WASHINGTON — Armeane M. Choksi acknowledges he’s a bit of a “gadget freak” in explaining his need for an uber-connected house.
Whether he’s sitting in his second-floor home office or vacationing out of the country, Choksi can control just about every major component of his mansion in Northwest Washington by touching the screen of his smartphone or tablet.
He can preset his drapes in his dining room, living room and south side area of his family room to open at 4 p.m. and close at 10 a.m. to protect his rugs and furniture from the harsh sun. While he’s in the kitchen, he can lower the screen in the basement home theater and begin playing a favorite movie so that it’s ready for him when he gets there. And he can turn on, turn off or dim practically any light in the house.
“This system is completely comprehensive and controls the front-door camera, cable TV, the Kaleidescape video-distribution system, Internet radio, satellite radio, lighting, temperature, the shades and security,” says Choksi, 69, who served as vice president of the World Bank before founding two investment firms.
“The advantage is that if I want to change the temperature, I don’t have to go running from room to room,” adds Choksi, who lives in the house with his wife, Mary. “If I have dinner, I can preset the lighting in every room and preset the music — all with one button. You can watch one TV in one room and listen to music in a second room.”
Smartphones and tablets have made luxury more convenient to those with means, but it’s not for everyone. If you’re the type of person who struggles with the TV remote, you may not want your entire home controlled by technology. And some over-the-top features can become outdated quickly, requiring expensive updates.
Choksi said the app-based technology is far more advanced than a similar system he previously owned. The older system, he said, was clunky, with touch screens attached to walls and components that didn’t talk to one another.
Being able to operate “online has lowered prices and made these systems more accessible,” says Tom Wells, president and founder of Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, Va.
Neither Choksi nor Wells would disclose the cost of the system. But experts say such technology can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Wells says the new systems can do 50 percent more than they used to for 30 percent of the cost. “Now everyone can start with a Web-based device instead of needing to install a special touch panel. That brings down the cost tremendously.”
Although this technology may seem frivolous, it has some practical applications.
For example, when Joseph Pigg needed to let a plumber into his beach house in Delaware while he was at work in Washington, he pulled out his iPhone to shut off his alarm system. When he’s at the beach and his dogs need walking in the city, he can use the same app to handle security at his Washington home and let in a pet sitter.
Pigg installed SimpliSafe, a wireless home-security system with motion sensors on the doors and windows. He gets a text message when they’re opened.
“The ability to use my phone to control everything remotely is what really sold me on the system,” Pigg says.
Joshua Baker, founder and co-owner of Bowa, a luxury-home renovation and remodeling company in McLean, Va., says handling things remotely from a tablet or smartphone is particularly important for people who travel frequently or have a second home.
“One client travels often and has a lot of packages delivered to her home,” Baker says. “We have a sensor set up so that if the door to her vestibule is opened, a caretaker gets an email and can check by camera to see if a package has been delivered, and then go pick it up.”
Derek Goldstein, principal and chief executive of Casaplex, a technology-services company in Kensington, Md, says someone typically calls his company to set up TVs or a security camera and then asks what else can be automated. The answer: everything.
“You can incorporate everything into your home-automation system such as lighting, security, audio-visual equipment, energy monitoring and your HVAC, and then all the systems can speak to each other,” he says. “For instance, I can set my system so that when the security camera picks up the fact that I’m coming home, it can turn the TV on to CNN, kick on the heat and turn on the right lights to illuminate a path to my bedroom so I can get changed.”
Here’s a look at some of the most popular smart-home devices:
• Lighting: Baker says Bowa frequently installs lighting “scenes” that can control an entire house.
“Most people only have a few ways that their home is lit, so we can set up standard weekday scene, a weekend scene and an entertaining scene,” he says. “For example, if you have a ‘night’ scene, you can touch your iPad or a button on your bedroom wall that will set the TV onto the news with a 30-minute timer, turn off the interior lights throughout the house, turn on the alarm, turn on your outside security lights and set your temperature for sleeping.”
• Security: Multiple cameras allow owners to remotely monitor their homes and to allow people to enter.
Casaplex’s Goldstein says some homeowners are adding keyless entry systems; a regular key is a backup.
“If you have a maid that comes every Tuesday, you can give her a code that you activate to let her in and deactivate at all other times,” Goldstein says.
• Energy efficiency: A temperature sensor will record your preferences and learn over time how to optimize your energy use. You can also get a monthly energy-use report from the system.
“You can tie your HVAC to your mobile phone’s GPS, so that when the GPS shows that you’re four miles from home, the heat will automatically go on,” Goldstein says.
• Home monitoring: You can set sensors to check for a leak in your basement, to alert you if your plants need water and even keep an eye on your kids.
“If you have cameras or sensors and it’s time for your kids to go to sleep, you can flash the lights in their room instead of yelling at them,” Goldstein says.
• Entertainment: “Consumers want their entertainment to be tech-friendly, too, so they’re including the ability to stream video and audio services anywhere in the house,” says Wells, of Integrated Media Systems. “People want to store their photos, music and movies on the cloud so that they can access them remotely, especially if they have a second home.”
• Appliances: “Some of the new ranges and refrigerators have a built-in ability to look up recipes and set the temperature and timer for you,” Goldstein says. “They have internal diagnostic systems that e-mail the dealer and the homeowner if servicing is needed.”
New appliances also have safety features that allow you to deactivate the controls and reactivate them with a smartphone, Goldstein says.
At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Goldstein says, he saw a prototype for wall-mounted refrigerator cubes that cool different types of food to the optimal temperature. The cubes can be connected to food providers that automatically deliver more chicken, for example, when poultry is running low.
With the smartphone and tablet serving as the nerve center of the home, what happens if the devices are lost or stolen?
“The thought that someone would have your address and complete access to your home is pretty terrifying,” Wells says. “That’s why you need make sure all your information is encrypted and that you password-protect your devices.”
In addition, most devices can be wiped clean remotely if you report it as stolen. Goldstein says his company installs one or two hard-wired control panels in the house as a backup to wireless systems. He says wireless networks sometimes get congested, which can cause problems with home-automation systems.
“Before you jump into adding high-tech features to your home, you need to make sure you know what you’re asking for,” Baker says. “There’s a fine line between control and automation, so you want to make sure whatever it is, that it actually makes your life easier.”