Wireless technology takes the hassle out of home automation

For The Baltimore Sun
Appily ever after: Wireless technology is taking the hassle out of home automation.

“You’re going to totally love this,” the electrician said as he pulled speaker wires through my wall. “Totally plug-and-play. Once I set it up, you never have to reboot or refresh the device, and you control it with your iPhone.”

The device was the music system called Sonos, and while the electrician was sincere, I remained skeptical. Has there ever been an Internet- or remote-controlled appliance that was maintenance-free? I’ve had satellite and cable television before, you know. (Never, ever hide a DVR behind a wall.)

When he was finished turning the last screw on the in-ceiling speaker, the electrician took my phone, downloaded an app, programmed in an Internet radio station I’d never heard of and handed it back. It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years, and never once has the amazing station “Radio Paradise” ever required attention (knock on wood). The device, the app and, happily, the speakers seem to be — dare I say it? — flawless.

This comes as no surprise to Jon Myer. “Sonos has the highest satisfaction rating for multiroom audio; people become evangelists because there’s so much music you can listen to without getting up to change a CD, and you control it with your phone,” says Myer, president of MyerConnex in Gaithersburg (and before that, CEO of MyerEmco Audio Video).

Sonos, he says, is an example of how the marvels of wireless technology are finally catching up with homeowners’ dreams of a wire-free abode. But the systems controlled by apps and monitored services go beyond the humble wish for a TV with a single remote or a lamp that comes on when you clap.

How about your window shades? The technology doesn’t just make them go up and down — that would be too easy. “I can set the shade to come down when the sun goes down and come up when the sun rises in the morning,” Myer says.

“I hit ‘nighttime’ on a keypad next to my bed, and everything is predetermined as to what I want for that nighttime scene,” he says. Shades, lights, locks, “everything, and I don’t have to go downstairs. I don’t even have to make sure the garage door is closed. And I do everything at the touch of a button, literally.”

This comes as great news to the doubters among us who still can’t understand why we need to unplug our cable TV boxes every so often and reboot our routers when we haven’t done anything to change what they do. What’s happened?

“I’ve been in automation since the beginning,” says Myer, “and I can name 10 systems we used to sell that might have been a little early. These new systems are no longer experiments in people’s homes.”

Myer says “very powerful processors manage everything” these days, making the magic possible. Much of the maintenance on home automation systems is software-driven, helping homeowners replace their systems less often.

“For example, all updates from Sonos are software, are free and the boxes themselves have had a 10-year life span,” Myer explains. “That is a pretty typical hardware life cycle with automation products.”

The advances have unleashed the creativity of the app- and product-makers. “I’ve been in this business for 28 years,” says Ray Traver, the Baltimore-based mid-Atlantic general manager for security and monitoring firm ADT Corp., “and we are continuing to evolve our products by adding more interactive features with smarter intuitive technology for homeowners.” Which sounds like a dare to the skeptic, but Traver assures us apps such as the ADT Pulse Voice have redundancies, some of them remotely monitored, that keep systems operating with little or no maintenance.

Nicole Saunders, a single mom of two in an 11-year-old house in Bowie, was looking for home automation about four years ago “to have true peace of mind, increased convenience, energy savings and the ability to control aspects of my home remotely,” she says.“For example, I wanted the ability to turn the lights on and off or arm and disarm the alarm system, especially when people came over and I was not at home to let them in the house.”

The monitored Pulse system, she says, “has really been a great addition to our home.” She particularly likes the ability to “see my kids come home via video from my smartphone and receive text alerts when certain activity takes place.”

Saunders mentioned energy savings, and, in fact, the fabled value of smart-house technology has come to pass, according to Myer. Not only is the gear less expensive, but the savings to the homeowner are immediate and cumulative. 

“You can have pure energy management in your home,” he says. “If you use a network, you can look at the energy used at any given time of day. Then you can program shade control for your windows that can drop energy costs 50 percent. That’s significant.” Networked thermostats, he says, “have built-in savings modes, where you tell it how much to save — 10 percent, 15 percent, whatever — and it hits that percentage target.”

A Control 4 brand thermostat, he says, not only provides energy reports to your phone, it also ties in with the weather “so it can really modify your habitat and save power.”

Myer says many of the devices can be installed by the homeowner — a thermostat is just four wires — but the programming aspects should be done by a professional, “especially if you’re integrating multiple platforms.” 

Coordinating the shades, lights, locks, cameras, thermostats, hot tubs (yes, you can remotely heat up your hot tub), home theaters (screen curtains!), multiroom music systems and everything else connected to your network should be programmed by someone who knows what they’re doing, so they can show you how to do it.

And then you can leave it alone.

 

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