The Wired Home

The Boston Globe

Networking gear and other technology devices are making it easier for homeowners to control household electronics with the touch of a button
By Kate M. Jackson
March 12, 2006

The penthouse at 296 Shawmut Ave. in Boston's South End has many hallmarks of urban luxury: plasma screens and cherry-stained cabinetry, a Viking cooktop and Sub-Zero refrigerator. But it's what you cannot see in this lavish triplex that makes the home state-of-the-art. Behind the pristine white walls, a melange of high-grade wiring, routers, and cables give the homeowner a level of automation so futuristic it would make George Jetson jealous.

In this ''smart home," home theater, security, lighting, thermostats, and even MP3 collections can be controlled by touch-screen or remotely via cellphone, laptop, or PDA. The owner can call the house on his way home from work to turn up the heat and cue up a song. The system can send notifications by e-mail or text message if there is a power outage, for example, or when the dog walker arrives. The house is completely WiFi-enabled, has reinforced walls to support flat-screen televisions, and nine audio zones that allow the owner to play different music in each room instead of having the same song piped throughout.

While at $70,000, this ''smart home" setup is at the upper end of the price scale, there is a movement among technology, appliance, and electronics makers to bring home technology to the mass market. Though still a few years away, wireless networking, less expensive hardware, and easier installations will make smart homes more affordable, and more commonplace.

''Right now, any home priced over $2 million is expected to be a smart home," said Paul Whaley, a realtor with Coldwell Banker on Newbury Street. ''As the price points come down, you'll start seeing the technology in $600,000 homes and in about five years, in more median-priced homes."

Technology research firm InStat/MDR predicts the global market will grow from $1.8 billion in 2002 to $5.3 billion in 2007, with smart-home technology in 27 percent of households by 2008. The National Association of Home Builders reported 34 percent of builders in 2005 offered ''structured wiring" -- the backbone of home automation -- as a standard or optional amenity.

But the big breakthrough appears to be in the widespread use of small wireless devices that can be placed in strategic locations around the house. They are easy to install and often cheaper. Beyond the cool factor, such devices make life more convenient, cozier, and can even cut utility bills and improve home security. Using remote access via a cellphone, for example, homeowners can call in to a home network and adjust heat and lighting at any time, to accommodate weather or schedule changes. The system can notify homeowners when, for example, motion detectors sense unexpected activity.

Also, such networks can help solve a messy byproduct of the technology era: the clutter of cables and bulky equipment that take over computer and entertainment areas. With hidden wires or wireless devices, homeowners can not only look forward to neater rooms, but also have more flexibility in laying out rooms. Already homeowners can purchase a wireless technology called Z-Wave that remotely controls most everything electronic --appliances, lighting, security systems, heat, and home entertainment. Z-Wave starter kits retail for $99 and come with a master controller and two lighting modules.

Homeowners can purchase additional modules to automate the entire home, from garage door to microwave oven. The modules are as simple to use as a timer. The appliance or light plugs into the modules, and the modules into a wall socket.

In Swampscott, Paul Metaxatos spent about $250 installing Z-Wave to make his home ''reasonably intelligent." He programmed his system to have the television and music automatically come on in the morning. In the evening, certain lights inside the house, on the front walkway, and in the garage come on as he arrives home.

''My house welcomes me home every night," he said. Although Metaxatos is a technology product designer, he said homeowners don't have to be tech-savvy to set up a smart home using Z-Wave. ''After you plug in the modules, you basically press a few buttons on the master controller so it recognizes them as part of the network," he said. ''Then you assign the system tasks and events."

Tasks that are available on the controller for lighting include ''ambiance," if you want particular lights to dim to set a mood. The ''events" selected by Metaxatos include ''sunrise," when the music and television come on, and ''home" when the lights welcome him upon his return at the end of the day.

In a few months, new product developments will allow homeowners to hook Z-Wave devices to their computers. So if you're skiing in Vermont, for example, you could access your home network via the Web browser on your cellphone, and from there turn the heat down, shut off lights, and activate exterior motion sensors.

But wireless networking still has shortcomings, said Tim Woods, vice president of ecosystems development for the Internet Home Alliance, a nonprofit group. ''With wireless, you still have some dead spots and interference that can cause reliability issues," he said. Smart homes of the future will be completely wireless, said Woods, but until the technology evolves to the point where it is fully reliable, the most dependable smart home is one that has structured wiring and wireless devices, he said.

It's also not clear yet how much value such technology adds to a home, said Robert Deutsch, vice president of client operations for Domania in Newton. ''For instance, we know using Energy Star appliances has a 20-to 30-percent rate of return, but we can't quantify yet the value of having your home call you with its issues," he said.

For now, though, sale prices of smart homes don't seem to be hurting. The Shawmut Avenue property in Boston has two units built from the ground up by developer New Boston Ventures. Unit 1, a 1,600-square-foot duplex that also has smart-home technology, sold last fall for just under $1.1 million. The 2,419-square-foot triplex is listed with Sprogis & Neale Real Estate for $1.775 million.

New Boston Ventures principal David Goldman said the company is developing a property nearby on Northampton Street that will offer reasonably priced units with smart-home technology. ''Right now, this technology is crucial for capturing the high-end market," he said. ''But as it becomes more widespread, we know more home buyers will seek it out."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 3/13/2006