INDYStar

By Erika D. Smith

Imagine being able to log on to a Web site from your computer at work, cue some cameras stationed around your home and see what’s going on in your front yard. Or being able to use your iPhone to unlock your front door for the cable guy from 20 miles away.

Sound cool?

A few years ago, either system would’ve cost you tens of thousands of dollars and required professional installation. Today, you can run over to Lowe’s, shell out a few hundred bucks and install the components yourself.

Such is the new world of the $2.5 billion home-automation industry. It’s no longer reserved for the very rich.

For $300, consumers can buy a deadbolt lock for their front door that can be unlocked via the Internet. It’s made by Carmel-based Schlage. Other manufacturers, such as Irvine, Calif.-based Hawking Technologies, sell wireless video cameras with night vision for less than $200 and wireless thermostats for about $100.

“Before, where we really were only talking about the very elite — the 1 percent of the top 1 percent — now just about any homeowner can afford to have some kind of automation,” said Michael Majors, owner of Indianapolis electronics installation firm Digital Home Designs.

Home automation can mean a lot of things.

In the past, it was mostly about entertainment. Home theaters that can cue up a movie and darken the room with a flip of a switch. Wireless networks that allow music to be streamed from any room. Recently, though, automation has become synonymous with energy management. Thermostats that automatically raise and lower the temperature based on the time of day. Blinds that close when the sun goes down.

“We’ve talked about smart homes since the 1970s,” said Mike Bloxham, director of the Insight and Research Center for Media Design at Ball State University. “Homes are becoming digital and homes are becoming networked, but not fully networked.”

That could change, though, as the price continues to drop for home-automation technology.

Market research firm Electronics.ca Publications expects U.S. sales to grow from $2.5 billion this year to $8.1 billion by 2014. Companies that make do-it-yourself home-automation products, such as Schlage, are likely to account for a lot of that growth.

“There are a lot of companies trying to crack the sweet spot of middle income,” said Dwight Gibson, vice president and general manager of connected home solutions for Schlage.

The company, a division of Ingersoll Rand, recently started selling the Schlage LiNK system at Lowe’s and other retail stores.

The system combines a door lock with a numeric keypad that can be linked to a home’s Internet connection and, through that, a cell phone. Homeowners can unlock a door from their cell phones and use a Web site to track who goes in and out of their house based on assigned numeric codes.

“It’s all very affordable, and it’s all do-it-yourself,” Gibson said.

Schlage LiNK uses a technology called Z-Wave, a wireless standard in other home-automation products. (Think of it like Bluetooth, the wireless technology that can, for example, connect a cell phone made by LG to a headset made by Motorola.)

With Z-Wave, homeowners can add video cameras or lights to their home network as they see fit.

“It’s all designed for the mass market,” Gibson said.

The spread of wireless networking technologies is one of the biggest reasons home automation has become more affordable. In addition to Z-Wave, there are Insteon and ZigBee, which is used mostly by professional installers.

Two or three years ago, wired systems were the standard, and that meant professionals had to install switches and controllers for complicated networks.

“Compared to what we did five years ago, everything we do today looks like a bargain,” Majors said.

What constitutes a “bargain” is, of course, relative. A professionally installed system that turns down the thermostat, shuts the shades and turns off the lights when you arm your alarm system still could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

And even in a recession, homeowners are still spending money on automation systems. Business is good, Majors said.

It’s just that there are now two separate markets for home automation: one for the do-it-yourself crowd and one for homeowners who want a fully integrated, easy-to-use system.

“There’s a limit to what a do-it-yourselfer can do or what they care to do,” said Utz Baldwin, CEO of the Indianapolis-based Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association.

Both markets will continue to grow as younger, technologically savvy homeowners demand more out of their homes, including methods for streaming music, video and the Web, and ways to conserve energy.

In the end, the motivations for both groups of homeowners are the same.

“Everybody is trying to simplify how they operate things,” Majors said.

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