When the homeowner of tomorrow steps in her front door after a long day at the office, she'll be able to enjoy just the right lighting, soft music and seasonally appropriate heat or air conditioning, all primed and ready for her at the touch of a button - a touch she made while still in her car on the way home.
Of course, the roast already will have finished cooking - she will have arranged for that to start while she was at work - and the laundry will have been done during an off-peak period, using less energy and saving her family more money than if she had crammed it all in the washer after dinner.
These days, it's not enough for your children to get into Harvard or Yale. Now your home has to be smart, too. Soon, potential buyers will be looking for Home IQ scores along with heat pumps and garage door openers.
The notion of a home that can anticipate your needs has been around as long as, say, the Jetsons. Now, however, yesterday's caricatures are today's realities. At last month's 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show, for example, South Korea's LG Electronics displayed its line of Thinq appliances. Touch-screen LED displays in Thinq refrigerators enable homeowners to keep track of where food items have been placed - and when they expire. Imagine standing in front of the dairy case in the supermarket and being able to know whether you have milk in the fridge back home.
Meanwhile, GE showcased its own array of smart-home technologies, including a full suite of energy-efficient smart appliances. GE has long been in the forefront of smart-home technology, touting the well-connected home as the wave of the future for an energy-conscious nation.
"There's a growing need for consumers to have the tools that will allow them to manage ... home-energy consumption," says Dave McCalpin, general manager of GE's Home Energy Management Division. "Once you get devices connected, you can offer other convenience benefits to consumers."
So what exactly is a smart home?
The answer has a lot to do with the needs of the homeowner. Generally speaking, smart homes are connected, meaning you can control your home - and the appliances in it - in ways that weren't possible just a few years ago. All it takes is a click on a computer icon or a tap on an app.
"It's about the ability to easily interface with the home and with everyday devices," says Frank DePew, the owner of Chesapeake Smart Homes, which does high-end custom home installations throughout the Greater Washington area and beyond. "Wireless technology has changed everything. Now you can use your smart phone - or your iPad - to control things. That alone is full of implications for what smart homes will be."
In tougher times, conserving energy and saving money are big draws.
"We have been in the dark forever about how we conserve electricity," Mr. McCalpin says. "Having the information about which devices consume the most energy helps people feel empowered and willing to make more informed choices."
Recent studies have shown that more detailed and regular information about energy consumption can prompt homeowners to curtail electricity use by about 10 percent. Meanwhile, the new smart grid (not yet available everywhere) would allow for energy costs to vary throughout the day, with the highest prices most likely occurring during periods of peak consumption. Appliances that "know" when those peak hours are would help homeowners manage energy consumption and reduce their costs.
But even without the smart grid, smart-home technologies are changing the way homeowners live their lives.
Hate coming into a dark house and having to scramble to find the lights? You'll never have to face that scenario again in a smart home, which will enable you to program different scenarios, depending upon your needs.
"You can get rid of all those light switches and end up with one keypad," Mr. DePew says.
When Mr. DePew arrives at his Annapolis, Md., home, he hits the "welcome" button on the touch pad near the front door. Result: lighting where he wants it, and possibly music, coffee or even the nightly news.
Having all the lighting accessible in one control panel is particularly useful in today's larger homes, where having rows and rows of switches to operate could be time-consuming and inconvenient.
Going away? No problem for the smart-home owner. A few programmatic touches, and you can set an array of options and won't have the same light on for the same amount of time every day of your vacation.
"All you have to do is press the 'vacation' button," Mr. DePew says. "It will set back the thermostat and set various lighting scenarios that vary per night."
Don't like the idea of heating your home when no one's in it, but do like the idea of coming home to cozy warmth rather than that icy end-of-the-day chill that envelopes you when you walk in the door? Programmable thermostats will turn themselves down when you leave for the day and power your system back up again in time for you to walk in.
If you have a larger home with several heating zones, an integrated home can cycle two or three units so they are not all running at the same time.
"It's easy to do without affecting the actual comfort of people in the house," Mr. DePew says.
If it's entertainment you're after, there is not better time to "get smart." You can experience "whole-house audio," controlling the volume in every room from one device. More luxurious spaces can feature massive screens with everything - sound, DVD, etc. - accessible on one remote. And with the next generation of televisions expected to be tech-savvy and Internet-ready, you'll be able to watch your stored movie playlists on the big screen with ease.
And, at the risk of conjuring up images of Big Brother, smart-home technology will carry those old security systems into the 21st century.
Forget to set your system? You easily can reset things through your smart phone. If you want to check on your home-alone teenagers, an app will let you take a peek, using your pre-installed hidden cameras.
"Most of these types of security systems are fairly sophisticated," Mr. DePew says. "It's easy to get information about what is going on at home through a remote control."
For many homeowners, though, smart-home technology is more than just added security or creature comforts. It's what helps them save money and conserve energy. It's all about the smart grid.
"We wanted to make our home as efficient as possible," says Kara Gelinas, who with her husband, Todd Alexander, is participating in GE's two-year pilot program on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., which links the appliances in their home to the smart grid.
The GE program is a partnership with the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP), an organization that received nearly $800,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Vineyard Power Co-op, to understand the role of smart-grid technologies.
So when Ms. Gelinas wants to put in a load of laundry before she sends her son off to school for the day, her smart home system often will tell her to "delay."
"If it's expensive and inefficient to start it up at that moment, it will wait until a better time," she says.
She doesn't even have to be home when that happens.
VEP and the co-op hope eventually to provide 100 percent of the Vineyard's power with wind and solar energy during the off season, purchasing power to supplement those sources during the peak times of the summer, when the island's year-round population of 16,000 can swell to 110,000 people.
"The best part is saving money," Ms. Gelinas says. "It really makes us more aware of the bigger picture and how we are part of the bigger picture. Now we're on a crusade to turn the lights off."
How does it work? Through a cell-phone-charger-sized device called the GE Nucleus; the device works with GE's Brillion technology and interacts with smart meters and helps homeowners manage energy consumption.
"We want to disaggregate the brains from the display device," Mr. McCalpin says. "That way we can take advantage of the screens that are already in the home."
In other words, you'll have the information or controls you need right on your computer desktop. Ms. Gelinas notes that the program can tell her how much energy her solar panels are producing along with information about electricity usage.
Nucleus, which will retail for about $150 to $200 later this year, stores data for three years and is upgradable as current technology develops.
GE appliances with Brillion technology include Energy Star-qualified refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, ranges, microwaves and a hybrid water heater that uses the latest heat-pump technology.
"People are really pleased to have a better understanding of what they are consuming," Mr. McCalpin says. "We've been in the dark forever about how we consume electricity."
Nucleus works with utilities that have time-of-use electricity plans. The Greater Washington area isn't quite on the smart grid yet, but the handwriting is on the wall.
"It's definitely coming," Mr. DePew says. "It may not be here right now, but it's on the way."
In the meantime, you still can preheat the oven, warm up the bathroom or even check in on what your teenagers are doing after school long before you walk in the door.
Because tomorrow is - gulp - today.
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