New smart technology keeps home safer, more comfortable

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Jan Opat of Aurora hates coming home to an unlit house, so she has purchased a new “home automation” system that lets her control the lights, thermostat, window blinds, electrical outlets and other aspects of her house from an app she downloaded to her iPad. Tuesday, May 1, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-times

Jan Opat no longer comes home to a cold dark house. When her husband is traveling, she turns on her iPad, clicks on an app, and from her office, lowers her house’s window shades, turns on the heat and chooses the time the foyer light goes from low to bright on the dimmer setting.

“I can remotely turn on the lights in the kitchen, in the family room, or in any other room, and save money by keeping all of the power outlets off until I get home,” said Opat, of Aurora.

The setup to enable Opat’s so-called “smart” home wasn’t cheap – such systems cost up to $5,000 – but it functions wirelessly, so it requires no wall teardowns or construction.

Instead, Opat had new outlets, switches, thermostat and motorized window blinds installed, and downloaded the smart-home app onto her iPad, smartphone and desktop computer.

A controller box – the system’s brain – plugs into the home’s computer router. Since the system works on the Zwave wireless standard, it can integrate smart meters that utility companies such as Commonwealth Edison are distributing to their customers.

The TaHomA system that Opat uses, made by French company Somfy, emphasizes energy savings, since programming the home thermostat 8 degrees Farenheit lower than usual between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. can save homeowners significantly.

Somfy, a window-motorization company that counts Chicago among its top five markets, has trained 75 window-covering dealers to install the home-automation system, which has no monthly or annual fees. Local dealers include Decloth Home Collection, Interiors Unlimited, Motorized Window Treatments and V2K Window Décor & More.

The company is competing in an increasingly crowded field, with players as varied as security company ADT, communications companies AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, specialty energy-management firms RCS Technology and high-end automation companies like AMX, Crestron and Elan Home Systems.

Indeed, forecasts say 20 percent of America’s homes will have some kind of remote-controlled system by 2015, compared with 6 percent today, according to Parks Associates consultancy.

The growth will benefit companies with extra fees and consumers with easier ways to control their already smart TVs, thermostats, utility meters, Blu-ray players, game consoles and digital video media players.

Security systems alone generate $10 billion in yearly service fees, according to the data.

The price of having smart home began dropping two years ago when the first iPad debuted and manufacturers started creating apps so customers could easily use the control systems, said Lisa Montgomery, editor of Electronic House magazine.

“No longer did people have to buy a $4,000 touchscreen to operate the system,” Montgomery said. “They could use the iPad. It took away the fear factor.”

Experts in energy savings say a super-high-efficiency home with maximum insulation and designed to use heat from the sun for heating is a better idea.

“The answer is the smart application of low-tech,” said Stephen E. Bickel, director of market research at D&R International, Ltd., an energy-efficiency consultancy.

People won’t have super-efficient homes until energy savings are enforced in building codes, Bickel said.

“There isn’t a lot of enforcement on the energy component of building codes,” he said.

Yet the smart home has a benefit that competitors will find tough to match: It’s fun and empowering. Users can set up special music, lighting, game players, TV programming and other

“You get more bang for your buck,” Montgomery said.

Opat was showing off the system while her husband and his buddies were yelling and roaring at every stroke of the Master’s golf tournament. After Opat showed how the blinds could go up and down, she turned off the TV. The guys then realized they couldn’t turn it back on without the app.

“I had the power of the home,” she said. “The remote control belongs to me now.”

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