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Issue Date: April 2006 Issue

Get Smart

Make your home work for you.  A host of "smart technology" products and design trends aimed at entertaining can help you make the most out of your home.

Beth Stallings

What’s your home’s IQ?

Does it know when to start dinner or how you like the lighting in the family room?

Our homes are becoming more attuned to our needs thanks to new design ideas and upgrade options ranging from security systems to smart ovens to heated floors that promise to make our home lives safer, easier and more comfortable.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of items to make the home a convenience,” says Bo Knez, owner of Knez Construction in Perry Township, a building and remodeling firm.

One of the most common ways convenience meets function is through simple wiring, or wireless networking. Everything from lighting to heat to security to music can be controlled by a single keypad, remote control or computer.

Then there are the gadgets such as a plant watering system by Smarthome — it can hold up to seven liters of water and be programmed to quench the thirst of up to 14 plants — and a tankless, virtually silent toilet by TOTO, complete with a soft-close toilet seat and warmer.

Many of these new technologies are worked into the design of higher-end new homes and custom-specified to a client’s needs, Knez says. However, the square footage or price of the home doesn’t matter; it all depends on what you’re willing to spend.

Amenities that go beyond the usual fall into a category Knez calls “smart house technology.”
Knez mentions Whirpool’s Polara refrigerator/range, which sells for around $1,500, as one example. You can store a ready-to-bake casserole in this intelligent, conventional-sized oven, program it to begin cooking at a specific time, and then program it to refrigerate the cooked casserole if no one is home to remove it.

“The 21st-century home means having the right wiring, cables and Internet,” says Dennis Hutson, owner of ADS Security Systems Inc. in Willoughby.

Home media centers, which can be easily hidden away in a cabinet, can network radio, CD players and iPods. The system is controlled by plasma-screen touch keypads capable of sending sound to each room. Even more convenient, a media server similar to a computer hard drive can be installed and filled with MP3 music files, which can in turn be searched, shuffled and played throughout the house.

These days, it’s all about speakers set in ceilings and walls or above cabinets to match room colors and have a “clean, neat look,” Hutson says. Smarthome even offers camouflaged speakers designed to look like rocks (everything from river stones to desert rock) that are ideal for blending into the design of your patio.

Aside from gadgets, homeowners are beginning to re-evaluate their living spaces as well, trying to make rooms as useful as the technology that furnishes them.

“Functionality is extremely important. People want true spaces that are actually used,” Knez points out, adding that formal living rooms have given way to family rooms and dens or offices that are more useful on a daily basis.

Some home offices not only offer wireless Internet, but also are specifically designed to be self-sustaining, with features such as half-baths, coffee areas and soundproof walls. The soundproof room offers a great amount of privacy to take important business calls without the distractions of the rest of the house interfering.

Other popular rooms Knez sees being built are in-home theaters, wine cellars and saunas

Plasma-screen televisions are just now getting to the point where they are affordable for homeowners, says Eric Golubitsky, vice president of sales for Cleveland/Pittsburgh-based System Modulation Integration for Lifestyle Enhancement, or S.M.I.L.E. Easily mounted on family room walls or in kitchens, the thin design of plasma-screen TVs saves space and makes rooms look bigger, eliminating the need for bulky entertainment centers.

And instead of having five or six remotes, you can merge them all into one integrated remote that controls audio, video and lighting. Macros can also be incorporated, so one button can make multiple things happen. For example, a “good night” button might turn off all house lights and lower the temperature, Golubitsky says.

Afraid too many buttons make life more stressful? Golubitsky says not to worry.

“The biggest misconception is that this is difficult to use, but that’s why they hire us, to make life easy,” Golubitsky says. Buttons can be marked and combination codes can be designed to the homeowner’s specifications.

Kitchens are also being redesigned to make entertaining easier.

One product that caters to kitchen entertainment, and helps with the cooking too, is Salton’s (the same distributor of Westinghouse and Faberware) ICEBOX — a kitchen computer/entertainment center equipped with Internet, LCD TV touch screen, radio and CD player, recipe storage and washable keyboard. This standard model fits comfortably on a countertop and costs $1,300. A slim under-cabinet, mountable version with a DVD player costs just under $2,000. And like any good appliance, the ICEBOX can be accessorized with a microwave, breadmaker and coffeemaker, each at an additional cost ranging from $90 to $165.

Heated floors are another popular item; once you’ve stepped on a heated floor, you’re hooked, Knez says. “It’s a nice way to heat the home and it’s very comfortable.”

Ken Badalamenti, owner of Riviera Construction Inc. in Solon, says he has seen people install heated floors in the whole house and even in the driveway. Homeowners have two options to heat the floors — electric or a hot-water system.

“It’s a logical form of build,” Knez says. “It does sound outlandish, but it makes sense for people on the go. Five years down the line this is going to be normal. Fifteen years ago heated seats [in cars] were out of the ordinary. Now everybody has them. It’s simply a higher standard of living.”
Lighting and security systems, garage doors and even hot tubs all can be accessed and turned on or off through the Internet, a plasma touch screen or even a cell phone.

Smarthome options like these have been around for 15 years, says Hutson, adding he was first certified as a Smarthome installer in 1992.

“But it’s just now getting popular,” he says. “A security system used to cost $70,000, but now can be installed for a couple thousand. It’s affordable to the average consumer.”

In the standard security system, ADS offers not only alarm options, but also message centers and lighting controls.

The message center is set up so a family member can leave a text message for others in the household — be it a missed phone call or update on when a teenage son or daughter plans to be home.

And since Hutson says fire alarms are useless if no one is home, ADS offers an easy solution — wire the alarms into the security system that will immediately notify the fire department. Hutson himself has an alarm set to his sump pump that alerts him when the water level is getting too high.

“It’s really great. You can control sprinkler systems, humidity in the house … temperature and electricity,” he says, all from one system that can be controlled outside of the house through the Internet or a touchtone phone, or in-home through touch screens. The concept also allows homeowners to check up on their house while they are on vacation — enabling them to monitor who has been in and out of the house and when, see lights that may have been accidentally left on, or turn down the heat on a mild day.

“In the last seven years these products have gone from being classified as luxury to practical products,” says Golubitsky of S.M.I.L.E.

“This is not just money being thrown out the window,” he says. “It adds to the value of the home.”

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