Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | January 13, 2010

New Technology for Old Homes

Breakthroughs in technology mean homeowners in older houses can now enjoy the same advantages in home automation formerly available only in new homes.

The heart of home automation is the ability for a homeowner to control or monitor, sometimes remotely, electrical devices in a home. Practical applications include the control of lighting, draperies, audio systems, the monitoring of home security and the adjustment of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

It used to be that only new homes being built were connected digital homes, sometimes referred to as Smart Homes. The systems were typically controlled and interconnected by wire; installation was easy to do only before the drywall was put up in the construction of new homes. Retrofitting an existing house was theoretically possible, but the added labour drove up costs.

“The availability of wireless systems has made a big difference when updating and retrofitting older, frequently heritage, structures,” says Paul Titterton, general manager of Lenius Osborne, an electrical contractor who specializes in home automation systems. “While you just can’t beat wire in some applications, wireless systems are usually cheaper. Jobs that now cost $10,000 used to be in the triple digits.”

Home automation systems are popular with security-minded people. Titterton recalls one client who installed a home system with cameras so he could make sure his 17 year-old son didn’t drive his Porsche when he wasn’t home.

Owners have the ability to monitor and control their home system or view images from video cameras, from anywhere in the world via a personal computer or iPhone over the Internet. Sensors can detect movement and alert a user by phone or an e-mail message. “With these systems, you can turn off your house lights from beside your bed or from anywhere in the world,” says Titterton.

Systems can be programmed to do just about anything, he says. Sensors can warn of fire, water leaks and sudden temperature drops.

A hard-of-hearing owner can program the system to flash lights in the house instead of having an audio alarm to warn of any impending emergency. It can turn down the audio or shut off the home theatre automatically to warn of a fire or burglary in progress.

People with pre-existing medical conditions, such as a patient hooked up to a portable EKG machine, can program the home system to monitor signals and automatically summon medical personnel if pre-established limits are exceeded. Patients can also carry a panic button with them in case of emergency.

The applications run from life-saving to lifestyle.

“The whole industry is moving to automation,” says Nigel Brown, co-owner of Ruffel & Brown, a window-covering store. “Twenty-five years ago you had to get out of the car to open the garage door. Now there is a greater expectation … that pretty much anything can be automated.”

Curtains, window blinds and shades all can be tied into smart homes. With a touch of a button, curtains close, lights dim, the TV turns on and a DVD loads in a home-theatre system. Window coverings are the latest items to join programmable indoor and outdoor lights to give a house a “lived-in” look, even if owners are away.

A remotely controlled 10-foot motorized track for a curtain, wired into a home

automation system, can cost $1,000 to $1,500. Stand-alone systems, some solar-powered, are also available. Smaller blinds and shades in difficult-to-reach spots with no existing wiring can be powered by batteries.

Brown says sun sensors let you program drapes to close either at night or in strong sunlight.

Smart Home systems are ideal for video and music lovers. By connecting an iPod dock to the system by hardwire, tunes can be played in any room of the house or even outside. A central hard-drive and signal distribution allows video to be viewed on multiple televisions. If somebody comes to the door while a television program is in progress, an image from the front door camera can be displayed on the television.

“Just about anything can be integratable (into the system),” says Titterton. “It doesn’t take more than programming for anything with an integrated circuit.”

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