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Teaching the House New Tricks

* Broken ovens will e-mail for repairs. Thermostats will be set remotely. It's coming to a home near you.

November 16, 2000|JENNIFER OLDHAM |

The concept of smart homes--bandied about by architects and developers for more than a decade--is about to become a reality.

Beginning next year, homeowners will be able to buy smart-home networking systems through a phone or cable company, a local utility or a builder that would install it in a new home.

These networks will ferry data and video signals around a home through phone and power lines and over radio frequencies, allowing the owner to check on his or her place over the Internet from work or when out of town.

One major player in this field is Invensys Control Systems, a $3.5-billion home automation company that counts Honeywell and Emerson as its chief competitors. Recently, Invensys demonstrated its smart networking technology in a model home in a Las Vegas suburb.

This system lets consumers use a universal remote device to scan a menu on their TV screen or PC monitor to set the air conditioner to cool down a room that gets a lot of sun or to see who's at the front door using a remote camera.

A device attached to a keychain and linked to the system can also page a parent when a child comes home and shift the house into "home alone mode," locking out selected TV channels. At night, a homeowner can click on "nighttime mode," which will put the house "to sleep" by turning off the lights, shutting off the power and arming security.

Installing the Invensys networking system will cost a homeowner about $1,000.

The technology at the heart of many new networking systems--including Invensys--is a residential gateway, or control box, that turns the data from refrigerators, light switches, thermostats and security sensors into useful information.

This network will also allow your refrigerator to send a message online to a service company that it's on the fritz. A repairman can diagnose the glitch remotely and bring the right parts to your house to fix the ailing appliance, the company says. Invensys' system also allows homeowners to access information about their home over the Internet using a laptop, hand-held computer or mobile phone.

But even with these promised advances, it remains to be seen whether consumers want their oven to talk to a service provider, or the lights in their bedroom to be controllable from their TV.

And putting Internet-ready appliances in showrooms doesn't address the fact that most consumers purchase appliances only every decade or so. But Invensys is working on an upgrade that consumers can install in their current appliances for $20 apiece to hook them up to its home network.

The potential efficiencies provided by this smart-home network will make it less expensive and cumbersome to operate than the current home automation systems, said John N. Sharood, vice president for network systems at Invensys Control Systems, based in Richmond, Va.

"We really struggle with the Jetson thing--it's the first thing that comes to people's minds," Sharood said. "We're about adding comfort, convenience and safety to a homeowner's lifestyle--not flying around in jet-powered go-carts."

Microprocessors installed in the next generation of dishwashers, washers and dryers and other appliances should allow these devices to turn on during non-peak usage hours, saving consumers money on their utility bills, Invensys says.

Builders are eager to offer smart wiring in new homes that allows for sophisticated home networks. By 2004, about 45% of all new homes built in the U.S. will feature some kind of built-in networking technology, said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates, a Dallas-based firm that studies new residential technologies.

The main players in this market include OnQ Technologies, IBM spinoff HomeDirector and Lucent spinoff Avaya.

And for those who live in the nation's 104 million existing homes, companies are devising smart network options to work using existing power and phone lines and wirelessly using radio frequencies. About 7 million U.S. homes will have this sort of network by 2004, Scherf said.

Chief competitors in this "no new wires" field include a consortium known as the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, which is working to develop a standard for networks that use power lines. Alliance members include Cisco Systems, 3Com, Motorola and Invensys.

The alliance hopes next year to release a standard that will help solve the problem of handling large amounts of data at high speeds. There are few systems on the market now, but the group expects there will be many offerings next year after a standard is established.

Companies pushing smart-home networks that would run over phone lines include Broadcom, AT&T, Conexant, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard. These companies belong to a separate alliance, which also is working to develop a standard for phone-line networking products. This technology is being built into some PCs today so a computer is automatically networked when a consumer plugs it into a phone jack.

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