Tech Life: 'Smart home' goes mass market

As the owner of a solar-energy business with offices in four states, Len Biko travels frequently. But you might say he never fully leaves his Chester County home. He takes its control pad with him.

From his smartphone, iPad, or laptop, Biko can see live video feeds showing what’s going on inside the house and at its front and back doors. He can switch lights on and off, and raise or lower the thermostat. He can watch his garage door from the inside — a camera starts recording the moment it opens. He’s even spied on his young pit bull, Kingston, as the not-really-a-watchdog gnawed at the leg of a kitchen stool.

Biko’s 12-year-old house came outfitted with an alarm system that could call a central station if a sensor picked up an intrusion or detected a fire — for many years, the state-of-the-art in home security for all but the rich and famous. But four months ago, he embraced the technological convergence that is rapidly turning the “connected home” or “smart home” from high-end fantasy into mass-market fact.

Biko’s system, called ADT Pulse, comes from a company that claims the nation’s largest market share in home security. ADT says that it has installed more than 100,000 Pulse systems since its launch 18 months ago, and that about a third of all new residential customers choose the systems, which feature video monitoring and remote control of lights and thermostats.

ADT is hardly the only player in a field that has piqued the interest of some of the biggest names in Internet service.

Verizon has offered its Home Monitoring & Control service since October, though without central-station monitoring. Comcast began a national rollout last year of its Xfinity Home Security — renamed Xfinity Home in February.

The gee-whiz factor is huge for these systems. “I have never ever demonstrated the product for anybody anywhere that they didn’t go, ‘Wow, that is the coolest technology I’ve ever seen,’ ” says Mitch Bowling, Comcast’s senior vice president of new businesses.

But for customers like Biko, president of Harrisburg’s Green Energy Construction & Consulting, the smart home’s practicality far outweighs its pizzazz.

Biko travels regularly to visit offices and work sites. As mindful as he is of energy waste, he says, he often would forget and leave, say, an outdoor light on all day. Now he can easily schedule on and off times in advance, or stop en route to make adjustments with his iPhone. He estimates that he’s already saving about $40 a month in electricity — and that’s before the start of the air-conditioning season.

Security matters even more to him because his fiancee often works late as a hospital nurse. With Pulse, she can turn on lights and check video monitors before she goes into an empty house. “It’s one less thing to worry about in times when there are lots of worries,” he says.

Price is a key to the new systems’ success, according to Tom Kerber, director of research for home controls and energy at Parks Associates, a Dallas research and consulting firm.

Kerber says companies such as Control4, Crestron and AMX, have for years offered high-tech systems that control lighting, home-entertainment systems and other functions. But with installation costs “in the tens of thousands of dollars,” they have reached only the top 2 percent of homeowners, he says.

Progress in wireless controls and Internet technology “makes these systems a lot more affordable and capable,” Kerber says. “They can be offered to the masses — that’s what these companies are betting.”

Not that the systems are inexpensive. ADT spokesman Bob Tucker says a typical installation of ADT Pulse starts at $299, after a $100 rebate, says spokesman Bob Tucker. Xfinity Home currently installs its “Preferred” system for $199, but has recently been waiving some installation fees, Bowling says. But in both cases, those fees are just a start.

Customers pay extra for features such as video cameras and appliance controllers. And the big revenue stream is the monthly fee, enforced with three-year contracts required by ADT and Comcast (though not, so far, by Verizon).

Tucker says ADT’s monthly tab starts “in the mid $40s,” but rises into the $50s and $60s for more elaborate installations. An Xfinity Home “Premier” system, including a remote thermostat, two cameras, and video monitoring, costs about $55 a month.

And you can expect to pay more as promised features are rolled out, such as the ability to open your garage from a thousand miles away to let a package deliverer inside.

And even today, says ADT chief marketing officer Don Boerema, developers and customers are devising new uses, such as turning on sprinklers, triggering a pet feeder, or shutting off the electrical outlet used for a forgetful teen’s hair iron.

Boerema calls the possibilities endless. For once, the wow may not just be hype.

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.