Automation is so commonplace in today's home we take it for granted. We don't think about our automated hot water heaters as we turn on the tap for a morning shower or about our furnaces and air conditioners that keep our homes comfortable.
Our telephone answering machines take messages when we are away from home and play them back to us, even in far-away places. We forget that our ovens, microwaves, toasters, coffee makers, dishwashers and refrigerators are all automated.
Never satisfied with the status quo, however, engineers are at work on more advanced concepts of the automated home, and some of the most promising devices are sure to be developed into products available to the public in the near future.
Honeywell, for instance, has built a six-room house within a research lab, where products and integrated home-control systems can be tested. It's also used to conduct market research to gauge consumer acceptance of home automation technology.
A house control panel in the research house serves as a central "brain" for security and environmental control. Light and occupancy sensors tell the control panel when to turn lights on or off.
To deter intruders, lights also turn on when the security system alarm sounds. The air conditioner and furnace adjust their output according to simulated outdoor temperatures for maximum efficiency.
The front entry is monitored by a video security system. A fire system identifies the location of smoke and alerts occupants and gives directions for leaving the house.
Other research areas in the Honeywell house include indoor air quality, temperature and humidity sensing, electrical load shedding, service/diagnostic tools, and speech annunciation/recognition.
Honeywell research suggests that the best path for consumers is a relatively decentralized system with functions that improve when hooked up to the system but are still functional when the computer is down. This also permits one family's home automation system to be different from a neighbor's while still using common technology and components.
It would also be possible to add components over time as consumers' needs or finances dictate.
A typical scenario for the future would require a person to interact with the system only once. You would announce to the house, "I'm leaving," whereupon the thermostat would switch to energy savings, ventilation fans would turn off and the security system would activate.
The system would check to see that the stove is turned off and that the lights are on the cycle you determined as best when away.
Some other possibilities: The homeowner phones home to request the status of electric/electronic systems in his house. The telephone display lists a menu of selections: check status of house, review house schedule, change status of house, change schedule.
The homeowner presses 1 on the telephone key pad. The house reports "all entries secure, all appliances off, detected iron left on and turned off at 9:05, weekday normal settings, expected home at 6:15, three calls with messages. Would you like to hear them?"
But getting back to the present, many of those helpful automated devices tested by Honeywell and other manufacturers are available at home supply stores, ready to enhance your home's comfort, convenience and security. They will make living easier, and in many cases, less expensive.