Smart homes no longer just futuristic gimmicks
The smart home is no longer a futuristic gimmick for those with deep pockets.
Available now is everything from complete home systems to individual Internet-connected appliances. Wireless Internet and the proliferation of smartphones are making smart-home technologies more sophisticated - and affordable.
"It had always been an upscale-type business: Unless you were in the top 5 percent of income levels, you didn't have access to this type of connectivity," said Randy Light, a senior merchant for home automation at Home Depot.
"This used to be something out of The Jetsons or limited to the super-rich," said Jonathan Dorsheimer, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity. But as smart-home technology has improved and costs have come down, "it's becoming more mainstream."
These days, a wide swath of companies not typically associated with home security or energy efficiency - such as Philadelphia-based Comcast, which offers a suite of services under its Xfinity Home brand, as well as telecommunications giants AT&T and Verizon - is clamoring to sell smart systems. Prices can start as low as $10 a month.
Still, only a small, single-digit percentage of homeowners have smart homes. It's a market that is expected to see enormous growth in the coming years, forecast to reach $14.7 billion in revenue globally by 2017, up from $3.6 billion in 2012, according to NextMarket Insights.
That's expected to help "propel the market from its fairly modest size today to one which serves more than 35 million households by 2017," NextMarket said in a recent report.
The housing market's recovery could fuel growth if homeowners choose to pull out their rising equity to give their properties high-tech upgrades.
And as Americans purchase more newly built homes, they may increasingly find those digs fully integrated with their phones. Some of the nation's largest home builders, such as Horsham-based Toll Bros., Lennar Corp. and KB Home, are now marketing tech-equipped houses' advantages.
In a Lake Forest, Calif., community, for example, Toll Bros. will soon debut a model home with no light switches in common areas. Instead, the homeowner would use wall-mounted touch screens to control lights.
Although new homes are usually more expensive, builders have emphasized the long-term cost savings buyers can reap through solar panels and the ability to monitor and change their energy usage with smart devices. That's because computerized controls in one's home and on appliances can be set to respond to signals from energy providers to minimize electricity consumption at times when the power grid is under stress from high demand.
Homeowners can even shift some power use to times when electricity is available at a lower cost. The so-called smart grid - a digital network enabling utilities, consumers, and alternative sources of renewable energy to "talk" instantaneously - steers electricity to where it is needed most.
As the industry grows, most of the expansion should come from homeowners updating their aging abodes, said Michael Wolf, founder of NextMarket Insights.
Technology brands are rolling out smart-home products that emphasize user-friendly, simple solutions and are aimed at consumers who don't want to install a complete system.
Consider such small items as door locks that can be opened by smartphone and programmed with unique pass codes for different people. The codes for maids, dog walkers and gardeners can be set to work only during specific hours.
LG has appliances that can be monitored or controlled wirelessly by smartphone and are designed to "make chores around the home easier and more efficient," said David VanderWaal, director of home-appliance brand marketing. Using LG appliance smartphone apps, homeowners can track the expiration dates of food in their smart refrigerator and monitor the time remaining on their smart oven. They can also stop a load of laundry in their smart washer and dryer from their phones.
Expect more tech companies to launch smart-home products, said analyst Dorsheimer: "I do imagine what we will see . . . is companies like an Apple or a Google coming into this particular market. There's money to be made."