written by:
illustrated by:
July 4, 2010

Energy-monitoring and smart technologies have set up shop in the home, transforming machines for living into veritable living things—with all the bells, whistles, frills, and failures.

home smart home out of milk

It’s 2 a.m. when Benny Goodman’s clarinet jolts me awake. Through the fog of sleep—–not to mention earplugs—–I at first think the high-pitched strains are the tired wheezings of my fan. I quickly, however, identify the sweet and unmistakable sounds as the King of Swing wafting from the bathroom. The culprit behind the sudden symphony is a four-by-four-inch plastic square screwed into the wall: one of our whole-house audio control panels, which has no business being switched to “on” at this hour.

Ah, another night at home in a smart house.

You have no doubt heard about the promises of smart homes: Programmable ovens that cook your dinner. Talking fridges that alert you when you’re out of milk. Showers that remember your lighting, temperature, and pressure preferences. Many of these advances are frivolous and more work—–and worry—–than they are good. But after living in smart houses for the past eight years, initially as a skeptical-yet-helpless bystander as my husband transformed our houses into beta sites for his company, Elan Home Systems, I have discovered that automating domesticity has its definite upsides—– once you’ve acclimated to it.

I’ll never forget the first time my husband turned up the thermostat of our former house in Massachusetts by pressing a few buttons on a pay phone in Vermont. We were away skiing and forgot to leave the heat on for a Sunday open house. (We were selling it at the time and didn’t want to freeze any prospective buyers.)

Today, six years later, my husband doesn’t even have to take off his skis to accomplish this same task. Instead, from the chairlift—–or anywhere with 3G coverage—–he pops out his smart phone, presses a few keys, and voilà! The heat is turned up or down. Ditto for our sprinklers, whose output can be controlled drop by drop, from anywhere in the world.

home smart home gardening

Of course, there was the time when we were out of town and my husband, true to character, had been fiddling away on his laptop trying to hide the fact that he was conducting business on 
vacation. The video camera trained on our backyard, which is perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, showed in real time that a northeaster was raging and our heating and cooling system’s history page revealed a mysterious and alarming dip in temperature in our kitchen for several hours. It turned out that our cat sitter hadn’t firmly shut the door, and the howling winds had blown it open between visits. Though the damage to the floor was not noticeable, the effect on our nerves was arresting.

A home-connected smart phone paired with a little vigilance from afar can also be quite handy as a parenting tool, despite George Orwell’s bleak picture of a world governed by an 
omniscient Big Brother. One night while out enjoying dinner at a restaurant, my husband’s marketing director received a phone call from his youngest son saying that his brother was playing AC/DC at earsplitting—–and neighbor-disturbing—–volume. From the restaurant, by pushing a few buttons on his phone, the father logged into the home audio system and promptly changed the music to Bach. “My older son called me right away and got the point,” he happily reports.

The real gains of a smart home, however, are in energy conservation. HVAC and irrigation specialists aside, most of us would rather not expend brainpower on the nuts and bolts of heating and plumbing. Yet, at the same time, to neglect these seemingly prosaic matters risks ruining the planet by wasting precious resources.

home smart home home sweet home

A smart home’s technological bells and whistles, software, algorithms, and networked systems enable people to be mindful about resources without always having them on their minds. In our own home, we have reduced our energy consumption by 15 percent, primarily thanks to the ability to automate and easily control how much lighting, air-conditioning, and heating we use, in addition to enabling us to make behavioral changes based on the system’s feedback.

Savings like these are arousing excitement. While smart homes like ours are still the exception—–researchers at Parks Associates found that at the end of 2009, just 6.5 percent (or 2 million) of the nation’s households had some kind of electronic control system—– consumer interest in the sector is real and growing. Smart-home studies show that 80 to 85 percent of households are willing to make a one-time investment of around $100 to save 10 to 30 percent on their monthly electric bills. The home-control systems used to monitor and manage all of these Jetsonsesque features are predicted to more than double from a $2.5-billion-a-year market to a $5.5 billion one by 2014.

But saving money and feeling environmentally virtuous are only part of the fun of living in a smart house. Our programmed lighting and music settings—–“Evening” for task-oriented cooking and homework time, “Dine” for a romantically lit dinner—–help establish instant ambience. I still light and place plenty of candles by hand—–smart-home technology is no match for a match—–but the settings save time and keep me from running around the house dimming lights and selecting a playlist as guests arrive or the oven beeps.

Which brings me back to Benny Goodman in my bathroom. As I stab at the keypad’s “off” button, the screen goes dark for a second and then lights back up. I stab harder, frantically scrolling among mode choices, but the stubborn demon panel refuses to silence the swells.

I’m tempted to wake up my husband and vent my complaints but think better of it: We’ve already had enough arguments about technology these past eight years. Until I had 
automated lights and sprinklers, I never knew such heated squabbles were possible.

As the clarinets continue, I ponder how silly this is. Smart houses are great, except when they’re not. At a moment like this, they strike me as quite dumb. The emotional aspect of home automation is its greatest remaining obstacle: Home Sweet Home is still easier on the nerves 
than Home Omniscient Home. But I’m in it for the long haul and am hoping that perhaps the funds we’re saving now on our energy bills will someday finance automated laundry and vacuuming. Now that would be really smart.

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