HOME, SMART HOME: Trends in residential technology


By Sharon Jayson

You likely haven’t thought of your home as “smart.” But it can be. At least that’s why a bevy of products aims to simplify your life by boosting your home’s intelligence. The names are catchy — “Smart Home,” “Connected Home” or, in Time Warner’s lexicon, IntelligentHome. The idea is home automation. It’s effectively controlling your door locks, window coverings, appliances, lighting, room temperature and numerous other actions at the touch of your smartphone (and sometimes your voice) whenever you want.
It’s the wide range of products and the ability to integrate them that’s caused the smart home concept to become ubiquitous. TV commercials, online ads and displays in home improvement stores promote devices like the Amazon Echo — a voice-controlled home assistant that plays music, reads the news and performs other tasks. Such personal equipment entices with cool gadgetry but offers just enough practicality to lure followers. At its heart, the idea is to make you feel safe and secure whether at home or away from home while allowing you to better control energy use and costs. 
That’s why we’re launching Smart Living, an ongoing series from Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative to show how to improve your pocketbook and your life. Over the course of this series, we’ll highlight a variety of smart home features — from home security systems to lighting to appliances and more — so you have the knowledge to make wise decisions. 

“Security is the number one driver for what we’re calling the smart home,” said Mitchell Klein of Boston, a veteran in the home automation industry. 
“We call it ‘security,’ but it’s not just about break-ins and burglar alarms,” said Klein, executive director of a consortium of home technology companies called the Z-Wave Alliance. “It’s about feeling safe, with smoke detectors and lighting sensors. Some people like to get notification when their kids are home from school. Some don’t like arriving to a dark house and they like to have the lights light up.” 
So why this explosion of all things smart? 
The smartphone’s computing power and a sharp drop in the cost of the technology changed the landscape, say experts who have watched the industry’s evolution over the past couple of decades. What used to be available only to the “one percenters who could afford $1 million for the electronic infrastructure of their estates” is now wide open, including DIYers shopping the home improvement aisles, said Glen Burchers, co-founder of Plum, an Austin-based company that produces a smart lightpad called the Plum Lightpad Wi-Fi Dimmer. 
“Today, the cost of a very high performance microprocessor is a few dollars and (as recent as 2010) would have been 10 times that price,” he said. “The wireless chip and power of the smartphone give you all the capability of those custom-installed systems of the past.” 
Dave Pedigo, who monitors the industry as senior director of emerging technologies for CEDIA, (an international trade association for the connected home) said “no matter whether it’s a couple hundred years old historic home or it was built last year, retrofit has never been easier than today, especially for the smart home.” 
“It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the new products out there,” he said. 

A CEDIA report released in October showed the third straight year of growth in the residential electronic systems industry. Video surveillance, security cameras and alarm systems dominated residential home control installations, although 27 percent of the installations were for energy management or monitoring, according to CEDIA’s survey of its member companies. 
Austinite Mike Krell, of Moor Insights & Strategy, said there are real rewards for consumers. They may be able to lower energy costs by better managing their usage and lower insurance premiums could be an additional benefit. 
“If you can monitor your water heater for leaks, maybe that would be reflected in your insurance. You already get a discount for having an alarm. Added protection for water and fire damage is advantageous for both the insurance company and the consumer,” said Krell, an analyst who monitors technology trends to help companies develop marketing strategies. 
Having such capabilities doesn’t always mean it’s wise to install them, suggests research psychologist Larry Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills, who’s considered an expert on the “Psychology of Technology.” 
Having the ability to better control your life through your smartphone, he said, “will just add many more layers of things we need to check on.” 
“It’s not coming from a psychological issue as much as our technology is signaling to us: ‘You must look at me. You must check you turned off the coffee pot.’ It’s all stemming from ‘I’m anxious,‘ “ he said. 
But not everyone would agree with Rosen’s assessment about technology’s grip. Those in the home automation industry say being able to monitor your pets, get alerts when your kids come home or close a garage door you might otherwise have forgotten offers greater peace of mind. 

Still, because so much data is out there, a survey released earlier this year by the consulting firm Accenture shows that privacy is a global concern. Privacy risk and security concerns were among the top barriers to buying smart home devices, wearable fitness monitors or smartwatches for almost half (47 percent) of the 28,000 online respondents in 28 countries, including the United States. And yet, of those who either own or plan to buy such devices, 69 percent say they know that these products are capable of being hacked. 
At Nest, security is of utmost concern, said Brad Davids, business development manager in energy partnerships. 
“We’re not going to put out a product if we’re not absolutely sure it’s secure,” he said. 
“Companies (would) like to use the data we have to help sell things to customers. We can tell through the thermostat whether it’s a well-insulated or leaky home. We’re committed to not using that data. It’s not ours to sell or trade,” Davids said of Nest, which Google bought two years ago. 
Aside from data security worries, other barriers can make a connected home less feasible or desirable, said Krell, the tech analyst. Cost is a big one. Equipment cost alone for cameras and other related products “can get to $500 very quickly,” he said. 
The technology is also a barrier, he added, suggesting that it’s complicated because some products connect by Wi-Fi, some by Bluetooth, some by ZigBee and some by Z-Wave, which are wireless communications networks. 
“I have five or six different applications on my phone to control my home devices. The devices don’t actually talk to each other,” Krell said. “It’s not simple.” 
As a brief primer, Z-Wave and ZigBee wireless home control technologies offer connectivity for hundreds of smart home products. The key is knowing which products are compatible with which technology. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are now competing in the same type of products as well. 
In order to get smart, customers need broadband, which is high-speed Internet access that’s always on. Bluebonnet’s 14-county service area illustrates the varied ways its customers access broadband—via transmission technologies such as cable, wireless (fixed and mobile), satellite and fiber optic. 
“One of the biggest issues we see is that not enough people are paying enough attention to putting in a robust enough network in the home that’s designed to be able to handle the load for a lot of devices in the home,” said Pedigo, the official from the trade association for the connected home. 
But with each incarnation of our devices, the move is toward greater dependence on technology. 
Krell, the tech analyst, said companies have the expertise to make sure the features customers want actually can work in their homes and the technologies are compatible. That’s why, he said, those companies are doing well. 
“The bottom line is, it’s an overwhelming situation,” he said. Hiring a one-stop company to do it all is “no fuss, no muss.”

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