HOME, SMART HOME
Today, I’m writing about smart home technology — where it came from and where it is, according to experts who know.
SMART HOME TECHNOLOGY — HISTORY
Remember when home technology was in its infancy? If you’re my age, you were probably in your infancy. Or maybe you weren’t born yet.
In 1950, inventor Emil Mathias built his “Push Button Manor” in Jackson, Michigan. It had many of the smart home features we have today, although they were primitive in operation. Mr. Mathias could control his windows and window coverings, and door locks. He and his family felt safe and secure with their burglar alarm. They could control music in their home and turn on specific lights. Their home even had a dinner bell control!
“Push Button Manor” was built 12 years before the Jetsons aired on TV. Rosie, the robot, did everything with an arrogant attitude for George and Jane, their two children Judy and Elroy, and the family dog, Astro. Today’s voice-controlled smart homes just listen, unless we ask them specific questions. This makes me wonder how we’d feel if “Alexa” or “Siri” developed an attitude like Rosie had.
“House of the Future” in Disneyland
Between 1957 and 1967, Disneyland featured a smart home called “The House of the Future,” designed by architect Marvin Goody for Monsanto. The floor, ceiling and walls were made entirely of plastic. The famous conversation from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” might have been inspired by “The House of the Future:”
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.
The “House of the Future” kitchen had a state-of-the-art microwave oven. Refrigerated shelves dropped down from the ceiling. An ultrasonic-wave dishwasher saved water. It worked because the dishes and drinking vessels were plastic. The plastic ceiling panels could be set to various levels for task or mood lighting. A climate control panel heated or cooled the house. It could provide what we know now as aromatherapy, making the house smell like the seashore or a garden of roses. The built-in TV and HiFi hid from view when not in use, and a push-button speaker phones provided hands-free calls.
A SMART HOME WILL HELP YOU NOW
In the 1950s and ’60s, most homeowners didn’t know or care about home technology, but we’ve become so accustomed to a high-tech world, we forget that our present was defined and designed over 62 years ago! The “smart home” in Disneyland was perfect for that time and location. It was the only one of its kind. Technology has been and is improving and is becoming affordable so your home can now have features that can be easily controlled by your cell phone, pad, computer, or a simple voice command. Are you:
- Expecting a delivery at your home but no one is there to receive it?
- Unsure whether you turned on the security system or closed the garage door before you left?
- Coming back from vacation and want to reset your HVAC system the day before?
- Confused about what to fix for dinner with food you have in your refrigerator and pantry?
Additionally, do you want to:
- Turn on music and lights when you’re on your way home from work?
- See what’s going on in your home while you’re away, or just have fun with your pets?
- Be alerted if an appliance fails or your home develops a plumbing leak?
SMART HOME FEATURES
These are all possible with technology that’s readily available. Here’s a description of what smart home features can do to make your life easier and more enjoyable:
You can control and monitor access to your home with smart door locks, cameras and intercom systems. A camera picture or email shows up on your cell phone to let you know when your children arrive home from school, or when someone rings your doorbell. You don’t have to answer the door in person.
AUDIO and VIDEO
You can distribute music and movies throughout your home and hide all of the equipment in a closet. Family and friends can enjoy different types of AV media in different areas of your home at the same time. You have simple control of complex systems, and save money by reducing the number of cable or satellite boxes at every TV. A movie or TV show can be paused in one room while it continues to play in another room. Digital media stores and catalogs your collection; you can sort or filter thousands of titles with instant access.
Building departments have required automatic setback thermostats for many years. They work with a clock, but you have to tell it what time you want the HVAC system to turn on and off. You may have to adjust the clock for daylight saving time. You don’t have to heat or cool every room in your home, because with occupancy sensors, the room can adjust the temperature for a specific activity or the exterior temperature, to reduce the solar gain or loss and save you money on energy bills. Skylights can open or close and exhaust fans can turn automatically on based on the temperature and humidity. Window treatments can open and close spontaneously for light and privacy, as well as helping to control solar gain or loss.
With an energy monitor, it’s possible to see how your home is performing, to help you save money while you help the environment. There is a range of smart home devices that will show you energy consumption. The most expensive, of course, will break down which appliances are energy hogs, what time of the day you use the most electricity, etc.. Did you ever watch the “Living With Ed” TV series? It was one of my favorite shows, because it was entertaining while I learned about smart home technology. Ed Begley, Jr. inspired and motivated my husband and me to incorporate and plan for many of the smart home features he already had. He is one of many celebreties who live conservation every day.
This is the major feature that can enhance every activity in your home at any hour of the day or night. Good lighting can help in five important ways:
- Create a safe pathway when you come home, walk from room to room, and navigate in each room.
- Adjust with activities. A kitchen must have good task light so you can see what you’re doing, and a family room must have sufficient light to play board games, but you don’t need as much light when you’re eating, entertaining, or watching TV.
- Reduce eye strain in your home office caused by too much contrast between your monitor and light fixtures in the room.
- Save you money when you use dimmable LEDs. Using dimmer switches instead of regular on-off switches reduces your energy consumption and saves the light bulbs that you’re dimming.
- Produce a festive atmosphere in your home for the holidays and other celebrations.
My husband and I attended a holiday housewarming party at clients’ newly-completed whole-house remodeling. “Steve” knows more about smart home technology than anyone I’ve met who isn’t in the business of helping others with their smart homes. The focal point of the living room was the smart LED Christmas tree that could be operated from a cell phone. It could change colors and change the speed of twinkling. It added a festive glow to the party!
There are many manufacturers of lighting control that integrate with smart home technology. I’m a long-time fan of Lutron controls, but they can be at or near the top of your investment. It depends on how sophisticated and integrated you want your lighting controls to be. Knowing the features you want (including integration with other smart home devices) will help you find exactly what’s right for your lifestyle and your home.
Although water conversation is an important part of green technology, there are smart devices to help you water your garden. We just purchased a landscape irrigation tool that won’t turn on the sprinklers if it’s raining, or will give our precious plants an extra drink of water if we have a heat wave. This device can be operated by cell phone, computer, or voice command. This is smart home technology at its best. It protects our investment in plants and saves time and energy. My husband loves not having to get up at dawn to turn the sprinklers on manually!
SMART HOME ADVICE
You can hire a company to help you turn your home sweet home into a home smart home, or you can transform your home yourself, if you understand how smart technology works and you’re handy with tools. You can make the task easier by breaking it down into smaller pieces. If you’re at the entry level of a smart home, here are expert recommendations:
- Start with one or two gadgets and build from there as you become familiar with how the products work.
- Get products with the widest compatibility.
- Opt for user-friendly, wallet-friendly gadgets from tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Samsung.
- Sell “mistakes” on Craig’s List or Ebay if something doesn’t fit in, to recoup some of your investment.
HOW SMART DEVICES WORK
While smart home devices can do a lot, they’re really not as smart as you are! A smart home isn’t just about fancy Wi-Fi devices that you control from your cell phone. Don’t get frustrated if things don’t work as smoothly as you want, or were led to believe. There isn’t a single app that controls everything, and the devices may not intertwine seamlessly. As your smart home gets smarter, you’ll find workarounds to get devices to talk to one another so you can have inter-device automations like “When I unlock the door, turn on the lights in the entry and make a path of light to the kitchen.”
All devices that control your smart home have something in common: a radio. Voice assistants are a great buy early in your smart home journey. They give you the flexibility you may desire. It’s reported that 20 million households in the U.S. have voice-control devices. Your voice command is transmitted to the manufacturer’s server. Without this process, voice assistants don’t understand a word you say. The servers and hubs are the brains of your smart home. That’s where the intelligence is, not in the gadgets and not in the apps or physical remote controllers you use. But there is one thing about voice assistants that nags at me, though – this is a personal opinion – that the devices have to be listening, always. Here’s a link to a news report that I saw on NBC news about the security of voice controls: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/security/hey-alexa-how-secure-are-voice-activated-assistants-you-n824566. An online search for the subject of “security of voice-activated controls” got over 31,000,000 results.
IMPORTANCE OF THE “CLOUD”
What if you want all of your devices to connect to the internet, communicate, take your commands, and send you information? This isn’t science fiction, or rocket science. The “Internet of Things” (IoT) is a key component of home automation and smart homes, but each additional device in the chain of connection introduces points of failure and chances of lag. A local system will work more quickly than a system that uses the cloud, although not using the cloud may limit what devices you can use. It may prevent voice control which relies on cloud servers to work. Before you start acquiring devices, it’s a good idea to invest valuable time to do research.
SMART HOME IS STILL STUPID
A writer’s personal story about the battle with her smart home might scare you away from technology or verify that this can happen to anyone else but you. Written four years ago by Stacey Higginbotham, the article is still very entertaining and enlightening: “5 Reasons Why The Smart Home is Still Stupid” in the August 15, 2015 issue of Fortune Magazine.
Smart homes that were created in the 1950s and ’60s were a dream for a small handful of forward thinkers. We’ve benefitted by the advancements of technology in the past 65-plus years. It’s difficult to think about the future of smart homes in the next 65 years, 2084, just as it was difficult for the Wright brothers to envision that we’d be exploring outer space when they flew their simple airplane in December of 1903. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long journey ahead of us. I hope that technology will be a tool we can use to save and protect our precious home, Earth.
Listen to the 6/25/19 Podcast: “Smart Home Technology”