A home with a mind of its own Smart house: More homes are being built with automated systems for convenience and peace of mind.

February 11, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Approach the front door of the large brick house, and, before you ring the bell, a friendly voice from an intercom says, "Hello." Somewhat startled, you return the greeting and hear, "Come on in."

Don't be alarmed. This house not only knows when someone comes calling; it can unlock the door and let him in.

But it's more than the butler you'll never have. It can dim the lights, draw the drapes, set the fireplace roaring and run the Jacuzzi -- not too hot, not too cold. In the morning, with the touch of a button, it can turn on the lights, turn off the burglar alarm, turn up the heat and brew the coffee.

It may look like the house next door, but this is a house with a brain.

Wired and programmed with a home automation system, this Koch Homes model in Anne Arundel County shuts off valves if it senses moisture under the hot water heater. Its computer chip mind thinks to flash the lights and alert the fire department if it senses smoke. When the doorbell rings, the homeowner can turn on the TV and see and talk with whoever is there.

An automated house could be just the thing for anyone who can't change a channel without the remote control. Programming the house might seem a logical move for those who've mastered the personal computer and VCR.

Builders foresee a day when buyers will expect integrated control of lighting, security, energy, telecommunications, video and smoke detectors in much the same way they expect central air conditioning. Distributors of such systems are banking on it.

"It comes back to peace of mind and convenience," said Susan Ritter, director of marketing for Smart House L.P., which designed the system in the Koch model. "Yes, I can walk through the house and do all of this individually, but right now, time has become very important to people."

And the importance of security, well, that's a no-brainer, she says. Say you're home alone, and you think you hear a noise.

"I can hit a switch at my bed to turn on all the exterior lights and interior lights, hit the TV and switch to the exterior cameras to see if somebody's out back, without ever getting up," she said.

Someday automation will be standard, "just like fax machines, just like microwave ovens, just like car phones," she said. "Just how long that's going to take -- I'm working on it."

But for now, smart homes are still cutting-edge, in just a fraction of the nation's homes, offered by builders seeking to distinguish themselves. In 1994, about 20,200 homeowners installed central systems that control at least three functions, such as heating, lighting and security, according to the Home Automation Association, an international group of utility and phone companies, manufacturers and dealers. The numbers have shot up since 1992, when 4,000 systems were installed, said Charles McGrath, executive director.

"It's kind of booming," Mr. McGrath said. "It's still small, but as far as growth, it's definitely there."

Automated systems vary widely, he said. They include models that control lighting and appliances with existing wiring, modules that plug into outlets to handle appliances, integrated systems such as "Smart House," automated entertainment systems, home automation computer programs and sophisticated security systems with lighting controls.

Koch Homes, a builder of $200,000 to $500,000 single-family homes, has contracted with Grasonville-based Chesapeake Smart Homes to offer "Smart House" in its six active communities in Anne Arundel County. Chesapeake sells, services and installs the AMP Inc.-manufactured system now on display at the 44-home Woodberry of Severna Park. Chesapeake owner Timothy E. Horan has sold and installed about 100 systems in Maryland, Delaware and Washington -- now at a pace of about one a week.

"It's a very competitive marketplace out there, and builders compete by negotiating price," said David J. Cahill, Koch's director of sales and marketing. "We were looking for an opportunity to set ourselves apart."

In 1984, the NAHB Research Center, a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders, began developing "Smart House." The group formed the limited partnership to come up with the technology and specifications. Companies such as AMP Inc. of Harrisburg, Pa., and Molex Inc. of Lisle, Ill., manufactured the product, first available in 1992. The idea was to create centralized home management, Ms. Ritter said.

"They wanted to update the way we live in our homes," she said. "The technology is there. You have it in the grocery store with label readers, at the bank when you withdraw money with your bank card, but there was no automation in your home. Technology hadn't been changed since the introduction of central air."

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