Energy Adviser: Automating a home increases safety, cuts costs

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If you have a programmable thermostat, it will crank up the heat — or the air conditioning — at whatever time you set for your return from work at the end of the day. But what if you’re going to be late?

If you have a home automation system, you could tap on your smartphone to adjust the thermostat from wherever you are. You could also turn on the lights remotely or watch video of the kids getting home from school.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff, nor is it custom technology entirely out of reach for the average homeowner. All 120 of the houses New Tradition Homes built last year were wired for automation.

“We’re getting ready for the home of the future,” said Naaman Hannu, construction manager at New Tradition Homes.

You can see a home automation system in action this weekend at Clark Public Utilities’ Home and Garden Idea Fair at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, 17402 N.E. Delfel Road. New Tradition Homes’ Energy Smart model home features a system by Azimuth Communications. Visitors can enter a drawing for a new iPad, one of the technologies that can control a home automation system.

New Tradition Homes prepares houses by running cables from the furnace and the front porch to a master panel in the closet. Then, with that central nervous system in place, homeowners can decide which features to add later.

“It’s very scalable,” said Steve Winkelman, vice president of Azimuth Communications, based in Tualatin, Ore. “You’re not investing a lot of money in something you won’t use. You can grow into it.”

The technology has evolved quickly. As it has, prices have fallen. Touch pads once were used to control the system, but that still required you to get up and push buttons on the wall, in which case you might as well flip the light switch or turn the knob on your thermostat anyway.

“Now you can adjust the temperature and lights from anywhere in the world,” Winkelman said.

Smartphones and iPads get the attention, but Winkelman predicts homeowners may turn to their TVs even more often as the brains of the house. TVs are usually centrally located, and can be accessed by a remote control.

“Even though running an iPad is easy, some people are intimidated by it. Almost everyone knows how to run a TV,” Winkelman said. “You have to have an interface available that’s comfortable for everyone and the technology is at that point.”

Home automation is not just about convenience, but also safety and energy savings.

A home automation system could control security cameras and outdoor lighting. It also could detect abnormal water flow and shut off the water in the case of a leak.

“We can set all types of parameters in the system,” Winkelman said. “For the lighting, we replace the electrical switches with what we call an intelligent dimmer. So during the day, if the east side of the house gets lots of ambient light, when you turn the light on, it turns on at 30 percent. Motion detectors located throughout the house for security can also control the lights.”

New homes or retrofits

While new houses increasingly come with wiring for home automation, about a third of Azimuth’s business is retrofitting existing homes.

“If you have brand new walls open, it’s more cost-effective, but it’s not exponentially more expensive to retrofit a house,” Winkelman said. “We have our own Sheetrock and drywall installers on staff.”

The cost ranges widely. For $30,000, Azimuth built a system for a house on the Street of Dreams with iPad and mobile-device control of two theaters, whole-home music, cameras, security, lighting, heating and cooling. But packages start as low as $999, Winkelman said.

For retrofitting an existing house, Winkelman said you could get a good start for $2,500. That would include a master panel, controls for the heating and cooling system, as well as security.

For the type of people constantly worried if they turned off the oven, it just might be worth it.

Energy Adviser is produced by Clark Public Utilities and relies on the expertise of utility energy counselors and staff, who provide conservation and energy use information. To contact us call 360-992-3355, email ecod@clarkpud.com or visit www.clarkpublicutilities.com.