At the Touch of a Button

Men laying new hardwood flooring

Over the past several decades, technology has become part of just about every aspect of our lives. No longer are high-tech products such as computers, wireless communication equipment and automated components limited to the workplace. Though many originated in corporate markets, they now are being tailored for homes, and not just for the high-end consumer. Thanks to the ever-changing breakthroughs and advances being made on a minute-by-minute basis, homeowners across the financial spectrum can bring their homes into the 21st century with a myriad of state-of-the-art innovations.

One-touch control
With the latest innovations in technology, utilizing the features scattered throughout your home could not be easier. With the touch of a button, you can turn on specific lights, adjust air temperatures, lock exterior doors and enable the security system. This convenience is becoming increasingly attractive to homeowners. They want simplicity, says Mark Fore, designer with Sensory Solutions in Marietta. They can go to a panel on the wall and control lighting, HVAC, security, the pool and Internet access.

Commonly known as home automation, various operating equipment such as lighting controls, heating and air systems, security alarms, and audio and visual components can be interfaced with, or connected to, one another to create a system that offers a wealth of new uses for these existing home standbys. Technology today enables you to automate virtually any function you routinely control in the home, says Robert Rose of Home Waves in Cumming. Think outside of the box. If you know whats available and how to put the pieces together, you can do just about anything.

A bright future
Perhaps the most commonand most utilizedsystem is lighting control. Using preset buttons or modes (settings), homeowners can efficiently light their entire home for a specific purpose with just one click or switch. For example, upon entering their home from the garage, homeowners can trigger the at home light setting, which then turns on lights in the kitchen, family room and hallway. Or maybe the family is preparing to watch a movie. By hitting the movie setting, all the lights dim to a predetermined level.

Of course, the lighting system also can be connected with other triggers to activate lights. For example, the at home lights can be switched on when the garage door opens. Or the movie lights will switch on when the DVD player is turned on. By connecting the lighting system with the motion detectors associated with the security system, lights can be triggered when someone walks by a sensor. The neat thing about home automation is any one of your security sensors in the house can double as an automation sensor, says Dave Yoset, owner of Household Automation Systems in Woodstock. If a motion sensor sets off an alarm, the same one can turn on a hallway light as you walk down the hall.

The best part of lighting control is that homeowners can operate it with one keypad or touch screen from one area of the home. Time is not wasted going from room to room turning lights on and off. Instead, every setting can be programmed and monitored with a keypad or touch screen. Manufacturers such as AMX, HAI, Crestron, Vantage and Via! offer a wide range of keypads and touch screens to satisfy homeowners every need. These products include mounted wall panels, tabletop panels or wireless panels.

With the touch of a button, homeowners
can control the lighting in a room.

The perfect temperature
Perhaps the second most utilized system is the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Most homeowners are familiar with the programmable thermostat, which can be preset for specified temperatures at specified times. For example, the air conditioning will automatically set itself to 72 degrees at 6 a.m., 45 minutes before you wake up. Then at 8:15 a.m., it will change to 80 degrees, 15 minutes after you leave for work. In the afternoon, it will return to 72 degrees at 5 p.m., one hour before you get home. After you go to bed at 11 p.m., it will increase to 77 degrees. And the cycle will start again in the morning.

With home automation, a communicating thermostat can perform these same functions. However, because it talks with other systems in the home, it can self-adjust itself based on predetermined signals or you can adjust it as needed from a remote location. Having your HVAC controls at the ready also can help cut heating and cooling costs. If you care about saving money, it can be economical, Yoset says.

Sprinkler systems, hot tubs and even window blinds
all can be programmed to activate at certain
times of the day.

All systems are go
Many other home functions can be automated as well. The sprinkler system, hot tub, swimming pool, coffee maker and window treatments are just a few of the items you can include in home automation. Its simply a matter of connecting the items to the automation system. These systems generally are interlinked through either a broadband or wireless connection. Most dont require a computer on the premises, just the broadband or wireless connection. All programming and settings can be accessed through the keypads and/or touch screens.

With a home automation system, homeowners can even control these systems when theyre not at home. Thanks to modern conveniences, these settings can be changed over the telephone, from a work computer via the Internet or by utilizing a Web-accessible personal digital assistant.

Because of the variety of products available in the market today, most homeowners can find a home automation system that fits their needs and their budget. [Homeowners are] spending between 5 percent and 15 percent of the cost of the home on technology, says Kirby Wright, vice president of Home Waves. Theres an interesting trend. People building retirement homes are building smaller, but investing more in technology.

Basically, the cost of home automation is determined by the amount of devices and systems integrated by the technology. Its about convenience and how much you want to pay for it, Fore says. Generally speaking, he says decent lighting controls for a 5,000-square-foot home will cost between $7,000 and $10,000.

Take in a movie or concertat home
Perhaps one of the most familiar home technology systems is the home theater. In the past, this usually included a big-screen television, a speaker system, and a VCR/DVD/TiVo unit. While many home theaters still use these components, todays home theaters also are now incorporating front projection screens, theater lighting, surround sound audio speakers, and acoustic ceiling and wall panels. Likewise, these systems are automated so homeowners can employ them at the touch of a button. For example, a preset button labeled watch movie will turn on the TV and DVD player, dim the lights and adjust the sound.

Also, by automating audio and video, homeowners can eliminate the crowded entertainment center. All equipment is now in a central location, says Dennis Erskine, vice president of The Home Shoppe and CEO of Design Cinema in Marietta. This means you can even control the TV from another room, he says.

However, audio and video innovations are no longer limited to the home theater. Todays automated homes include audio and video systems throughout the house, allowing the homeowner to operate any TV or music system, whether its in the family room, kids playroom or master bedroom. With the audio system, residents can download their entire CD or MP3 collection to a central music server, which can be accessed with just one button anywhere in the home.

One example of a central music server is the VIA! dj. This digital music server contains a 160 GB hard drive, which stores approximately 2,800 hours of music (compressed) or 240 hours (uncompressed). Listeners can select tunes by artist, CD, track, genre or playlist. The system comes with three analog audio outputs for multi-room listening. This allows parents to listen to their favorite jazz CD in the kitchen while the kids dance to the latest Hilary Duff tunes in the recreation room.

Home theaters can be outfitted with stadium-style seats, dark walls and even projector systems for a true cinematic experience.

One advancement in television technology is high-definition television (HDTV). What amounts to clearer, brighter images is achieved by adding lines of resolution to televisions. The televisions currently on the market broadcast about 525 lines of resolution, whereas high-definition televisions broadcast around 1,080.

If you were to purchase a new TV today, there is a great chance youll buy an HDTV-ready TV, says David Williams, director of marketing for Comcast Cable Communications.

The advantage of buying an HDTV-ready TV is that the TV is already prepared to accept HDTV programming, which is the future of television programming.

Some local channels are already broadcasting in HDTV programming, and all have a least some component of it, Williams says.

In order to receive HDTV programs, you can go through your local cable provider, or if you have satellite, youll have to buy a special receiver with antenna to put on your roof in order to pull in the signal.

Safe and secure
Of course, security systems continue to improve with the latest technological advances. While the old security standbycontact and motion sensors with an audible alarmare still popular, many homeowners are now upgrading to more sophisticated systems. These include video surveillance, fire and medical monitoring, and carbon monoxide detection. Camera systems are going up at the front and back doors, overlooking the backyard and driveway, and even in the kids rooms. A lot more people really want to see their front door or monitor a room, says Rachel Luehrmann, general manager of Brinks Security in Marietta. They can view these cameras from any TV in any room.

Like automation, these security systems also can be monitored away from the home. [Homeowners] can access the system away from the home by calling from any touchtone phone, Luehrmann says. Key fobs also allow users to arm or disarm the security system from outside the home, such as when they enter the driveway. They generally contain a panic button, so users have instant access for assistance if necessary.

Security systems also fit a variety of price ranges. Introductory systems can be around $200 plus installation, Yoset says. However, the more devices (sensors, cameras, etc.) you add, as well as the type of monitoring you want, can increase the cost.

Light your way
Outdoor lighting plays a crucial role in home security, as well. Jeff Williams of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives says well-lit walkways are essential. He suggests that while laying out outdoor lighting, test out light placement in the dark to get a feel for the way the lights will look at night.

T.J. Pantano of NiteLites of Atlanta advises homeowners to pay close attention to the voltage and the number of lights when planning placement to ensure a sufficient amount of light. Make sure you are choosing high-quality lighting covered by a warranty.

Halogen bulbs, a popular choice for outdoor lighting, create a bright light that uses less energy and lasts longer than other types of lighting. Different types of halogen bulbs can create different effects, and they are a very safe, low-voltage way of lighting.

Open communication
Another great aspect to home technology is the option to go wireless in and around the home. Instead of being stuck in front of your desk working, with a wireless Internet server and laptop equipped with a wi-fi card, you can work in the family room while watching the kids. However, Erskine advises homeowners to bring someone in who understands wireless communications to install the system. The key is to make sure its secure against non-authorized access, he says. Once youre in wireless, youve opened up your home to the outside. Thats not a bad thing, but you must be prudent.

Erskine recommends using an encrypted spectrum for all wireless controls in the home, not just Internet service. This will help deter someone from outside the home from accessing the systems and making changes.

If you have more than one computer user in the home vying for time on the Internet, wireless home networking is the solution. Capable of hooking up to five computers in one home, the major advantage of a wireless network is speed.

An option for a few years now, wireless networking is beginning to take off for a couple of reasons.

With the price of computers coming down, there are more homes where the kids have a computer, David Williams says. And now, you dont have to be a tech expert in order to have wireless in your home.

Those two reasons have combined to produce the strong growth Comcast has seen in this service, which has been in the marketplace since the beginning of 2004.

Its an affordable and simple solution for the average consumer, he says.

Do your homework
If you think home automation is what you want, make sure to do your research before running out and buying any products. The biggest challenge we have is educating consumers on whats available and he
ping them through the process of determining whether its practical for them, Rose says. My job first and foremost is to educate and to provide whats possible and practical.

Information on home automation and technology can be found online and in trade magazines such as Robb Report Home Entertainment & Design. There are 50-plus periodicals on our industry, Fore says.

Also, go window-shopping and find out what products are on the market. Homeowners can purchase and install their own home-automation systems. One such example is the Shell HomeGenie. Available at Atlanta CompUSA stores, it can be installed by homeowners in one to two hours. The starter kit includes one wireless camera, one contact sensor, one power switch, Motorola Gateway communication software and the RF Module, which connects the Motorola Gateway to your devices. Additional devices such as programmable thermostats (which require professional installation), water sensors, motion sensors, temperature sensors and wired cameras are available. The starter kit retails for $599.99. There also is a $24.95 monthly charge for the Shell HomeGenie online tools.

Erskine does caution homeowners from expecting too much from generic systems. The biggest downside to generic home-automation systems is homeowners try to do too much, he says. It cannot read the users mind.

Also, consumers should be careful when purchasing individual components and trying to connect them together. The toughest challenge for consumers is disparate systems, Rose says. What works with one component may not work for another. When considering units by various manufacturers, consumers should seek out professional input to determine if the pieces they select will work with one another.

When consulting the professionals, Erskine suggests seeking out a CEDIA-certified home automation designer and home theater designer. The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association requires members to undergo special training and pass special exams regarding home automation and home technology. These guys know their stuff, Erskine says.

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