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Boost Your House's IQ With Smart-Home Tech

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PHILADELPHIA (4/9/13)--When Disneyland unveiled its modular fiberglass "home of the future" attraction in 1957, it looked almost nothing like the houses lived in by ordinary Americans. Now the increasing popularity of affordable "smart home" technology means your home could be the home of the future--with a few strategic upgrades. These also could help lower utility bills.

Due to the ease of use and lower prices, more people are turning their houses into programmable smart homes where they can control lighting, thermostats, locks, music, and video surveillance from their phones and tablets. Companies that sell and install these technologies are reporting an increase in business (The Philadelphia Inquirer March 16).

The goal of this technology is to offer users greater control over their home's environment, with products such as next-generation thermostats and programmable light switches promising increase energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

The technology has existed for years, but most of these gadgets no longer require you to rewire your house or spend a week immersed in an instruction manual before use. The devices are wireless and at your disposal, accessible from your iPhone even if you're at work or the airport.

Here is a sampling of the latest smart-home gadgets (The New York Times March 27):

  • Nest Learning Thermostat--Founded by one of the creators of the Apple iPhone and iPod, Nest has designed a programmable thermostat you don't have to program. Noting when you manually turn the temperature down or up, after a few days it will make those adjustments on its own. The Nest thermostat is also adjustable via an iPhone app. It has a motion detector that can sense when people are home, and claims it's compatible with all low-voltage heating systems and can save users 20% on their heating and cooling bills. Cost: $249.
  • WeMo Switch--This Wi-Fi-enabled switch from Belkin allows you to control household appliances with an iPhone app. You plug the WeMo switch into any outlet, plug an appliance into the switch, and then you can remotely turn the appliance on and off using the WeMo app. You also can use the app to create a lighting schedule for your lamps; Belkin announced that this summer it will release a wall switch that allows you to do the same thing with a home's hard-wired lights. Cost: $50. A $100 version has motion-sensor capabilities.
  • Philips Hue--These energy-efficient LED light bulbs come with built-in wireless capabilities and allow you to control brightness, set timers, and even control their color via a smartphone app. Cost for a starter pack that includes three bulbs and a base station: $200.
This spring the technology-review blog Gadget Review also surveyed some smart-home technologies, mentioning many included by the Times. It also highlighted Lockitron, a keyless entry device that works with your existing deadbolt (Cost: $180), and GE Nucleus, which communicates with your utility company's smart meter on your home to deliver near real-time energy consumption readouts to your iPhone--information that you can use to slash your energy bills. (Cost: $150).

If you want a comprehensive integration of your lighting, utilities, security, and entertainment controllable through a single interface, numerous companies offer that kind of customization, but it can be expensive. One company, Control 4, said its starter package begins at $1,500, but could exceed $5,000 for bigger projects.

For more information, read "Debunk Energy-Saving Myths" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.