Steve Lee knows when his mother gets up in the morning, walks into the living room, opens the front door to get the paper and takes her medications in the kitchen. Nothing unusual about that except that he lives an hour and 10 minutes away from her.
Lee’s 80-something mother lives alone in a smart home.
“I put a small system in her house that enables me to keep an eye on her,” said Lee, the director of technical services at Universal Devices in Encino, Calif. “If I don’t see any motion and she hasn’t opened the refrigerator by 8:30, then I know I need to check on her right away.”
Smart homes are becoming more common as people push the boundaries of digital technology to help them look after their health and security, control their carbon footprint and make living easier.
The Lauterette home in Northern Virginia is a textbook example of how to live digitally.
“I have over a hundred switches connected to appliances,” said Jeff Lauterette, director of technology at the National Petroleum Council, who lives with his wife, Cassie, and two children in a three-level, 6,000-square-foot house. They get phone alerts ranging from the playful (the boys are clowning around after bedtime) to the serious (an unknown car or person is on the driveway).
A few weeks ago, a vehicle suspected of being involved in a Leesburg hit-and-run accident ended up behind the Lauterette house, captured on the video camera installed in their back yard.
“It was dark when we got home at night so we didn’t see it,” Jeff Lauterette said. “But in the morning we saw a wrecked and bloodied truck in the back yard. We looked at the footage on our video and called the police. They came, processed the crime and identified the suspect. Because of that, he turned himself in. Our video helped the police catch him.” (The suspect was arrested and charged with a felony hit and run, according to Leesburg police.)
One key to an immersive digital lifestyle is an automation system that resides in your home. Universal Devices makes a black box that looks like a cable box, called the ISY (Intelligent System). It connects to a home network and power lines, and to a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Not all automation systems are black boxes. Some are built into security systems; some are built into a home during construction; some are in the cloud.
About a dozen apps on the market use the ISY, which works with controllable outlets, light switches, multi-button keypad switches, motion detectors, door contacts, ceiling fan controls and many other devices, Lee said.
You log into the ISY Web site on your computer and create programs to turn things on and off at certain times. “It’s a simple process. You don’t have to be a programmer,” Lee said.
“The brilliance of the ISY system is the flexibility it offers. This isn’t just turning on and off lights,” Lauterette said.
You can program by the day, season or your vacation schedule. The ISY uses if-then statements to function. Meaning, if this happens, then do this. For example:
●If it is raining, then do not turn on the sprinklers.
●If it is Monday at 1 p.m., then open the garage door to let the gardener in.
●If it is 6:30 p.m., then turn on the air conditioner.
Lauterette said that he programmed dozens of variables across the house to enhance efficiency, save energy and maximize safety.
In the kitchen, he uses the system for convenience. If he puts a chicken in the oven or on the grill, he inserts a meat thermometer, and when the temperature hits 400 degrees, his phone beeps. For safety, the garbage disposal stops after five seconds.
In the garage, he uses the system to prevent waste. If the freezer door is mistakenly left open, he receives a text alert when the temperature reaches 40 degrees.
In the garden, he uses the ISY to save water. If the soil probe detects wet soil or the weather report predicts rain, then the ISY will disable the sprinklers.
In the backyard pool, he uses the ISY to ensure clean water for the boys. He receives alerts on acidity, salt and chlorine content.
In the front yard last winter, he programmed the system to save electricity. When snow reached the garden lights, they automatically turned off.
A smartphone or tablet is a key accessory, which means commands can be accessed remotely via an app or by voice control.
“I’ve opened the garage door from Florida to let in a deliveryman,” said Cassie Lauterette, owner of Mid Atlantic Consulting, which assists with smart home set-ups.
“We watched him drive up. Then we opened the garage door, and he put the package inside,” Jeff Lauterette said.
Short-term programs can be written for a specific time period, such as a program to turn lights on at varying times to make it look like people are home when they are not.
The ISY also enables virtual on-off switches. You can put a keypad switch on the night table, turn on the bathroom lights before you get out of bed and turn them off when you get back in. You also can turn on the coffee pot when you wake up.
Even without a dedicated automation system, you can still have remote capabilities, because many companies make Smart appliances that have their own app.
Cassie Lauterette cooks a roast in a slow-cooker via phone. “I can put in vegetables, potatoes and frozen meat in the morning. If I want it to cook four hours I turn it on at 2 [o’clock] wherever I am, and when I walk in the door at 6, it’s ready,” she said.
Chukwuma Ebi, a Nest Labs training representative, said that he pointed a Dropcam out the second-floor window of his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., to monitor his car. “I can see my car right now,” he said one morning at Best Buy in Tenleytown. The camera, connected to his phone via an app, is triggered by motion and sound. If there’s a disturbance, he receives a text alert.
The company’s Nest Protect product will send a text message, voice alert and color display if it detects smoke or a carbon monoxide problem. “If a piece of toast burns, you can turn off the alarm from your phone,” Ebi said. “If there’s a carbon monoxide leak, the app will alert the thermostat, and the whole system will automatically shut down.”
Every day after school, Teresa Dolan’s two boys tap the deadbolt of their home in the Crestwood neighborhood of Northwest Washington and walk inside. Every week her cleaning team does the same. “We struggled with key inventory, and the idea of handing a key to a strangers left me concerned,” Dolan said. She installed the Kwikset Kevo, a Bluetooth-enabled deadbolt. “We all have smartphones,” she said. “We all downloaded the Kevo app.” She assigned privileges to the boys and others to whom she wants to provide with keyless entry.
Here are other smart phone devices that can make your home more efficient:
● Schlage Connect is a deadbolt that works with home automation and security systems. It has a touch screen onto which user codes are entered. “There are moments when you want to know if your door’s locked, for example when you get to the airport. You check via the phone app,” said Christopher DeSchamp, Schlage’s smart home evangelist and portfolio leader, “and if you forgot, you can lock it remotely.”
●The Ring Video Doorbell is a wide-angled 180-degree camera and motion detector that connects to your phone and WiFi network. It starts recording as soon as the bell rings or someone is on your property within the customized range of motion that you have programmed; it sends a phone alert, and wherever you are, you can see on the screen who is at the door.
“It’s a cool product,” said Jeff Lauterette, who recently installed it on his front door. “If you’re stuck in traffic, late getting home and your guest has arrived and is ringing the bell, you can say, ‘Don’t leave. Sit on the porch and wait. I’ll be right there.’ ”
●A white GPS-embedded Tile lets you find a misplaced item — such as your car keys. String it on a key chain. If it is missing, TheTileApp sends a Bluetooth signal and a picture of the tracking circle to your phone, displaying the item’s location.
●You can forget about having to catch radio or TV weather broadcasts if you have Netatmo, a miniature weather station that you can put on the kitchen counter or bedroom dresser to receive ambient data such as temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide. It will send an alert to tell you when to open the windows for fresh air.
●The next smart home game-changer might be Apple’s recently released HomeKit. The device allows homeowners through Siri to use verbal commands to do such things as turning off, turning on, dimming or brightening lights in a specific room; setting the thermostat to a certain temperature; and turning on a printer.
Lauterette said that he hopes all his devices will soon be part of HomeKit: “Then my phone will be the remote control for everything.”
Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.
Price information for some of the products mentioned is listed below. Prices will vary depending on where the item is purchased and the types of accessories ordered with it.
●ISY black box: $199 to $339 (ISY Web site)
●Dropcam: $180 to $250 (Amazon)
●Nest Protect: $125 (Amazon)
● Kwikset Kevo: $192 (Amazon)
● Schlage Connect: $200 (Amazon)
●Ring Video Doorbell: $199 (Amazon)
●Tile: $130 for packet of eight (Amazon)
● Netatmo: $145 (Amazon)