Smart Structures

A growing list of regional and national companies are designing, building, and installing home automation systems that can save energy, provide breakdown alerts, and warn of break-ins.
An Xbox controller or a smartphone can regulate nearly every device in your home, from turning on and off lights or even set the degree of brightness; open and close window shades; control ceiling fans; the thermostat; and your TV/media center.
Photograph by C.J. Benniger

Everything seemed fine the last time the couple paid a visit to their little weekend cottage on Pinckney’s Whitewood Lake. It was getting chilly, and the furnace and appliances were all working in the rustic ranch.

What the couple didn’t know when they headed back home was that the hose on the back of the aging washing machine was about to burst. And when it did, it spewed more than 20,000 gallons of water before the next weekend visit, destroying the wood floors, ruining cabinets and appliances, and shorting out the electrical circuits, says Realtor Robin Powers.

Faced with a massive repair job only partially covered by insurance, the couple sold off the cottage. The savvy new owners weren’t going to risk the same disaster; even before the mess was cleaned up, they installed digital sensors near every possible source of water: laundry nook, kitchen, and bathrooms.

The water heater sensor can detect the smallest leak and turn the unit off before the problem gets worse. Other digital systems can not only shut off the master water valve, but also send an alert via a smartphone to the owners. If the valve itself fails, the couple will quickly be alerted to the problem and have time to react.

Today, the cottage is about as high-tech as you can imagine, with virtually every modern home automation device. Most of the lights can be operated remotely, whether by a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone app. So can the water heater, furnace, and security system; the latter is equipped with a high-definition audio and video system.

The garage and main door locks can be operated by apps that allow one-time codes to be added on the keypads for visitors and service vendors.

“I remember, as a kid, watching the cartoon show The Jetsons,” recalls Paul Williams, a vice president with Control 4 in Salt Lake City, one of the leaders in home automation technology. “Today, minus Rosie the Robot, we have pretty much everything they had in their home.”

Although a flying car that folds up into a briefcase doesn’t exist, Williams is otherwise spot-on. The latest micro processing systems allow homeowners to automate just about everything they want to in a residence. For example, there are Wi-Fi crock-pots, and several refrigerator manufacturers will soon equip their higher-end units with RFID sensors that can tell when the milk is no longer fresh and will automatically add the item to a grocery list.

The field of home automation is growing at an explosive rate, with annual sales increasing at a double-digit pace, Control 4 and other firms report. Transparency Market Research, a consulting firm that follows the field, estimates global sales will reach $16.4 billion by 2019, up from $3.6 billion in 2012. That’s a compounded annual growth rate just shy of 25 percent.

Not surprisingly, a homeowner can easily spend a small fortune to create a smart, automated residence requiring specially trained installers. Control 4 and its even more upscale competitor, New Jersey-based Crestron Electronics, routinely outfit residences with systems that can cost $500,000 or more.

As a growing number of savvy consumers are discovering, many of the same basic features can be installed on a do-it-yourself basis using components that are readily available online, or which can be found lining the aisles of familiar big box stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy (the latter retailer added so-called “Connected Home” departments in 400 of its stores in recent months).

Some systems may require familiarity with wiring, and most need access to the ever more common home Wi-Fi, but others, like the WEMO light controller, simply need to be plugged into a socket and quickly programmed to turn lights on and off randomly, creating a lived-in look.

There are three basic levels of home automation, reports Chadi Shaya, co-owner of IntelliTech Systems, a home automation installer based in Detroit:

• Do-it-yourself systems for homeowners who want to add components one at a time.

• More advanced systems link various elements of technology together, often requiring help from an installer or an electrician.

• The most advanced users turn to companies like Control 4 and Crestron, and installation firms like IntelliTech, so that a vast array of functions may be operated from a single button.

“You can create a single, cohesive system,” says Delia Hansen, Crestron’s senior residential marketing manager. She notes a typical, 3,000-square-foot home has some 60 to 80 switches. In a mega-mansion, “that can run into the hundreds.” Simply shutting a large home down for the night can be a laborious task, but there’s a system that allows the entire building to switch lighting “scenes” with the touch of a single remote button.

This technology isn’t limited to residential customers. Crestron started out automating boardrooms and offices, while its residential business took off when executives started receiving inquiries from friends and neighbors after installing the technology in their homes.

On the commercial front, an operator sitting in a control room in the basement of a 100-story office building can monitor every single electric circuit, and know when an office light has blown out, for example, or if the audio-visual system in a boardroom was accidentally left on over the weekend.

Smaller businesses also can benefit, says Shaya of IntelliTech. He says his firm keeps busy working with clubs and restaurants such as Bistro 82 in downtown Royal Oak. Instead of having employees adjusting lights and drawing blinds at night, a manager can alter the atmosphere with a single button. “For more and more (businesses), automation is becoming a necessity,” he says.

Many consumers are beginning to feel the same way. When teacher Cory Widener and his wife decided to build a new house in Macomb Township, they visited a ProTech showroom to check out all their options. Initially, Widener had the home pre-wired to allow for a state-of-the-art audio-visual system, and later added a range of security features.

In some housing developments, builders — Pulte Homes of Michigan, for example — connect buyers with contractors who can install home automation technology. Like a growing number of builders, Pulte is starting to make such systems a selling point, offering pre-installed wiring that can cover a vast array of connected home hardware. Pulte’s new “Home Base” package includes such niceties as the Nest “learning” thermostat, an ADP security system, and smart lighting and door lock systems.

Pulte isn’t alone. These days, virtually every manufacturer supplying home hardware and appliances — whether a Rheem water heater, a Honeywell thermostat, or Lutron lighting — offers at least some home automation technologies. Dutch electronics and electrical giant Philips has a new LED light bulb that not only can be dimmed, but can also change colors to match a person’s mood.

The cottage in Pinckney is now linked to 10 different smartphone apps that operate the lights, adjust the water heater, and check the security cameras, among other things. And that’s not including additional apps to operate the audio-visual system. That can be a bit overwhelming, even for savvy and experienced geeks.

The danger, cautions Williamson, is that “technology should be making our lives simpler, but instead it’s getting more complex.” For home automation to really penetrate the mainstream market, it’s a concern that has to be turned upside down, contends William J. Lynch, CEO of Savant Systems, a home technology provider that works with Spire Integrated Systems in Troy. “Consumers have spoken and want convenience and ease of use from their smart home technology,” he says.

That’s where firms like Savant, Crestron, and Control 4 have based their business models. While each follows a different approach, the goal is to simplify potentially complex systems so that one controller or app operates nearly everything in the home.

Working with a high-end firm and installer isn’t cheap. A Crestron system typically starts at $10,000, Hansen says. However, the company recently launched a new cloud-based technology, called Pyng, which brings the entry price down to below $1,000.

Costs are likely to fall further, industry watchers suggest, even as home automation technology becomes more far-reaching, reliable, and ever more omnipresent. It’s also likely to become still easier to use.

“Home automation is the next frontier,” says Jason Vazzano, co-founder and CEO of Vectorform, an innovation-consulting firm headquartered in downtown Royal Oak. The company has other operations in New York; Seattle; Munich, Germany; and Hyderabad, India. “In order for home automation to truly proliferate, we have to make it easy to use and affordable to implement,” he adds.

In fact, Vectorform is looking for ways to use home automation to save money. It recently developed an interactive app for DTE Energy in Detroit that links with a home’s smart electric meter. It helps homeowners track energy consumption and offers solutions to reduce usage.

“We had to create a truly plug-and-play experience. We spent a lot of time focused on the user experience, to make sure it would be successful,” he says.

Next up, Vazzano hints that Vectorform is working on other home automation systems that would take “smart” to the next level. It’s experimenting with wearable technologies — think the Apple Watch or Fitbit — that quickly adjust the climate control system in a room to sync with a person’s body temperature. “The idea of the thermostat as we know it could disappear,” Vazzano says. “The future is to have sensors in every room and on the individual.”

If that brings to mind HAL 9000, the futuristic computer in the classic Sci-Fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s no surprise. While we don’t have a HAL, never mind a Rosie the Robot, our lives are filled with ever smarter technologies, whether we’re at work, in our cars, or in our homes. The challenge is to make that technology enhance rather than complicate our lives, and at a cost most folks can afford. db