What Makes a Smart Home Smart?
What are true “smart homes,” and do we have them yet?
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The Lumenhaus, a project built by Virginia Tech students as part of the 2009 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C.
July 09, 2012 by Steven Castle

I’ve been seeing and hearing the words “smart home” bandied about a lot. But not always in a smart way. There’s an article on “smart home design” that chronicles the use of sustainable building materials like metal roofs and cement board siding. This is great stuff to use on a home, and it’s smart to use sustainable, low-maintenance materials that are also energy-efficient. But that doesn’t make your house “smart.” These materials don’t furnish your house with intelligence. I can only discern that “smart home design” to the editors meant a clever approach to design.

So what’s a smart home? Technologies like lighting control and whole-house control and those using sensors to automatically shut off the lights and other devices when people aren’t in the room offer a level of intelligence. So can sensors that light pathways and turn on your favorite music and alert you when there’s a water leak in the basement. These are true smart homes—and we’re entering a phase in which more and more of this is possible, including voice control and activation, gesture control and other ways you can communicate—or not have to communicate—with your home.

In other words, our homes can get a whole lot smarter. In my New England vernacular, they can be wicked smaaaaaaart.

But are we there yet?

Heck no.

Some of the most fabulously teched-out homes today still fall short of using sensors to turn on and off lights and other devices automatically or to automate motorized shades that block the sun and help save on energy costs. And home energy management systems are still in the earliest stages of being able to automate energy savings so you don’t have to think about it—via smart and Internet-connected (communicating) thermostats, plug-in modules and connections to home control systems.

Way back at the big Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January several of the big boys in consumer electronics—Panasonic, Toshiba and LG, to name a few—were showing smart and connected home systems that can turn on and off appliances, show you your energy consumption, and integrate electric car chargers and solar photovoltaic systems to optimize convenience and efficiency. All very cool and nice, but are these systems here yet? Not quite, or they’re still in trials, or only available in Asia. Or all of the above. WTF?

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Are Americans just not ready for “smart” homes? With the amount of streaming and networking going on inside the home and our rampant smartphone use—even to control our home entertainment centers—I’d say we are more than ready for true smart home technologies and services. Maybe it’s the big consumer electronics manufacturers who are not ready for the smart home.

The Intuitive Home?

The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) trade group is touting the “intuitive home,” particularly with its Future Technology Pavilion at its upcoming CEDIA Expo in September, that “reacts and interacts with the needs of the homeowner.” The pavilion will have cutting-edge tech like voice and gesture control, near field communications (NFC) and telepresence (videoconferencing) systems to show what our homes will look like in 2016.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on our home tech horizons. And by 2016, maybe our homes will be intuitive. But first they have to get smart. And we’re not even there yet.

Our homes may be getting smarter, but let’s face it: even with all of the cutting-edge technology we put in our homes today, they’re still pretty dumb.

Smart Services?

Big service providers like ADT, Comcast (Xfinity), Verizon, Vivint, Alarm.com and soon AT&T are touting security/home automation/energy management systems with connectivity to your home via smartphones. These systems don’t appear to be selling gangbusters, but it’s early yet.

And nearly all of them tout their services as something to do with a “smart home.” Check the web sites. ADT’s Pulse is a “smart home system” using Z-Wave-based devices like wireless thermostats. Xfinity Home offers “smart home services.” Verizon Home Monitoring & Control touts itself as the “smart home of the future.” Vivint calls its system “simply smarter” Lowe’s Iris system (from U.K.’s AlertMe) is a “smart kit,” though if you go to the Lowe’s home page and search you’ll get a drop-down for “Iris smart home.”

This is both good and bad. Good because the term “smart home” is getting a serious revival after becoming known as a failed technology in the 1990s. But it’s also bad because these limited systems, offering control of some lights, a wireless thermostat and a few devices, do not make a whole house “smart.” They only make parts of it smart. And to do this, they use security, motion and occupancy sensors—something many millionaire mansions with six-figure home control systems still lack.

My question to the big CE manufacturers and custom electronics installation firms is this: Are you guys going to let ADT, Comcast and the other service providers define what a “smart home” is?

We’re waiting.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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