- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

Your home is expected to do a lot these days. Beyond fulfilling basic shelter needs, today’s home is both a modern-day feat of technology and a place to enjoy old-fashioned family time. New electronics can help make just about everything easier around the house, from turning on the lights before you walk in the door to keeping an eye on your children. Homeowners - and buyers - are especially interested in high-tech devices that will help them cut costs and save time.

“If a home is priced right and has all the new bells and whistles, it’s going to sell,” says Lorraine Arora, branch vice president of Coldwell Banker’s office in Arlington. “People are looking for smart technology that’s going to make their lives easier.”

Even as confidence in the overall economy fell slightly last month, confidence in technology and consumer electronics jumped, according to the latest figures from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and CNET.

However, today’s technology is often tomorrow’s trash. That can be a problem, especially in a market where there are lots of available homes. Those intercom systems from the ‘80s, for example, don’t excite potential homebuyers - especially when they don’t work.

Ms. Arora says homeowners should just get rid of the things they no longer use or that don’t work because most buyers don’t have the time, energy or inclination to start renovating. Homeowners not only have to cope with the old wiring and the multitude of phone lines put in homes years ago, they have to try to anticipate what to buy now that will integrate with tomorrow’s trends.

What’s hot? Wireless. Over 30 percent of American households now have a wireless network, according to data provided by the CEA, and that number is expected to grow as manufacturers begin to showcase a variety of wireless electronics.

Before you start ripping out those old wires, consider this: Today’s wireless systems are not quite where they need to be for optimum video and audio, says Dan Liberman, owner of Infinite Sight and Sound in Fairfax, a company that specializes in installation of audio-visual systems and home theaters.

“The only wireless that stands a chance is digital wireless,” says Mr. Liberman. “As far as video goes, it’s not quite here at this point.”

Some wiring is necessary - even for wireless applications. The new approach is structured wiring, which organizes systems into a hierarchy of connections.

“Structured wiring is the first step,” says Ryan Skelly, technical support manager at Smart Home Systems Inc. (www.SmartHomeUSA.com), a smart-home technology company founded in 1995. “All audio, video, camera, telecommunications and sensors can be implemented very easily.”

Structured wiring also allows you to add new technology in stages, as your budget and inclination allows.

“You can see the savings from one part before beginning another,” says Mr. Skelly. “And you can put the money you saved into the next piece of equipment. It allows you to make modifications in small steps.”

Updating your home technology doesn’t necessarily mean ripping up your walls. New HomePlug systems use the existing electrical lines to transmit signals. Other systems may use radio frequencies.

“This allows people to retrofit their homes for less expense,” says Laura Hubbard, CEA spokesperson.

Making your home a place where you not only get to hang your hat but want to spend your time is especially important in tough economic times. Today’s smart-home gadgets and home-automation appliances allow homeowners to enjoy their spaces and be surrounded with sound and larger-than-life effects (if your flat-panel screen is big enough).

If you are looking to get a bit smarter in the home technology department, here are a few areas to get you ready to face the future.

Energy efficiency is at the top of just about everyone’s list. Yesterday’s energy-efficient appliances are now joined by energy-oriented smart-home gadgetry that will actually adjust your appliances to be more energy-efficient.

“Home automation involves a lot of energy-saving products,” says Mr. Skelly. “Sensors can monitor your appliances in terms of the power consumed and even let you know how much they are costing you.”

A home thermostat, which can be connected to the Internet and controlled remotely, costs about $100. Light controls can cost even less.

The recently introduced Schlage LiNK wireless keypad lock/home-management system, available online at https://link.schlage.com and at Lowe’s Cos. Inc. stores nationwide, lets homeowners monitor and control access to their homes from any computer and most cell phones. Schlage LiNK also can control lights and temperature and provides a live feed from Web cameras mounted at various sites in the home. It will even notify you - via e-mail or text message - the moment your children arrive home from school.

There are systems that can regulate the appliances that use the most energy, like your water heater, dishwasher and HVAC systems. Companies like Control4 (www.control4.com) integrate and control various appliances and systems throughout the home, including audio visual equipment, lights, the garage door, thermostats and security. It can even turn off all the televisions in your home during homework hours.

Recently, a number of investors, including Cisco Systems Inc., General Electric Co., Comcast Corp. and ADT Security Services Inc. have generated funding for iControl Network Inc. (www.icontrol.com), a company with software that will allow customers to control a home’s lights, security systems, and heating and cooling via the Web.

Cozi (www.cozi.com) is a Web-based family organization service, who partnered with Whirlpool, to allow homeowners to do things like create a master calendar, monitor homework projects, and even keep track of shopping lists from any computer. (And it’s free.)

Today’s busy lifestyles often mean that families go back and forth from home to school or work at different times. Also, today’s youngsters do not always give mom or dad a call the minute they get home. Now, technology can let parents know who is home - and when they got there - at the touch of a computer key.

Security systems can also involve multiple cameras and motion centers that can be controlled off-site and viewed via computer or cell phone.

Sometimes, the entertainment is the house itself. Multiroom audio-video systems (MRAV) allow homeowners to play and control audio and video from a centralized system to a number of different rooms.

“Because more people are cocooning, they are looking for an investment in entertainment,” says Ms. Hubbard. The recent digital television revolution has given a boost to the television sales, as homeowners seek to replace their old sets with systems that will allow them to see what this new world has to offer.

“If you’re still using your old television with your cable system, you’re not really seeing what they’re giving you,” says Mr. Liberman. “There’s so much more detail. With the shape of that old TV, you’re giving up a lot of that new content.”

But what set to get? The world of high definition is a complicated one, with plasma and LCD televisions competing with new organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology and the allure of 3-D TV, which industry executives hope will capture the imagination of the viewing public.

Many industry experts praise plasma televisions for their precise images and wide-viewing range. Meanwhile, homeowners interested in going green may opt for the OLED, which runs cooler than its counterparts and consumes significantly less power, according to its manufacturers.

Perhaps even more important than the television is the sound that accompanies it.

“Sound has a tremendous impact,” says Mr. Liberman. “Even the best picture is improved by great sound. It can make all the difference.”

With all that music stored on your iPod or MP3 player, you’ll want to get it out of your earbuds and into your house. Simple wireless routers, like AirPort Express by Apple Inc. (www.apple.com/airportexpress), allow your iTunes playlist to play through your stereo or home-theater system. A host of other companies offer similar networking capabilities.

“It’s about going beyond the dock,” says Ms. Hubbard. Many homeowners opt for installing one of the new surround bars as part of their home theater system. These can simulate the old surround sound produced by a traditional speaker system while utilizing less space. And they look pretty cutting edge when used in conjunction with a new high-definition flat-panel television.

“People who are used to surround sound with speaker wires will find that sound bars are much easier,” says Ms. Hubbard.

Mr. Liberman notes that many audiophiles still swear by the old analog sound.

“It you’re looking a pure audio, it’s still the analog stuff that’s best,” he says. “Digital doesn’t even come close.”

Still, unless you have read Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” one too many times, smart-home technology can be mightily appealing. After all, who wouldn’t want to be entertained, save money and keep track of your responsibilities all at the touch of a button?

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