- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

I did my first article on home automation back in the early '90s. I visited a retailer in his apartment home in Rockville, and he demonstrated all the gadgets he had installed to make his dwelling respond to him.

It was pretty impressive even by today's standards. He walked into a room, and the light automatically flipped on, thanks to a sensor installed where the light switch normally would go. His television lit up at the same time each day via a timed switch. The living room curtains drew open each morning at 6:15 so the summer light would be streaming through his house by the time he walked out of his bedroom.

Most impressive was the whole-house system he had installed, which used voice commands (like the way cell phones make calls using voice-recognition software) to turn on lights or adjust appliance settings.

Thirteen years later, the most ironic part of this story is that home builders do not offer these home automation services across the board to new-home buyers. Home networks are available, in which you have a centralized home network system that includes cable, satellite, electrical system and phone. But home automation? Forget it. You have to go to the Internet to get it done unless you are building a luxury home.

Even the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center recognizes that its members are slow to plug in the new systems.

"Home automation systems are fairly expensive and are currently geared toward high-end homes. Wireless systems are expected to reduce costs, but may not be as reliable," the NAHB reports at its Research Center Web site (www.nahbrc.org). "The systems are not entirely new, but the market has been slow to accept systems due to misconceptions about system capabilities."

Nevertheless, the site reports that "a home equipped with information age wiring can have very high speed Internet connections and an advanced energy management system designed to reduce unnecessary energy consumption and energy charges.

"Costs for running structured wiring in an existing home will be about $1,000 to $3,000, or between $600 and $2,000 for new homes, not including the cost of a central controller," the site reports. "Wireless systems are expected to cost between $100 and $150 per connected device. Additional costs for the central controller, programming and setup may be incurred. Most complete home automation systems on the market run about $3,500."

Since I wrote my first article about home automation, the sector has matured into a multimillion-dollar industry of which even the most nontechnical person can take advantage, for just about any budget.

The simple gadgets enable homeowners to turn stuff on and off automatically. For as little as $15, you can install a couple of sensory plugs in your house to be able to turn lights on from outside in your driveway when you come home late at night.

With today's technology, however, home automation is nearly as open as your imagination:

• Turn on thermostats from thousands of miles away via the telephone with X10's (www.x10.com) Touch Tone Controller.

• Inexpensively add security cameras throughout your home or office using wireless technology.

• Monitor weather forecasts via the Internet and have your computer turn itself off when it suspects an electrical storm could damage it through power surges.

• Warm up your car seat through innovative use of a heating pad and timer-sensitive modules.

• Vandals on the loose? How about a floodlight that turns on when they come too close? The system also turns on several lights inside the house to simulate the presence of someone at home.

• Provide Fido and Fluffy with fresh water remotely and automatically.

• Here's the one I really like: Web-Link II software, manufactured by Home Automation Inc. (www.homeauto.com), allows for access and control of its system over the Internet. Check and adjust the temperature, lights and security via a PC, hand-held device or Web-enabled phone. Web-Link II also offers video surveillance over the Internet, wireless access and the ability to receive e-mails and instant messages based on programmed events.

Obviously, the home automation industry has changed dramatically for the better. Following are Web sites to start your search on making your home an environment that responds to your commands:

• HomeAutomation.org (https://home-automation.org/). Provides a large directory of home automation Web sites on the Internet.

• Home Automation Magazine online (www.homeautomationmag.com). The online version of this printed publication.

• SmartHome.com (www.smarthome.com). One of the world's largest retailers of home automation systems. Includes how-to articles.

• HomeToys.com (www.hometoys.com). Here's a site for those who understand that a "a low impedance pathway for X-10 signal will travel from one leg to the other." Non-geeks need not apply.

• Home Automation Forum (www.homeautomationforum.com/). A site for home automation enthusiasts with articles, resources and how-to information.

M. Anthony Carr has written about the real estate industry for more than 14 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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