Stretching imaginations with home automation

by Daniel Simmons

Rob Lachs and Andrea Alterman have six kids, ages 4 to 18. The Wheaton, Ill., couple and Angie’s List members say family life in the Chicago suburb can be divided into two eras: before and after home automation.

Before home automation, which occurred in December, the kids watched TV or movies, "always louder than it needs to be," Lachs says. Their parents seethed. Mom and Dad walked to the offending room and requested — in voices that had to out-decibel John Madden (boys) or the cast of "Princess Diaries" (girls) — that the kids please turn down the volume. The kids bickered and grumbled. Tensions flared.

After home automation, when the kids have "Family Guy" cranked loud enough for the neighborhood to hear, as on a recent night, Lachs and Alterman don't bother screaming at them. They just calmly open their laptops or walk to the home's central touch screen in the kitchen, which provides remote control of the lights, thermostat, TVs, radios and theater — and dial down the volume. Instantly and with no shouting involved, the "Family Guy" cast is using inside voices. And family harmony reigns.

"It's made our lives more peaceful," Alterman says of the Control 4 system in their eight-bedroom, 7,800-square-foot house, "and created this sense of tranquility."

"Peaceful" may not be an adjective that springs to mind when you think of a house run entirely by touch screens, circuitry and satellite signals. But talk to Angie's List members with home automation systems and you'll hear the word repeated. Plus, some others that may surprise you: "money-saving," "gentle on the environment" and "great for the family."

Recent improvements in the security and speed of wireless networks have made home automation more affordable and accessible, and the industry is expected soon to take a turn toward the mainstream. By 2014, shipments of automation systems nationally are expected to increase 35-fold over 2008, according to a recent industry forecast by the ABI research firm. The expected increase comes on the heels of an already explosive growth period, according to service providers rated highly on the List.

Alterman and Lachs' hyper-technologized automation system cost about $55,000 and points to some of the practical advantages made possible by home automation. The industry has so far tilted heavily toward imagination-stretching, futuristic features — robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, for example — in custom high-end homes.

Angie's List members Brian and Patti Burke-Conte own one such house in Seattle. They've programmed their home's personality, "Cleopatra," to act as both greeter and gatekeeper. "She" appears as a lifelike human face on a large plasma-screen television near the entrance, greets all who enter, announces who's in the house currently, answers the phone, calls them if she suspects something's amiss and "lights" the fireplace remotely when the first person enters the house on cool days, plus other duties as assigned.

A-rated Angie's List service provider Kevin Hourihan started his home automation company, Cyber Home Networks, in 2000 serving New York City and surrounding areas. After steady growth in the early part of the decade, it exploded midway through: from 2004 to 2005, profits rose 122 percent; from 2006 to 2007, they jumped another 67 percent.

He says a lot of the spike was due to an increase in home theater installations. Despite the explosive growth, he sees his business at a floor, not a ceiling. "I still don't think it's hit mainstream," he says. "It hasn't fully touched what can be done on an average home."

Research bears him out: just 6 percent of new American houses built in 2007 came installed with a home automation system, according to research firm Parks Associates.

And in a recent online poll, only four Angie's List members — out of 1,104 poll participants — reported having a fully automated home. Another 14 percent have some automated features. But the overwhelming majority have yet to catch the wave.

Cost dwarfed all other reasons not to automate their homes, with 61 percent citing installation costs and another 30 percent citing cost of upkeep and maintenance.

Service providers acknowledged that their customers tend to have oodles of disposable income but urged that the systems can be tailored to fit tighter budgets as well.

"We've always had the attitude that no job is too big or too small," says A-rated service provider Kim Amster of Charlotte, N.C. She and her husband, Payam Payandeh, have run a home automation company, now called Simply Smart Technology, since 2004. They're equipped to do installations costing from $800 to $80,000, she says, and encourage customers to take a building-block approach.

"Sometimes people's budgets don't allow for some features right now, but if they like them and they're building, we say prepare now while the walls are open and the house is being remodeled," she says.

Despite the perceived high cost of installing and maintaining the systems, heating and lighting bills can actually drop substantially for people with the systems. Most allow precision, up-to-the-minute control: lights that can be dimmed or turned off remotely and automatically turn off if no one's in a room, sensors that can detect open windows and turn off air-conditioning automatically, furnaces programmed to be on only when needed.

"Our electrical bills used to be just ridiculous," Alterman says. "This winter, we've had a horribly cold winter but our electric bills were down substantially and our usage was down, too."

For those reasons, industry experts say the future for home automation looks very green. "I think the industry can be at the forefront of change that helps the green push," Hourihan says.

Industry pioneer Home Automation Inc. already has seen its green business spike, says Thomas Pickral Jr., director of business development. Losses due to the recent collapse in new housing construction have been offset by a boom in business with utility companies and energy-conscious homeowners, he says.

More utility companies nationally are offering what's known as demand response programs. The programs allow homeowners to earn dividends for limiting their energy use during extreme hot or cold spells when the energy grid is strained and utility companies are forced to buy surplus energy at a higher cost.

Home automation companies can program systems so utility companies and homeowners sense a change in conditions and automatically dial down energy use when demand spikes. "It makes sense from a utility company perspective and a consumer perspective," Pickral says.

And the systems are undeniably convenient from a practical perspective. "Once you live with home automation, you don't want to go back," Amster says. "Would I ever want to go back to pulling strings on the drapes? Never!"

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