Home automation systems growing

Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

JACKSON, Miss. – Benjamin Duncan said it's been an uneventful year since he brought his roughly 50-year-old home into the 21st century.

But the benefit of making the improvements was spelled out to him when he witnessed a neighbor's car being stolen at gunpoint. If it had happened to him, "with this, I could have run in and called the police" the Jackson resident said, gesturing toward the central control panel of his new home-automation system. It allows him to view the inside of his home, control lighting, adjust heating and cooling and receive severe-weather alerts through his mobile device.

Smartphones and other mobile devices stream audio and video, take pictures, store grocery lists, bank account data and scores of other information, so using them to control many of a house's core functions seems the next logical step in an increasingly technology- and convenience-driven world.

The home-automation systems typically are triggered by an app downloaded to a user's mobile device.

ABI Research, a technology-focused market research firm, said 1.5 million home-automation systems were installed worldwide last year, almost double the amount installed in 2011. The firm projects 8 million systems will ship in 2017.

"I think that it's a 'cool' factor. It's certainly not a novelty," said David Turner, whose Sustainable Construction home-building firm, based in Jackson, has built eight high-end smarthomes in the metropolitan area.

"There's a lot of convenience in this," he said.

Convenience was a big selling point for Duncan. He says he likes knowing he can check in on his wife and their two dogs to make sure they're OK while he's away. He likes knowing voice technology will tell him when windows or doors unexpectedly open and close. He likes knowing a loud alarm will sound if threatening weather moves in while he and his wife are asleep.

He said his neighborhood is a safe place, although a pair of auto-burglary sprees have occurred there in recent years.

"We had been meaning to get a burglar alarm. We (essentially) got that anyway, along with a lot of (extras)," Duncan said.

The local office of Vivint, a home-security installation company, hooked up Duncan's features.

Gary Maisonnueve, a lead technician for the company, said he's had to hire more people in the last couple of years to keep up with demand, adding he and his crews have installed "smart" features into older and newer homes alike.

Turner said more people are looking at "smart" features when buying newly built homes, but he said the demand is so far confined to high-priced homes where buyers can afford a slew of extras.

He said he's building two homes now that will feature full automation of things like lighting and temperature, with standard switches and knobs replaced by "iTouches and iPads in the walls" that not only can monitor those things but provide views over mobile devices of up to 26 cameras installed inside the houses.

He said smart features can add anywhere from a few thousand to $150,000 to a home's cost, depending on how extensively a buyer wants to monitor a house.

Because of that kind of expense, builders are largely reluctant to incorporate the features into spec homes, said David Smith, who operates Ridgeland's David Smith Builder. Turner adds his smarthomes were custom-built.

Smith said a still-difficult housing market means many builders are looking to trim where they can rather than adding new features that aren't guaranteed to attract buyers in droves. Homebuyers, themselves still recovering from the worst of the recession, often aren't able to afford a range of high-tech features in their homes, he said.

"It's a price option. People are still frugal. They're going for less square footage, a smaller footprint."

Duncan said he pays roughly $70 a month for his features as part of a three-year contract with Vivint.

Turner said the cost of smart features generally should go down in coming years as competition among firms increases. He recalled when it cost about $1,000 about a decade ago to have separate remote controls, which could easily be lost, to monitor lighting and sounds coming from inside a house.

"Now, you already own the devices. All you have to do is get the app," Turner said.

And some major companies whose roots aren't in house security are getting into home monitoring.

Comcast last summer debuted in Mississippi its Xfinity Home service, in which people with Comcast Internet can remotely track a home's doors and windows, change its temperature and adjust lighting. It's available in Comcast's state footprint with the exception of Bolton and Edwards, which don't have the company's Internet.

"We're extremely pleased with the response it's gotten" in Mississippi, says Comcast spokeswoman Frances Smith. "We have more than exceeded our budget in terms of people signing up."

She wouldn't give specific numbers, citing competitive reasons, but says the company is exploring adding Xfinity Home to its subscription bundle of cable, telephone and Internet service as a way to enhance continuity among those services and people's ability to access each service on their smartphones.

AT&T launched a similar service, DigitalLife, in Atlanta, Dallas and other select markets last year. It, too, allows people to monitor energy usage and home security remotely. The service includes detectors that alert users to breaking glass or the presence of carbon monoxide in their homes.

Company spokeswoman Sue Sperry, citing competitive reasons, said she couldn't say when the service will be available in Mississippi.

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