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Home automation gets smart

By Robin Roenker

John Ruffin never has to walk into a dark house again.

With the push of a button on his smart phone, he can alert his home of his impending arrival from his car. The systems in his home spring to action, opening the garage door, disarming the home security system and turning on the programmed “pathway lighting” from his back door, through his entry hallway, into his kitchen.

Wireless technology that’s come on the market in the past several years with smart phones and tablets has dramatically dropped the cost of home automation control systems.
Wireless technology that’s come on the market in the past several years with smart phones and tablets has dramatically dropped the cost of home automation control systems.

“The combination of those things really makes it convenient, especially when we’re bringing in groceries, or we have our hands full,” said Ruffin, CEO of AMR Management Services in Lexington, who with his wife, Shirley, moved into their new, Jimmy Nash-built home in Lexington’s Patchen Wilkes neighborhood last summer.

The dazzling array of capabilities available now through today’s so-called “smart” or “connected” home automation systems wasn’t what originally prompted the Ruffins to build a new home. But, because they are approaching retirement age, they knew they “wanted some amenities that would make our new home comfortable,” John Ruffin said. “We wanted to make it a place where our children and grandchildren would enjoy being.”

Now, with an easy-to-use app on his smart phone, Ruffin can call up his favorite country or jazz tunes from his subscription service and play them through his integrated sound system anywhere in the house, or even outside. From his work computer, he can remotely pull up his home’s exterior cameras to make sure everything is all right at home.

When the doorbell rings, a camera view of the person at the door pops up on the wall-panel tablets stationed throughout the home. The home’s six TVs share three central cable boxes, three Apple boxes, and two Blu-ray players – and anything playing on those devices can be directed to a single TV or multiple ones throughout the home.And downstairs, in the home theater, Ruffin delights his grandkids by dimming the lights, turning on the projector, and lowering the window shades all with the touch of one button.

It’s the smart home everyone has been predicting for some time now, and it’s finally becoming more mainstream.

Increasingly affordable

Telecom research firm Berg Insight estimates that just 3.2 percent of North American homes currently have a smart home system – meaning a fully integrated, comprehensive automation system that combines security, energy conservation and home electronics management capabilities. But by 2017, the number of North American homes with smart systems is expected to jump to 16.6 percent.

That might be optimistic, but several major players have had roll-outs of new home automation products in the past couple of months.

An example screen for AT&T Digital Life, which allows customers to manage their homes from anywhere using a smartphones or tablets, is shown above.
An example screen for AT&T Digital Life, which allows customers to manage their homes from anywhere using a smartphones or tablets, is shown above.

A quiet boom has been taking place just in the last two to three years, say industry insiders, like Cooper Stofer, owner and CEO of Lexington’s Lava Systems and Lava Security Solutions, which have been installing smart systems in Lexington homes for the past eight years.

“The real game changer in all of this has been the iPad and mobile technology,” Stofer said. “Everyone today manages their smart home systems with their mobile technology: their iPads or other tablets, and their smart phones. For the cost of an iPad – for $300 or $400 or $500 – you can now control everything in these home automation systems. System controls used to require proprietary touchscreen tablets that cost $5,000 to $10,000 just for the tablet alone.”

Lexington builder Jimmy Nash agreed. His firm has been installing very high-end, hard-wired custom home automation systems in collaboration with audio-video provider Barney Miller’s in Lexington for more than 20 years. However, he said the recent availability of wireless technology and the capability to control systems remotely via homeowners’ smart phones and tablets have combined to drastically lower the entry-level price point for systems.

“The big difference is, 15 years ago these systems had a lot of in-the-walls hard-wiring that went into them. The process was very labor intensive,” Nash said. “So a system then may have cost $30,000 or $40,000. But today, because it’s wireless, you skip a lot of the labor. So you’re looking at less than $10,000 to do the same thing.”

Some systems are available for even less.

Stofer offers an entry-level home security automation system for just $2,000 to $3,000.

Moreover, many popular home automation systems, like Control4 and Cestron, favored by Barney Miller’s, are modular, and allow homeowners to buy only those components that they want and will use, adding to their affordability.

“I would say that home automation can start very small,” said Barney Miller, whose Lexington business, founded by his grandfather in 1922, also regularly installs systems in Louisville. “With Control4, we’ve got processors that can do some automation in your home for as little as $750, and you could add on from there.”

As prices for the systems continue to drop, more and more homeowners are looking to make their homes “connected.”

In 2013, the number of new smart home installations in North America was predicted to reach 2.3 million, a 66 percent increase over 2012, according to estimates released by Berg Insight and cited by FierceSmartGrid. The industry expects new home installations to grow to 12.8 million by 2017. With that projected increase, the value of the home automation system market is expected to rise from an estimated $3.6 billion in 2012 to $16.4 billion by 2019.

Systems components customizable

Miller and Stofer both came into the smart home business via expertise in custom consumer electronics systems, but plenty of other sectors are vying for a piece of the projected multibillion-dollar home automation growth market.

Custom designed applications for tablet computers and smart phones are popular as home automation control systems. Wireless technology has cut the cost of systems by tens of thousands of dollars.
Custom designed applications for tablet computers and smart phones are popular as home automation control systems. Wireless technology has cut the cost of systems by tens of thousands of dollars.

Big box stores, cable and phone companies, and home security companies all are eager and have been rolling out their own brands of “smart” home systems, taking advantage of wireless technology’s increasing accessibility and affordability for home automation customers.

Lowe’s has Iris, its own brand of smart home system. ADT Security has its Pulse system. In late October, AT&T launched its Digital Life home automation service in many Kentucky cities. Time Warner Cable launched its IntelligentHome system in Louisville, Bowling Green and Covington in November. And they have plenty of company.

Automation companies like Nexia and others also market themselves to DIYers, stocking modular system products on the shelves of Home Depot, Lowe’s and other big-box stores.

Most offer generally the same basic capabilities, making it possible for customers to remotely control home temperature and lighting, see interior or exterior camera views of their home, and lock or unlock the front door for guests via their smart phones or tablets.

AT&T’s Digital Life system comes with two plans. Simple Security, the basic home security package, includes 24/7 home monitoring and starts at $29.99 a month plus $149.99 for equipment. An upgrade to the Smart Security level, at $39.99 a month plus $249.99 for equipment, provides enhanced security features that include a camera package to view real-time video inside and outside the home; a door package for front and garage door control; and a water detection and control package allows a homeowners to shut off their main water source remotely if a leak is detected.

“With our water detection system you can detect if you have a leak, but with the water control package we take that one step further and offer the capability to remotely turn off your water main if a leak occurs,” said Cathy Lewandowski with AT&T Corporate Communications. “Then there’s no reason to come back early from your vacation. You won’t have to face standing in 3 feet of water.”

The ability to turn off the water main isn’t proprietary to AT&T’s Digital Life system, though. Stofer said he has included that capability in many of his clients’ homes.

“To tell you the truth,” he said. “If you just put a water bug (a sensor that detects a leak) in, by the time anyone gets there the water damage is done. We help our clients take that one step further and connect the water bug so that if it detects a leak then it trips a shutoff valve to the water for the entire house. That’s when these systems really start to show their worth. That’s when it changes things.”

Potential uses for systems really are endless and completely customizable for each client’s specific needs. Whether for security, convenience, peace of mind or all three, the systems help make clients lives “easier, better, and more fun,” Barney Miller likes to tell his customers.

Some clients actively use the remote front door unlock and/or the ability to assign temporary front door entry keycodes to allow delivery people, housekeepers, service technicians or pet sitters into their home while they are away.

Many, like Ruffin, enjoy that they can set a lighting “scene” for various areas of their home and automatically dim the lights to low when they turn on the TV.

Others like that they can receive text or email notifications when their middle- or high-school children enter the home after school. Then, while still at work, the client can pull up real-time video of the kids at home to make sure they’re OK.

Miller and Stofer have had clients opt to install window-type security detectors on gun cabinets and liquor cabinets. If a child or intruder tries to open them, the homeowner is alerted immediately with a text or email on their smart phones.

Nash has had clients install system sump pump sensors that alert them when water levels become too low for operation. Stofer has installed temperature control systems in home wine cellars, so that should a cooling system fail, the homeowner is alerted before wines they’ve invested in spoil.

The combinations and capabilities are nearly as limitless as clients’ imaginations and willingness to pay.

“A homeowner today might spend $4,000 or $6,000 or they can spend $15,000” (on a professionally installed system),” Nash said. “It used to be, when the systems were wired, you had to pay $40,000 to $60,000 up front, and you were either all-in or not. But now you can start with a simple system, and you can keep adding to it as you have the need or the desire to do so.”

Cutting-edge today, expected tomorrow

While the market for home automation systems is growing and awareness of products is becoming more mainstream, they are still in many respects a very “new” and “cool” technology. That’s why, in their Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati-area market, Drees Homes wanted to be on the forefront of making smart systems standard in their town homes and patio homes.

“We wanted to be cutting edge,” said Mike Conklin, Drees Homes division president for town homes and patio homes. “While everyone was dabbling in it and offering options, I wanted to make the smart systems standard. It was a great fit for our demographic, which tends to be young professionals who are very tech savvy, as well as older, active adults in our patio homes, who many times are ‘snow birds’ and enjoy that connectivity to their homes here while they are in Florida” in the winter season.

Drees partnered with Nexia to provide smart home systems to buyers of their town homes and patio homes without standard monthly service fees for the first 12 months.

“I really wanted our clients to use this, and not judge the service because there was a fee they would have to pay,” Conklin said.

Wireless technology that’s come on the market in the past several years with smart phones and tablets has dramatically dropped the cost of home automation control systems.
Wireless technology that’s come on the market in the past several years with smart phones and tablets has dramatically dropped the cost of home automation control systems.

Since Drees made smart systems – including a front door camera and lock, lighting automation and thermostat control – standard in their town and patio homes in spring 2012, they have sold and closed on 100 units in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky market, Conklin said.

Drees offers installation of either ADT Pulse, Nexia or Tuxedo, another automation system, as an option in their single-family homes. Right now, about one in three of their single-family builds opt to install systems.

“People ask me, ‘Are people buying your homes right now because you have this?’” Conklin said. “And I have to be honest and say, right now, that I really don’t think so. I don’t think enough people know that much about it yet.

“But now that the cable and phone companies are coming out with systems, and big box stores are stocking the systems, that awareness level will rise, and people will start to expect it,” he said. “And then it becomes a selling value for the home, because I think we all realize that where we’re heading with this is that more and more people will be putting these systems in.”

As the industry continues to grow and capabilities become even more high-tech, it won’t be unheard of for a smart room to “recognize” which family member has entered (via radio-frequency identification technology in their personal smart phone) and automatically adjust the temperature, music and lighting to their personal preferences – no push of a button required. Apple is already working on perfecting a patent for just this technology.

An aid to aging in place

Stofer sees huge potential for growth as baby boomers opt to age in place. Adult children will be able to install smart systems in their senior parents’ homes for the peace of mind to be able to access real-time video at any time to check that a fragile mom or dad hasn’t suffered an injury or fall – regardless of how far away they may live from them.

“The aging-in-place assisted capabilities of these systems is really what you’re going to see changing and expanding in the next several years,” Stofer said. “It will start with the video capabilities and go from there. Things in that field are going to get very interesting.”

Robin Roenker is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

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