Wouldn’t it be great if you could push a button at night, and all of your doors would lock, your lights would turn off, and your alarm would set automatically?
That kind of “smart home” feature may sound futuristic or simply beyond reach for those without a lot of money or technical expertise. But the technology is already available and new products and services are making it and similar home automation features increasingly accessible to the average homeowner.
“It appears that we may be at a turning point,” said Chet Geschickter, an analyst with Gartner, a market research group. “We may have all the raw materials for this interoperable home automation world.”
In recent months, some major corporations have announced new products and services that could help turn the smart home into a mass market activity. Among the developments:
AT&T announced it will be rolling out its home automation initiative in March and plans to offer the service in 58 markets nationwide by the end of the year. The service will offer connected door locks, thermostats and video cameras as well as basic security protection. Unlike a similar service offered by Comcast, AT&T’s will be sold separately from the company’s broadband offerings.
Lowe’s introduced a collection of add-on services for its Iris home automation kits, which it unveiled last summer. Among the new features are sensors designed to help consumers monitor their elderly parents, an automated pet door that users can lock or unlock remotely, and a lawn moisture sensor that notifies customers when their yards are getting dry and allows them to turn on their sprinkler system remotely.
ADT, the home security giant, added the ability to remotely lock and unlock doors to its Pulse home automation offering. The company already allowed users to adjust their lighting and thermostat and view security video of their home remotely.
Home appliance maker LG showed off a new washer and dryer set that users can start remotely with their smartphones.
The promise of widely available home automation has been around since “The Jetsons” aired 50 years ago. But until recently, smart home systems have been pricey and complex, typically requiring professional installation. And few consumers have been aware of the availability of such services or haven’t been convinced that they needed them.
But in recent years, major consumer service providers — including ADT, Comcast and Vivint — have entered the market, helping promote the concept of home automation and make it more accessible to average consumers. Companies such as Comcast and Vivint now offer basic home automation systems for less than $500 installed. And Lowe’s Iris, which is available for about $300 for a full system, is designed for self-installation.
“We definitely see that (home automation) is moving increasingly into the mainstream,” said Jonathan Collins, an analyst with ABI Research.
Helping drive the decline in price and ease of use are standardized wireless technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave that allow users to install light controllers and automated door locks without needing to rewire their house. Such technologies have allowed electronics manufacturers to design more modular and expandable systems, letting users and service providers customize systems for individual needs and budgets.
The spread of broadband, cloud computing and smartphones have also provided new and compelling ways for consumers to interact with home automation systems, say analysts. For example, smart home services can take the smartphone’s location information and use it as a trigger for doing things like turning on lights or sending alerts.
“Without a smartphone, (the smart home) wasn’t really an exciting value proposition,” said Lisa Arrowsmith, a research manager at IHS Electronics and Media.
And new features are making such systems more attractive to consumers, analysts and industry insiders say. Video monitoring, for example, has proved particularly popular among ADT’s customers. And the growing awareness around energy conservation is driving the adoption of smart thermostats that can adjust temperatures when consumers are away or in response to signals from utility companies seeking to reduce peak demand.
To be sure, home automation still isn’t for everyone. While less expensive and easier to install than before, they still aren’t cheap, and many consumers may still need help configuring them.
The smart home services offered by ADT, Comcast and other providers typically are sold only with other services, such as security protection or broadband access. And they generally require users to sign long-term contracts that can include pricey monthly subscription fees.