Technically Speaking

Whether you’re a super-savvy early adopter or simply looking for more comfort and less chaos, developments in technology and automation are making home life easier and a lot better looking

Maybe it’s the flat-panel screen in your family room. Or perhaps it’s the fully integrated system that allows you to adjust temperature and lighting in your cabin up north from your iPad on the road. Either way, home technology has just about everyone wired and going wireless. Even if you keep things relatively simple, your home still looks and functions differently today than it did even five years ago.

Even with the most basic flat screens come the components: a DVD or Blu Ray player, an AT&T Uverse box or a Wii. Add in speaker sets or other add-ons, and you’re far from the plain vanilla set that your parents plugged in a few decades ago. And the more you add, the more boxes, cords and remotes you need to manage. It doesn’t take long for it all to get complicated if you’re not careful. Automation can merge controls so there are fewer buttons to push when you’re ready to sit down and watch.

The abundance of electronics also gives rise to issues about aesthetics. Television placement, while a bit easier now that sets have far less mass than did their predecessors, is often complicated by accessories. “Screens can be mounted on the wall rather than set on a piece of furniture allowing for a minimal footprint in a space; however, there are more components and accessories to store than ever before,” says Century House’s manager Jacob Harlow. “The issue is no longer what I will set my TV on, but how will I organize and store my components.”

New furnishings often feature cord-management systems and interior ventilation, which is critical for plasma screens and many other components. Some manufacturers even blend technology with furnishings. For example, one line at Century House features technology that allows for remotes to work with components stored behind wooden doors. This way doors don’t have to be open and components don’t have to be visible to function optimally.

“Being able to hide everything behind closed doors while still being able to use it is another way to make the home theater more streamlined and functional,” Harlow points out.

In fact, access to controls is one of the biggest changes in home automation. Thanks to converging technology, you can control just about everything—from heating and cooling, lighting, window coverings, security, pools and Jacuzzis, outdoor sprinkler systems and more—with single remotes, computers and, often, iPhones. In fact, someone in Wisconsin can give a repairman access to a gated, secure house in Hawaii, monitor the repairs and then reengage security settings when the work is finished—all with iPhone apps geared toward even the most reluctant technology adopters.

“The neat thing about the iPhone is that people know how to use it,” says Brad Thiess, president of Middleton-based Automation Arts, which specializes in home technology and automation system design, installation and service. Even the touch-panel remotes from some of their vendors are so intuitive and similar to iPhones that many new customers can pick them up and start using them without much instruction. “It’s very similar to what they’re using in day-to-day communications.”

Thiess says customers appreciate the ease. Not only do systems grow easier and easier to navigate, they also become easier to monitor, maintain and, often, repair—remotely. Thiess says Automation Arts has a technician on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That technician can often diagnose and resolve problems in systems without ever leaving the office. The computerized systems allow techs to make adjustments or update software remotely.

While many people are impressed with the scientific advancements, others, Thiess says, simply enjoy the lifestyle improvements that come with automation. Programmed window coverings can close at predetermined times every day to block glare from south-facing sunsets and reflection off a lake. Thermostats can automatically turn down at night and when everyone is out of the house at work or at school, or they can have special settings for out-of-town guests with babies that need to stay warm or for parties when all the extra bodies mean you might want to set the temperature a little lower. Lights—even the ones in a teenager’s room—can shut off at certain points to save on energy.

Energy savings, Thiess says, is one thing that drives many homeowners to consider automation. Simply syncing thermostats and programming them can make a big impact on energy bills. “Some homes can easily save 15 percent on heating and cooling alone,” he notes.

Harlow agrees, noting that for some Century House customers, the technology is less about the bells and whistles and is more simply about minimizing cords and maximizing wireless connections to keep homes stylish, comfortable or efficient.

Yet regardless of whether we embrace it or accept it, our homes are incorporating more and more technology and automation all the time. Thiess says it can often pay to coordinate multiple systems even in modest homes.

“People have a misunderstanding about what home automation is and how expensive it is,” Thiess says. “You can do bits and pieces. For some people it just means remote access so that when they land at the airport, they can use their iPhones to adjust the heat before they walk through the door after having been gone for two weeks in the winter. It doesn’t have to be a $100,000 proposition.”

– Jennifer Garrett

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