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March 6, 2013

In-Home Computers, the Wave of the Future

Nest Thermostat

Editor’s Note: This article is the first half of a two-part series. The second part will be featured on SiteProNews next week.

The home of the future shall be one of seamless, intuitive automation: a home that anticipates the needs of its occupants while saving energy and keeping out predators. It has been promised since my first childhood trip to Disney’s EPCOT Center (more years ago than I care to disclose).

The challenge up to now is that many of the products on the market are pieces of the puzzle but don’t work together, or they require such a massive home installation that it’s simply cost-prohibitive for the average Joe. Yet new products on the market promise easy installation, expansion over time, and smooth integration with the existing Smartphone or Internet-based technology you’re already using.

In this two-part series, we’ll explore what’s new in home automation and security and if it’s time to consider taking the leap toward making your home a “Smart Home.”

First, let’s explore the home automation side of Smart Home technology.  “Universal systems” are designed to control nearly every device or functionality within your home, from temperature to lighting to irrigation and pet care.


One of the established names in an expansive pool of products aimed at the do-it-yourself installer is Insteon.  The Insteon hub connects to your router (about $120) and allows you to access the software interface from your computer or compatible Smartphone.  Adapters are sold separately and plug into your outlets (about $35-45 each, depending on if it’s for lights or appliances), allowing you to schedule or remotely control lights, appliances, entry doors, even your sprinklers.  Last year they introduced a network compatible LED dimmable lightbulb ($30) that will communicate with your Insteon hub without requiring an additional adapter.  There’s a compatible thermostat, too.

Insteon works on a dual-mesh network — both radio frequency signals (RF) and powerlines (electrical wiring) — leading to a more stable, further-reaching coverage area. This is more reliable than Wi-Fi alone if you have “dead zones” in your home where you can’t access your wireless Internet.

IRIS by Lowe’s

Lowe’s has its own universal home monitoring service called IRIS.  It promises easy, do-it-yourself installation and integration with your Internet and your Smartphone.  Depending on what you’d like to automate, there are either “component systems” (those that only automate certain functions within your home) for about $180 each, or a Smart Kit which includes everything from thermostat control to home security for about $300 (but you’ll likely need to budget for additional sensors).

Basic monitoring is free and allows you to stream videos to your Smartphone, turn devices on or off remotely and receive notifications when an alarm is triggered.  Premium monitoring notifies more people with alerts and stores video feed online for about $10 per month. Caregivers to an elderly loved one can use IRIS motion and contact sensors to monitor their charge remotely, receiving an alert if there’s a change in behavior (not out of bed at the usual time?) or emergency.

Lowe’s recently previewed additional products that will integrate with IRIS such as motorized blinds, a WiFi-enabled water heater from Whirlpool and PetSafe’s electronic SmartDoor for your dog.  The system promises expandability as Lowe’s continues to work with appliance manufacturers to have IRIS compatibility built into its future products.

Digital Life by AT&T

AT&T’s “Digital Life” is the newest entrant to the market, slated to be released commercially in March 2013.  It promises to give you the ability to “turn down the thermostat at home without leaving the office, catch live video of your pets with your Smartphone, or lock the back door from the other side of town.”  With no prices disclosed to date, it remains to be seen if Digital Life will be cost effective. In addition to hardware, it’s safe to assume there will be monthly monitoring fees.

These new “universal systems” allow you to pick and choose the products you want (and can afford) while offering the ability to add on to the system later as your needs and budget allow. Keep in mind, however, they make your home’s functions, at least in part, dependent on a stable Internet connection, leaving many to ponder what happens if you lose power or your Internet drops?

One notable standalone home automation product that’s generated a lot of buzz lately is the Nest, a “learning thermostat” that costs $250. After a quick, do-it-yourself installation, the thermostat learns your lifestyle pattern.  Once it has figured out when you’re usually away, asleep, etc., the unit begins to automatically change the temperature to make you comfortable when you’re around and active while reducing energy use when you’re away.   While it’s not meant to be part of a larger system, the thing programs itself — a huge benefit for those of us who lack the dedication to manually input a more energy- efficient schedule and keep it up-to-date.  It’s also Internet-capable, allowing you to control your home’s temperature while you’re away using a Wi-Fi capable device.

Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds On Call, which offers onsite computer and laptop repair service for homeowners and small businesses. Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at