Houses Get Smarter

14 November 2008

Houses Get Smarter

The New York Times

TECHNOLOGY moves fast. And as it does, it not only tends to improve in quality, it also gets less expensive. For second-home owners who want to monitor their residences from a distance, or who like having lots of gadgetry on hand to ease the transition between houses, that’s the best news.

“The higher-end systems, like Control4, that cost thousands of dollars to install, they’ve gotten better – the software and services behind them have gotten better,” said Pat Hurley, director of research at TeleChoice, a home-technology consulting firm, and co-author of “Smart Homes for Dummies.”

And at the same time, Mr. Hurley said, more inexpensive systems are being launched by lower-end competitors, systems that can be up and running for as little as a couple of hundred dollars.

Generally, all of these systems (to varying degrees) allow you to do things like keep an eye on security and home maintenance. Buy a basic system, hook it up to your broadband router (so that it’s connected to your cable or DSL service), and then buy add-on sensors you can attach to a door (to get an alert if it opens), pipes (to know if they freeze) and light switches (to turn lights on from afar). You can also connect cameras – both regular and night-vision – to the system to provide real-time pictures or video of any event.

Most of this equipment uses wireless technology, following one of two protocols: ZigBee or Z-Wave, basically two different languages that gadgets use to talk to the base system. “They’re both competing, they both have a number of companies behind them and big appliance companies behind them,” Mr. Hurley said. “I think we’re still too early in the market to see if one is going to be the leader.” In the meantime, he suggested that consumers just buy the system they prefer and stick with whatever protocol it’s compatible with.

All of these items – sensors, cameras and more – talk to each other and to the base system, and you can log into your personal control center via the Internet, or in some cases, your Internet-capable phone. In fact, there’s a company called Sensaphone that not only has a number of the usual monitors available (temperature, moisture) but also allows you to record a message in your own voice saying, for example, “Your pipe is leaking.” And if that particular pipe-leaking sensor is activated, the system will call you (and up to four other people).

Most of these systems rely on broadband Internet to run. But what if your second home is in the mountains, a remote rural area, or just a spot that doesn’t get good coverage? Two recent advances will probably help. “There’s a lot of action in the space of femtocells and fixed-mobile convergence,” said Mr. Hurley, explaining that femtocells are basically like miniature cellphone towers for the home. “It gives you five-bar cellphones in your vacation home, and lets you avoid getting a land line.”

The other recent development is a decision made by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month that will allow public access to the “white space” on the radio spectrum that will be open once televisions go completely digital in February. The hope of supporters of this decision is that it will enable better, faster and more widespread wireless Internet access, especially in rural or poor-coverage regions.

“I think that this could have an impact on vacation homes in rural areas simply because the traditional ways of provisioning broadband – running fiber-optic cables, phone lines with equipment at relatively short distances from the home (DSL) or cable plants – can be expensive, and therefore a nonstarter, in many rural areas,” Mr. Hurley said. “Wireless lets ISPs avoid all of the physical plant infrastructure and provide broadband with much less capital outlay.”

In laymen’s terms, this all just means the potential for better, cheaper Internet access, which in turn means more opportunity to use smart-home technology. Of course, it’s a bit early to know for sure how these developments will play out. Only time will tell – but then, time moves pretty fast in this arena.