In a system installed by A.B.E. Networks in a Bethesda home, a Lutron HomeWorks app controls the thermostat, HVAC, lights and shades through the iPad Mini on the island. The Samsung TV and Sonance in-ceiling speakers  are controlled by Universal Remote Control.
Electronic Home Environments installed a whole-house Crestron  system in an Annapolis home designed by Alt Breeding Schwarz Architects.
A new touch screen, part of the TSW-X60 series by Crestron, offers  improved control and responsiveness.
Installed by A.B.E. Networks, a Crestron  system in a DC home controls Lutron shades, pictured partially closed.
Lutron shades open.
A custom smart-home touch panel  from Control4.
A new touch screen, part of the TSW-X60 series by Crestron, offers  improved control and responsiveness.
Installed by A.B.E. Networks, a Crestron  system in a DC home controls Lutron shades, pictured partially closed.
Lutron shades open.
A custom smart-home touch panel  from Control4.

Cutting Edge

The lowdown on the latest whole-house technology systems

You’re far from home on a much-needed vacation. As you’re soaking in rays, your smartphone buzzes with an alert: There is a water leak at your house. Luckily, the water will shut off automatically—all you have to do is contact a plumber to fix the problem. Easily done with your smart-lock app, which will provide access to the plumber. Crisis averted.

Here’s another scenario: Entering the grocery store on the way home from the office, you realize you forgot your list. No worries. You have an app that takes a quick inventory of what’s in your refrigerator via a simple camera inside the appliance.

Or maybe you’re hosting a party, with guests due any minute. With the click of one button, you set the lights and temperature, lower the shades against the bright sun and start the music.

These “smart” applications are just a taste of what’s possible in home automation today if you have a smartphone or tablet and a smart-home device—defined as any stand-alone object in the home that is connected to the Internet and can be controlled or monitored from a remote location.

More and more homeowners are turning to smart-home technology to automate their homes. In fact, the latest smart-home survey from Intel found that most respondents believe whole smart homes will be as prevalent in 2025 as smartphones are today. According to the same survey, the most commonly installed smart devices today control lighting, kitchen appliances and thermometers or boiler systems.

Part of the reason for the increased interest is the advancement of technology, which has made home-automation systems more user-friendly, operable entirely by smartphone and tablet apps. Homeowners have begun to understand that despite the upfront cost, these technologies can save them money in the long run by increasing efficiencies. Research backs up this argument: According to studies by the Consumer Technology Association, widespread adoption of home-automation products may reduce residential primary energy consumption by as much as 10 percent.

What To Choose?
Selecting and installing a whole-house automation system requires an experienced home-automation integrator using a high-end platform such as Crestron, Control4 or Savant. Integrators can tie audio/video, lighting, security, garage doors, HVAC, swimming pool-control systems and even appliance control back to one platform. Instead of having half a dozen apps, each controlling a different device, these systems all work through one app.

“When we meet with a homeowner, we get a sense of how they want to use the house, and then we design a system that meets those needs,” explains Walter Tilford of Annapolis-based Electronic Home Environments. “We can customize everything the way the clients want and make sure it’s really easy to use.”

Most experts recommend that homeowners first find an integrator they are comfortable with, then let the firm’s experts recommend the system that best suits their needs. For homeowners who want a fully automated house, Crestron is a good choice. It is compatible with more smart-home products than other home-automation systems, though it is complicated and requires expert installation.

When Mark Powers, owner of Powers Homes in Reisterstown, Maryland, was building his own home, he decided to have it wired with a whole-home automation system at the same time. He consulted Tilford, who recommended using the Crestron system, which would allow Powers and his family to easily control audio, video, security, lighting, climate, window shades and the pool through one Crestron app.

“I chose Crestron because I had used it previously in another home and I knew it would suit my needs,” Powers says. “I liked the fact that the company is customer-service driven and always on the cusp of leading-edge technology.”

Avi Benaim of A.B.E. Networks in Silver Spring agrees. “Crestron is my favorite for reliability and customization,” he says, adding that a Crestron system costs 10 to 20 percent more than competitors.

Those who prefer to start with a smaller subset of home-automation functions may prefer Control4 or Savant. Control4 is fully modular, making it ideal for ramping up home automation. However, until recently, the system was plagued by a lag in responsiveness. “It would take two to three seconds to respond and homeowners would keep pressing the button, which created issues with the system,” Benaim explains. The company has since addressed the problem.

Savant is a particularly popular choice among customers who prefer an Apple-style interface and excellent integration with Apple products. And Savant owners can upload pictures of each room to their systems, then have them appear on their phones, adding an appealing visual element to the interface.

According to Eric Davidson of American Automation in Bowie, Maryland, Savant has also simplified the configuration and programming process by automating many of its functions. “Jobs can be completed faster, as much of the coding is performed in the background with the Savant dealer software, and debugging time is greatly minimized,” Davidson explains. A system upgrade using Savant is also less costly, due to reduced programming and downloading time; changes automatically appear on the user’s devices.

Staying Cybersecure
Homeowners can and should ask about the security of these types of Internet-connected devices.

No device or Internet connection is ironclad today, warns Benaim. That means homeowners and integrators must take precautions to ensure the greatest level of encryption. It’s important to think through security concerns carefully so they can be addressed effectively. Fortunately, integrators of whole-home systems will usually have an assortment of tools in their arsenals to ensure security that is customized to the owners’ preferences.

“If homeowners don’t want the nannycam on when they are home, for example, we can set up a smart router [the device that monitors traffic going in and out of the house] to turn off specific cameras when they sense the smartphone is inside the house,” Benaim notes. “If we know what the homeowners’ sensitivities are, we can usually come up with a workaround.”

What’s Next?
As technology continues to improve, so do possibilities in the home-automation field. The most exciting advance is voice control, which experts expect to become commonplace in the next decade. All three of the major home-automation systems now integrate with Amazon Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon Echo.  “You can’t talk about whole-house automation without mentioning voice recognition,” says Benaim, who marvels at Amazon Alexa’s ability to isolate commands, from shutting only certain shades and turning out specific lights to providing weather reports.

Another promising development is smart technology that monitors people’s vital signs and activities, allowing them to age in place. For example, an elderly homeowner wearing a sensor-enabled bracelet will be able to push a button on it that allows loved ones to see and communicate with them immediately, in order to assess the situation in a timely way. And a GPS-enabled bracelet will be able to track the movements of elderly residents, sending alerts to a caregiver in case the resident were to fall or leave the house.

Writer Karen D. Schwartz is based in Potomac, Maryland.