Maryland Consortium Promotes 'Smart' Houses

February 07, 1993|By Gene Austin | Gene Austin,Knight-Ridder News Service

When Carsten and Lisa Gardan want to awaken, high-tech style, in their new house near suburban Schwenksville, Pa., they have only to push a switch near their bed.

Lights will come on in preselected areas, the coffeepot will start perking, a television set will turn on the news, the security system will be disarmed to prevent false alarms, and a shower will spew out water at a preset temperature.

The Gardans have a Smart House.

Indeed, the couple and their three children have moved into the Philadelphia area's first privately owned Smart House, and it's a high-tech wonder.

The automation system was developed by Smart House L.P., of Upper Marlboro, Md., a group of manufacturers and trade organizations formed as a limited partnership and managed by the research center of the National Association of Home Builders.

A Smart House has special electrical wiring and computerized fixtures that permit advanced automation and coordination of such home systems as communications, lighting, energy, entertainment and security.

Some supporters of the Smart House say it will revolutionize housing construction in much the same way that air conditioning and indoor plumbing have.

The Gardans chose the high-tech wiring and automation system for a 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom dwelling that includes some rustic elements. The cedar-sided house is tucked into a clearing in a wooded area in Upper Salford Township, Montgomery County.

The house was constructed by Maine Post & Beam, of Valley Forge, whose president, John A. Schumacher, credited the Gardans with doing most of the basic design work.

The house, on a 12-acre site, has 2 1/2 baths, a two-car garage and three-level construction. The large, unfinished third level was made possible by the steep pitch of the roof, Mr. Schumacher said. A high-efficiency heating and water-heating system is fueled by propane gas.

"By the time we're finished, we'll have about $350,000 in it," said Mr. Gardan, a computer software engineer for Unisys Corp. in suburban Blue Bell.

Smart House is one of several whole-house automation systems available -- and, with a typical price tag of $12,000 or more, is one of the most expensive.

However, advocates of the system say it has unusual advantages, including the ability to make components electronically communicate with each other and the built-in flexibility to use future devices.

One competing system, Honeywell's TotalHome, was recently introduced in suburban Chester County. TotalHome costs about So far, most Smart Houses are demonstrations, built as samples to show the capabilities of the system. There are several hundred demonstration Smart Houses.

Mr. Gardan said he had become interested in Smart House after reading about the concept several years ago. He contacted Smart House L.P., the Maryland-based consortium, and was referred to Eastech Security Systems Inc., of West Chester, Pa., whose sales manager, Richard Benjamin, supervised installation of the smart wiring and fixtures.

Mr. Benjamin estimated the basic cost of the Gardans' Smart House system at about $18,000 -- "between three and four times the cost of a conventional electrical wiring system."

Like all Smart House systems, the Gardans' does not yet have all the possible functions. For example, smart appliances such as stoves, water heaters and refrigerators are on the way. They will be energy-efficient and, perhaps, able to signal when they need service or repair.

In a recent special section in Builder magazine, Smart House FTC developers call it an "open system, [with] additional Smart House products under development and . . . to come on line as more manufacturers join the consortium."

About 35 manufacturers now belong to the consortium, according to Patty Montague of Smart House, and they make products ranging from electronic components to household appliances.

The key elements that make Smart House devices function, and work in concert with each other, are special Smart-Redi wiring and a compatible control center, wall outlets and programmable switches.

The system's presence is most visible in the Gardans' basement, which has a collection of special controls along with extra-thick Smart House wiring cables. Electrical outlets in rooms also are larger than conventional outlets.

A Smart House can be programmed to perform a variety of functions at a certain time or at the touch of a single switch.

For example, an "asleep" mode can turn lights out, set the thermostat at a nighttime temperature, arm the security system and perform other go-to-bed functions.

Among other possible modes are "awake," "evening," "unoccupied," "vacation" and "entertainment," each tailored to the occupants.

Smart-Redi installation is considered practical only for new construction.

Mr. Gardan said his goal in choosing a Smart House was to gain some immediate automation capability, but also, by installing Smart-Redi wiring, to prepare the house for future automation.

"We wanted the flexibility to do some of the [coming] things," hsaid.

Mr. Gardan said he was most interested in his home's communications capabilities, which lets telephones be used as intercoms for room-to-room messages and also permits remote control of some household functions.

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