It's hard to imagine a house without the Internet, which is being leveraged in more ways by the home's subsystems, appliances, and plugged-in products to enable remote access, integrated automation, smart energy savings, and whole-home entertainment.
The U.S. leads the world in the number of broadband Internet subscribers, coming in at over 70 million, or nearly a quarter of the population. Median download speeds are up to 2.3 Mbps (megabits per second), and fiber roll-outs by companies like Verizon FiOS are bringing fiber-to-the-premise service to thousands more customers every year. With up 50 Mbps download speeds, FiOS customers enjoy blink-of-the-eye movie downloads and abundant bandwidth to meet their Internet-specific needs.
In addition to fiber, homeowners can get the Internet through a cable or phone line, via satellite, or wirelessly. Once in the home, advanced wireless routers using the latest 802.11g and 802.11n wireless technologies can bring greater range, reliability, and performance than ever.
Safe and Sound
Today's homeowner wants to know that the home is always secure. Older security systems featured 24-hour monitoring centers that could respond to a tripped alarm like a smashed window or broken-down front door. Such crisis events are still of concern, but what of non-emergency situations, like the activities of the kids home alone after school or an elderly parent now living with you, a guest at the front door, or the comings and goings of a hired contractor? New systems enable secure remote access via the Internet, allowing homeowners to monitor activity in the home, grant temporary access for one-time guests, and check in on live feeds from security cameras set up inside and outside the house.
Yesterday's home security system put a homeowner's security in the hands of a 24-hour monitoring center. Today's systems put the power back into the hands of the homeowner. Sure, the authorities will still be notified when an alarm trips, but all the non-emergency concerns of the absent homeowner can now be addressed remotely and affordably.
Smarter security systems understand the homeowner's schedule, can send SMS (text message) alerts when the kids arrive home, and assume additional responsibilities, such as home control and energy savings. Home Automation, Inc.'s automated HVAC devices integrate with the home's security system, and can respond to a fire by switching off electricity to keep smoke from spreading. New moisture and water sensors can detect leaks and automatically turn off the water to save homeowners on thousands in water damage.
The end of analog broadcast TV underlines an accepted reality: It's a digital world, and the home is the frontline of the revolution. Slimmer, higher-resolution television sets, powerful receivers and wireless surround sound, and easy-to-install whole-home audio packages bring entertainment solutions to every room of the house.
For viewing pleasure, wafer-thin, flat-panel plasma HDTVs can be wall-mounted and offer industry-leading 1080-pixel resolution at an affordable price. Deeper blacks, greater color accuracy, and effective video processing are just a few of the technological gains made in the modern television.
The audio/video receiver is charged with connecting and powering a host of entertainment devices, including the television, speakers, satellite radio, and iPods. The list of essential tasks performed by these black boxes grows even as the unit itself remains compact.
Want that movie to come alive? Fill the room with surround sound speakers. For the wire-phobic homeowner, there are wireless options for those rear speakers that can reduce clutter and eliminate long wiring runs. For whole-home audio in existing homes, wireless solutions put speakers and a wireless bridge in any room, connecting back to source devices - a CD player, iPod, or digital library, for example - all controlled by a color-screen wireless remote.
The 100-disc changer is yesterday's toy. Today's music libraries are digital and usually stored on a PC or laptop. The wireless music networking device bridges the gap between the home stereo receiver and the music library. Products like Logitech's Squeezebox uses 802.11g wireless technology to access the digitally stored music from the laptop, PC, or storage device and send it directly to the audio/video receiver.
The media server has also taken a center-stage role in the home's entertainment dance, bringing massive storage space (think terabytes, not gigabytes), DVD burning and DVR functionality for recording, storing and archiving HD programs. (For more on wireless home entertainment, see the article “Creating Your Ideal Home Theater.”)
Automation for All
From simple remotely controlled dimmers and light switches to the fully integrated, remotely monitored and accessed “smart home,” new automation devices and products promise convenience, control, and important energy savings to the savvy homeowner.
Wireless “mesh network” solutions by Z-Wave Alliance and ZigBee Alliance member companies bring two-way wireless communication and interoperability to all of a home's subsystems, including the lighting, heating and cooling, ventilation, and security systems. Easily installed plug-and-play starter kits allow the curious to affordably start implementing home automation solutions by replacing a few light switches and outlets with remotely controlled dimmers and devices for immediate lighting control. By staying within an Alliance family of products, the homeowner can just as easily expand the system incrementally, according to budget and needs.
New initiatives by utility companies, telephone companies, and MSOs (multisystem operators) enable integration of home automation into the standard cable/phone/Internet “triple play” bundle, providing no-hassle installation of home control devices and easy monthly billing for the access and services provided.
Easy Energy Management
Energy costs and energy savings are primary concerns for homeowners. Adoption of remotely accessed and controllable technology in the home allows homeowners to adjust energy-consuming systems, shut off lights and, monitor energy usage (and cost) in real time.
Smart metering systems are being integrated into the home, part of a number of pilot programs undertaken by utility companies and energy-related organizations to permit two-way communication between the utility and the home itself. As energy costs fluctuate throughout the day, the utility company can send a message to the home's smart meter to alert the homeowner - and the home - that energy costs are peaking. That alert can prompt the homeowner to make adjustments to the AC, heating, and lighting systems to cut back on usage. Widespread implementation of smart meters will reduce the load on a grid, prevent brownouts, and ultimately save each household on its energy bills.
Taken one step further, the integration of the smart meter into the home's automation system will enable homeowners to program the house to take action on its own. When an alert comes in from the utility company, the house goes into action, resetting the thermostat, dropping the shades, and sending a message to the homeowner's cell phone.