[TECH] A Home With a High IQ

Jim Lipsit’s wife, Cindy, knows exactly when her husband’s car pulls into the driveway — even if she’s still at work — because the house sends her a text message. And that’s not all. The Lipsits’ 2,500-square-foot home in Lake Worth, Fla., also turns off lights when people leave the room, automatically shuts off the hot tub and takes photos when someone rings the bell at the front door.

Jim Lipsit has spent the last 14 years programming his abode to be the ultimate smart home, with computer-controlled lights, temperature, music, security — and just about everything else you dare to dream up.

The Internet, along with automation hardware and software, is making it easier for you to turn any home into a smart home or build one from scratch. By using the Web, PDAs and cell phones, you can control your smart home from the office or anywhere. A smart home is also ideal if you want to keep tabs on your property while on vacation or a business trip.

As smart-home technology has improved, it has taken home security to a whole new level. Check out just some of the security features you can get:

  • Lights
    Turning indoor or outdoor lights on and off automatically or when someone enters or leaves an area has been a long-time feature of high- and low-end smart home systems. These days, you can have this feature in every room.
  • Cameras
    Webcams and closed-circuit TV systems from companies such as WiLife and SecurityMan can “watch” activity indoors and out. You can set a system so that if the doorbell rings or something moves through the yard, it triggers a nearby video camera to record images and save them to a DVR or send them to a pre-determined location, such as an email address.
  • Action
    Hook up an environmental sensor to the water heater or washing machine, and it’ll sound an alarm if there’s a leak. Other motion or environmental sensors detect smoke, flooding, carbon monoxide, high winds and other dangers.

Taking command
In Lake Worth, Lipsit turned a spare bedroom into a command center filled with computers and wiring that control his smart-home systems. Devices he installed in the couple’s two cars alert the system when they pull into the driveway (that’s how his wife knows when he’s home). Lipsit installed microphones throughout the house and programmed the system to respond to voice commands with pithy comments such as, “I noticed you left the garage door open; I will close it for you now.” Cindy Lipsit prefers to use a touch screen they installed in a kitchen wall to turn on the stereo or to pick up voice-mail messages.

Lipsit figures he has spent $10,000 on smart-house upgrades, and he has become something of a go-to guy on smart-home message boards for people looking to do the same. “It’s really starting to catch on,” he says. “There’s no doubt in the future it’ll happen; it’s just a question of when.”

Looking at options
Until now, if you wanted smart-house security you had to be a DIY guy like Lipsit and cobble together hardware and software bought online or through home improvement stores. Doing it yourself can run about $30 or $40 for X10 or Insteon remote appliance controllers and $99 for the software “brains” behind a smart-home system.

Alternatively, you could hire a digital home integrator to do the work, an undertaking that can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more depending on the quality of the systems you choose. Upscale showcase smart homes have run into the millions. The model smart home Wired magazine built last year in Los Angeles uses touch screen PCs and Web remote controls, as well as a Panasonic Iris Reader to identify occupants by scanning their eyes. The home’s total price tag: $4 million.

Finding a middle ground
But a smart-home middle ground could be on the horizon. This spring, the Canadian telephone company SaskTel is rolling out an innovative service in partnership with Home Automated Living, maker of HAL, the popular smart-home software. SaskTel will install and manage smart-home controls for customers in Saskatchewan and eventually throughout Canada. Prices will start at $50 a month for basic home security services and smart-home software and increase from there depending on the other smart-home systems a customer wants, says Kristy Cmoc, project manager for SecurTek, the SaskTel division doing the pilot. By eliminating most of the work that goes into setting up a system, the partners hope more homeowners will give it a try, says Tim Shriver, Home Automated Living’s president. “There’s a big momentum now. There’s a lot of excitement,” Shriver says. If it goes well, the company eventually wants to partner with a U.S. outfit on a similar service here, Shriver says.

Meanwhile, Home Automated Living will release the latest version of its HAL software this spring. Among other upgrades, the program will expand support for instant messaging to include Yahoo and AOL IM — so your house, like Lipsit’s, can text you with updates anywhere, anytime.

Michelle V. Rafter is a journalist based in Portland, Ore. She has spent more than 20 years writing about business and technology for magazines, newspapers, wire services and Web sites.

Image credit: futureatlas.com

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