The ability to add additional devices not provided by the company
  • A monitored or unmonitored security system
  • Communication through texts, emails and/or app alerts
  • Devices that are installed by the company or an outside electrician
  • Hardwired or broadband-based
  • Bluetooth compatible
  • The ability to add multiple users and guest users with different levels of permissions

 

The garage door, interestingly, has been one of the last things to come on line in home automation. Smith Monitoring has it; ADT, Time Warner and Vivint do not yet; even the DIY Nexia doesn’t have it yet. The problem has been finding the automated garage door opener manufacturer that service providers feel comfortable with because of safety concerns.

Features are being added all the time. As companies have switched from hardwired systems to broadband, that has meant customers no longer have to have a home phone to run a security system.

More are becoming voice-controlled as well as allowing multiple accounts to be set up.

One of the most requested items right now is for more and better cameras. People love to be able to watch their pets and their children while they are away from home. While on vacation, they like to set up cameras to monitor the front door to see when the pet sitter comes or to take a picture and email it to them when someone opens the door.

What about my appliances?

LG and Whirlpool, among other companies, are starting to create appliances that talk to your smartphone. Whirlpool’s Works with Nest washer and dryer can change the cycles depending on whether you are home or not or based on energy usage.

LG’s Smart ThinQ refrigerator, which is not yet available in the U.S., allows customers to log in what’s in the fridge and what the expiration dates are. When customers are at the store, they can “look inside” the fridge on their smartphone to see what they have.

The LG Smart range will alert a homeowner via smartphone when dinner is done or what the status of the oven is. Users can tell where the washer and dryer is in the cycle by their smartphone. It also can hook into a city’s Smart Grid to select better times to run the dryer or washer based on the energy load.

These appliances also allow for updates to be made when new features come online. These are very high-end appliances and not available yet in your standard models.

But if you’re not wanting to buy all new appliances, Austin-based Supermechanical is working on that. Founder John Kestner makes the argument that, like the clunkiness of car automation, appliance automation just isn’t as sophisticated yet as your smartphone or tablet. Also, he says, there’s not the demand for those high-end devices, but there is the demand to connect with what you already have.

Supermechanical has two devices to pair with existing appliances. The Range is a sensor that measures the outside temperature of the oven or grill and tells your smartphone when it’s time to take the pie out of the oven or the steaks off the grill. It’s very adaptable and has been used by home brewers and coffee roasters.

The Twine sensor measures temperature, vibration and orientation and sends a message based on parameters you have set. For example, he can put a Twine sensor outside to alert him to when it’s below 40 degrees so he can check on the duck hutch in his backyard. He also can put a sensor on the front door or garage door to tell him when one of those is open. A hospital has even put them on MRI machines to tell a technician when the expensive machines are close to overheating.

What happens when the power or Internet goes out?

Each system is different. Some have a backup battery. Some switch to cellular service. With some, you lose your automation temporarily, but you still can use the key that came with your automated door to open your house. Many of the settings you have established live in the cloud, so they can be retrieved when the power comes back on. There are concerns about who has access to your settings; check with any company you’re looking at about what access others have and how that information is stored.

Will “The Jetsons” ever happen?

Right now, no. Even if you can set a coffeemaker through your smartphone, you still have to load the machine with beans and water. Kestner likens it to the microwave. “The microwave did not replace the oven,” he says. “It created a different way of life, a new category.”

Think of home automation as doing what we do well now better. Higginbotham is doing just that, but she’s spending a few hours a week connecting new things. Sure, it’s cool that a light in her office will flash red when her boss sends an email with a certain subject line or will turn on when her husband comes home. And she can turn her daughter’s light a different color when she wants her to come down for dinner. But is that necessary?

One of the important things is thinking like an engineer to set up everything you want and how you want it. It’s a lot of “If this happens, then …” Some people will want just the basic conveniences of alarms and door locks; others will want more and more automation.

“Everybody’s house is different,” she says. “Everybody is going to have a different need based on how they live.”



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